Rerun EP004: Joanne Harris | Chocolat & Sheds

In this week’s episode from the BXP Archives…

Best known for her novel Chocolat, which sold well over a million copies and was made into a movie starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche, Joanne has written over twenty books, including Runemarks and Gospel of Loki, which were based on Norse legend. We spoke with her about writing, aspiration and sheds.



Joanne Harris MBE is probably best known for her third novel Chocolat, which has sold well over a million copies and was made into a movie starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche and was nominated for five Oscars. She’s written over twenty books, including Runemarks and Gospel of Loki, which were based on Norse legend. Her books have been published in over fifty countries. We were delighted to speak to her at GollanczFest at Foyles’ Bookshop in Charing Cross Road, London.

On starting out as a writer:

I’d always written, but I’d been convinced by various people that writing wasn’t a proper job and you couldn’t make a living doing it, and so a lot of my writing was done by stealth and nobody knew much about it.

I realised that not all the stories that I wanted to read had been written, or some of them had been written incorrectly, and so I thought, yeah, I’ll do this, I’ll re-write them, I’ll change stuff, and invent my own things.

On her first book, The Evil Seed:

It was a vampire novel, it was written mostly to annoy my mother who disapproved of horror immensely and who wouldn’t allow it in the house.

There was no budget, no promotion of any sort, I was still teaching full-time. It was unadulterated joy for me, I didn’t do a single signing, I didn’t do anything like that, but just the fact that it was there on the shelves… I used to go to the one bookshop in my town where the book was on sale, there was one copy, and I would hang around to see if it had been sold and I’d move it around, put it on shelves so you could see the rather bad cover, and the bookshop owner kept staring at me. I assumed it was because he recognised me, but actually he though I was stealing books.

On finding her voice:

I hadn’t really found my voice until my third book, and The Evil Seed was a sort-of gothic horror pastiche, with vampires, and the second one, Sleep, Pale Sister, was a sort-of Wilkie Collins rip-off with, I think, five first-person narrator voices. It was good practice in many ways, but it wasn’t really my voice. I was still trying different voices out, which I think is a good thing for a young author to do, young authors don’t always have a voice of their own and writing fan-fic and writing pastiches of other things is sometimes a very good way of doing that. It (Sleep, Pale Sister) was a better novel than The Evil Seed, and it was very ambitious in scope, it was a ghost story set in the world of Pre-Raphaelite art, but it wasn’t quite me.

On Chocolat, change, and dealing with success:

I was told that (Chocolat) wasn’t going to sell, that it was too parochial, too weird, that it wouldn’t fit into any conceivable category, and it was about things that are out of fashion. It was pretty much the moment that the industry washed its hand of me. I had tried lots of different things, and nothing had quite taken, and this weird little book appeared and no one wanted to publish it for ages. When it eventually did get published, as a sort-of afterthought, nobody really expected it to do that well.

I knew it was different. It wasn’t quite as different to me as it might have been to readers that had followed me, because I had tried a number of other things, which were later published and rewritten, but I realised I had reached a pivotal moment where I had stopped writing coming-of-age novels disguised as horror stories or fantasy, and I had started to write about other things that were important to me: being a parent, where I had come from, my family and where they had come from. And so I think I had stopped look inwards as much as I’d started looking outwards.

Before Chocolat, I’d had one fan letter from a woman in Pinner who had signed it from herself and all her cats, and that was, as far as I know, the only reader I had.

I had what they called a cult following, which meant I was largely unread, and all of a sudden, with Chocolat, I was expected to do signings, a tour, and there was a promotion budget, and I realised that I couldn’t teach full-time anymore. So I took some time off to see what happened, and I have ever gone back.

I wasn’t remotely prepared for any part of it. I wasn’t prepared for the amount of free time I would suddenly have on my hands, which I spent mostly watching Doctor Who and making toast, I wasn’t prepared for the amount of scrutiny that I was going to get from the press, I was completely incapable of dealing with that. Then the movie came out, just over a year after the book, and it was completely crazy, because I was having to deal with it all over again on a much bigger scale. It was wonderful, but it was also high anxiety.

Nobody ever trains you for success, because most of the time they try and prepare you for failure.

Nobody believes this will happen on that scale, that quickly, and so I was prepared to fail, that was fine, I was good at that. Being successful, I wasn’t so good at. I had a year of having awful panic attacks in very public places like St James’s Palace and the Oscars, where I would just flake out like Tony Soprano, and wake up on the floor thinking ‘How the hell did I get here?’

I got over it in the end.

What advice would Joanne give to her younger self?

I’m not sure she would have listened. Which is a good thing. I wasn’t thinking about being published, I was just enjoying it, and I think the thing you have to do initially is not to write so that you can be a writer, but just write because you love writing. If you don’t love it, no one else is going to love it anyway, and the nebulous possibility of you ever being able to give up your day job and do it as a living is such an uncertain thing, and based on so many coincidences and combinations of luck, and being in the right place at the right time, that you can’t be certain of that. So, whatever you do, if you don’t enjoy the journey there is really not much point in doing it.

On the reaction to Runemarks, a very different book to Chocolat:

I’ve had the same reaction with all of my new books — and now it’s sixteen/seventeen books down the line — and I still get it every time, there’s always somebody who goes, “Well, this is a departure!”

I’ve been doing different things all the time. The things that I do are linked, thematically, and there are certain things that, in my view, make them not a million miles away from each other, but people who think very narrow, genre-based things about books tend to find it difficult when they find I’ve written thrillers and fantasy books. Basically, what I say is live with it. This is what I’ve done. This is what I will always do. I’ve never promised that I would stay in one place. In fact, I’ve pretty much promised that I wouldn’t, from the start, which is why it took me such a long time to get any sort of scrutiny, because if I had continued writing vampire novels, as they wanted me to, I would have been put in the vampire novel box, I would have been touted as the next Anne Rice, because everyone who wrote vampire novels was at the time, and I would have been thoroughly bored. I’ve always written what I wanted, and I’ve always been very lucky, because I have a very loyal readership who are content to follow me into these different places without complaining too much and without saying, “Why doesn’t this one have chocolate in it?”

Does she write every day?

I usually write every day, but it depends. Some days I know it’s just not going to work, and I just stopped trying on those days because usually it’s better if do something else. If I get blocked, or if I am tired, or if I know I’m not going to perform, it’s much better me doing something different.

On her shed, and telling short stories on Twitter:

It started off as a kind of zen exercise, where I had to concentrate on writing one sentence, and then once I had written the first sentence, which happened to be on Twitter, then I would go off onto whatever I was doing. It has become something slightly different now; I write stories on Twitter, and you can watch me write them — I haven’t written them beforehand — and it’s helped me a lot in terms of economy of words, and of how sentences are constructed and has made me think about things in a way that wouldn’t have done if I didn’t have a hundred and forty character limit. It’s been very helpful and it’s actually affected my writing style outside of social media.

My shed has more fans than I do on social media.

Common mistakes by new writers:

I’m concerned when I see young writers worrying too much about marketing themselves, or trying to analyse the market, or trying to write trends. I think those things are more or less irrelevant to a writer, and are probably doomed to disappointment, because as soon as you’ve isolated a trend it’s will have gone by the time you’ve written a book that fits it, even if that were the kind of book you were supposed to write.

I hear a lot of people saying that they don’t have time to read, and yet expect to write. I think this is completely counter-intuitive; I think you have to read so that you can write. And in a lot of different genres. I see a lot of younger writers who only really read within their genre, which means that they tend to miss out on the opportunity for flexibility and to explore other kinds of narrative. You don’t know what you’re going to get from what you read until you’ve read it, and if everything you read is within your comfort zone you’re not going to be able to push that comfort zone as a writer.

My comfort zone is fiction, and I have to push myself to read outside of fiction, and whenever I do I am surprised at how rich it is, and how many ideas I get, and how much those ideas then inform what I’m writing.

Joanne Harris’s top tip for aspiring writers:

Ditch the word “aspiring”. It’s bullshit. Just write. Don’t worry too much about being a writer, or the quality of what you write, just do the best you can and be honest, and forget about the idea that writers are special people. If you write, then you are a writer.


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