Last Saturday, I had the PLEASURE of meeting one of my favourite authors, Joanne Harris.
Actually, I should re-word that… The Hippodrome Theatre in Todmorden was full to the brim, and I was just one eager reader getting her next favourite book signed at the end.
A Narrow Door by Joanne Harris. Live photo above of my copy, signed by Joanne Harris. It is the very best time ‘Samantha’ (my name) has been written ever.
Enough about me and my Christmas present that wants to be read immediately.
Joanne Harris gave a brilliant, interesting and inspiring author talk. Also, she’s hilarious!
I wouldn’t want to misquote her, but I would like tell you a few bits from what I remember.
Joanne Harris started by telling us a bit about her latest book, A Narrow Door. This is the third book from her ‘St Oswald’ books. Joanne explained they can all be enjoyed as standalone novels, but have the same setting and threads of backstory.
Joanne Harris spoke about her experience of working at The Leeds Grammar School (which at the time was an all boys school). It was really interesting to hear about how male pupils responded differently to male and female teachers. As did the male headmaster – particularly with regards to the uniform policy. Joanne told a hilarious anecdote about a red skirt. I remember the 90s very well, I did my nurse training and worked my first job as a staff nurse during this decade. I remember misogyny in the workplace… what a great setting for a set of novels!
This is from the blurb for A Narrow Door on Amazon:
Now I’m in charge, the gates are my gates. The rules are my rules.
It’s an incendiary moment for St Oswald’s school. For the first time in its history, a headmistress is in power, the gates opening to girls.
Rebecca Buckfast has spilled blood to reach this position. Barely forty, she is just starting to reap the harvest of her ambition. As the new regime takes on the old guard, the ground shifts. And with it, the remains of a body are discovered.
But Rebecca is here to make her mark. She’ll bury the past so deep it will evade even her own memory, just like she has done before. After all…
You can’t keep a good woman down.
From Joanne Harris’s Amazon page.
Joanne Harris spoke about her writing and writing during lockdown. Her 1999 novel Chocolat was written in just four months – and she was a full time teacher at the time. Awesome. She was able to achieve this because her mother would babysit her daughter and she had ‘plenty of thinking time during her drive to and from work’. Joanne Harris shared that she was sad to leave teaching.
(My daughter was two years old in 1999 – what was I doing? Not writing a book).
More recently, during lockdown, Joanne Harris had a productive time writing (there was a discussion here about the pandemic and writer’s block). As a novelist, she was already used to working from home. Joanne spoke about writing her non-fiction writing reference book which I must buy immediately; ‘Ten Things About Writing’ (Published last year). And the June 2021 release ‘Honeycomb‘ a fairy tale collaboration. Joanne explained that snippets of ideas she had tweeted inspired this book.
Then it was questions from the audience time…
Apologies, the last time I blogged about a famous writer, it was about the exhibition dedicated to comedian Victoria Wood‘s life, I’m just winging this post but trust me, I’m a huge Joanne Harris fan.
I went to Todmorden Book Festival with my husband (who thought the talk was about actual chocolate) my friend Carla (we have been friends since our nursing days) and my friend and voice over colleague Lindsay McKinnon (first person to grab the microphone- and I was most grateful).
Lindsay asked Joanne Harris how she copes with writing about difficult subjects. Joanne’s main advice was to write a bit of another project and then come back to the original piece.
She* also spoke about deadlines and the reason she was able to demand of her publisher that she would write whatever genre she wanted to in her own timescale (this is the mis-quote bit, I can’t remember how this wisdom was actually worded which is why I started this paragraph with *she).
This all came from Joanne Harris’s early days as an author. Her first published book The Evil Seed was about vampires. She then wrote a historical fiction Sleep, Pale Sister which her original publisher had wanted another vampire novel from her. (If you click on the bold writing above, this will take you to Joanne Harris’s website). These events led to Joanne writing Chocolat which she described as another book that publishers didn’t know what to do with. READERS WANTED IT THOUGH.
At this point during the author talk, my mouth was dry and I was a nervous as a quiet child in a school assembly. My husband gave me a look which I read as ‘speak now or forever hold your peace’ (he didn’t really think he was at a talk about Mars bars – I was joking, he’s quite brainy really). Lindsay passed me the microphone (after it was Covid-safe wiped by Todmorden Book Festival) and I asked…
First of all, I asked the rest of the audience if it was ‘my turn’ I wanted to know if I’d pushed in. I then told Joanne that I had just finished book three of the Chocolat Series ‘Peaches for Monsieur le Cure‘ (I don’t know why I was rambling). I just wanted to get to the point that Joanne Harris’s characters are very vivid… Eventually I was able to stop tripping over my own tongue and ask if Joanne ‘sees’ (I meant visualise) her characters when she is writing them. AND if so, did the film version of Chocolat meet with her expectations?
Joanne Harris gave a great answer, she told us that whilst writing Chocolat she actually imagined Juliette Binoche when she was writing Vianne!
Joanne explained that writers don’t usually get to know about film adaptations until later but in the case of Chocolat, she was approached.
Joanne told the film folk about her thoughts for Juliette Binoche/Vianne Rocher, but was told ‘they want Whoopi Goldberg’ (apologies, I can’t remember any director or producer names Joanne Harris may or may not have mentioned because I was recovering from a panic attack). However, Whoopi Goldberg was not available (too busy filming Rat Race, I just checked on Wikipedia). Another actor’s name was mentioned but eventually Chocolat ‘s Vianne Rocher was played by Juliette Binoche – just as Joanne Harris had visualised when she was writing Chocolat (that’s during the 4 months she spent writing Chocolat – the whole audience gasped here)… I gasped because I was thinking wow! I bet Joanne Harris didn’t realise how strong her manifestation powers were… (also, what a great answer – Alison Steadman, Joanna Lumley and Courtney Love have been on my mind A LOT recently #writing life).
I wish I had longer to chat with Joanne Harris, because I wanted to explain I wasn’t trying to divert her attention away from her writing with my question about the film because the book is better than the film.
I’ve underlined the above to make sure I have got my point across. The book Chocolat is better than the film. There, I’ve said it again.
I know what you’re thinking… Johnny Depp was in that film. Joanne Harris told us that at the time, Johnny Depp was not on her radar (I can’t remember exactly how she worded it but it was one up from ‘didn’t have a clue who he was’). I am absolutely fine with that, Joanne Harris was busy writing fabulous books for us all to read; she didn’t have time to be knowing who Johnny Depp was!
Isn’t is wonderful that the small town of Todmorden has a book festival! ~click on this bold writing and follow the link to their website – I think you might be able to subscribe so that you don’t miss any future events (apologies for not writing this post earlier, I’ve been weary).
I would encourage attendance at book fairs/author talks because seeing a full theatre of likeminded readers is good for the soul (reading is usually a solitary hobby). PLUS authors are lovely people and it is wonderful to hear how they magically produce their magnificent books.
Happy reading, Samantha 🙂
My latest novel is now available to pre-order from Amazon. My Half-Sister’s Half-Sister will be released on the 30th of November 2021. I plan to blog about how I wrote this novel in my next post.