An interview with Joanne Harris

With 11 novels, a book of short stories, two cookbooks, an Oscar-nominated film adaptation and worldwide book sales of over 15 million copies in 50 countries, it’s fair to say Joanne Harris has earned the right to be known as an author, and a very accomplished one at that.

But despite the international success, the Hollywood adaptations and the jet-setting book tours, the Barnsley born bestseller still thinks of herself as ‘a teacher on a sabbatical’.  And although she’s visited some of the most glamorous locations in the world, Joanne is never happier then when at home with her husband, Kevin, and 17 year old daughter Anouchka in the village of Almondbury, just 15 miles where she was born and brought up in Barnsley.

“I do feel incredibly settled here,” says Joanne.  “My friends and family still live in Barnsley and I visit Stairfoot, where I was born, all the time.”

For the girl from Barnsley, the world of the globally successful author still feels very surreal.  A teacher for 15 years, Joanne wrote her first three novels, including the best-selling Chocolat which was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp, while teaching English at Leeds Grammar School for Boys.  And although the media attention brought-about by the Hollywood adaption of Joanne’s third novel saw tabloid journalists door-stepping her at home and at work, Joanne’s decision to step down from her teaching role was not intended to be permanent.

“I would have been perfectly happy to stay as a teacher,” she says.  “I had three books published while I was working full time, and becoming a full-time author is a big leap into the unknown.  There’s no security at all in writing, and if you give up your regular job and write full time that becomes your only source of income.  To someone who spent 15 years teaching and doing regular hours and having a pension, that was a huge leap of faith.  But I didn’t want the attention I was attracting to have an impact on the kids at school, so I decided to take a sabbatical and deal with the attention, and then maybe go back.”

More than a decade later, Joanne is still on that sabbatical.  In the last 10 years she’s written a further eight novels, the latest of which is blueeyedboy, a dark psychological thriller set in the world of the internet, a book of short stories and co-authored two cookery books with chef Fran Warde.  She is currently finalising the first draft of Runelight, the sequel to 2007’s Runemarks, and is working on a screen play of her 2007 novel The Lollipop Shoes.

With such dedication to her writing career, it’s difficult to imagine how Joanne could have ever fitted it in around a full-time teaching job, as well as bringing up daughter Anouchka, who’s now 17.

“People find the time to do the things they want to do,” she says.  “I could just as easily ask people how they find time to watch TV or paint their toe nails.  I’ve just always loved the process of writing – it wasn’t because I thought I was going to make it big and get famous, it was a secret activity for me and I did it because I liked it.  I’ve always been interested in people and their lives and motivations, and for me that’s what it’s about – exploring characters and finding the story that everyone’s got in them.”

Although she harboured no burning desire to become a world-renowned best-selling author, Joanne’s childhood in Stairfoot bore all the seeds of her future career in teaching and the subjects of the novels to come.  The only child of a French mother and English father, both of whom were teachers and passionate readers, Joanne’s childhood home was crammed with books.  Holidays were spent in France with a grandmother who was passionate about food and cooking, subjects which feature heavily in some of Joanne’s novels.

“My French grandmother had a book with handwritten recipes from all over the place, from different members of the family” says Joanne, who went on to base her fifth novel, Five Quarters of the Orange, on a hand-written recipe book passed through generations.  “Most families have a special recipe handed down – my English grandmother in Barnsley also had a lot of war-time recipes I never knew anyone else to make.  She had flourless cakes, sugarless buns, really imaginative things that were actually very good!”

When she wasn’t learning the intricacies of Gallic and Yorkshire cuisine, Joanne absorbed herself in the many books which adorned her home.  “We had a house full of books, and if your parents read then you also read,” says Joanne.  “I read things that probably were considered adult books, people like Ray Bradbury, H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson.

“I also read a lot at school, and I remember being in the infant school and being sent to the junior library because I’d read all the books in the library!  The teachers were very supportive, they knew how I loved to read.”

Joanne has particular fondness for one teacher in particular.  “Mr Middleton was a very good teacher I had in junior school, and the way he used to read to the class with such drama and imagination was very inspirational,” she says.  “He in particular encouraged me to read more, although I do think there may well have been some disputes between him and ‘the system’ – in retrospect he was probably a bit of a loose cannon.”

Yet despite this obvious love of the written word, Joanne’s modest ambition was to follow in the footsteps of her parents – and Mr Middleton – and become a teacher.  “Growing up in Barnsley was a wonderful environment, but it wasn’t the sort of environment where you announced you were going to grow up to do unusual things,” remembers Joanne.  “It was pretty well understood I was always going to be a teacher – when a teacher marries another teacher and they talk about teaching all the time then it’s almost expected that the child will do the same.  But it was actually a huge advantage for me, because I had the joint experiences of my parents as background when I did eventually begin to teach.”

And after reading Modern and Medieval Languages at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, Joanne did begin to teach, first for a brief spell in Dewsbury and then onto Leeds Grammar School for the rest of her 15-year teaching career.

Ten years on from taking that extended sabbatical, Joanne’s writing is no longer squeezed in around a school day.  Through her love of the written word and sheer hard work, Joanne has forged a career as a fully-fledged author, with millions of loyal fans around the world.  The uncertainty of whether writing would be a sustainable career is long gone, but Joanne is working harder than ever, with international reading tours, speeches at workshops and conferences and judging literary awards to fit in around writing novels.  For Joanne, there are too many people to whom she attributes her success to be able to shut herself away and become an enigmatic author who rarely graces the public with her presence.

“I’m really not interested in being an enigma,” she says.  “I don’t feel that people who hide away from the world are helping themselves creatively; they either have issues around other people or are arrogant enough to believe they don’t need to meet their audience or readers.  As far as I’m concerned, touring is a courtesy to all the people who keep me on the shelf because it takes a lot more than just an author to make a book.  There are booksellers, sales reps, editors, publicists and all those people who bother to buy the book and read it.  If you pretend you did it yourself and don’t owe those people anything at all then that actually makes you a bit of a git.”

So, rather than resting on her laurels, Joanne makes a huge effort to accept as many invitations as she possibly can, whether it’s a reading in a local primary school or a book-signing tour in Australia.

“There is sometimes a sense that you can’t turn people down,” admits Joanne.  “If people want me to write books then I know that there’s a certain amount of time that I’ll spend on the road.  Obviously I can’t go to everything I’m invited to as my books are published in over 50 countries, but I remember which places I’ve visited recently and which I haven’t been to for a while. But for me, actually going and meeting the people who read my books is how I find out how they’ve been received.  Too many reviewers will write their reviews based on a press release or the blurb on the book – it’s only by actually meeting the people who really read my books that I can get proper feedback.”

For Joanne, the writing, touring and requests for tips from students and budding authors are all tempered with the stability of her home life and support of family and friends.

“I’m very lucky in that I live in a village where everyone knows me, and I never get approached in the supermarket or anything like that,” she says. “The people who actually read my books are very polite and not at all intrusive, and if I do get asked for advice then I’m very happy to pass on the nuts and bolts of the writing industry.  Family life is very important to me, and fortunately I have a husband who’s able to stay at home and hold the fort and make sure everything’s still running while I’m away, and my parents help out.  My daughter’s now 17 so she doesn’t need babysitting, but I do make sure that there’s a stable environment for her when I’m not around.  I always limit my time away to no more than a week if I’m in Europe, or two weeks if I’m in the US or Australia.”

And although Joanne could have homes in any of the 50 countries she sells her books in, she remains in Yorkshire, just 15 miles from her Barnsley birthplace.

“I live here,” she shrugs.  “My family’s here, my friends are here, I like it here.  The great thing about being a writer is to you don’t need to be anywhere in particular to do it, and I’m very happy where I am.”