If you think you’re familiar with Joanne Harris, our author-of-the-month for July, you might want to think again.
While she’s best known for her multimillion-seller Chocolat, Harris’ books don’t tend to neatly fit within one genre. Perhaps uniquely among best-selling authors, her books dip into a multiplicity of topics such as food, romance, France, psychological thrillers, vampires, Norse mythology, fairy tales, author self-help – and Dr Who.
In a recent interview with the Hampshire Libraries’ podcast Love Your Library (available later this month), Harris explained: ‘Much as a I understand the convenience and the financial interest of being a brand who does the same thing predictably every year, I just couldn’t do that. What drives me is an element of discovery and of risk.’
It’s the above-mentioned Chocolat (made into an Oscar-nominated film featuring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp), which first gave her a taste of success. It’s now sold more than 33 million copies worldwide and in 2012 she became only the fifth British female novelist to join the book industry’s “Millionaires Club”: an exclusive list of authors who have seen at least one of their books pass the million sales barrier in the UK since the 1990s.
Joanne Harris (MBE) grew up with her English father and French mother in Barnsley, South Yorkshire and started her career as a teacher, pursuing writing as a hobby. Her first novel, The Evil Seed, is a dark gothic romance which had limited commercial success. She spent more than 12 years teaching French at Leeds Grammar School, the inspiration behind her St Oswald’s series of books, the latest of which, A Narrow Door, is to be published next month. This darkly comic novel continues the story of eccentric Latin Master Roy Straitley, and follows Gentlemen and Players, and Different Class.
She said: ‘In a sense I’ve been writing about teaching since the start. I tend to write about small communities and the pressures they undergo, and the changes new arrivals make – and how the volatile chemistry of the small community can be utterly disrupted by what seems to be a relatively trivial change.’
Harris writes intelligently with a dry humour, and while her work is sometimes described as captivating or enchanting, her novels can frequently be darkly funny. Settings play an important role in her books and she often writes in a first-person, dual-narrator structure with complex characters who may be psychologically damaged or morally ambivalent.
She’s already published two other books in 2021: The Strawberry Thief (the fourth in the Chocolat series, including Chocolat, The Lollipop Shoes and Peaches for Monsieur le Curé), a bittersweet story of motherhood and learning to be yourself; and Honeycomb, a novel built from stories in which every chapter tells a standalone tale, which sits within her folklore/fairytale collection (A Pocketful of Crows, Orfeia and The Blue Salt Road).
This achievement is all the more admirable since, alongside the normal difficulties of living through lockdowns and Coronavirus, Harris was diagnosed with breast cancer at the end of last year. With typical generosity, she has decided to share her experience to ‘make it more mundane’ and talks about her diagnosis as ‘Mr C’, a fictional character who has outstayed his welcome: her Twitter updates include the hashtag #GoodbyeMrC.
Harris still lives in Yorkshire, she plays bass and flute in a band first formed with her husband when she was sixteen, and works in a shed in her garden.
If you like Joanne Harris, you might also like Tracy Chevalier, Louis De Bernieres, Helen Fielding, Sebastian Faulks, Kate Atkinson, Salley Vickers, William Boyd, Anne Tyler, Barbara Kingsolver and Edward St Aubyn.
Written by Kate.