Joanne Harris interview: The Chocolat author is in militant mood when it comes to writers' rights

Joanne Harris's shed isn't just where the best-selling author writes her books – it's a launchpad for changing the world. Rachael Pells drops in

Rachael Pells
Friday 21 August 2015 17:38
Force of nature: Joanne Harris in her garden
Force of nature: Joanne Harris in her garden

Many a revolution has had small beginnings, but Joanne Harris's shed in the garden of her home, just outside Huddersfield, is smaller than most. Here she is, sitting in her preferred writing spot, surrounded by incense, trinkets and pink fluffy cushions, with a cup of tea and packet of ginger biscuits to hand. The 51-year-old author of the best-selling Chocolat, and some 20 other books, has a girlish air and a sing-song voice, but there is something in her eyes that suggests she is not one to suffer fools gladly.

It's this side of Harris that has really started coming to the fore in recent years. Alongside her writing, she is fighting a cause. That cause is both authors' rights and authors' responsibilities, and it's entirely tied in with the way, in the digital age, the value of an author's work has changed – or is perceived to have changed. And in a way that few other authors do, Harris engages with technology to provide insights – almost a running commentary – on what daily life for a writer entails. She challenges perceptions, puts people right, has her say. That's all part of the cause too.

I got a reminder of this as I made my way to her home. After four hours on trains and too much time in a taxi spent helping the driver ask passers-by for directions, I glanced at my phone to see Harris's latest tweet: "Today's perfectly-timed sequence of interviews, phone calls and photo sessions goes down the pan as the first one fails to turn up on time…" Gulp. That would be me. A follower's response: "It's clobberin' time". If I wasn't already nervous about meeting one of social media's more outspoken fiction writers, I am now.

"I love Twitter," says Harris, with a glint in her eye, when I finally turn up. "I find it a useful, enjoyable place although when I joined I wasn't sure what to expect and I was pretty sure I wouldn't like it. Ian Rankin, who had been on there for ever said, 'No, no, no, you can use it however you want, so just think of Twitter as your watercooler'. So that works for me."

When she sits down to write in the stone structure she calls "The Shed", she is not really alone. She is accompanied by her 25,000 Twitter followers, who lap up the short stories, blog posts, cultural criticisms, and general beefs she so frequently posts. "Reasons Not to Give Your Author Friend Your Manuscript" was a recent topic she explored. Right now it's #FestivalsTakingThePiss, an issue she's raised just as she herself heads off to two literary festivals – Edinburgh, and the Manx Litfest.

"We're getting to a situation where we have hundreds of festivals, some of which are very large and have a lot of backing, but they're not paying authors for their contribution," Harris says. "Historically, we've had a situation where publishers were quite happy to pay something towards people's expenses, but really authors did this sort of thing out of goodwill. I think if it's for good causes a lot of authors are quite happy to do that, but where you have now massive expansions and elevated ticket prices, and a sort of culture of celebrity guests who are being paid large appearance fees, to still be able to justify not paying authors is becoming a more and more precarious position. It's time for more people like me to say, let's have a look, let's see what the priorities are for these festivals."

We know what "people like her" means, and in a precarious business Harris can look back on a 15-year period of success that began with her third novel Chocolat. Set in small-town France, it became a No 1 bestseller and a hit film starring Juliet Binoche and Johnny Depp. Harris, Yorkshire-born and brought up, has France in her blood. Her father was English, her mother French. They both taught languages, and after graduating from Cambridge, and a year training to be an accountant, Harris herself spent 15 years as a language teacher before the writing took over. She produces both fiction and non-fiction, the latter mainly concerned with food and cooking – themes that were also at the heart of Chocolat. She got together with her husband, Kevin, when they were both 16, and they have a grown-up daughter. Now it's almost as if she is looking for new responsibilities – to work on behalf of others, or the "middlest authors", as she calls them.

"I am not holding out for an excessive fee by any means, because festivals have all kinds of overheads," Harris says. "But I don't think it's unreasonable to ask for a small fee. Not everybody can shell out 400 quid for accommodation, travel and all the rest, and people do deserve to be recompensed for their time. To put it bluntly – you wouldn't dream of not paying your caterers, so why would you even consider not paying the headline act?"

Mentioning no names, Harris is clear about about a growing trend, seen at larger festivals, of paying big sums to celebrities at the expense of "lesser" authors. "The profile of the festival is raised by paying some rock star or reality TV person to be there, but the money is being recouped in the fees that they could be giving to middlest authors – people who would actually really appreciate the £200."

Harris in front of the key to her creativity that is 'The Shed'

One of the celebrity names Harris brings up is the YouTube sensation Zoella, whose fans of her teen-girl advice were shocked to find out that her bestselling autobiography had been ghost-written. But, Harris says, "I've got no beef with Zoella. Those who are shocked by a ghost-written book are just a little naive. The bottom line is that anything that gets people into books and talking about books is a good thing, regardless of whether I would like it or whether I'd like the style. It's the same as The Da Vinci Code, or 50 Shades of Grey or anything else that gets people talking. It's important to allow for that and to allow for a broad range of interests within literature. But it's important that one area does not eclipse another.

"I have no problem with inviting celebrities who have written books because it is part of the exclusivity of a festival. But when the media coverage of a festival is all about actors, politicians and rock stars, and there isn't a single writer in there, than we have gone too far."

But there's another side to this coin. Harris is not just pointing fingers at those she sees as exploiting authors. To some extent she is pointing fingers at authors themselves. Authors need to give back more, she thinks. It's not enough to turn up to an event and expect to have to do no more than answer a few questions. And when it comes to redefining what live performance means, Harris is again at the forefront.

Just before I arrived, she had come back from a singing lesson. Singing is one of the the ways forward for Harris, even if it might be beyond the scope or inclination of other writers. She's been in a band with her husband and two friends for many years – she also plays flute and bass – but only lately has she come to see it as a branch of her work, and decided that her voice needs a bit of training.

Harris's "Storytime Caberet" featured at the Tête-à-Tête opera festival at Kings Place in London earlier this month, with the band performing songs based on short stories Harris had posted on Twitter (#storytime). It might seem an eccentric way for an author to make a stage appearance at a festival, but for Harris it's important to explore new ways of being creative – for both her own entertainment and to keep her readership engaged. What's more, she thinks it's the kind of venture that could help save the traditional literary festival from becoming stagnant.

So is simply being a novelist not enough anymore? "I do think it's easier if you can be flexible," says Harris. "I know some authors who don't want to have anything to do with live appearance, let alone perform on stage and that's completely their right. These things are all extras, and there should always be the choice. Nobody is forced to appear at festivals if they are not being paid to do it. They do not have a contract that says you must do so much, but festival appearances help a lot. It helps the publisher, it helps the bookseller, and the readers like it. That's one of the reasons I do it, because it is nice to be able to thank the readers. But if I wanted to say right, I am not going to do a single appearance or festival for the next 12 months, they couldn't stop me."

Harris on flute in the band that provides another outlet for her stories

Harris is so forthright that, perhaps inevitably, she has provoked her share of trolling, but she rises above it. "Sometimes when I talk about feminism I'll get the odd slimeball making some creepy comment – but like I care." Which brings us to sexism in publishing. "There is this idea still, in publishing, that men's fiction is 'intelligent' whereas women's is 'sensitive'," Harris says. "And when you get idiots like VS Naipul saying things like, 'Women can't write as well as men because they're corrupted by all these feelings', it doesn't help. Feminism has a long way to go before some of these attitudes are combatted. This idea that women's voices are weaker and generally about feeling, and men's are all about the brain – it's just not changed that much. In some ways I think it's got worse. The glass ceiling is still there and we've got to keep jabbing away at it."

When a controversial device for e-readers surfaced this year offering to "clean up" text by replacing "bad words" and profanities with more child-friendly words, Harris was once again moved to protest. "The very existence of the app illustrates a complete misunderstanding of what books are for. It completely devalues the literature. It is also against the will of the author. It's putting the power into the hands of the public at the expense of the creator.

"It's dangerous, allowing this unofficial censorship, because where will it end? Will we start censoring, say, gay relationships in fiction? Changing history? Quite apart from anything else, it is interfering with the freedom of children to read texts unexpurgated. It's basically a way of indoctrinating them."

Harris has said in the past that her own mother attempted to control what she could and couldn't read, but of her own daughter she says that "I always let her read anything she liked. And I think that's partly why we've had a good family relationship."

And with that little glimpse of her personal life, Kevin appears at the door and informs his wife that it's time for her next appointment. I am ushered out, and he insists upon dropping me off at the station, out of kindness following the day's earlier taxi troubles. Which is very nice of him, and if I can keep out of Joanne Harris's Twitter timeline, then so much the better.

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