Writing a never-ending feast for Joanne Harris
By Deirdre Parker Smith
The first work she sold was “Flesh Eating Warriors of the Forbidden City.”
She made 10 copies and sold them for sweets; not a bad deal for a 9-year-old.
It started her down the path her mother saw as perdition. “She used to tell me about French romantic poets who died in a gutter of syphilis.”
Point: Don’t tell Joanne Harris what she can’t do.
The daughter of a French mother and British father, she’s steeped as much in French culture as British. She taught school for 15 years at a boy’s private independent school and was the only female staff member in a school of 2,000 boys.
That has nothing to do, she laughs and nearly winks, with her book, “Gentlemen and Players,” set a St. Oswald’s school for boys.
“I met interesting people there. … You never quite know what’s going to happen next.”
Her school was built in 1552 and she could see gargoyles from her office window. She wrote her first three books while she was there.
First published was “The Evil Seed,” a vampire novel. It made little impact. On her Web site, www.joanne-harris.co.uk, she admits it wasn’t a great book.
“… It’s extremely self-indulgent (if I were an editor I would have cut at least 200 pages); it’s sexy, violent, messy and confusing, and although I had great fun writing it, I do wonder what (if anything) the readers saw in it at the time.”
But it taught her about writing, getting published, having a voice.
During the question and answer period at Thursday’s Brady Author’s Symposium at Catawba College, she told funny stories about Johnny Depp on the “Chocolat” movie set.
Actress Juliette Binoche actually learned to make chocolate so she would be convincing on film. She made a batch of truffles and other chocolates and brought them on set. During a particularly sensual scene between Vianne and her lover, Roux (Depp) she’s feeding him chocolate to find out his favorite.
She put a bitter chocolate truffle in his mouth and he choked and sputtered and barely got his lines out. They had to refilm.
“American chocolate is like brown lard,” Harris said. Binoche is French ó “she has a more refined palette.”
Depp also had a really bad hair day. He had a sort of exploded Afro, which looked OK at first, until it was on film. “If you get the DVD of ‘Chocolat’ it has some of the deleted scenes,” she said, laughing at the memory.Harris doesn’t outline a plot or plan her story before she starts. “As soon as I impose a time table and structure, I get too bound up.”
She has no schedule and works on two or three things at a time. If she gets stuck on one, she works on the other for a while.
“I like working on planes and in hotel rooms. There’s no real interference. … I’m not randomly being intruded upon.
“I may have an idea of the trajectory of the story without knowing how it will make it to that point.
“I get a few ideas and scenes down and a general feeling. … the rest is organic and a bit messy.” She writes a lot and then spends time moving stuff around ó like solving a Rubik’s Cube.
She loves the spontaneity of of it, “but it’s not so fine when you’re 300 pages in and have no idea where it’s going.”
She gets a “strong sense of discomfort” when she’s writing. “A dark narrative is emotionally demanding and I’ll jump to something else.”
Harris’ habit of using multiple first-person narrators is subconscious, she said, and she doesn’t write all of one voice and then go to the next person.
In “The Girl With No Shadow,” Zozie and Vianne could have been the same person, she said. “I was writing voices who were quite the same. I had to show the similarities and the merging of identities. … The book I’m writing now is the same way.
“I think of each voice as a camera angle … not everybody sees the same thing.” First person limits what you see. “My first book had five or six narrators. I was channeling Wilkie Collins at the time.”
Her new villain, Zozie, is “part person, part demon, part computer virus. … There’s no real emotional response from her.”
Harris likes to investigate what makes a villain villainous. “No one thinks they’re a villain. Everyone thinks they are right” because of some cause or belief. “People commit crimes because they think it’s deserved.”
She’s not sure where Zozie is after the end of “The Girl With No Shadow”
“I don’t know if she’ll pop up later. … She might pop up in an earlier context. … Zozie could be anywhere in time or place. She might be in New York or she might be in a 16th century theater troupe.”
Harris thinks it’s more likely readers will meet Anouk and Rosette again. “I don’t think their story is completely over.”
Rosette has a handicap similar to cri du chat, a genetic disorder marked by the baby’s cry sounding like a cat’s meow. It makes her look younger and she does not speak at age 4. In Vianne’s magical world, “Rosette is not quite a changeling, but it’s possible.”Harris never shows her work to anyone but her editors, certainly not friends and family.
“I don’t know what they would contribute. … A lot of my friends find it creepy that I write these kinds of books. … They either don’t read them or they do and never say anything.”
Her editing process is “laborious.” She finds it helpful to read the work aloud. “You know when it sounds right.”
Both her British editor and her American editor read the manuscript, then make suggestions.
“It’s important to have an editor on your wavelength, not a frustrated writer who wants to … scent mark it in a certain way.”
She’s always resistant at first, and walks around fussing and fuming about what idiots they are, then sees the value of some changes and makes them.
She’s never sure what will sell in other countries. “In Scandinavia, they talk about style, theme, dense intellectual stuff. … In the Mediterranean, it’s all about the food.”
In Finland, they enjoy the darker novels. In Iceland, they didn’t care at all for “Chocolat” or chocolate, but they snapped up her new fantasy, “Runemarks,” based on Norse mythology. “Coals to Newcastle,” she laughs.
Now it’s off to the next city, wherever that is. Once again, she will miss her daughter’s birthday, but she has an event in Hawaii later and will take her along, for “swimming in an old volcano” and surf lessons from “cute dudes.”
Oh, and she’s reading 120 books for a literary contest. And working on a screenplay. And, well who knows what character will burst from her brain next?
Contact Deirdre Parker Smith at 704-797-4252 or dp1@salisbury post.com.
A few author answers
Among the questions patrons asked Joanne Harris:
Are you in a band? Yes, she plays bass guitar. iItís fun doing something creative with other people.î
Why are you so interested in food?
iFood makes another culture more accessible. … My mother was a good cook (French cook) who lived in Yorkshire. She used cooking to establish her territory.î
Her recipes werenít just about the food. Every one was attached to a person or a memory, and Harris heard all those stories.
Do your characters take on a life of their own?
iIf you live with a character long enough, they start to take over … characters help determine how a plot will evolve.î
In iGentleman and Playersî there were so many twists, iit even surprised me.î
Why was title iThe Lollipop Shoesî changed to iThe Girl With No Shadowî in America?
iI really donít know why, but (changing the title) is quite appropriate ó what with people changing identities … the book did, too.î
(During lunch, Harris admitted she was irritated by the change. And she bemoaned the fact Amazon once had a deal to buy both titles at a discount. iItís the SAME book! You canít do that!î)
How much involvement did she have in the movie of iChocolatî?
The relation of an author to a movie is similar to the relation of ibeef burger to a cow. … This movie was not quite as burgerized as some.î
She had always imagined Juliet Binoche for the part of Vianne Rocher. iShe was very interesting and we cooked together.î
They also read the script together and Harris made notes, then called the director and said, iJuliet thinks we should do this.î
The two parts that most annoyed her were changing the angry priest into a mayor and using a kangaroo instead of the rabbit for Anoukís companion. At the movie premiere, her daughter, then 7, stood up and said, iThatís not even a kangaroo! Itís a bloody wallaby!î
Do you reread any of your books?
iThat would be quite disturbing.î