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Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Joanne Harris on writing, food and fantasy.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting bestselling author Joanne Harris and I’m delighted to say she accepted my invitation to visit the blog. Joanne, welcome and thank you so much for coming. 

It's lovely to be here.

You grew up in Yorkshire in the 60's and 70's with a French mother and an English father. I imagine that made you rather unusual for the times. Did you ever find it difficult? How, if at all, did it shape your life?

In those days, Barnsley wasn't an especially cosmopolitan environment. There weren't very many foreigners, and I felt very different from other people. Some of our neighbours were very welcoming, but others were downright hostile - my mother still recalls the other mothers at the primary school gate moving away from us when they heard us speaking French together. At school there was both curiosity and some mockery - lots of requests for me to "talk foreign", as if it were a party trick, plus lots of comments about French food, garlic, French history, bidets (which at the time were considered weird and disgusting), frogs' legs, the War, etc. which I didn't really understand. At secondary school, most of that stopped, but I was still considered different and a little peculiar. Perhaps I was. In any case, I think being a foreigner gave me a certain kind of perspective regarding social groups and their interactions, which later crept into my writing.

Have you written from an early age?

I've always written; first copying the writers I most admired, then slowly finding my own style. It started to emerge when I was in my twenties, although it wasn't until several years later that I felt confident enough to take the plunge and try to make a living from writing books. I liked my job teaching French in a boys' grammar school and I wrote in my spare time but with the success of Chocolat, the demands being made on me to promote the book in England and abroad took up more time than I could spare from full-time teaching. With some regret (and a lot of anxiety) I chose writing and I'm glad I did; but it was a tough decision.

Where does your inspiration come from?

Everywhere; from items in the newspapers, from T.V., from watching people on the trains, from talking to people on my travels. I find that I can't generate ideas if I stay cooped up at home. I need regular changes of scene to maintain my creative output. I have to read a lot, too, to make sure my windows on the world stay open. I don't often use people I know although my daughter Anouchka has made a few appearances in my books, as have some members of my family - and even a few ex-colleagues! Most of the time, however, I don't even try to show an accurate portrait. I use little details and mannerisms I might have noticed. I wouldn't feel comfortable describing real-life people in detail.

Vampire stories are hugely popular these days. Your first novels - The Evil Seed and Sleep, Pale Sister, published in the early 90's - were Gothic chillers. Is it a genre you'd like to revisit?

Not right now, certainly, or at least not in that particular form. There are so many vampire stories around at the moment, and besides, I think the vampire genre is best suited to younger writers. Under the Gothic surface, the vampire tale is basically a story of adolescence, of coming-of-age, alienation, self-discovery and forbidden sex, which is why the young-adult audience understands it and relates to it so well - but I've reached the stage where I feel the need to explore different territories. On the other hand, fear never goes out of style, and it's never far from my writing. It simply takes different aspects, as do the elements of folklore, myth and fairytale that tend to inhabit my novels.

Your young-adult/crossover novels, Runemark, Runelight and The Gospel of Loki, which you publish under the name Joanne M Harris, are set in the world of Norse mythology. I believe you've even studied Old Icelandic to understand that world more fully. Many people think they have a clear idea of what to expect from your novels and these mythological ones seem very different to that expectation. Did you feel a need to break the mould?

Not really. All my novels have aspects of folklore, fairytale and myth, which appear more or less strongly depending on the subject matter. In these books, however, the fantasy and folklore is much more in the forefront of the story, and I’ve enjoyed the process of constructing and developing this complex fantasy world very much. I am aware, however, that my readers don’t all feel comfortable reading outright fantasy, which is why I started to use my middle initial on the books set in that world. I don’t see it as a departure, merely a marker to indicate that, here may be serpents…

In Who’s Who, you list mooching and lounging among your favourite pursuits, but with more than a dozen novels and numerous short stories and cookbooks to your name as well as many other projects completed or in hand, it’s hard to believe you do much mooching or lounging. Isn’t there really a fiercely disciplined regime behind your success?

I don’t see it as discipline. Discipline implies the setting of rules, and I don’t find rules conducive to creativity. I don’t work because I have discipline; I work because otherwise, I would probably stop functioning.

I’m sure you’re often asked about the importance of food and drink in your novels. For example it’s been used as a theme in Chocolat and Blackberry Wine and you use it elsewhere to evoke atmosphere and give insights into your characters. Of course good food is one of the pleasures of life; something that brings people together and cheers them up on bad days. What would you say is your ultimate comfort food?

For me, food has strong nostalgic and emotional connotations, so probably the food that I associate with being happiest. Thus: the Mexican food I make when my daughter and I watch films together; the fish and chips I used to eat out of newspaper on Friday night with my husband-to-be when I was sixteen; the pancakes my great-grandmother used to make to celebrate birthdays and family get-togethers.

Many writers begin with short stories, thinking they will be easier to write than novels. Would you agree? What do you think makes a good short story?

There’s nothing easy about writing short stories. A good short story demands a more precise structure than a novel, so that if anything goes wrong, it will be immediately apparent. Novels are generally much more forgiving than short fiction, and allow for much greater leeway in terms of experimenting with structure, subplots and character. In a short story, the reader must be engaged from the start, the development must be perfectly paced and the payoff satisfactory, otherwise the story will fail. Trying to start off with short fiction is like a painter beginning with miniatures rather than life-size portraits – it’s a very demanding task that requires a great deal of skill and practice.

You’re always generous with your time, travelling all over the world talking about your books and generally interacting with your fans. Are you happiest in the company of others or, deep down, do you prefer to be alone (with your characters, of course)?

Much as I enjoy being with others, there are times when I need to be alone. My loved ones understand this…

Do you find the first or the last line of your novels hardest to write?

Neither. It’s the stuff in between that can be tricky…

HS The world has become a much smaller place in our lifetime with advances in travel and communications. From your own experience, have you noticed the way of life in the French and English halves of your family becoming more similar, or are there still fundamental differences?

No, I still see differences, although ease of communication has given us a whole new set of ways to misunderstand each other…

Briefly, what would be your advice to aspiring writers?

Drop the word “aspiring.” Just write.



Monday, 25 September 2017

Sculpture in the garden

I couldn't resist sharing these lovely sculptures on display last weekend at the RHS gardens at Wisley. So full of life and character.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Wise words

Winter is coming (pace Game of Thrones fans) so I felt the blog needed an injection of fantasy, romance and off-beat humour to liven us all up. Luckily, I’ve found just the person in the shape of Louise Wise, a British writer who has been weaving stories all her life.
Louise, first of all, a big welcome to the blog. Do tell us more about yourself and your family. Where are you from? Do you have a day job or do you write full-time? Have you won any awards for your work?
I’m Louise Wise, and I live in Northampton with my husband and four children (most all grown up now). I work part time as a pharmacy technician, which gives me some medical help for my books if needed. I haven’t won many awards, mainly because I don’t enter any! I have won a few prizes for my short stories though.
How many books have you written? What are they about and why did you want to write about those subjects?
I’ve written five published novels, but many unpublished ones that will never see the light of day! The first published novel, my ‘baby’, Eden is a sci-fi/romance novel and I always thought I’d write in that genre, but I read and enjoy romantic comedy (chicklit) so thought I’d give that a bash, and A Proper Charlie was born—which got a little too slapstick and my editor from Cornerstones had to rein me in! Then came Oh No, I’ve Fallen in Love, which is a dark chicklit. Here, I opted to write about mental health so my medical background came in helpful there, it’s my personal favourite because the subject material is so close to me. But Eden was still out-selling over all the others and fans (yep, I have fans!) kept asking for more, so I added Hunted book #2, which only took two months to write. It just poured out (wish that happened more often!), but of course, editing and the rewrites took a lot longer.
Whilst writing Hunted the British series Life on Mars came out and I fell in love with time travel and begin reading books in that genre, so I decided to have a go at writing one and Wide Awake Asleep was developed.
Do you have a special place where you like to write?
I write anywhere where there’s a computer, but I ‘write’ in my head when I’m cycling. I’m a keen cyclist. I joined the British Cycling Association a while back—nearly killed me trying to keep up, but hey-ho.
What part of the writing process do you enjoy the least?
Hitting the publish button and expecting my family and friends to be as excited as me.
What was the first thing you wrote? Was it any good?
I used to read a lot of Mills and Boon, and when I was fifteen I thought I could change their house style and write a romance where the hero was poor and geeky, and the heroine was rich and powerful. I thought I could show those guys at Mills and Boon at thing or two! So, no, it wasn’t good at all.
If you had to choose only one, who is your favourite character in your books? Why is that?
Valerie Anthrope from Oh No, I’ve Fallen in Love. Her baby brother died when she was a child, which caused a cascade of problems within her family unit including her mother committing suicide and her father dying of shock a week later. It’s all very tragic, and it’s Valerie’s story on how she copes, or not copes, with the situation.
Basically, I wanted to write a chicklit story within a tragedy and to do that I had to have fun characters so Valerie meets her human ‘fairy godmother’ who wants to mend her. It’s a dark comedy, so even though the subject is dark and will have you reaching for your hanky, it has comic moments.
Who would you cast to play characters if your book was to be made into a film?
I don’t watch many films. I love my soaps though! Carla Connor (Alison King) from Coronation Street would be a great Valerie from Oh No, I’ve Fallen in Love! Madcap, Mary, (Patti Clare) would play the fairy godmother, Ellen.

Janine Butcher (Charlie Brooks from EastEnders) would make a good Julie from Wide Awake Asleep because like Janine, she wasn’t all bad. And Samantha Womack (Ronnie) would be a brilliant ditzy Charlie from A Proper Charlie, and I know Samantha played a tragic character, but I’ve seen her as a comedienne and she’d be brilliant!
And I’ve just realised I picked mainly characters that have left the shows!
Have any particular writers influenced your work?
No one in particular, but I’m heavily influenced by books or films that I enjoy watching or reading. I’m one of those annoying authors where I can’t stick to one genre, but all my books have an element of romance and all my characters are lonely.
Would you like to tell us more about your most recent book, Wide Awake Asleep?
Julie Compton has always felt hard done by, and with good reason. Her mum kicked out her beloved dad in favour of her boyfriend when Julie was just five years old, and although her dad fought to be the main custodian of Julie, he lost, and Julie had to live with her mother and boyfriend. But her mother ended up putting her in care, which Julie could never forgive her for, and since then their relationship has been damaged forever.  
Then, in her late teens, she lost out on romance when her only love ran off with her best friend. Now at almost fifty Julie believes this is her lot in life, she’s alone in life and buries herself in her work.
But then a strange thing happens. She meets a man which sparks a feeling of déjà vu, then, while driving, her car radio cuts in to an old 1970s news bulletin, and her broken mobile phones rings old trill-phone style. It freaks Julie out, and she loses control of her car and lays dying in a ditch. She should be dead, instead she wakes unharmed and back in the 1970s in Potterspury, Northampton where she grew up. And if that wasn’t enough to alarm her, she’s in the body of a stranger!
What conflicts shape the story?
Past regrets, emotional family trauma. We’ve all wished we could go back and do something different at one time or another, but even though Julie’s ‘something different’ is huge she believes she’s finally happy with her current life. She has a good career, and is relatively well-off, why would she want to change all that?
Where did the inspiration for it come from?
I’ve mentioned the time travel, police series Life on Mars, well, I was taken with that but I’ve always been interested in time travel. I absolutely loved Lightning by Dean Koontz, Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella and the movie Sliding Doors. So the idea had been bubbling for a while, Life on Mars, just over bubbled, I guess.
Did you need to do a lot of research?
I was brought up in Potterspury so much of my research was memories. My mum and I did have a few reflecting moments where we got out the family photos to discuss how Potterspury had changed between the 70s and now. I also made use of the library where there is a section dedicated to Northampton’s history (I procrastinated for many hours down there!)
Does the story echo your own experience in any very concrete way?
Unlike Julie, I had a fantastic childhood so it doesn’t there, but I did put in a few memories from my childhood.
Do you think the book’s message is a hopeful one?
Be happy with your lot because you can’t go back in time!
What are you working on now?
Because Eden and Hunted are doing so well, and because I’ve still so many ideas coming, I’m writing a book based on bringing those characters to earth (the original books are on another planet). It’s just nicknamed ‘Jelvia’ at the moment, which is the name of the species of aliens. I plan to have a series of ‘Jelvia’ books with each book a stand-alone-read because I hate reading cliff-hangers, and wouldn’t want my readers to feel they had to read book 2 or 3. I’d like them to WANT to read, not HAVE to read.
Finally, Ernest Hemingway once said, ‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’ Would you agree?
Yes, he sums up writing to a T. As a writer, you pour out all of your emotion—some of which surprises you but then have to cut 98% of it because you know it won’t be received well/or makes no sense to the reader.
Louise, thank you so much for coming and I wish you every success with your work.
To find out more about Louise’s books, please visit her website or Amazon page. You can contact her at


Sunday, 17 September 2017

Stories in Food

On a trip to Bologna in Northern Italy, like many visitors, I was bowled over by the wonderful food, from the delicious fresh pasta served dozens of ways to the tasty cold meats and cheeses. Photographing the appetising displays in shop windows was irresistible!

They also set me thinking about the tradition of genre paintings that showed everyday scenes involving the sale and preparation of food; many of them included biblical scenes in the background. For example the 16th century Flemish artist, Joachim Beuckelaer's, painting of a kitchen scene with Christ at the Supper at Emmaus in the background.

A more famous work by the late Renaissance painter, Annibale Carracci, is The Butcher's Shop. Here, the painter abandons religious themes for a comment on the society of his day. Some of the Carracci family were involved in the butchery trade which was extremely important in Bologna where the family originated and the painter shows the butchers as dignified men absorbed in their work. The pose of the man in the foreground, who is in the act of slaughtering a sheep, is even taken from a painting by Raphael of the biblical subject of Noah. Some art historians have interpreted the representation of the guard on the left of the picture, with his exaggerated codpiece and fancy clothes, as a satire on the city authorities, comparing them unfavourably with the hard-working merchant guilds. The man looks on greedily as the butcher weighs out his meat. The old woman in the background may symbolise avarice and suspicion. She obviously doesn't trust the butcher who in in the act of preparing her chop!
Whatever the messages the painting contains, it's a fascinating example of a turn away from the tight, precise and highly polished style of Mannerism to a looser, more free use of paint that heralds the Baroque era. The painting came to England in 1630 when it was purchased by Charles I. It's now in Christ Church College Oxford's picture gallery and was donated to the college in the late 18th century. It hung in the kitchens gathering dirt and grease until its importance was recognised in the 1950s. 

Thursday, 7 September 2017

A Magic Castle

In 1840, James Dawson, a retired surgeon, and his wife left Liverpool to live in the Lake District. They must have been of a romantic disposition for they wanted to live in a castle and luckily for them, Mrs Dawson's fortune enabled them to buy land and build one with breathtaking views over Lake Windermere.
After the Dawsons died, the estate and castle were inherited by their nephew, Edward Rawnsley. Rawnsley was a cousin of the famous Canon Rawnsley who was one of the people instrumental in setting up the National Trust. The castle eventually ended up in the Trust's care and today it's a wonderful place to take a family. Even though no furniture was left behind by the previous owners, the Trust have used a connection with Beatrix Potter, who sometimes holidayed there, and the castle's  medieval architecture to create an inspiring environment, particularly for children, while their parents can enjoy the charming eccentricity of the place.