Joanne Harris has been called many things. A food writer, a French writer, a writer of magic realism, and a writer of modern fairytales. Magic, mystery and food are themes that generously lace Harris’ novels — Chocolat, Blackberry Wine, Five Quarters of the Orange, Coastliners, Holy Fools and Gentlemen and Players. As a person who has always been fond of stories that deal with the unexplained, the dark, and the superstitious, it is but natural that she weaves those strands into her plots and characters.
Harris spoke to California Literary Review about various aspects of her writing.
- Your plots, settings, characters, even conflicts seem to originate from the palate, in Blackberry Wine, Chocolat, even Five Quarters of the Orange to an extent …
- You’re forgetting ‘Coastliners’, ‘Holy Fools’, ‘Sleep, Pale Sister’ and ‘Gentlemen and Players.’ Not all my books use food as a metaphor, but I do find taste and scent a useful medium in some of my books. There is a universality to food that makes it easily accessible to the reader, and a long tradition of sensuality related to the subject. As newborns we first experience the world through two senses — taste and smell. That means that our emotional response to a taste or a smell can act upon us at a very powerful, subconscious level. Eating habits provide us with an insight into a person’s background, character, family and upbringing as well as their general attitude to life and to other people. Besides, readers understand food; in our increasingly diverse and multi-cultural society, eating remains one of the very few experiences we all have in common; a pleasure, a comfort, and a means of expression.
- One reads reams about how limiting the first-person point-of-view can be. And yet you use this POV with seemingly infinite ease.
- Yes, I prefer it. I like to get into the skin of my characters, to think as they do. Often I have more than one first-person narrator so that I can present several differing points of view.
- I understand you’re fond of incense sticks and use chants to purify your environment. What do you think believing in magic brings to a person’s life?
- A sense of possibility.
- Your early novels, Evil Seeds and Sleep, Pale Sister were more like apprenticeships to further successes. What gave you the courage to go on, to write on, even when these books didn’t shoot you into the spotlight?
My intention when writing was never to occupy the spotlight. I write out of necessity, not courage, and I see every one of my books as an apprenticeship for the next. I don’t measure success by what the critics say, by the number of copies sold or by how many film options have been taken up. First and foremost, I write for my own satisfaction, and I think I’m grounded enough to have retained a fairly lively sense of self-criticism.
- Your books deal with small communities, the traditions and values cherished by those communities, and a rebel-in-the-pack. Have you ever been tempted to enlarge this canvas?
- I don’t believe the size of the canvas affects the value of the picture.
- I enjoyed your short story, Faith and Hope Go Shopping in Jigs & Reels. But it seems as if you need to be a famous author before you can put out a short story collection. One would think publishers would be more open to the short story form, given the paucity of reading time that is a real issue in this day and age.
- I agree completely — I’m trying to do my bit to re-introduce the public to the joys of the short story, as it is precisely the genre today’s readers are likely to welcome, if they give it a chance.
- Do you believe writing rituals, whatever form they may take, are necessary to the act of writing?
- It depends on whether you believe in them or not. I travel to promote the books all year round, so I rarely get the chance to develop a working routine. Instead I write when I can; usually when I am at home, although I have been known to write at hotel rooms, in airports and on trains. I use a laptop so that I can use any available time, and I carry notebooks around with me so that I can jot down thoughts and ideas. I tend to work better in the morning, and when I am at home I try to write then. I can’t always be choosy, especially when faced with deadlines (which I hate). I prefer to be on my own, although when I have to (and when I’m in the Zone) I can write on a train, in my daughter’s playroom or in a classroom full of pupils. My optimal writing conditions are: an empty house; a tidy desk; an endless supply of tea and biscuits; fine weather (I don’t write as well in winter, when I get depressed, or at night); and no deadline. Needless to say, these rarely, if ever, occur …
- Do you have any rituals?
- If I did, it would be bad luck to say so.
- The very act of making scenes and characters come alive on a blank page is an act of magic. Do you think of yourself as a magician?
- If I do, then I’m the sorcerer’s apprentice trying vainly to keep on top of what’s happening!
- How different is your first draft from your final one?
- Not so very different. Like an artist’s cartoon before he transfers it to canvas. Rather longer than the final draft in some cases, with far too many adverbs (I usually remove these in the final edit). On average it takes me about a year to write a book, and between three and five drafts. It depends; some books take longer and are more difficult to write. I write irregularly, with quiet intervals in between frantic bursts of activity. I always get stuck about three-quarters of the way through a book and panic that I’m not going to be able to finish, but usually within a week or two the problem has worked itself out.
- What would you say to writers who struggle with inspiration, time, discipline, and the process of becoming published?
- I’d say you’re struggling with the wrong things. Do what you do, and enjoy it, because if you don’t, no one else is likely to! Be yourself. Don’t be too proud to take advice — but don’t be afraid to ignore it, either.