Joanne Harris: From chocolat to cabbage

Joanne Harris returns to her native county as she explores the secrets and spies of a very English school. Marianne Brace meets Yorkshire's best-loved Frenchwoman
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The Independent Culture

Unlikely as it seems, regulation socks - or the lack of them - also find their way into Harris's new novel, Gentlemen & Players (Doubleday, £14.99). Anyone expecting the sugary aroma of her mega-sellers Chocolat and Coastliners should prepare for the reek of boiled cabbage. Harris, best known for her very particular view of France, has turned her attention to that quintessentially English institution, the minor public school.

The action takes place in St Oswald's. With its mellow stone, tower and cricket pitches, it's a locale visited already by Harris in her short stories. "There was going to be a St Oswald's book at one point or another", she explains. She is sitting in her book-lined study in Yorkshire. Behind her stands an old school desk complete with graffiti and inkwell.

It takes Harris between 18 months and seven years to produce a novel. "My publishers have very cleverly maintained this illusion that I write a book a year", she says. "The truth is that they bring out a book a year, which is slightly different." Harris juggles several manuscripts at a time, writing and revising in parallel.

Gentlemen & Players has been gestating for some time. Harris couldn't tackle the subject of teaching until she had quit the profession. That happened five years ago. "I have never been entirely comfortable writing about what is under my nose, which is possibly one of the reasons I wrote about France. To me there is no challenge in looking out of the window and writing about Barnsley."

Since Chocolat was unwrapped in 1999, Harris's sales have been formidable - more than four million books in the UK alone. She is translated into over 30 languages and is massively popular in Italy, Spain and Croatia. Sales in France, however, are slower. This isn't entirely surprising. Hers is an emotional rather than realistic portrayal: France filtered through memories of happy childhood summers spent with her Breton family off the Vendée coast. "I wouldn't be able to set a story in a place I disliked", she says. "To me the whole business of writing a story is to open up a doorway to somewhere I want to be."

It has led to accusations of a cosily sentimental vision: "Some people have been terribly offended that I have dared to write about certain aspects of France while missing others out, as if I had a responsibility somehow to show a clear and unbiased vista. I don't do unbiased," says Harris crisply. She knows about the France of nuclear plants and McDonald's franchises but, as she says, "That's the great thing about being a writer - you can choose and pick what you want."

You wouldn't, after all, lambast a film like Jour de Fête for not being La Haine. Harris's French novels are rural, celebratory, affectionate, often with a fairy-tale element. But if they share Jacques Tati's archetypal Gallic charm, Gentlemen & Players conforms to the world of Ealing comedy. A dark light read (excuse the oxymoron), it's fun with a neat twist.

Harris doesn't have time for anyone who feels that "just reading a book for fun is somehow trivial". In fact, she looks like she's itching to hand out a C minus. It's an attitude she comes across frequently in America where book groups seem especially eager to be told what to think, "As if there's some kind of decoder they could get". A man stood up in one of her lectures and asked what he was supposed to come away with from her novels. "I said, 'Sir, I'm not here to tell you what you're supposed to come way with. You don't go into a restaurant, order a steak and then go into the kitchen and ask the chef what it was supposed to taste like!'"

Combining elements of both Gothic novel and murder mystery, Gentlemen & Players spins on a dual narrative. Roy Straitley is an elderly, pedantic Latin master who still wears a gown. Snyde is the interloper who plans to destroy the bastion of tradition. It's a bit like A J Wentworth squaring up to the talented Mr Ripley. "Actually, when I was writing I thought: this is Molesworth goes to Gormenghast," says Harris, smiling. She loved teaching and wanted to write "something that was not entirely serious, but would fit my feelings of slight nostalgia while encompassing the terrific humour you get in a school situation."

Harris had noted several newspaper stories regarding impostors in academia but points out that the book isn't based on fact. In her years of teaching she came across her fair share of peculiar incidents, and thriller writers have spotted the horrible possibilities offered by the happiest days of our lives. "A school is a wonderful setting for a story of revenge and intrigue. It's a very energetic community because it's full of young people, and young people have tremendous untapped potential for good and evil."

Gentlemen & Players harks back to events from 15 years earlier, when the miserable Snyde becomes friends with charismatic, manipulative Leon. "Leon is a loathsome little boy", says Harris. "He's very recognisable. No proper role model or guidance, and far too smart for his own good. It's always the poor patsy next in line who gets into trouble."

Then there's the unfortunate Knight, a lazy, spoilt ninny, whose parents see money as a substitute for attention. Doesn't Harris feel sorry for him? "No I don't," she says briskly. "Knight is a nasty piece of work. He definitely had to go." When I protest that, poor lad, he's only 13, Harris replies sternly that "He wouldn't have grown up any nicer - trust me," and bursts out laughing. Harris's American publishers weren't at all happy with the way she dispatches Knight. "It happens," she shrugs. "Besides, I can hardly have a murder mystery without having a murder."

She enjoyed creating Snyde. "I love villains and the fact that my villain has an acutely developed sense of humour; one of those people with no moral objections to throwing a grenade into the crowd just for the fun of it, to see what will happen."

Harris doesn't view Gentlemen & Players as a shift in her writing. Her first two published novels were set in England and all her works have aspects in common. Plots hinge on a secret and the action takes place within a small community - a village, a convent, an island. Clattering corridors and chalk-dust can be as evocative as any French village square, and school presents another microcosm. She says that "In all my books you get somebody in conflict with a group or an institution. What I like exploring is this perpetual dynamic between individuals in a community under pressure."

Harris once described herself as walking the line between two worlds. Her mother didn't speak English when she married, so Harris spoke only French until she went to school. It was a time when Barnsley didn't have foreigners and "my mother distinctly remembers waiting for me... and all the other mothers moving away when they heard us speaking French, as if it might be catching."

The bilingual Harris was tackling Proust by the age of 12. "My French teacher laboured under the misapprehension that if she ignored me, I wouldn't cause any trouble. This was quite wrong. I caused as much trouble as I possibly could because I was thoroughly bored. I veered from shouting out the answers to making lists of all the pronunciation and spelling mistakes she made during the lesson. I was a terrible child,". she says, laughing.

When I remark how my friends and relatives who became teachers were the most rebellious schoolchildren, she nods. "It helps to know the enemy. It gives a fundamental understanding of why pupils misbehave, which is one of the short cuts to stopping them from doing it." Many in the staffroom didn't twig there was a novelist in their midst. "I had a colleague who once turned up on One Man and His Dog, but with Chocolat I was in all the papers." Some were delighted for her; others less so. Perhaps a few, like Straitley, even thought "nothing good ever comes of a teacher turned scribbler". Harris can laugh. It certainly beats checking socks.

Biography

Joanne Harris was born in 1964 to a French mother and English father, raised in Barnsley, Yorkshire and educated in Wakefield and Barnsley. After reading languages at Cambridge University she taught for 15 years. Her debut novel The Evil Seed was published in 1989, followed by Sleep, Pale Sister and the bestselling Chocolat, which became a film starring Juliet Binoche and Johnny Depp. Blackberry Wine and Five Quarters of the Orange completed her food trilogy. Since then she has published Coastliners, Holy Fools, Jigs & Reels; Gentlemen & Players is published by Doubleday this week. Together with Fran Warde, she has produced a cookery book, The French Kitchen, and the new sequel, The French Market (Doubleday). Joanne Harris lives near Huddersfield with her husband and daughter.

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