“There’s a fine line between having an imagination and having a mental illness”: Joanne Harris

Joanne Harris is probably most well-known as the author of the Chocolat, which was later made into a movie, starring Johnny Depp.  She has written 14 novels, including Runemarks and Runelight for younger readers, and 2 cookbooks.  I’m a huge fan of her writing so I was looking forward to spending an hour with her at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival on a Saturday afternoon.

Peaches for Monsieur Le Cure, a follow-up to Chocolat, is Joanne Harris’ latest book and most of the session focused on this. When asked why she keeps revisiting Vianne Rocher, Joanne admitted that Vianne keeps on knocking at the door, and she keeps wondering what happened to her and where she has gone.  Over the course of the three books, Vianne has changed and some readers haven’t been happy with this.  As Joanne pointed out though, the nice, comforting thing about stories is that things stay the same, but life has changed Vianne.

Another reason Joanne wanted to revisit Vianne and her family was that she felt that both she and her characters had unfinished business.  She wasn’t daunted about writing about Muslims, but a lot of people couldn’t understand that. As she explained, she was writing about people who were Muslim or Christian, not about the actual religions. Her story is simply about ‘individuals living in certain circumstances, facing certain situations.’  She just wanted to write the story and people would get what they wanted to get from it.

Joanne delved into her characters and where they came from.  A lot of people are quite disappointed that she doesn’t look or act like Vianne, but that there are aspects of her personality in the character. The relationship that Vianne and Anouk have in her books is very much the relationship that she has with her own daughter. The most memorable thing she said about characters and the way that they get inside your head is that ‘there’s a fine line between having an imagination and having a mental illness.’

Joanne felt that she had been put in the camp of ‘comfortable writers who write with a quill pen’ but she has also written some quite dark stories.  She’s a seasonal writer, so her lighter, sunny books have been written when it’s sunny, and her darker books in the dark and gloomy months.

You may not know that she’s also written books for younger readers (aged 12 years and up) called Runemarks and Runelight.  Joanne started writing from the minute that she realised books weren’t enough, and she would write continuations of stories she loved and would bring her favourite characters back to life in new stories.  When she was first published she told her publishers that they were never to give her a deadline and never to tell her what to write.  Something that I found really interesting was that nearly all of her books have been published out of sequence and giving readers the illusion that she writes a book a year (which she doesn’t). If you follow her on Twitter @JoanneChocolat, you’ll know all about her writing shed, which has its own personality (and has more followers than her).

The hour flew by and I could have listened to Joanne talk for another hour. I highly recommend Joanne’s books, especially Lollipop Shoes and Runemarks, and they’re all available in the library for your reading pleasure.