Guest of Honour
JOANNE HARRIS was born in Barnsley in 1964, of a French mother and an English father. At the age of nineteen, she wrote a sprawling 1,000-page fantasy novel (with illustrations) called Witchlight. It was rejected by every publisher she sent it to on account of its length, its complexity and the darkness of its imagery.
Joanne 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 first of these was a vampire novel, The Evil Seed, published in 1989. "I was brought up in a house filled with books," she recalls. "We had books long before we even had furniture, which was long before we had our first television. I read omnivorously, in French and English, from the moment I could turn the pages-with only two exceptions. I still don't know why my mother mistrusted these genres so much, but anything approaching horror or sci-fi was completely banned from the house. Even classic writers like H.P. Lovecraft or Wilkie Collins or Edgar Allan Poe-if they failed the "genre test" they would be reassigned to the top of the bookcase, far out of reach. Obviously I saw this as a challenge. Who wouldn't? As soon as I could, I read as much horror and sci-fi as possible, and it was inevitable that my first novel should be That Terrible Book, a kind of pastiche of all the writers I had ever been forbidden to read rolled into a big spiky ball.
"However, the term 'horror' is a very unfair and misleading one. There are some wonderful authors who have been marginalised and overlooked because of their chosen subject matter—look at Christopher Fowler and Ray Bradbury and Christopher Priest—but who write prose as literary and evocative as any mainstream author. I'm not pretending I was among these, but I wanted to write a modern Gothic novel which would be literary enough to be classed as mainstream (and would scare the socks off my mother). The moral of that story is; if you're going to be a failure, be a heroic failure."
The Evil Seed was followed by Sleep, Pale Sister four years later. "This was my second novel," recalls Harris, "published the same year my daughter Anouchka was born. My original publishers didn't like it much because they had been expecting another vampire novel, but I was far happier with this story than with The Evil Seed. What made me less happy was that my new publishers had decided to market it as 'horror'—in fact it was a kind of Gothic ghost story set in Victorian London against a backdrop of brothels, sewers and artists' studios, and I still think it deserved better. Most importantly, it was through Pale Sister that I met my friend Christopher Fowler, who found me an agent, kept me going through some tough and depressing times, and still continues to do so. What's more, he's a terrific writer, and I wish my stories were half as good as his."
Joanne Harris' third novel was arguably her most famous, and most successful, to date-the international best-selling Chocolat (1999), which was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp.
"I wanted to write about magic," she explains. "Not the popular view, but about the magic of everyday things and the way something quite ordinary can, given the right circumstances, take on extraordinary properties. Vianne's belief in the supernatural seems dangerous, even sinister, to Reynaud. And yet it is her very human qualities—her understanding and her kindness to others—which make her what she is. She does nothing which could not be achieved by purely ordinary means. Her magic, working as it does through simple pleasures, is accessible to everyone. If she is a witch, as Reynaud believes, then so is anyone else with similar values. We live in a world which is becoming increasingly complicated around us; we are bombarded with mixed messages and impossible targets from the media; like Reynaud we have learned to demonise pleasure and to be afraid of our feelings. Chocolat was my reaction against that; a plea for tolerance of others but also of ourselves, a reminder that to be fallible is both natural and allowed; that self-indulgence isn't always bad; that testing people to destruction isn't the way to make them better people."
Since then she has written ten more novels: Blackberry Wine, Five Quarters of the Orange, Coastliners, Holy Fools, Gentlemen and Players, The Lollipop Shoes, blueeyedboy, Peaches for Monsieur le Curé and two fantasy novels for young adults, Runemarks and Runelight.
Based on Witchlight, the novel she wrote at the age of nineteen and couldn't find a publisher for, "Runemarks is set in a universe of nine Worlds, not unlike that of Norse legend," reveals Harris. "Five hundred years have passed since Ragnarók, and the world has rebuilt itself anew. The old gods are no longer revered. Their tales have been banned. Magic has been outlawed, and a new religion—called the Order—has taken its place.
"Runelight is the second book of what (with luck) may turn out to be the Runemarks series, a fantasy set in a world that bears some similarity to our own, assuming our civilization had been shaped, not by the Romans, but by the Viking invaders instead."
Both novels have inspired video trailers created by readers of the books.
Joanne Harris has also published two short story collections, Jigs & Reels and A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String, both of which contain stories of horror, fantasy and magic, along with two cookbooks with cookery writer Fran Warde, The French Kitchen and The French Market. She has also contributed fiction to various anthologies, including Magic: New Stories edited by J.K. Rowling, Stories edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, and Why Willows Weep: Contemporary Tales from the Woods edited by Tracy Chevalier and Simon Prosser.
Her books are now published in more than 50 countries and have won a number of British and international awards. In 2004, Joanne Harris 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.
Her hobbies are listed in Who's Who as: "mooching, lounging, strutting, strumming, priest-baiting and quiet subversion of the system", although she also enjoys obfuscation, sleaze, rebellion, witchcraft, armed robbery, tea and biscuits. She is not above bribery and would not necessarily refuse an offer involving exotic travel, champagne or yellow diamonds from Graff."
She plays bass guitar in a band first formed when she was 16, is currently studying Old Norse and lives with her husband Kevin about 15 miles from the place she was born.
"I'm delighted to be a Guest of Honour at World Fantasy Convention this year," says the author. "So many of my favourite books are from the spectrum of fantasy, folklore and horror, and it's great to have the chance to celebrate with some of my favourite authors.
"The first fairy tales were dark and complex, aimed at adults with bleak and difficult lives, and their message was essentially one of hope; a hope that love can change us, that we can shape our destinies and that monsters, however we perceive them, can sometimes be overcome. The modern world needs fantasy as much—if not more—than it ever did. Our monsters may have changed, but they still need to be overcome. That's what our stories are for. I look forward to joining the battle."
Joanne Harris' website can be found at www.joanne-harris.co.uk.
101 Little Known Facts About Joanne Harris
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