Joanne Harris: Living and breathing stories

This afternoon I spoke with internationally renowned author Joanne Harris. I must admit I was star struck.  As time for our interview approached, I found myself getting rather nervous. I needn’t have worried. Joanne Harris is every bit as approachable and engaging as her novels.

The author was here at The Press Christchurch Writers’ Festival to talk about her latest novel, Peaches for Monsieur le Cure, and her new short story compilation, A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String.

Peaches is the third novel featuring her character, Vianne Rocher. The author believes Vianne’s popularity may be because she’s open to change and she isn’t perfect. ‘Vianne makes mistakes and people can relate to that,’ she says.

In this novel, Vianne comes up against her old rival, Francis Reynaud, but it seems life has taught him a few lessons since Chocolat. Even before Vianne arrives in Lansquenet, the priest acknowledges she has taught him ‘it’s better to bend a little than be broken’. His role in the church is under threat and he’s in need of an ally.  ‘I never saw him as a bad man,’ says the author, and she was surprised many readers thought of him that way. In Peaches, he becomes a hero in the end proving that we all have the potential for good and bad within us.

Joanne Harris admits she is one of those authors like Charles Dickens whose characters talk to her and tell her their stories. She says she likes her characters to have some autonomy. This makes writing interesting although it can be challenging at times especially if they head off in unexpected directions. She feels Vianne may still have more stories to tell but when is anyone’s question.

Lansquenet has also changed since the Chocolat days. The River Rats have gone and a Moroccan community has established itself at Les Marauds. Spices and incense merge with the scent of peaches and chocolate. There are some wonderful passages in the novel where people build friendships by sharing food. Joanne Harris believes that the enjoyment of food is shared by all people. Even the unhappy priest enjoys his peaches. The Catholics and the Muslim communities each have their unique rituals, festivals and beliefs but the needs of people to enjoy life and be accepted by others are the same.

Joanne Harris was once asked what three items she’d take with her to a desert island. She replied, ‘A cat, a hat and a piece of string. I’d bring the cat for company. The hat for shelter from the sun. The piece of string has multiple purposes, including to amuse the cat, or to keep the hat on in a high wind.’

But this is only one idea. She mischievously suggests one could kill the cat with the string and make a goulash in the hat. There are thousands of possibilities. This sparked her imagination and has become the title of the author’s new collection of short stories. Although they may initially seem unconnected, there are links within them to her novels and to each other. This reflects her belief that stories exist as ‘unfinished maps to as-yet-undiscovered worlds’. She is always on the lookout for new ones and wouldn’t be surprised if New Zealand inspires a tale or two.

As a child, Joanne Harris visited the local library because it was the only place she could find English novels. She was scared of the strict librarian there who wouldn’t let her borrow from the adult collection. They eventually came up with an arrangement whereby the young Joanne could read one adult novel if she completed three children’s ones but this adult book would have to be censored by the librarian. Joanne Harris laments the loss of libraries in the UK and has joined the ranks of authors rallying to support of these ‘essential places of community and culture’.

I apologised on behalf of Christchurch for not having a building to hold our Writers Festival in. Joanne assured me that it is quite the norm in England to stage festivals in marquees as the bigger book festivals attract thousands of people.

The author has enjoyed her time in Christchurch and looks forward to coming back and visiting us again. If you’d like to hear more from the author before then, visit her website or follow her on Twitter @JoanneChocolat– she’s a keen tweeter and always has something uplifting to say.

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