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.
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?