SWF: Joanne Harris

The author Joanne Harris is best known for her 1999 novel Chocolat, a tale of faith, tolerance and pleasure. First a best-selling novel and then a Hollywood movie, her story transported a global audience to a tiny French village. She has written 15 further books, both fiction and non-fiction, and will be speaking at the Singapore Writers Festival 2016.

An outspoken and often controversial voice on Twitter, Joanne’s recent “Writer’s Manifesto” stated that authors should be paid for their work. This prompted something of a backlash on social media and I started by asking Joanne if she was surprised to find opposition to her ideas.

You can watch the full Skype interview with Joanne above or read this transcript.

JH: No, I was not surprised. There are so many writers out there and it is very easy to identify as a writer, but there is a distinction to be made between someone who writes for a hobby and someone who is a professional writer.

It’s not about quality, but it is about how you structure your life. For a long time, I wrote as a hobby because there was no way I could make a living from it, so I had another job. Nowadays, I’m a professional writer and I have a slightly different attitude.

I think there are a lot of hobby writers, self-published authors and would-be writers, who feel that to be published at all is a privilege and they would do it for free. It’s often difficult to explain my perspective to someone who sees writing as an idealized pinnacle—I was once like that and I would have done it for free. And I would have been exploited.

So it’s time we readjusted how we see writing. It’s not a magic process or a privilege—well, it may be both of those things—but it’s also a way that some people make a living. And I think it’s time we stopped seeing it as a philanthropic act where we pour art into the universe and get nothing in return.

JF: I worry that if we don’t pay authors for their time, we go back to an era when writers only came from an elite class with independent incomes.

JH: It should not be about whether you can afford to write. So I’m doing a certain amount of campaigning to try to ensure that writers get paid for festival appearances and to combat the vast amount of infringement of copyright. And just trying to get a fair deal for writers who don’t get a platform or have a voice.

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JF: Following your debates on this topic on Twitter, it’s clear that piracy of books is a big issue.

JH: Most people are honest and understand that they are supporting writers by buying their books legitimately, but there are a number of people who feel that art should be free. That it’s an abstract concept, like a butterfly that you can’t catch and you shouldn’t be able to.

But there is also a lack of understanding about what copyright is and what the public domain means—some people believe that because it’s on the Internet, it should be free. That’s not what the public domain means, of course. They don’t realize that by torrenting books, you are sending publishers out of business, particularly small publishers, and you’re sending authors out of business, particularly authors who rely on a certain average of sales to maintain their contracts. And so {by pirating} what you’re doing to the whole writing community is reducing choice, reducing diversity, harming the mid-list—the people who are not mainstream big best-sellers.

You are not ripping off “The Man”. You are ripping off the little people.

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JF: Lionel Shriver, who is also appearing at the SWF, has sparked a debate recently with comments about cultural appropriation and fiction. Do you think writers can get into other people’s shoes, get inside their heads, without stealing identities?

JH: This is a very difficult and sensitive area, and rightly so. There are people who do appropriate. But I think there is a distinction to be made about representation and appropriation.

I think it is perfectly possible for a writer who does not belong to a group to approach a portrayal in a sensitive, empathic way—rather than merely go ‘I’m going to write a book about China and I’m going to make it all up.’ There is a difference between arrogance and really trying to step into somebody’s shoes with respect, and take advice, and really try to experience what it is to be that person.

I think it’s more than just being a good or a bad writer. It is something to do with your attitude towards the source that you’re adapting. Respect for the source is the primary thing. Half my main characters are male. In my novel Peaches For Monsieur le Curé, about half my characters were Indian. So I don’t think we should be looking to represent people who are exactly like ourselves because writing is basically dominated by white men and nobody wants to read about nothing but white men.

It would be nice to have more diversity in writing, but it would be even nicer to have more diversity in writers so that people can tell their own stories. So I don’t have a problem with representation, but at the same time, if you write in an insensitive and arrogant way, I think it’s perfectly legitimate for people to call you out.

JF: One of the panel discussions you will take part in at SWF is called “the Allure of the Otherwordly”. Your Rune series is set in the world of Norse mythology and your most recent novel, Different Class, is set in the enclosed world of an all-boys school. I wonder what is the allure for you of writing these other worlds?

JH: The whole process of writing fiction is about trying to create a world that feels as real as possible but of course isn’t, it’s fictional. Basically the whole structure is a fantasy, even when it’s a relatively real fantasy, like Different Class.

I think the challenge for any writer is to try to get the reader completely immersed in this fantasy structure. Obviously, when you’re writing outright fantasy you have a great deal more leeway because you can take chances with environment and perspective, and you can build something bigger and less related to current society. But it’s still linked because we must have a bridge of experience between our fantasies and the things we experience because otherwise it’s not relatable.

JF: How do you build that bridge? Is it via character?

JH: I think it has to be. Fantasy is without limits, but in practice, all fantasy is instantly relatable to the real world and to actual experience because otherwise people wouldn’t be able to read it and they wouldn’t be able to connect with those characters and so I think most of the time, the connection is through the characters’ experiences and feelings. Look at Ray Bradbury who writes beautifully about life on Mars, but really he’s writing about life on Earth and the kind of people you know and recognize.

JF: Many of my Singapore Writers Group colleagues had questions for you and I would like to ask a few, if I may. The first from Kehinde Fadipe: “how do you strike a balance between writing an entertaining story and an important one?”

JH: I don’t make that distinction. It’s not my job to decide whether something I write is important. All I can do is make sure I write the best story I can write, and make sure it’s personal and heart-felt and to hope that people will understand it. But also people read on so many different levels and I don’t think it’s up to me to dictate to my reader what level they read my story on. People will not be comfortable, able or desirous to read a story on any other level than the entertainment level.

JF: Your most famous novel, Chocolat, concerns the big theme of faith—as Kehinde says, an important subject—but it also tells a rather romantic story of people’s lives in a small village. Did you ever have a moment of wondering whether those elements would merge into one novel?

JH: I don’t think that scale is a problem with stories. I think that there is a myth that there are big stories and little stories. I think there are just human stories and we share those human stories on whatever scale our communities happen to be. So a story about a village can be just as important to someone who lives in a village as someone who lives in a city, because the things that we care about, and have always cared about across history, and care about across cultures, are pretty much the same things. I’ve found this so often. I did think when I was writing Chocolat that this is maybe something that people won’t get if they haven’t lived in this kind of village but people seemed to get into it all over the world and it made me think that, actually, communities and their chemistry and how we perceive ourselves and ideas of belonging or not belonging, and tolerance and intolerance, are pretty much the same.

JF: Two SWG colleagues, Helle Norup and Michaela Anchan, asked similar questions: how do you go about attacking a first draft? With experience, do your first drafts emerge closer to the finished story?

JH: It’s a tricky one because all my books are different and I have a different approach for each of them. Some of them are very linear and I’m able to write them in a linear fashion, to get a first draft down and then do an edit. Sometimes that happens, it did with Chocolat, and it’s like that with the one I’m writing now.

With others, I have to move text around a lot, it’s a sort of puzzle and it’s a much messier process. The way I attempt to do it is this: when I start work on a writing day, I will read aloud what I wrote the day before and do a quick edit as I go. I’m looking at rhythmic patterns—because I’m a musician as well as a linguist, I tend to be sensitive about the rhythms and phrases, so if I can get right it’s usually ok.

I will then write the next bit, and so on and so on, and so it becomes a continuous process of writing and editing in that way. I like to have a first draft as quickly as possible, just so that I have something down to play with. It can be sketchy, it can be out of sequence, that doesn’t really matter, but it’s an important idea to get the words down.

And then when I edit, I read aloud, I think reading aloud is the best editing tool there is. It makes you very aware of the way the language works, the rhythms and beats of the language, it makes you very aware of how well dialogue works. Usually extraneous words and phrases pop up straight away, words that appear too often, and you can just eliminate them. Because all fiction is made to be read aloud, if it can’t be read aloud then there is something obviously wrong with the style, I think.

Another basic editing tool is to change your font, because it’s easy to become blind to what you’ve written. And take a pause, put the manuscript aside. With me, it’s at least 3 months, better 6 months. It’s the only way to achieve objectivity and be self-critical, otherwise someone else will be.

JF: The writer Emma Nicholson asked simply, “what next?”

JH: I’m writing a TV drama. I also have a project called Honeycomb, which is a collection of short stories, but they’re linked thematically and they’re going to be illustrated. I’m also half way through the sequel to the Gospel of Loki, my fantasy book, which I should get finished some time in the new year. And I have another project that is so young, I’m reluctant to even talk about it, but I’m thinking about it a lot.

JF: So you’re coming to Singapore for the SWF where the audience of course is incredibly diverse. Do you find that intimidating at all?

JH: I love the fact that, completely unexpectedly, my books have resonated with people of so many different cultures. One of the nicest fan letters I got for Chocolat was from a guy who lived in Japan, somewhere in the mountains, and he wrote to me in Japanese because he was convinced that I was Japanese and was writing under a pseudonym in order to sell more books. He said the reason I know you’re Japanese is that you must have been to my village because it’s exactly the same as the one in the book. I took this as the most enormous compliment because the fact that somebody so far away, in a country I’ve never visited, could have seen himself in this tiny French village with all these French neighbours and this little chocolate shop was astonishing.

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Joanne Harris is appearing at the Singapore Writers Festival on 12/13 November. 

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