Author Joanne Harris on where the inspiration for her novels comes from

Barnsley author Joanne Harris talks to Yvette Huddleston about her new book, the lasting appeal of her novel Chocolat and her battle with cancer.

Author Joanne Harris. Picture: Kyte Photography/PA.

It’s now more than twenty years since the publication of Joanne Harris’ magical novel Chocolat – and in an article published in the Guardian last year, she wrote that although she was already a published author at the time, with two Gothic novels under 
her belt, she had few expectations for it when she submitted the manuscript.

She had been told, she explained, that her writing style was “neither commercial nor fashionable enough to succeed, and that there was no market for books set in rural France filled with self-indulgent descriptions of food”.

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How wrong that assessment turned out to be. Chocolat became a worldwide bestseller, selling over a million copies in the UK alone, and was made into an Oscar-nominated film directed by Lasse Hallström, starring Juliette Binoche as charismatic chocolatier Vianne Rocher.

The book launched Harris’ career as a writer – she was a full-time French teacher at a boys’ grammar school in Yorkshire when she wrote Chocolat, working on it in short, intense bursts at the weekend – and she has never looked back.

Her writing style clearly appeals to many and she has since gone on to write 18 novels in several different genres as well as novellas, short story collections, three cookbooks, a musical, several screenplays and the libretti for two short operas. Her books have been published in more than 50 countries and she has won a number of UK and international awards.

She is certainly prolific – she has three books out this year – and her work is very diverse, covering aspects of magic realism, suspense, historical fiction, mythology and fantasy.

“I get inspiration from everywhere,” she says. “In some cases, it’s from my own experience, in some cases from other people’s experiences. I haven’t stopped learning throughout a thirty-year career and I am constantly coming up with new ideas. There is a kind of rolling narrative that is developing 
all the time, and I like expressing myself in different genres and different media.”

Her latest novel A Narrow Door was published last month and is the third book in a series of psychological thrillers set at St Oswald’s School, a traditional grammar school for boys which is on the cusp of radical change – for the first time in its 500-year history a woman has been appointed as headteacher, new buildings are going up, and the school gates are opening to female students.

As if that upheaval weren’t enough, at the start of the autumn term a group of students discover in the grounds what they think might be human remains.

A Narrow Door is the follow up to Gentlemen and Players (2005) and Different Class (2016) and as with the previous books it features veteran teacher Head of Classics Roy Straitley as the main character whose traditional views mean he is somewhat resistant to the modernising approach of ambitious (and ruthless) young head Rebecca Buckfast.

“In a way Straitley has a kind of grudging respect for Buckfast and when he goes to tell her about the students’ discovery, he quickly realises that not only does she know something about it, but that there is also some kind of personal connection,” says Harris. “She leads Straitley into a sort of game telling him the story little by little and she knows that she can trust him to keep quiet because she has some information about another colleague that he doesn’t want to become public.”

That sets up a dark mystery plot that draws you in right from the start. It is a compelling read that is structured around a dual narrative, from the perspective of Straitley and Buckfast, and set in two different time frames – 2006 and 1989. It explores rich themes such as the lengths people are prepared to go to for personal gain, how we are all shaped by our past and the tricks that memory can play on us.

“I like dual narratives, it comes naturally to me to write them and I tend to do that with a lot of my books,” says Harris. “And with first person narratives the storyline tends to take place a lot in the past because I am interested in the emotional and psychological baggage that people carry around with them.

“With those books back story is particularly important because everything hinges on it and that is true of all my St Oswald’s books which deal with things people want to hide. Everybody has something to hide and then it is about how you reveal it. With this book I’m particularly interested in how Buckfast became the kind of person she is. You can’t trust her but she is actually quite likeable. The book is about grey areas. I always say that these stories are not really whodunnits – I am more interested in the how and the why.”

Harris is already well on with her next book – a standalone work of literary fiction – as well as working on a couple of stage projects, a companion piece to her recent book Honeycomb, an interweaving into a novel of several short stories which began life on Twitter, and she is co-writing and workshopping a musical with the acclaimed composer Howard Goodall.

“I always have several projects on the go, that is normal for me, and they are often quite different which means I can jump from one thing to another,” she says. “I will write in spurts and then let it rest for a few weeks or months and during that time I will work on something else. It also means that when I do need to stop or need to do some research I’m not in the position of not working on something – that can make you quite nervous, that I might not have another idea, so this way, I make sure that never happens.”

Over the past year and half during the pandemic, in addition to dealing with lockdown, Harris was also coping with a cancer diagnosis. She has been very open on Twitter about her illness, posting updates on her treatment using the hashtag Goodbye Mr C. “I kept writing pretty much throughout,” she says. “I think it helped me to have that to focus on.”

Harris is a generous communicator on social media and regularly shares tips and advice for aspiring writers. “I think people have such different processes – some writers like to work on an overarching outline, others, like me, work more organically. I always think that if you end up with the book you wanted to write then whatever your approach is, it’s right for you.”

There are now four novels in the Chocolat series – the most recent, The Strawberry Thief was published in paperback, this summer – and while it was never planned, Harris says she is happy to meet up with the characters again. “It is the progress of several lives and relationships. I find I like to experience certain developments in my own life to feel competent to write the fiction, so those books tend to run in parallel with my life.”

A Narrow Door, published by Orion, is out now. Joanne Harris is appearing at Todmorden Book Festival on September 25.

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James Mitchinson