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.
Hi everyone! I'm typing this from Montenegro, where M and I are traveling around at the moment. So far we've been to Dubrovnik and Kotor, and we're currently living in a tiny wooden hut on the side of a mountain just outside Zabljak. On Sunday or Monday we're heading to Sarajevo, from there to mountains in Bosnia, on to Mostar and then back to Dubrovnik and home. We're doing lots of hiking at the moment, and yesterday we climbed Mount Meded, before heading to the Black Lake.
In other news, three poems of mine are to be published in issue 15 of The Delinquent, and in-between hikes and traveling, I am getting some writing done. I've found myself working on a film script for a long version of one of my short stories, which is new for me and quite exciting.
Don't forget, if you're reading this and you're a bookseller in the UK or Ireland, you can submit to 'Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops' book. See previous post for details. it also appeared in this week's Bookseller. NB it has now expanded to UK and Ireland as my publisher confirmed this book will be distributed there. If you're not a bookseller, then tell booksellers you do know, and if you're a bookseller outside of the UK and Ireland then standby, and I will hopefully call on you soon.
When I next find myself near a computer, I shall be posting an interview I did with the lovely Joanne Harris, and a book prize draw. Ciao x
Now, at the end of this book, I want to include a 'Top [Twenty or so] 'Weird Things Customers Say in Other Bookshops' along with the name of the people submitting and details of their bookshop. I really want to make this a bookshop book, you know? And I do have ideas of what I'd like to do for those twenty or so bookshops that will be included in the book, but it's still very early stages and I need to sort that out with my agent/publisher/get my head round it all.
So, for the time being, I'm asking you to get your thinking caps on. The book deal we've signed with Constable and Robinson is for UK rights, so for now I'm asking for submissions from UK booksellers only. However, I'm hoping we can sell rights to America and other places etc at some point in the future, and if/when that happens I'll come back and ask for submissions from those other places, and we can edit the 'Top Twenty' at the back of the book accordingly, depending on where it's going to be published. OK, everyone on board? Phewf!
So. UK booksellers, please send me your funniest 'Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops' in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org . You are welcome to send in as many anecdotes as you like [please keep them clean, though!]. Bear in mind that if your 'Weird Things' is picked for the book then you'll need to make sure you have permission from the bookshop owner [if that isn't you]. Please include a name, contact number, and the address of your bookshop, and set out your 'Weird Things' in the style of the previous posts [ie script format]. Please also make the title of your email something along the lines of 'Weird Things Submission' so I know that your email isn't spam. You have until 30th September to submit.
If your 'Weird Things' isn't picked for the book, and I really liked it, I might ask you if I can use it in a blog post and post a link to your bookshop's website. But that's all for later.
I'm going away tomorrow for three weeks, and when I get back I'll pick the 'Top Twenty [or so]' and get in contact with everyone who has submitted.
I have been dancing around to this news, silently, for a while, but now I can tell you! Hurrah!
A month ago I got a visit at the bookshop from the lovely Hugh, who works for Constable and Robinson and who, incidentally, used to work for Ripping Yarns bookshop ten years ago. He said he really liked 'Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops' and would like me to write a book length collection of them.
So, since then, Hugh and my agent Charlie have been chatting away and talking about clauses and percentages and all that jazz and now I can officially announce that a book-shaped, illustrated 'Weird Things' will be available to buy in bookshops in the near future. Hurray!
I have lots of lovely images in my head of people going in to bookshops to ask for a copy of Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops - it has a nice ironic ring to it, don't you think?
Dance with me!
[PS: Indie booksellers: I will be calling on you tomorrow, so do check back!]
I arrived at the bookshop today to a postcard [see left] from Dickon Edwards. It's of the cover of a book we have in the shop at the moment, and he'd spied it at the British Library exhibition and posted it to us. How nice is that? We love our customers, yes yes. Thank you also people on Twitter who have popped by Ripping Yarns to say hello - we like that too! [Especially Jane who brought me cake!]
Aaaand, because I just realised I hadn't posted about this on here, I have a literary agent. Hurray! His name is Charlie Campbell, and he works at Ed Victor. He's pretty awesome [but don't tell him I said that]. I'll be popping into their office to sign with them on Thursday.
Finally: keep your eyes peeled as I have some exciting news to share. Not today. Soon soon. Promise. [And, no it's not a radio show on Geordie ninjas - though that would be extremely fabulous]. x
Jen Campbell is the author of the best-selling 'Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops' series. She's also an award-winning poet and short story writer. Her poetry collection 'The Hungry Ghost Festival' is published by The Rialto, and she lives in London, where she works at an antiquarian bookshop. Her new book, 'The Bookshop Book' is forthcoming autumn 2014.