Had a very informative evening at the Huddersfield Literature Festival last night. D and I were very excited to listen to Joanne Harris and learn about her writing processes because her writing is so evocative. We arrived early and admired the cakes in the Bake Off and perused the Waterstones book display.
James Nash, (local writer and Poet) introduced and interviewed Joanne, started by informing us that she not just writes short stories and novels, but is also a bass guitarist. Joanne has always written. When she was young she thought books were unfair because they ended, so she decided at seven that she wanted to be a writer. She was a teacher for a long time (her Mum, Dad and Grandma were also teachers) and when her Mum learned she wished to be a writer, she took her to look at the shelves of books in their house and explained that all of those writers died penniless.
Joanne feels that because she writes differently each time, she is hard to brand, but she is lucky because her readers are okay with that. She always has a head teeming with ideas, the problem is deciding which she can live with for 1-2 years in order for her to write it. This is why she writes short stories so she can go on to the next thing. A novel takes 2 years or more and she works on 2, 3 or more projects at once and eventually something gets finished. This was music to my ears as this is the way that I work.
She compares writing to the Red Shoes because it is something that you have to do. Joanne explained that she started out with a cult following (which she said equates to being largely unread) and then her third book, Chocolat, caused her career to take off. She does not know what it was about the book that caused this as her book was unfashionable for the time (she felt it was indulgent, full of adjectives and stuck in time) as most books were up-to-date, sparse and realistic then. She revealed that she got a lot of rave rejections but then someone took a punt on it. It reached people and they voted with their feet. She wondered if it was because they were ready for a change or just chocolate-obsessed.
Joanne revealed that Vianne Rocher is not based on her, but there is a connection in motherhood. She feels it is a love story between a mother and her child. Vianne is on an adventure and it is a journey that interests her as a writer. She deliberately set it in a place that could be anywhere at any time, but the second book is in a modern Paris. The third book, Peaches, is in a specific present day, 2010 during Ramadan in France before they banned the veil. She feels the village it is set in is almost a character in itself and that change is what drives a story.
When Joanne starts writing she is never sure exactly what will happen. She knows more or less what is going to happen, but not what comes in between (again music to my ears). She likens it to a walk in the woods, but not knowing what animals she is going to see.
Handing over the novel to a film company did not feel like handing over her baby, she feels they took some aspects of the book and made a film she liked. This is good as she knows other authors who have hated their books being adapted for film. Joanne felt Juliette Binoche was perfect for the role. She revealed that at first they were wanting Whoopi Goldberg and setting the book in America in the late 1800s (the colour chocolat), then present day New York with Gwyneth Paltrow, but when they chose Binoche, Joanne felt they had understood the character and setting it in France kept the spirit of it.
Her short story collection A Cat, A Hat and A Piece of String was inspired by a radio interview when she was asked what she would take with her to a desert island. She had lots of fun taking three objects and making different stories about them and the many ways in which she could use them. James revealed that two of her characters from her previous short story collection Jigs and Wheels, Faith and Hope, feature in the new short story collection. Joanne told him that they even receive fan mail, which is unusual because although Loki from her Runemarks books receives it, and Roux (but mostly because of Johnny Depp), she was surprised that her two old lady characters got some. But she feels she is not done with them yet and they may even get a whole book to themselves one day.
James said he was fascinated that her Runemarks books are norse tales as he has always thought they were better than the Greeks and Romans. Joanne agreed in that the Vikings left a lot of themselves here but she felt the norse tales had the worst cliffhanger ever in that the world ends, as does mankind, with just a vague prophecy that maybe the world will be remade. She wanted to create an alternative reality where the Gods might have survived and the world is not destroyed, just turned around. She first wrote about it at 18 in school exercise books 2k words long and every chapter ended on a cliffhanger. When her daughter got to age 9/10, she pulled the manuscript out and she liked it, so she wrote something different using the world she had created. These books reach a different readership (fantasy, younger readers) but this evolved because of her daughter. She wrote 500 pages and was surprised to realise it was a book; her publishers were surprised too. She enjoys writing these and has the most fun, but if she hits a block, she can move onto another.
Joanne believes that she has themes she returns to - things that interest her and family relationships, particularly mother/son, children growing up lonely and isolated or people who feel they don't belong, freakish or eccentric and about food. She thinks you can tell a lot about someone by how they eat. You can explore someones personality without labelling through food.
Joanne then read from Peaches for Monsieur Le Cure explaining that from the beginning Vianne does not want to go back to Lansquenet-sous-Tannes as she is afraid and running away from it, but Armande (who is based on her great grandmother), the diabetic elderly woman in mourning, who wears red petticoats under her black dresses, was the only character who could persuade her to return.
James then opened the floor up for questions. When asked if she is influenced by other authors and whether they get in the way, Joanne felt that we are all products of authors we have read but she does not feel that it gets in the way now. When asked about the controversial veil theme, she felt she was not trying to address the issue, just looking at one particular little community and certain people who use them to define themeselves, hide or make a statement. She admitted her publishers were worried (the original title of the novel was Peaches for Ramadan), but she has had nothing but good feedback from Muslim readers.
She revealed her ideas start with characters and the characters find their way into stories pretty fast. Asked which was her favourite of her own work, she feels she is not objective. Some she thinks are better written, but not fun to write. She revealed that blue-eyed-boy divided her readership and was tough emotionally to write. She was flattered that someone on Amazon felt that it was ghost-written because Joanne was not sick enough to write a story like that.
She personally does not distinguish between what is real and what is imagined as she feels anything that is imagined is real on some level, real on an emotional level and she believes that this is what authors mean when they say write about what you know.
When the event came to a close, Joanne kindly agreed to answer any other questions people may have and sign her books. A long queue formed immediately.
It was a fantastic evening with a lovely warm, personable and accomplished writer. I hope she returns to Huddersfield again soon.