An Interview with Joanne Harris by K. P. Mahoney

KPM: Are you a very superstitious person? Do you have bags of charms lying around the house like Joe Cox and Vianne Rocher? Are you like the footballer who has to wear the same T-shirt to keep on winning?

Joanne Harris: When I was a schoolgirl I had a lucky jumper, which I wore to pass exams. Since then I have had some superstitions, and I do keep lucky talismans around the house like Vianne, but I'm not the kind of person who is crippled by superstitions and anxieties. I think that for the most part it is possible to make one's own luck, and I try to do that as much as I can.

KPM: There seems to be quite a few novels published recently which involve flashbacks to the 70s, such as your own 'Blackberry Wine', Kate Atkinson's 'Emotionally Weird', and Zadie Smith's 'White Teeth'. Why do you think this is? Have flares suddenly become fashionable again?

Joanne Harris: I think that it's partly something to do with the present generation of 30-somethings who are breaking into publishing. I can't speak for the others, but I find that the 70s is a time I recall with great clarity, and it's the period which best captures my own childhood. Given that BW was partly about my own childhood in Yorkshire, it was easier and more authentic to use material from that time. Plus the 70s represent a time when life was simpler in a number of ways; music and fashions were more flamboyant, people were not as afraid to differ and to be extrovert; things seemed happier and brighter and less gritty and minimalist than they are now.

KPM: I read 'Blackberry Wine' and 'Emotionally Weird' in the same weekend, and I couldn't help noticing certain similarities. There's prominent characters who love SF in both novels, scenes in creative writing classes, a central detective mystery, and flashbacks to the 70s. From 'Chocolat' there's also a shared theme of uncertain parentage, and Kate Atkinson uses the name of Effie as her heroine, as you did in 'Sleep, Pale Sister'. Both you and Atkinson are also published by Doubleday. Are these shared themes just coincidence, or do you and Kate Atkinson share a dialogue?

Joanne Harris: I haven't read any Kate Atkinson apart from "Behind the Scenes at the Museum", so it really is a coincidence if there are similarities. Of course none of these themes is especially unusual, and I think our styles are widely divergent enough for us to avoid treading on each others' toes... I did meet Kate recently (she has been doing the same book-signing/reading round), and compared to me she seemed very serious and intense - I'm not sure she approved of my flippancy!

KPM: One of the things that really struck me as true from 'Emotionally Weird' is Professor Cousin's observation that at the heart of all drama lies a quest for identity. But how far would you say that our geographical location shapes our destiny? Why does Jay feel the need to run away to France? And why does Joe need to reinforce his borders?

Joanne Harris: I think geographical location shapes the personality in that people behave in different ways according to where they are and the characters of those around them. As for destiny, I'm not sure I believe in such a thing. After all, you can always change who you are if you find you don't like what you have become, and you can always move away if you find that the place in which you live is having an adverse effect on you. Jay runs away to France because he wants to reinvent himself, because this reinvention is so much easier in a foreign place where he isn't known and where he feels liberated of many of his inhibitions, and because to him France represents a place where time, his career and his relationships can be suspended (as on an extended holiday) and he can allow himself some time to examine his life from the outside. As for Joe, he feels more and more threatened by the closing of the railway and the growing development of his area. He knows that his time is almost over and that the roots he has laid down over so many years are about to be disturbed. His protection rituals are a means of persuading himself that he can do something to stop the inevitable from happening, that he is still to some extent in control. He is a man under siege, and behaves accordingly.

KPM: One of my favourite scenes from 'Chocolat' is when Armande seems to recognize Vianne and Pantoufle. What is the nature of Vianne's true identity? Is she some sort of mythical figure from a fairy tale?

Joanne Harris: Vianne is who you want her to be. You might see her as an archetype or a mythical figure (I prefer to see her as the lone gunslinger who blows into the town, has a showdown with the man in the black hat, then moves on relentless), but on another level she is a perfectly real person with real insecurities and a very human desire for love and acceptance. Her qualities too - kindness, love, tolerance - are very human. She is not supposed to be either a supernatural or a superhuman figure - everything she does exists on this everyday level, and she does nothing which could not be done perfectly well by anyone else.

KPM: How much did the figure of John Ruskin influence 'Sleep, Pale Sister'? Like Henry Chester, he married an Effie too, didn't he?

Joanne Harris: I did have Ruskin quite strongly in mind when I wrote SPS, as well as a number of other Victorian writers and artists. I'm fascinated by the amazing dual standards of Victorian morality - and endlessly amused when well-meaning politicians talk about "returning to good old Victorian values". Certainly a whole culture of institutionalized paedophilia (disguised as idealism) amongst the Victorians has been modestly glossed over by historians, as has their rather special attitude to sex, reflected now in the enduring passion of the fashion industry for childlike, waif-thin models. I wanted to talk about that to some extent, and to explore what might happen if that ideal were actually to take an identity of its own.

KPM: Jay Mackintosh has a great moment when he says what he really thinks about the work produced by his creative writing class. What would your critique be of modern English literature?

Joanne Harris: I don't feel qualified to criticize anyone's style or choice of subject matter. My gripe is the feeling amongst some people that there is a "right" approach and a "wrong" approach to telling stories, that fiction is somehow a dirty word, and that happy endings are unrealistic, naff or out of fashion. Stories are stories. There's nothing wrong with writing fiction. It's all right to take fiction seriously, even if it is unrealistic. I believe that people who think that to suffer for one's art - and to inflict lengthy depictions of suffering upon the reader - is the only way to write are missing out on one of the basic truths of literature: that is, it's supposed to be fun. Reading it and writing it. I'm not ashamed of enjoying what I do, or reading what I enjoy. Even if it isn't great literature. Even the space aliens and the giant apes. In fact, especially those ... ;-)

KPM: You seem to have a great love of works of fantasy, but what do you think of the artists behind those works, like Baum, Carroll, and the Pre-Raphaelites? Many of them were flawed figures, and drug abusers. Why is it that Henry Chester can only produce a critically acclaimed piece of art when he's addicted to chloral hydrate?

Joanne Harris: I've been told that most of the people I admire are either dead or very ill. ;-) Perhaps artists who work very intensely also have to feel with similar intensity in order to maintain their creativity. Perhaps these artists felt obliged to maintain an image for the public, and got caught up in it, or the pressure of fame stressed them so badly that they turned to drugs. I do think that there is a greater potential for madness and depression amongst artists and writers anyway - maybe because of the level of introspection necessary for creativity. Henry Chester is not truly creative until he discovers the dual addictions of Marta the teenage prostitute and chloral hydrate - a barrier is broken inside him, letting him express himself to the full. I don't think there is a rule for this: people write (or paint, or create music) for all kinds of reasons, in many cases as therapy or to escape from themselves. Sometimes the escape is so complete that they never quite come back... In this case the art would be a symptom of madness, an insight into the psyche.

KPM: Dr. Francis Russell is the psychoanalyst in 'Sleep, Pale Sister', upon whose word Effie can be committed to an asylum. What's your view of psychoanalysis? Why were there so many 'madwomen in the attic'?

Joanne Harris: Well of course in Victorian times all women were viewed as potentially unstable (the affliction of "hysteria" - a uniquely female complaint - most often being cured by total "hysterectomy") by virtue of their sex. Women were often under tremendous pressure to conform to impossible (and often conflicting) ideals, the intelligent ones were bored and frustrated because education was not really available to them, they were physically misunderstood even by physiologists, they were crippled by the corsets they had to wear and repressed in so many ways that I'm surprised any of them were sane ;-) Nowadays we have progressed, but not, I think as much as we would like to think. Psychoanalysis has come to mean so many things, and takes so many forms that we are now getting a kind of backlash - people finding names for problems that never existed before; people "discovering" abuse in their past, false memory syndrome... Everyone, it seems, now has an analyst. We can obtain counselling for anything which we find mildly disturbing. We bare our psyches at the drop of a hat, often on daytime TV. Perhaps some of it should have been left in the attic after all ;-)

KPM: There seems to be quite a bit of the carnivalesque in your work.
What attracts you and appalls you about carnival?

Joanne Harris: Carnivals are transient. It's their appeal and also their sinister aspect.
The carnival in Ray Bradbury's "Something Wicked This Way Comes" (great movie, fabulous book) is a typical example of that: lurid, fascinating, eternal. It is bright lights and loud noises, tricks and con artists, fantasy and horror. Carnivals make us uneasy because of what they represent: the residual memory of blood sacrifice (it is after all from the word "carne" that the term arises), of pagan celebration. And they represent a loss of inhibition; carnival time is a time at which almost anything is possible; reality is suspended. Many of the images of the carnival are sinister; the huge papier-mache heads and the masks, the giant floats, the larger-than-life characters, the comic-scary carnivals of halloween. And carnival people are always on the move, they are gypsies, aliens, attractive perhaps but not, on the whole, to be trusted. Carnival food - the candyfloss, the fried chicken, the hot dogs - has a different taste to other food, but in the end it often proves indigestible. This is true of the entire show; the laughter is never far removed from hysteria; the children on the big wheel scream in terror as well as excitement; behind the lights and the colours lies a constant awareness of the dark.

KPM: Tarot plays a large role in 'Sleep, Pale Sister', and Vianne Rocher never seems quite able to leave the cards behind. What do you see in the cards?

Joanne Harris: I think people see what they want to see. Jung would have said that people who scry are really tapping their own subconscious to free the images which they see there. I'm with him on that one ;-)

KPM: 'Chocolat' mentions the sins of the Catholic Church, for which the Pope has recently apologised. Henry Chester is also a repressed Catholic. Why is the church so demonised in your work? Are you merely obeying Gothic conventions, where Catholicism equals sin, or do you have a deeper critique of the church?

Joanne Harris: I have nothing against the Catholic church or any other. What I find offensive is intolerance of other beliefs. I also find it difficult to accept any belief system based on self-hatred and self-blame, the demonizing of pleasure, or the persecution of people of other faiths. However I don't think that in any of my books I am making a point against the Church itself. Instead I am criticizing particular individuals who use the church as an excuse to pursue their own agenda of cruelty or dominance. A religion is only made up of the people who follow it, and like anything else, it can be a tool for good or for evil. Catholicism has been both, in spades, throughout history, as have many other "crusading" religions. I'm not a crusader. I don't discuss my own religion, nor would I want to persuade anyone else to follow it. I think people should find their own way, and let others do the same.

KPM: In 'Chocolat' and 'Sleep, Pale Sister' the main battle seems to be that between the masculine and the feminine, whether it's the break-up of the Muscats' marriage, or the contrast between the masculine church, embodied by Reynaud, or the feminine Pagan beliefs represented by Vianne. How much drama do you see in the division between the sexes?

Joanne Harris: It depends. There again, I never intended either book to be perceived as a treatise on feminism. The division depends on the individuals and their circumstances. SPS is more clear-cut in that it deals with a society in which women are treated fundamentally differently to men, but any division between the sexes in "Chocolat" is I think purely coincidental. I was thinking very much about my French family when I wrote it, which seems mostly comprised of strong women; I think that quite a few of them must have crept into the book somehow...

KPM: One of the focal points of drama in 'Chocolat' is the various reactions of the people of Lansquenet to the arrival of the Gypsies. Britain also seems to a very negative view of them at the moment. Why have the Gypsies always attracted such bigotry?

Joanne Harris: Because (like the carnival) they present an ambivalent picture to people who are not transients; because they are very different in the way they live and it is (regrettably) in human nature to distrust what is different; because they have a bad reputation which dates back hundreds of years which no-one has really bothered to investigate; because they are easy victims, existing as they do outside a solid social context and therefore to a great extent, outside the law. They do not conform to our norms of education, child-rearing, religion, work or "settling down". It doesn't matter that they have their own beliefs, families, social structure. The crusading instinct to impose our way of life onto others isn't just a religious one...

KPM: In all your novels, there seem to be continuous themes, such as magic, chocolate, and wasps. Why have you written so much about these horrid insects?

Joanne Harris: I hate them, and I find them fascinating. Unlike bees they have a measure of independence from the swarm; they can sting repeatedly, often out of what seems like sheer bad temper; they are carnivores and can kill live prey for food. They are also very beautiful and disciplined in the single-minded way they build and multiply; they are tiny but are capable of inflicting great fear in spite of the fact that their sting is a relatively harmless weapon to an adult human with no allergies. I have no problem with bees (my grandfather kept them and I remember going out to the hives with only a hat on to protect me, and never being stung), but I feel a quite irrational terror of wasps. Like all irrational terrors, this has no real foundation or explanation that I can discover. Perhaps I need more psychoanalysis ;-)

KPM: The Victorians are often claimed to have invented childhood, and it's a theme on which you seem to write a great deal. How important is childhood to you?

Joanne Harris: I often feel as if I have never left my childhood, and that I never will. Certainly I have more vivid recollections of that time than of any other, and I am aware that most of what I am now was formed very early, and is at present pretty immovable. I think that there are a lot of misconceptions about childhood - the Victorian ideal of childhood as "a state of innocent bliss" being one of them. It can be a very confusing time, when unhappiness is felt more deeply than at any other, when all emotions are enhanced. I think that many writers are able to access these early feelings and memories as part of the creative process, which is why so many of them are so preoccupied with childhood in all its aspects.

KPM: Are there any drawbacks to being a successful writer? Jay Mackintosh certainly seems to think so. Do you find it more difficult to define yourself as an artist, to write what you want? Or are you being marketed and promoted into the same mould each time?

Joanne Harris: I'm lucky in that I have always written what I wanted to write. Marketing and promotion are not my job (and I leave it to those responsible with the greatest pleasure), or my area of interest. I can't write to order, nor would I if I were able; there are much easier ways of making money than writing, and if I didn't enjoy what I was doing so much I would have stuck to my safe, solid, lucrative day job. The fact is that I love what I do, but I am aware that the moment I begin to look upon it as a chore, or at myself as a product, then I will be finished as a writer, and I will go back to teaching without a qualm. My publisher knows it too, and knows better than to pressure me in any way about what I do. As for being successful (whatever that means), of course it feels fine, but what I really enjoy is not the media attention, but the actual process of writing. The other stuff is incidental; I've lived without it in the past (for ten years I was virtually unread, after all), and could do so again. I know I'd write whether I was being published or not. I'm addicted.

This interview was conducted by Kevin Patrick Mahoney in March 2000.