Monday, 25 October 2010

INTERVIEW WITH JOANNE HARRIS

I am delighted to invite Joanne Harris onto this blog. She needs no introduction but I'll give you one anyway because that's only polite and I am. She also has pointy shoes and deserves respect for that. Oh, and she has said very extraordinarily lovely things about Write To Be Published, which she, unlike you, has read. Oh, OK, if you insist: to end a beautifully written review which I'll reveal later, she said, "In short, Nicola Morgan is made of crabbit – but she is also made of awesome." I really need a t-shirt saying that.

Anyway, Joanne is a wonderfully successful writer who has managed something I'd love to achieve: critical as well as commercial success. She refuses to allow anyone to pigeon-hole her books and it's partly that that made me want to invite her here, because we're always being told we must fit into a genre, and she just doesn't. Although she first became very well known with Chocolat, published in 1999, she'd had two novels published already, and I was interested in how she went from one stage to the next. My favourite of her books is Five Quarters of the Orange - I am in awe of its plotting intricacies and in love with its atmosphere.

Obviously, the main thing I like about Joanne, however, is that she shares my love of shoes. Then there's the chocolate, though she claims that it's not as important to her as it might seem. Yeah, right.

Do take a look at her website. Generously, she has a page of advice for writers, and I think you'll like it.

Anyway, here are my questions for Joanne Harris.
_______________________________
NM: On your website you are quite disparaging about your first novel, The Evil Seed. You say, "...it's extremely self-indulgent (if I were an editor I would have cut at least 200 pages); ... and although I had great fun writing it, I do wonder what (if anything) the readers saw in it at the time." Self-indulgence is something a lot of avid first-time writers are guilty of and it was what stopped me being published for ages. When did you realise and what made you realise that it was self-indulgent?
JH: When I went back to edit it for re-publication, 20 years later. I can only assume I'd got better. [Amazing what 20 years can do to one's outlook! But, you must have stopped being self-indulgent much earlier, because your second one was very different.]
NM: Although all your books are different, something that seems common to many of them is a formal structure, whether two-strand split-time narrative, or the multiple first-person narrator. Is that my imagination or do you like playing with structures rather than straightforward linear narrative? Any particular reason?
JH: I don't really think in those terms. I was never taught creative writing, so I don't have any formal knowledge of structures or narrative forms. I work organically rather than with a lot of forward planning, and the story develops itself from there. [NM: I was never taught either, but I think we pick these things up through reading. And I share your organic method. I do think your structures are remarkable though and I can only think that your brain is doing that without your instruction.)
NM: In your advice to writers you say, "Write what you want to write, not what you think you ought to write (or what other people think you should write)." Though I agree with that, it's also one of the things that makes some writers be rejected over and over again, because they are writing only what they want to write and not what readers would want to read. To what extent do you think about readers when you write? Do you have what Stephen King calls his "Ideal reader" in mind? If you don't think of readers, I can only assume that you are incredibly lucky that you happen to write what they want!
JH: I don't think about my readers at all. They all want such different things. I know I can't please everyone, but if I don't please myself, then I don't think there's much point in going on... As for SK's Reader, I think he described her pretty well in MISERY.. :-) [If you're not consciously thinking of your reader, you're very lucky that you've instinctively found a way to write for readers, even if not specific ones. It's definitely the case that many oft-rejected writers are rejected because of the self-indulgence which by definition means they are thinking of themselves and not readers. I think you may not realise how instinctively you have tuned in to what readers need from stories. I wish we could all do that! It's a definite skill. It's certainly true that we can't please them all and that they all want different things, but I still find it very helpful to have in mind a generalised group of readers.]
NM: As I say, your books are all different and they defy genre categorisation. I sense that you're proud of that, and rightly so, but has this ever been or been suggested as a disadvantage? I ask partly because my own novels, although all YA, are also a range of genres appealing to different readers, and I wonder if I'd do better commercially if people knew what to expect. And many new writers might be wondering the same thing about their ideas. You say you like not giving readers what they expect and that you trust them, but you are speaking from a position of strength. Today, horribly, it's all about brand. Do you have any words of wisdom about this for new and midlist authors?
JH: It's certainly true that it would be easier for everyone (and more commercially secure) if I limited myself to one genre. I know this, but I choose to ignore it. It's a risk. I wouldn't advise anyone to take that kind of risk unless they are prepared to accept the possible consequences. I could get dumped tomorrow.
NM: When did you sense that Chocolat was going to be so hugely successful? Did you feel when you were writing it that you could be onto a winner? Did your publisher realise its potential before publication and put effort behind it or did the signs of success come from reader-reaction after publication? Is there something about chocolate?!
JH: I didn't know it was going to be any kind of success. It was exactly the kind of thing I'd been told would never sell (by Al Zuckerman, of all people, author of HOW TO WRITE THE BLOCKBUSTER NOVEL). Boy, was he wrong. The publishers only started to put money into it after it had been a success. No-one saw it coming at all. [That seems amazing now!]
I ask interviewees a series of short questions under the banner "How was it for you?" Here are Joanne's answers.

How long did it take you from beginning to approach publishers / agents to being taken on?
A year to find an agent. Another year for a publisher.

Any rejections? Roughly how many?
Loads. I made a sculpture. :-)

Any particularly memorable rejection letters?
They all went to my agent. I never read them.

What do you think stopped you being published earlier? 
I didn't know the procedure.

Your best advice for the oft-rejected writer?
Forget it. If you can't, then enjoy what you do. Publication is not the only objective...

Ah, if only we could remember that...

Joanne, thank you so much for taking the time to come on my blog. And thank you for your kind comments about it earlier.

Joanne's latest novel is Blue Eyed boy and I have it on my pile. You can follow her on Twitter as @joannechocolat

Any comments anyone?

17 comments:

Louise said...

Great interview. I've read Blackberry Wine, where the strange opening grabbed me and hauled me in (love my wine!), and will look out for the new Chocolat (love chocolate too!).*And* Joanna Harris wears pointy shoes! Can't get better than that, we're practically sisters!

Off to have a look at her website advice - grabbing all I can.

When can I buy Write to be Published? Looks good - and I enjoy your "grumpy" ways of writing. I'm sure in real life you're all soft and cuddly.

Dan Holloway said...

Great interview. I was,I will confess, disappointed with Gentlemen and Players, the first book of Joanne's I read (it was played as a surprise, but the twist was obvious from very early on - would have done better as straight social drama) but I loved Chocolat and Blackberry wine oodlificaciously.

A very important point that "no one saw it coming" comment - that, combined with Joanne's comment about not writing for an ideal reader highlight the problem a lot of people have of trying to write a bestseller rather than trying to write a great book. Wild successes that come from the midlist tend to come for a number of intangible reasons (and the tangible one that the author has written a brilliant book - although, of course, many many brilliant books don't fly into the stratosphere like Chocolat, Captain Corelli or the Kite Runner), so authors would be much better writing the book brilliantly and seeing what happens rather than trying to second guess intangibles. Whcih isn't to say they should ignore all the wonderful how to get published advice (especially yours, of course :p) but they shouldn't push too hard to be "the one". just do what they do really professionally and well.

Nicola Morgan said...

Dan - you say "Wild successes that come from the midlist tend to come for a number of intangible reasons ... so authors would be much better writing the book brilliantly and seeing what happens rather than trying to second guess intangibles. ... they shouldn't push too hard to be "the one". just do what they do really professionally and well" - I absolutely agree. Well said. Though there are boxes one can tick if one wants to go for the commercial formula - and I'm not going to say what those boxes are because it's not advice I'm interested in giving!

Nina Killham said...

A very interesting post. I've been working on a novel which is very different from my others and I do worry about how that will be received by publishers. So this has been very encouraging. Thank you. I also love Joanne's books and especially enjoy her tweets!

Karen said...

I'm a recent convert to audio books and listen to them in the car. I've just finished listening to Gentlemen and Players and am still reeling from the twist ending, which I didn't see coming at all!

I love a good psychological thriller and am so glad Joanne Harris hasn't confined herself to one genre as she writes them so well :o)

TOM J VOWLER said...

(I already have a T-shirt that says that.)

Jigs & Reels is one of my favourite collections.

Marisa Birns said...

Extra lovely interview. I adored CHOCOLAT - who didn't? - and am looking forward to BLUE-EYED BOY.

Writing "organically" seems to be the way for me, too.

I do follow and enjoy Joanne's tweets as well as her website. Her page of advice for writers is so welcomed!

Thank you Nicola and Joanne.

(P.S. Yes, Joanne, I feel that Nicola Morgan is awesome, too)

Spider Griffin said...

Excellent interview with Joanne Harris, Nicola; enjoyable to read, thank you both!

If I might be so bold as to say that I didn't agree with an answer from Joanne Harris to one of your questions though:

>> "Your best advice for the oft-rejected writer?"
>>"Forget it. If you can't, then enjoy what you do. Publication is not the only objective..."

Speaking personally, professional publishing is the main objective for me, and no others really. I, like the majority of writers – published or unpublished – have a "thirst" to be read (in fact, I'm parched! ;-) And the best way to be read is via a professional publisher, of course. So as much as I enjoy writing, if I thought I'd never be read by other people - if I thought I'd never be published – I would quickly give up. Writing for just the love of writing is not my thing (anymore), personally. Anyhow, that's my logical argument; just my penny's worth...

:-)

Fran said...

Great interview. I love her books, and the film of Chocolat holds special memories because it's my younger daughter's favourite film, too, and we used to sit and watch it together with a planned break at half-time for hot chocolate and some Dairy Milk. (None of this has anything to do with Johnny Depp, of course ...) She's away at uni now and there aren't many opportunities. Good times.

Jo Treggiari said...

Great interview. I'm happy for Joanne that Chocolat was made into a movie but I loved the book so much more. Pantoufle!
I just blogged about the pressure of delivering a second book to an editor who is expecting more of the same when I might not want to write more of the same. I appreciate hearing Joanne's take on such things.

catdownunder said...

Oh I am looking forward to Blue-Eyed Boy!

Clare said...

Joanne is one of my favourite authors - and has been ever since I bought "Chocolat" (fresh off the press before it became big.)
I've had the good fortune to hear her speak on several occasions but usually about her books rather than the process of writing.
How refreshing to note that she doesn't write for the reader - I find that really re-assuring.
I understand the need, if seeking commercial recognition, to "know your reader" but Joanne has always struck me as someone who writes what she wants to write - and it works for this reader! (And despite all your wise advice, I'd love to write like this!)
Funnily enough, as I read "Blue Eyed Boy" it brought to mind another book, "Deathwatch" by someone awesomely crabbit!
Thanks so much for this interview - both Nicola and Joanne.

Lily Childs said...

Thanks Nicola for a great interview with Joanne Harris.

I love that she writes for herself, and if that is self-indulgent and non-genre-specific then good for her, for her huge audience - and for the rest of us writers. My moments of self-doubt are when I stop to consider what a reader might think; as a horror writer, that's a bad move.

I'm surprised Dan was disappointed with Gentlemen and Players; I loved the psychological and eventful twists in this deliciously dark novel. One of things I adore about Joanne's work is how she handles taboo sides of human nature, making some characters evil in a way that some people genuinely are but the civilised public would prefer not to think about. I bet she grins from ear to ear when she writes those characters.

All the French associations mean a lot to me too - having lived out there for many years. I believe I have genuinely met some of her characters, and situations such as warring villagers.

Many thanks Nicola.

sheilamcperry said...

This was such an interesting interview - good to hear that a 'different' approach can work! Thanks Nicola and Joanne.

Sophie Playle said...

Wonderful interview!

I'm off to look at her website and add her to Twitter now... :)

Gativa said...

Thank you for posting this. Read all her books, love her style, love her tweets...she can create a story with only 140 letters :)

Mike Jarman said...
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