Thursday, 9 February 2017

Joanne Harris - character

I've read five Joanne Harris books. Four novels - Chocolat, The Lollipop Shoes, Peaches for Monsieur le Cure, Five quarters of the Orange and a collection of short stories, A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String. Maybe I wouldn't describe myself as a fan, (speaks of the fanatical) but I certainly have a fondness for her style, wit and opinion. Her new novel, Different Class, is different territory for me. The third book set in the fictional Yorkshire village of Malbry and described as a psychological thriller, Harris refers to these books as rainy day books, novels exploring the darker side of human nature.It seems I've been reading the sunshine books, but into each life a little rain must fall, so I'm happy to embark on something different from this author, and after her discussion of Different Class and its characters at the Bishop's Stortford Literary Festival, I feel well prepared.

With her asymmetric dark hair and in the midnight blue of her velvet Jacket, Joanne looks a little like a self assured pixie on stage. She has the grace of movement and speech (with a slight Yorkshire lilt) that makes her a captivating speaker. She also has the commanding air of an ex-teacher. She talks about her previous career as she introduces Different Class with a wry smile, 'I taught in a boys school and said I would never write about it, so this is the second book I've set in a boys school. It's a story about the past written in the dual narrative of teacher and past pupil, how the arrival of one person can disrupt a community and how the past never leaves you. My darker books use the theme of the outsider, what we show to people in different contexts.'
Her knowledge of character is intimate, as if she were talking about a well known close relative or friend. I ask does the character development come with the story or does it come first? 'I know the character's back story, what they would eat, how they travel, do they like dogs? Are they allergic to dogs? 90% of it doesn't make the page, but then I know how they will react in a different situation.' I think of my sketchy character cards for my current WIP and resolve to fill notebooks with character studies and pictures when I get home. 'The main character in Different Class is resistant to change and innovation. Some of the character is based on portraiture of staff I knew. I got fond of Straitley as I wrote in his voice, everything is seen through his eyes. I like writing in the first person, it allows me to inhabit the character.'

Students from the college probe her with further considered and interesting questions. How does she plan a novel? 'I start with two or three ideas, but don't plan ahead too much, it's a walk in the woods. If I see everything coming too clearly you don't get the surprise effect.' Was she happy with the film adaptation of Chocolat? ' I'm happy the film was made, but I don't feel as if it was my work, my job was done. Initially they wanted to set it in America, thank goodness it came back to Europe.' How important is the writer in today's society? ' They have always been important. The more you read, the more you understand where other people come from, develop that empathy. If we understand each other it's difficult to de-humanise other people. Art allows us to experience a human connection.'

Different Class is out in paperback now

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