By Chris High
It’s difficult, sometimes, to interview incredibly popular authors. Not that the writers themselves are difficult, necessarily, its just that they’ve been interviewed on so many occasions before, the elusive “original question” gets ever harder to find.
So, talking with Joanne Harris shortly before the author of the mega-selling Chocolat embarked on her staggering promotional tour for her novel, The Lollipop Shoes (Doubleday), which was set to take in the length and breadth of the UK, America, Australia and New Zealand, before coming home to do it all again for the next book to be published, Runemarks, was something of a nerve racking experience.
I needn’t have worried.
‘I spent most of yesterday signing copies of Lollipop Shoes,’ Joanne explained. ‘Proofs and jackets of Runemarks have just arrived, which means another stint of correcting and proofing the book before I start promotion for The Lollipop Shoes. It can be confusing when there are two books to discuss, but I’m far from complaining. I like being kept as busy as possible and suspect I’m not terribly good at relaxing.’
With such an arduous schedule looming, one might forgive the author for looking at it with some trepidation. ‘Going on tours is great and I love doing it. I’m under no obligations to promote the books like this. I know some authors hate the promotional side of writing, yet I see meeting the readers as invaluable. Being a writer is a very isolated business and it can become somewhat dangerous to be so cut off.’
This interview took place shortly after the launch of The Lollipop Shoes and Joanne is keen to stress immediately that the book is not, in any way, a sequel to Chocolat. ‘It’s set in a different place and has different characters. Those who remain from Chocolat have now all changed and moved on. Writing a sequel didn’t feel appropriate and this has a lot more of its attention fixed on Annouk. This is the first time I think I’ve written in such an upfront way.’
In The Lollipop Shoes, Yanne and her daughters, Rosette and Annie, live peacefully, if not happily, above their little chocolate shop seeking refuge and anonymity in the cobbled streets of Montmartre. Nothing unusual marks them out; no red sachets hang by the door. The wind has stopped - at least for a while. Then into their lives blows Zozie de l'Alba, the lady with the lollipop shoes, and everything begins to change.
Zozie is a thief with a difference. ‘When I was looking into Identity Theft, I was shocked by how easy it is to do and to get away with. All those little bits and pieces we throw away every day are all little bits of us that someone else can use to their own advantage. It’s incredible and is something we should all be concerned with. Zozie is a bundle of impulses. A very dynamic character who is very attractive. She has the ability to be anything she wants and is a very good mirror of what people want to see in themselves. I enjoy writing villains and Zozie was great to write. She’s very distinctive and totally without conscience. She also has her magical powers, of course.’
Joanne Harris was born in Barnsley in 1964 of a French mother and an English father. She studied Modern and Mediaeval Languages at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge and was a teacher for fifteen years, during which time she published three novels; The Evil Seed (1989), Sleep, Pale Sister (1993) and Chocolat (1999), which was then made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp.
Since, she has written six more novels; Blackberry Wine, Five Quarters of the Orange, Coastliners, Holy Fools, and, most recently, Gentlemen and Players and The Lollipop Shoes, plus; Jigs & Reels, a collection of short stories. Her books are now published in over forty countries and have won a number of British and international awards. In 2004, Joanne was one of the judges of the Whitbread prize and in 2005, she was a judge of the Orange prize. Writing, however, remains her passion and her style is distinctive in that she uses several points of view to tell her stories in manner many authors might find daunting. ‘I enjoy writing in the first person because it gives me the chance to flesh out the characters, though have to admit the difficult part, sometimes, is in writing different voices. I've always written. As a child and an adolescent I began by copying the writers I most admired, then began slowly finding my own style. It took awhile, but eventually it emerged in my twenties. Until Chocolat was published, the thought never crossed my mind that I might make a living from writing and, besides, I liked my teaching job and enjoyed writing in my spare time. Until Chocolat, the two had been perfectly compatible. With the success of the novel being what it was, however, I found the demands being made on me to promote the book in England and abroad were too much to handle whilst teaching full-time, and with some regret – and a lot of anxiety – I had to make a choice. I'm glad I made it; but it was a tough decision.’
In 2004, Joanne contributed to, and judged, the BBC End Of Story competition and, this year, helped judge The Daily Mail and Transworld’s First Novel competition. Entering such contests is something Joanne strongly encourages new writers to do. ‘For End Of Story, the amount of entries was astonishing. The enthusiasm for writing is incredible and it’s nice to be a part of it because so few aspiring writers get any attention. Competitions like these provide a great platform and are of significant value. I’ve kept in touch with Alison Kerr who successfully completed my short story, Dryad, for End Of Story. She’s still writing, still improving and still finding her voice. I have great hopes for her.’
Joanne was short listed for this year’s Mystery Writers of America prestigious Edgar for the Best Novel award with Gentleman And Players. Crime Fiction is not a genre generally associated with Joanne Harris and it is interesting to see how far away she feels crime writers are from one day, perhaps, winning The Booker.
‘Absolutely miles. A good writer is a good writer, but I do feel there is a lot of snobbery and laziness amongst the literary fraternity, many of whom say they’d never read so called “popular fiction” simply because they think it makes them sound clever. Similarly, I think a lot of the apartheid in Crime Fiction needs to be ditched. Crime takes place in the real world, too, and affects so many people in so many ways. The biggest obstacle facing aspiring authors today is that the publishing industry doesn’t really know what it wants and tends to follow trends. As a result, so many writers and publishers are afraid to take chances. My advice is to write what you want to write and, first and foremost, write it for you. Do not to give up. If it’s good enough, everything else will follow. Be yourself. Don't be too proud to take advice - but don't be afraid to ignore it, either. Most of all, enjoy what you do.’
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