Sunday, April 27, 2008

Interview with Joanne Harris

Joanne Harris writes about people, places, and food with a delicious kind of magical realism. And I mean that as a description, not as a literary genre, although you could also argue that she is a magical realist writer. In any case, her stories are realist and mythic, sounding as though she is chronicling events that really happened, telling us about people we wished me knew and are glad exist somewhere in the world. Perhaps part of Joanne's brilliance comes from her ability to mix a bit of her own colorful life into her stories. She was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire to a French mother and English father, and food and folklore played a powerful role in her life. Her first book, Evil Seed, came out in 1989, and she hasn't stopped publishing since. She lives not far from where she grew up with her husband Kevin and her daughter Anouchka. She plays bass guitar in a band first formed when she was 16, and she is currently studying Old Norse. The Girl With No Shadow, a continuation of the story of some of the characters from her best-selling Chocolat, has just been published in the United States. Her website has tons of goodies on it, including in-depth interviews and lots of scrumptious inside info on her books.

Kim Antieau (KA): Hello, Joanne! I’m interested in process, so I’ve got some writing 
geek questions. Where do you write? In a particular place? Chair? 
Bathrobe? Coffee, tea? In the morning, evening? Do you begin with a 
character or an idea?

Joanne Harris (JH): I generally begin with a series of ideas (not always in sequence) and a main character or two. Because I write in the first person, it’s important for me to get the voice right, after which I begin to feel more confident to develop the plot. I write on a very small Sony laptop, which fits into my handbag, and which I take everywhere with me. That way, I get to write on trains, in planes and in airports and hotel rooms (I quite enjoy these because I can order room service). When I’m at home, I generally work in the library, which is the nicest room in the house (it used to be my room, but everyone else adopted it). I don’t tend to dress up at home. Just jeans, Converses and an old cashmere sweater when it’s cold. On sunny days, I work in the greenhouse, a Victorian conservatory with a fig tree growing in it. I have a hammock and a rocking chair, and it’s just far enough away from the house to escape non-essential interruptions. I prefer to work in the mornings, especially in summertime (in winter I tend to suffer from the lack of light, and in spite of my SAD lamp, my work tends to slow down).

KA: Food is important in most of your books. I’m wondering if food as 
a kind of character in your novels is something you plan for each time or if it just happens?

JH: I don’t think of it as a character, more as an indicator of character. That’s why it takes on so many different identities, depending on the characters I’m writing about. You can tell a lot about a person by the way they relate to food. For me, it’s a kind of litmus test that defines the individual’s approach to life, culture and his peers.

KA: Your book Chocolat and the movie made from it were huge hits. Did 
that kind of success impact how you felt when you were writing your 
next book?

JH: Not really. I don’t tend to think much about the past when I’m working on something new. Besides, I had already finished the next book by the time Chocolat was published, so I didn’t feel the pressure to follow through.

KA: I won’t ask you which of your novels is your favorite but is there 
one you have a particular affection for that you wish more people 
read and noticed?

JH: I’m particularly fond of Runemarks, the fantasy novel I wrote for my daughter. I had such terrific fun writing it and working out all the intricate twists, and I think that some of the descriptive passages are as good as the best of my adult fiction.

KA: I read that you were a French teacher and wrote “in secret” while 
you continued teaching. Are you still a French teacher? If not, was 
that difficult to give up?

JH: I barely have time to write these days, let alone hold down a full-time job. Besides, after 15 years in teaching, I was more than ready to re-invent myself…

KA: Are you a good cook? A gourmet? Do you think the source of food is important? Freshness, organics, etc?

JH: I’m a decent (though far from brilliant) cook, with (like most people) very little time for cooking. I don’t prepare very complicated food, and my husband and daughter are vegetarians, so I tend to make a lot of pasta dishes, with soups, salads, roasted vegetables, curries, couscous, fruit, olives, tofu, cheese and rice. I think that the quality of the food matters more than the recipe – good ingredients don’t need much preparation – and I like to use fresh, local ingredients in season, rather than tasteless supermarket food flown in from a thousand miles away. I don’t cook meat or fish any more, and though I do eat them occasionally (especially when I’m travelling), I much prefer free-range, organic, ethically sourced produce. I support the Fair Trade organization, and I try to buy fair trade coffee, tea, chocolate, mangoes, bananas, etc. whenever I can.

KA: Do you want to change the world with your novels or a write a good 
story or both?

JH: If novels could change the world, then I guess someone would have done it by now. I just try to write the best story I can, and to make it as honest as possible.

JH: Runemarks is your first book for young readers. How’s that going? 
Was it a different experience writing for young readers? What does 
your daughter think of the novel?

KA: I don’t really think of this as a book for young readers, given that so many of my so-called “adult” books are being read by teens anyway. But it’s my first try at flat-out fantasy, and it has been tremendous fun. I wouldn’t have written it in this way at all without my daughter to spur me on. She’s very much the prototype for Maddy, and ever since I finished it, she has been pestering me for the sequel…

KA: The Girl With No Shadow, a sequel to Chocolat, is coming out soon. 
Was it difficult to return to that story and pick it up again? Fun? 

JH: I waited a long time to venture back into Chocolat territory, for a number of reasons. Principally because I wanted to explore other avenues, secondly because I knew that if ever I wrote about Vianne and Anouk again, the story would almost certainly be more about Anouk growing up, and I wanted to give my own daughter time to grow before I started to write about a girl on the cusp of adolescence. In many ways, therefore, The Girl With No Shadow has as much in common with Gentlemen and Players (my previous book) as with Chocolat. But I am very fond of those characters, and I’d always felt (as I still do) that there might be more to their story some day.

KA: Alice Hoffman says you can tell something about a person by which 
book they prefer: Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre. Which book do you 
prefer? Why?

JH: Wuthering Heights; partly because I live within a stone’s throw of the place, and the landscape has shaped my childhood, and partly because of the raw poetry of the writing and the extraordinary insight the author shows into the darker mysteries of the human heart – an at such a tender age. Fantastic.


Shooting Stars Mag said...

Great interview! I would love to read Chocolat at some point..I enjoyed the movie a ton. I'll have to get around to that some day, I suppose.
And definitely check out some of her author books as well.

Anonymous said...

Kim, These interviews are really great! Thanks for sharing them.

Andrea Storti said...

Hi Kim, this is a beautiful interview and Joanne Harris is amazing. I wanna ask you... I'm an ialian boy and I have a little blog about Mrs. Harris, can I translate your interview in Italian and then post it on my blog?

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