Over the last 15 years, Andrew has interviewed, written articles and reviews on a number of writers. It is with real pleasure that we produce some of these here over the coming year. The interview with Joanne Harris originally appeared in Incorporating Writing Issue 1 Vol 1. Andrew says of interviewing Joanne Harris, ‘She is not the easiest writer to interview, and the release of Jigs and Reels in 2003 got a lot of coverage with success of Chocolat and subsequent film release, which was then being premiered on TV in that year. It was not an easy interview, when I asked her about fear influences in her work she replied, “Yorkshire”. Now, I get that but this article was read by alot of people around the world and many asked, “What is Yorkshire?”. Which is a series of novels in their own right’
Time & Space: an interview with Joanne Harris by Andrew Oldham
With the arrival of Joanne Harris’s new book Jigs & Reels, inc. caught up with her to discuss the ramifications of bringing out a short story collection, her inspiration and her blockbuster Chocolat Joanne Harris was born in Yorkshire in 1964, the daughter of a French mother and an English father.
She studied modern and mediaeval languages at Saint Catharine’s College, Cambridge, and after a number of heroic career failures (rock musician, herbalist, accountant) she succumbed to genetic pressure and became a French teacher for 12 years at a boys’ grammar school in Leeds, having at last reached the conclusion that if you can take this, you can take anything. Her first novel, The Evil Seed, was published in 1989, although she strongly advises against reading it. Since then she has written; Sleep, Pale Sister (1993); Chocolat (1999); Blackberry Wine (2000); Five Quarters of the Orange (2001) and Coastliners (2002). She gave up teaching four years ago to write full-time, and still lives in Yorkshire with her husband, her nine-year old daughter Anouchka and 2001 invisible rabbits.
ANDREW: Your novels afford readers the time to get to know your characters, fall in love with them and inevitably miss them when they finish the book. So why did you choose to bring out a collection of short stories where you aren’t afforded the luxury of time or pages?
JOANNE: I enjoy the genre. It may be restrictive in terms of time and space, but there is a special intensity to the short story that gives it, if anything, more impact than the novel. Within the format it is possible to experiment in an indefinite number of different voices and styles, to explore ideas of a wider diversity than usual – even to make jokes. That’s very liberating for a writer, and it gives me the chance to spread my wings occasionally without feeling tied down to the same project for 18 months at a time.
ANDREW: How would you readers like to approach Jigs & Reels?
JOANNE: With curiosity and an open mind.
ANDREW: Are there any favourite stories you have amongst the collection?
JOANNE: It’s hard to be dispassionate about these things, but I have a special fondness for Come in Mr Lowry… (because of its Magritte-like ending) and Eau de Toilette, which is basically a seventeenth-centuryshaggy dog story.
ANDREW: Short stories are seen as one of the hardest media to tackle after poetry – what kinds of problems did you face writing the book and what do you feel are its successes?
JOANNE: I try not to think about the problems; it’s hard enough taking each story as it comes! As for its successes, I think that’s up to the reader, don’t you?
ANDREW: What do you think makes a good story?
JOANNE: Impact; reaction; the tendency to provoke thought.
ANDREW: Why do you think UK readers and critics have a hard time understanding the short story?
JOANNE: I think you need to distinguish between readers and critics. Their reactions are not always the same. From a critic’s point of view, it’s sometimes harder to comment on a book of short stories, which are all different, than on a novel with a linear plot and easily-recognizable themes. Besides, if you want to review short stories, you have to read them all very carefully (and some critics are lazy – they can write a review based on nothing but a blurb, a buzz and a press release). As for readers, some people love short stories and others prefer to spend a long time getting into a book. I think it’s a question of attitude. Short stories take time to have an effect. You shouldn’t try to read too many at once, because it gets confusing and tiring; instead you should give yourself plenty of time to think about each one before moving onto the next. Ideally, I like to read short stories in bed before I go to sleep; they give me such very vivid dreams.
ANDREW: Why has food played an important role in your work, and your life?
JOANNE: Food is a very useful shorthand to understanding personality, place and culture. It has been a major theme in literature, legend and folklore for thousands of years, and it has many important associations for all of us. You can tell so much about someone by the way they approach food, and it is something that everyone can recognize and relate to. Besides, I enjoy writing about sensual experiences, and there is a lot of sensuality in food which has not yet been fully explored.
ANDREW: Chocolat is a very seductive novel, underscored by the grotesque nature of authority out of control. In Blackberry Wine the destruction of the allotment underscores this. Where does this fear of beauty destroyed by officials or bureaucracy come from?
ANDREW: You’re now a household name. How have you responded to this? How has life changed for you?
JOANNE: It hasn’t really changed at all. I don’t try to respond, because I’m not sure there is an appropriate response I could have. I just keep doing the things I’ve always done as best I can.
ANDREW: Do you have any advice for the next generation of writers?
JOANNE: 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.
ANDREW: Thank you for your time.