Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Author Interview - Joanne Harris

Booksellers - you have one week left to submit to the 'Weird Things' book!

I'm writing this from an internet cafe in Sarajevo. Pretty much in love with the city. It's amazing. And we're spending our evenings at the Sarajevo film festival, which is most fun. Yesterday M and I managed to find ourselves on the red carpet and accidentally made it onto Bosnian TV. Ha!

Anyway, I'm here to bring you an interview with the lovely Joanne Harris! Everyone who replies to this interview by 15th August (no matter where you are in the world) will have their name put into a hat, and the name pulled out of the hat will win a copy of Joanne's book 'Blueeyedboy.'

Joanne Harris was born in Barnsley in 1964, of a French mother and an English father. She studied Modern and Mediaeval Languages at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge and was a teacher for fifteen years, during which time she published three novels; The Evil Seed (1989), Sleep, Pale Sister (1993) and Chocolat (1999), which was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp.

Since then, she has written eight more novels; Blackberry Wine, Five Quarters of the Orange, Coastliners, Holy Fools, Gentlemen and Players, The Lollipop Shoes and Runemarks, and most recently blueeyedboy which was published in March 2010, plus; Jigs & Reels, a collection of short stories and, with cookery writer Fran Warde, two cookbooks; The French Kitchen and The French Market. Her books are now published in over 40 countries and have won a number of British and international awards. In 2004, Joanne was one of the judges of the Whitbread prize (categories; first novel and overall winner); and in 2005 she was a judge of the Orange prize.

(photograph by Takazumi Uemura)

Hi Joanne, welcome to my blog. Pull up a seat, have a cup of tea, grab a biscuit, and some Haribo etc etc. Can you sum up Blueeyedboy, for those who haven't read it, in a couple of sentences? 

It’s the story of a man in his forties, still living with his mother, who desperately wishes he could kill her. He writes out his fantasies on a website of his own creation called badguysrock, where he has a number of friends, including Albertine, who he knows in real life, and with whom he shares a troubled past. But are they really fantasies? And who’s next on his death list? 

I've just finished reading Blueeyedboy and it is a massive 'I-will-mess-with-your-head-
now' book of unreliable narrators. Was that hard to keep on top of?  

I like writing unreliable narrators because I think that the lies people tell are often more revealing than the truths. It was an intricate plot to keep in the air, and I found myself messing quite a lot with the structure of the book before I was happy with it, but (unlike my characters) I always had an idea of where I was going.

Colour plays a dominant part in the book, with each brother being represented by one tone, always dressed that way by their mother as though she's boxing them into the person she expects them to be. If you had to be represented by a colour, and were allowed to choose, unlike the brothers, which would you choose and why?  

Red. I’ve always liked it (though maybe I wouldn’t if I were forced to wear it all the time). 

Blueeyeboy ends on a cliffhanger. Did you decide, in your head, how you'd like it to end, or do you find yourself switching between options still? 

I knew how it was going to end almost from the start. What I didn’t always know was how I was going to get there…

You said that you spent a lot of time online, which is how you came to be inspired to write Blueeyedboy. You also said that you saw how dependent people can be on their online friends. Did you find yourself emotionally dragged in to the communities that you joined? Are you still part of them now? & did you ever tell any of those communities who you were 'IRL' [in real life]? 

I still spend a lot of time online, and I don’t always reveal who I am. This isn’t so much about anonymity as because I don’t want to be labelled – and Joanne Harris, the writer is a hell of a label to carry about. People react to me differently if they know who I am in real life, and I find it liberating to drop that aspect of my persona online, and simply talk to others on whatever topic happens to be foremost within that community; a TV show, current affairs, or something I’m researching. If I come in as myself, I find that the subject usually turns to books, writers and writing instead. I’m a member of a number of online communities, although I stopped posting on my fanfic site when Blueeyedboy was published.  

What was the strangest case of someone online that you came across who you thought was completely lying about who they were [if you indeed came across such a person]? And did it matter that they weren't telling the truth? 

I don’t think it ever matters if people don’t reveal everything about themselves, as long as others are aware that what is said online is not always reliable. Whether we think we do or not, we all hide aspects of ourselves, be that online on in real life. Most of the time there’s a good reason for this. I’ve come across a number of people who prefer not to mention some part of their lives that they think might interfere with their online friendships and how other people perceive them. Often it’s a handicap; a mental illness; a disability or maybe the fact that they’ve been in prison. The internet is a great leveller – it’s really the only place where you can be free of the prejudice of others. I’ve corresponded with many people who have told me basically the same thing; that the net is where they can be themselves without worrying about what others see and how they are judged. 

     Occasionally I meet someone who has a toxic agenda; who uses the anonymity of the net to take advantage of the trust of others; to groom youngsters for sex; to post abuse or conspiracy theories; to boast about their imaginary achievements or to con the gullible into parting with money. These people are rarely interesting, though, and I tend to avoid them.

How do you think the internet has altered the world for writers in general? 

The internet has made it possible for writers and their readers to have a great deal more contact with each other. I generally welcome this. I don’t like feeling disconnected from my readership, and I mostly enjoy getting feedback. It has made privacy a lot harder to maintain, though, and sometimes I’m dismayed at the amount of personal information that is now freely available online.  Some things are private, and should be allowed to remain so. 

How do you think your writing has evolved over the years? 

I think I’ve got used to taking more risks with certain aspects of plot and style. I’ve tried to refine my written style to tighten up the narrative; my dialogue (always a tough area for any beginner) has improved. I’m always trying new things; some of them work better than others, but I hate the idea of becoming one of those safe, predictable writers who make a fortune in writing the same book again and again (though I guess the fortune would be nice!)… 

What do you consider to be your greatest writing achievement so far? 

I’m not sure I think of writing in those terms. But I think that maybe Blueeyedboy is the best thing I’ve written so far.  

On your website, in your list of things about you, you say: 66. I like to pack for imaginary journeys. Tell us about an imaginary journey, and what you'd take with you. 

I travel light. Hawaii. Flip-flops, a pair of shorts, 2 T-shirts, a hat, sunglasses, my favourite utility knife, my camera, a swimsuit, a sarong, a biro and a Moleskine notebook. Oh, and a folding toothbrush. All this fits into my Hawaiian Airlines travel bag, so that I can avoid checking luggage… 

I see you still play in the band you joined when you were sixteen. That's pretty cool. Could you share some of your song lyrics with us? 

You’re the first person ever to ask that question. Okay, just for that, here’s one of the first songs I ever wrote (I was probably about 18). We still play it once in a while. 

A paper ship to catch the wind for you

A paper bridge to open up the clouds for you

A paper rose to show my love for you 

A paper sail to fly with you

A paper bird to speak for you

A paper tide to turn for you

A paper city to burn for you

A paper apple to ripen for you

A paper leaf to fall for you 

The ashes of a paper ship blow across the sea to you

The ashes of a paper bridge drift along the river to you

And in a garden, beneath a stone, I hid

The ashes of a paper rose. 

Are you able to tell us what you're working on at the moment?

I’ve just finished Runelight, which is the sequel to Runemarks, out in November. And I’m working on something else, which, if it works, may bring Vianne Rocher back to Lansquenet. 

And, finally, on our book forum we have The Book Tree, where members choose their favourite book and we post them round to each other in a circle, writing in the books as we go. So, when the cycle finishes, everyone gets their book back filled with comments from other people. If you were to choose a book for the book club, who would you choose and why? 

The Golden Apples of the Sun, a short story collection by Ray Bradbury. Simply because it contains some of my favourite stories, which fired my enthusiasm for writing when I was still very young. And because I can’t think of another writer who expresses the joy of storytelling as well as he does.


Joanne Harris is, of course, best known for Chocolat -- a novel that brought readers quite as much pleasure as the substance after which it was named (and which became an equally successful movie). But is Joanne Harris’ authentic voice as an author the one that we hear in that book? Almost certainly not -- with Blueeyedboy, the second of Harris’ psychological thrillers, it is becoming clearer that the dark, threatening world she conveys in her second series of books is more provocative and disturbing than anything Chocolat might have led us to expect from her.

As in its predecessor, we are back in the Yorkshire town of Malbry, and in the company of a young man whose behaviour verges on the sociopathic. BB is in his 40s, still living with his mother and making his living with an unrewarding (in every sense) hospital job. His ‘real’ world is a virtual one. On a website which he has called ‘badguysrock’, he has an avatar -- and as the blueeyedboy of the title, he deals in deeply unsettling violent scenarios which feature people from his own life. As we enter deeper into this murky world, we learn other equally disturbing facts. BB has an unhealthy relationship with his mother, whose violent, controlling behaviour is some kind of a pointer to the unhappy man he has become as an adult. What's more, he appears to be the only surviving brother of a group of three. His dead brothers were named after the colours in which their mother dressed them, and had died in mysterious circumstances. There are so many off-kilter aspects to this world that readers will quickly discern it is only a matter of time before something very nasty happens.

Like Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory, Harris provides us with a narrator we cannot trust -- the only thing certain is that chaos and destruction lie at the heart of this queasy narrative. Harris’ book demands patience and does not render up all its secrets immediately, but those who respond to unusual, transgressive fiction will find it worth persevering; Harris has a mesmerising tale to tell. And be assured -- Chocolat this isn't. 

--Barry Forshaw


  1. This sounds like a really interesting book, I'm looking forward to reading it! (I loved "Five quarters of an orange" and "chocolat". ^^ )

  2. Fascinating - I've only read Ms. Harris' gentler novels, such as "Chocolat", "The Lollipop Shoes", "Blackberry Wine"; the darker material is definitely something I'm going to keep an eye out for!
    And huge kudos for mentioning "The Golden Apples of the Sun", which is a delightful, whimsical and not-quite-on-kilter short story collection.
    Thank you for the interview - an excellent read!

  3. Sounds great. I'm looking forward to reading it!

  4. Very interesting interview, thank you! Looking forward to reading "Blueeyedboy". I think my favourite so far is "Holy Fools". Or "Five Quarters of an Orange". Oh, I don't know - I think I'd better read them all again!

  5. I adored Runemarks. Such a wonderful adaptation of Norse mythology.

  6. Fantastic interview! I've met her once and she's so lovely. Really looking forward to Runelights as well *grins* and Blueeyedboy just blew me away. It really is her best book so far!

  7. Wow, that sounds like an incredible book - I'm also looking forward to it, and I share Ms Harris' love of unreliable narrators!

  8. That sounds like a great read. I enjoyed the interview as well - very interesting questions!

  9. What an insightful interview - fascinating stuff. Can't wait to read blueeyedboy!

  10. This was a great interview and the book sounds fascinating, especially the collection of unreliable narrators.

  11. I don't read books by many contemporary authors (perils of studying the 19th century), but I am so very excited for Blueeyedboy! Ms Harris has a really magical way of putting a story together.

  12. To read or not to read- that is not the question. Sounds amazing, so of course to read!

  13. Ms. Harris is one of the authors whose books I will pick up immediately without knowing anything about the plot. I can't wait to read Blueeyedboy.

  14. The book sounds amazing and your interview was great. I love the song lyrics exclusive!

  15. I have Blueeyedboy on my current wish list! What a fascinating interview :)

  16. This was a great interview, thanks for posting it. Blackberry Wine is one of my favourite books. Joanne Harris just brought those bottles to shaking life. Lovely and delightful and shocking.

  17. Should I buy Runemarks, having read American Gods and Anansi Boys? Would be interesting to hear a comment from someone who's read all three.

    I ask this because I've just finished Harris' short story "Wildfire in Manhattan" and was strongly reminded of Gaiman's work, and not just because they draw from the same pantheon.

  18. I've read a number of Ms. Harris' books and blueeyedboy is definitely on my list.

  19. Blueeyeboy looks really interesting. I remember seeing it before my bookstore closed down, but I never got around to getting a copy.

  20. Ooh, nice one - sounds pretty good :-) Loved The Lollipop Shoes, probably more than her it was just...different. The new one definitely sounds worth a read.

  21. My favourite novel is "Gentlemen and Players", but I enjoyed all Ms. Harris` books. Thank you for the interview - it made my day!

  22. having seen both bright and dark sides of joanne harris's creativity, it's refreshing to see just her. thank you for sharing her through your eyes and with your questions! her lyrics are as lovely as her novels, and it's wonderful to see them.

  23. @Jason, I loved American Gods and Anansi Boys and also Runemarks. The key difference is that it's less chaotic than the Gaiman novels in terms of the mythology it uses (Gaiman likes to put different systems alongside one another whereas Runemarks is more definitely Norse). Also Runemarks is YA whereas those two Gaimans are adult. Can't wait for Runelight!

    @Sayada, if you like Gentleman and Players, you're likely to enjoy blueeyedboy - G&P is the most like blueeyedboy of her other novels, I think.

    I really enjoyed this interview - interesting and unusual questions. Thanks!

  24. Thanks Beth :) Well, I did say it wasn't because they drew from the same pantheon. I think it was more to do with themes and character profiles, which may just be specific to the short story. So what I'll do is add it to my reading list and bop you on the head with it if I don't like it :D

  25. Hi everyone, thank you for your replies!

    The winner of the copy of this book [selected at random], was Bronwyn. I've left a comment on her blog asking her to send me her address so I can post the book out to her.

    For those who didn't win a copy - I strongly recommend you buy this book; it's fab.


  26. I have read Joanne Harris' food trilogy, and Five Quarters of the Orange is the best!