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Interview: Joanne Harris novelist

24 June 2009

by Terence Handley MacMath

I was a teacher of French and German for 15 years, and wrote as a hobby during that time. It was a bit of a leap of faith, giving up a proper job with a pension and going off in a different direction. But you can’t just gradually give it up — you’re either teaching or not teaching. When I had published three books, it became impossible to continue with both.

I’ve found writing requires rather more social interaction than I thought it would.

Chocolat is one of the things I’ve written, but I’m very lucky — my readers don’t tend to think of me as just the author of that. In fact, I find I talk about that one least of all my novels. I’m not sure I can say which is my favourite book — if pressed, per­haps Five Quarters of the Orange. Possibly because it was the hardest one to write. It was complicated: diffi­cult issues and difficult people.

I haven’t met anyone who wasn’t flawed or damaged in some way. I’m not sure I would believe in them. I’m not sure I would get on with them.

It’s very difficult to understand a character unless they have their own voice. I try to give as many of my protagonists as possible their own voice. I’m not particularly comfort­able with the traditional third-person narrator. Getting under the surface is part of the fun of exploring a character.

Rural France is just the same now as it ever was. Though the film set Chocolat in the 1950s, I didn’t need to set it in the past in the book.

Intolerant people don’t need the Church to hang their ideology on. Reynaud could have been a poli­tician, or in any institution with any kind of power. This is really about the Church. The Church and other insti­tutions are very much at the mercy of those who work for them. People make their own choices. Reynaud uses it as an excuse to do what he pleases.

There are still communities, mostly in rural areas, depicted in Chocolat, where the Church is a guiding force, and an individual can have such power. There are some almost Jansen­ist pockets, and other still close to folkloric traditions — some of these very close to each other. The chemistry can be very volatile in these rural areas.

My father’s English, my mother’s French. My father’s family doesn’t speak French, and my mother’s family doesn’t speak English, but I have a brother ten years younger than me who was also brought up bilingual. My parents and I still live in the same village. My mother never gave up working, so I was in the care of my grandparents a lot when I was young, and it’s been the same with my daughter. I only saw my French grandparents in the school holidays, but fortunately they were long.

My husband and I met when I was 16 and still at school. I married him in my late twenties and we’ve been married for 20 years. My daughter was brought up bilingual, too, as my mother prefers to speak French at home. It seems to have worked quite well.

When my grandfather was young, his mother was extremely devout and his father was dead. They didn’t have much money — only one pair of shoes between them so they couldn’t both go out at the same time. When it came to his education, there was a choice between sending him to the fee-paying Catholic school, or the state school where reli­gion was not taught. His mother couldn’t afford to send him to the Catholic school, of course, and was denounced by the priest during all the years of her son’s schooling. He even told the people of the village not to give her work. I suppose that was one idea behind the character of Reynaud. When you think about it, it was not all that long ago. And for someone to have so much influence over a community. . .

I’m speaking at St John-at-Hackney in July as a way of supporting the French-speaking population of Hackney, which is the largest of any London borough. I’m always happy to do this.

I don’t go to church. I don’t think the concept of group worship would attract me at all, no matter which Church it was. Perhaps there wasn’t very much religion in the religion I saw practised around me, which seemed to be more about social net­working. If worship is required, it should be private thing.

I read a very good piece A. A. Gill wrote about sleeping sickness, long before I gave up teaching and had no money to give. I thought then that, if I ever did have money, it would be wonderful to throw some at it, to help eradicate a disease which kills thousands of people for no reason. When I wrote my two cook­books, I gave the money to Médecins sans Frontières, and got involved in that way. They sent me to an out­reach project in the Congo. Recently, I got involved with Plan UK and they sent me out to Togo.

We in the West have very little idea of what Africa is really like. We are bludgeoned with so much informa­tion and disinformation, and there’s a general feeling of negativity — that there’s nothing we can do to help. Still, there’s something about Africa — in the way people live and prior­itise things — which is very refreshing for people living in the West. Yes, the political situ­ation is incredibly con­voluted, and there’s war, disease, viol­ence . . . but there’s also a simplicity of thinking, whereas we tend to get bogged down with what is supposed to be im­portant.

The phase “I need” suddenly is out of your vocabulary when you realise that the £2000 handbag that you’ve been ogling in Vogue is enough to build a village over there.

When I was a child, I was very much influenced by adventure stories — Jules Verne, Rider Haggard, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Edgar Allen Poe — but in my teens I began to appreciate the stylists as well as the storytellers — the Brontës, Nabokov, Dickens, Maupassant. I still like them. It’s interested that really good books change as you change, and you can revisit something you read at 16 and love it at 40 for differ­ent reasons. I’m a serial re-reader.

There’s a whole school of modern French writing which regards plot as an unnecessary encumbrance. I find that completely incomprehens­ible. It’s an in­ter­esting conceit, but that’s all it is — self-indulgence.

I’ve just finished the first draft of a new book, a psychological thriller called Blue-eyed Boy about a man who lives with his mother and fantasises on a daily basis about killing her off. It’s a bit of a challenge writing from a man’s point of view, though I’ve done it before.

I don’t tend to look back at things and wonder what would have happened if I had done something different. That’s the way to go crazy.

I don’t dwell very much on regrets. No . . . if anything, I regret not learn­ing music well enough to be a rock star. But it’s not something I think about much.

I’ve been influenced a lot by Ray Bradbury, both as an author and as a human being. He’s the first author I really connected with as child. I suppose I discovered him at the age of eight or nine — but later I realised that the stories I read for the plot are also extraordinary masterpieces of style. And his attention to life: his joy, his curiosity, making the most of life, his verve. . . I met him when he was quite old, but he is really won­derful.

Yes, I’ve done a few bits and pieces for Fairtrade campaigns. I tend to buy Fair­trade chocolate, and other things like coffee, when I see them.

My cookbooks are mostly very traditional French recipes taken from my novels, because I got so tired of sending them to readers who ask for them. My husband and daughter are both veget-arian, so at home I tend to cook fairly simple vegetarian food — fresh veget-ables, fruit, rice, lentils, roast vegetables, pasta — mostly of my own devising.

I do enjoy the Bible. I enjoyed its literary style as a child, and was particularly interested in Revelation, which is as wonderful, visual, crazed a vision as anything I was reading in Edgar Rice Burroughs or Rider Hag­gard.

I don’t much like Old Testament laws laid down, which I have difficulty in relating to modern inter­pretations of Christianity. I have long, pointless discussions with a local Jehovah’s Witness who has been coming for eight years. It’s quite fun, though neither of us is going to win.

I’ve been very lucky to have done lots of travel pieces recently, and travelled to wonderful places with my daughter — China, Hawaii, Botswana. I like the path that’s less well-trodden, to enjoy different cul­tures and landscapes.

I’m not sure I pray at all. I don’t really worship in the way Christians worship. My prayers, in the loosest possible way, would take the form of wishing well to other people in times of trouble and sending my good ener­gies their way. I don’t believe peti­tioning the Divine for stuff is really prayer. I don’t see God as a fatherly figure you can pester for things.

I’m very interested in church architecture — I go in an awful lot of churches and don’t usually need to be locked in. But I’d rather like to speak to the Pope. But I do enjoy discussing religious matters with people, and recently I’ve been prac­­tically swimming in bishops and abbots, and seem to get on rather well with clerics. I have questions to which I would like to find answers from someone who has them.

Joanne Harris is speaking at St John-at-Hackney, Lower Clapton Road, London E5 0PD on 4 July at 7 p.m. For details, phone 020 8985 5374 or email admin@stjohnathackney.org.uk

Joanne Harris is speaking at St John-at-Hackney, Lower Clapton Road, London E5 0PD on 4 July at 7 p.m. For details, phone 020 8985 5374 or email admin@stjohnathackney.org.uk

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