Joanne Harris (2007)
A brief interview with the French/British author of Chocolat from when she published her children’s novel Runemarks. As usual when you do a Q&A interview over email with a writer, there was loads we couldn’t get in at the time. I have reincorporated the extra parts here. From Death Ray 5.
Being half-French, Joanne Harris’ books usually tackle life in small-town France – Chocolat is probably her most famous. Yet many of her novels have a fantasy element; her debut, Evil Seed, was a vampire story. Runemarks, her first novel for young adults, draws on her great love for Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythology. She is, as we discover, a not-so-closet SF fan…
Death Ray: Do you feel more English or French?
Joanne Harris: I never think of myself as entirely French or entirely English. Half-and-half is an identity all of its own, the way green is a product of yellow and blue. The English part of me is dominant when I write (that’s why I usually write in English), but when I’m in France, or with my mother, or doing something that I associate particularly with my French side (eg. cooking) then my French side comes to the fore. I think that coming from two cultures can give you a different perspective on things. For a start, you tend to have a richer cultural base to work from – two languages, two sets of customs, and in my case, two separate families with completely different backgrounds, folk tales, cooking, traditions, anecdotes… As a child, being half-foreign wherever I went made me a bit of an outsider. It made me see things in a different way; and it made me self-reliant, which I guess is good for a would-be a writer. But I don’t think I’d ever write my books in French. For a start, they’d probably never make it to England if I did – the British are very resistant to translated works. My mother translates all my books– I’d hate to be a translator; it’s too much like hard work! – and I review and edit what she does. That way I get full control over my translations without having to spend an extra year re-writing the book for another audience.
DR: Why are you so interested in language?
JH: I’m interested in languages generally, the way they develop and the history they have in common. I like the fact that language can either kill a story or make it come to life; and as a musician, I enjoy the effect that language can have on the emotions – making the reader laugh, or cry, or feel anger or fear just by the power of words alone. Right now I’m trying to learn Old Norse – partly because learning the language that gives a tremendous insight on the culture and the people – and partly because I’ve always wanted to be able to read Voluspá in the original… I’m convinced that the study of languages helps in storytelling, partly because it extends vocabulary, and partly because it gives a broader view of culture and communication between different kinds of social groups.
DR: What have been your influences?
JH: My reading influences were gathered when I was quite young. I was a bit of a tomboy then. I liked adventure stories, war stories, sci-fi and fantasy. In those days little girls were supposed to read about ponies, frocks and ballet school. I guess I just wasn’t a typical little girl. I’ve always liked books that made you feel. I like to be involved in a story, to empathize with the characters and to care what happens to them. Stories that play on the emotions – that excite, that frighten, that open doors into other places – have always been among my favourites, although I also need them to be well-written. Bad style can kill even the most promising plot, so my favourite authors have always been excellent stylists as well as great storytellers. I love Ray Bradbury – you can sense his passion for everything around him – and Mervyn Peake, who plays with words the way an artist plays with colours. Both have a unique way of perceiving the world; both are master storytellers.
Right now I enjoy Neil Gaiman’s books – I like his varied influences, and his Sandman series is still the best set of graphic novels I’ve ever encountered. Christopher Fowler’s Menz Insana was another fantastic graphic novel, and in books like Psychoville and Calabash he does domestic unease like nobody else. Iain Banks is a great writer, whether he’s writing sci-fi or mainstream literary fiction; and Neal Stephenson managed to turn me on to hi-tech sci-fi (something I never thought I’d like). Peter Straub can give me genuine chills, and although Stephen King can be patchy at times, his best work is as well-written as anything outside the genre.
DR: How do you feel SF and fantasy is treated in the arts establishment?
JH: I think there’s a lot of snobbery in the arts establishment, and a lot of automatic rejection of anything that might be considered “genre”. I think this is both ignorant and unfair – books ought to be judged on merit, not on some dodgy classification designed to help booksellers shelve their stock. As for my own use of magic in fiction, I tend to hear the phrase “magical realism” applied to my work – a phrase I’ve never quite understood. Surely, fiction is always just fiction, whether you believe in magic or not…
DR: Why did you decide to write a children’s book?
JH: I never intended Runemarks to be uniquely a childrens’ book. I think books are for everyone, and I like to push the boundaries. I’ve written fantasy before in my short stories, but never a full-length novel, and I’m looking forward to seeing the kind of response I get from my core of fans as well as (hopefully) attracting a new kind of reader. There’s a sort of resistance to full-on fantasy from a certain kind of reader – a resistance based on the assumption that fantasy is (a) for kids (b) poorly written or (c) consists entirely of cheap Tolkien rip-offs. Some authors are already doing a tremendous job of attacking these prejudices. I’m hoping to join them.
DR: How do you find time to write short stories too?
JH: I use short stories to provide a quick fix of something different – a Western, a sci-fi story, a quirky angle on a familiar theme – when I need to give myself a break.
DR: Who’s your SF hero?
JH: Ray Bradbury is one of my greatest heroes. If I could ever write anything as perfect as The Smile or The Fog Horn, then I’m pretty sure I could die happy.
DR: Would you like to see Runemarks as a movie?
JH: Books are optioned all the time, and I don’t get as excited about it as I once did. But if ever a film were made of my books, I’d like it to be Runemarks. It would be very expensive to make (think of all those special effects!) but my daughter would love it, and so would I. Directors – well, if we’re playing “Fantasy Films”, then my first choice would be Ang Lee.
DR: Your website says that you enjoy watching trashy SF to relax. What’s your greatest guilty pleasure?
JH: I own every episode of Blake’s 7…