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Twenty Questions with Joanne Harris

Like most people, I first got to know Joanne Harris through her magical (and delicious) book, Chocolat. From then, I became a real fan of her adult fiction so I was hugely excited to hear that, a few years ago, she started writing for young adults too. That said, Joanne doesn’t believe much in these distinctions: she writes the books she loves and lets her readers, of whatever age, find her stories. One of the things I love most about her writing is how she weaves magic into the every day, showing how the two co-exist, something I believe in too/

In July, I sat next to her at the Young Adult Literature Conference (YALC), signing books, which was a real joy. Her queue of fans was out of the door!

I asked her a few questions about her life as a writer and about her latest incarnation as a YA Fantasy author. I hope you enjoy the answers, I certainly did.

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Which three words would you use to describe yourself?

  • Awkward
  • Mercurial
  • Sensual

After writing a number of very successful books for adults, in 2007 you published your first YA novel, Runemarks. What do you feel is the main difference between writing for adults and younger readers?

I don’t make a distinction between my readers. My publisher did that (possibly because the protagonist of Runemarks was a teenager, and because magic was involved.)

What made you start writing for young adults?

I’ve always written for anyone who might enjoy my books.

I don’t believe in excluding readers.

What do you enjoy most about writing YA fiction?

Fantasy allows for the exploration of folklore and myth, which is I think a strong element of these books, as well as a deeper investigation into themes of alienation, coming of age, gender, belonging, identity, and the conflict with authority, which I think are particularly resonant with a youthful audience.

Have you faced any challenges when writing YA fiction, which you hadn’t encountered when writing your adult fiction?

I don’t see my fantasy as being materially different from my non-fantasy writing: the only real challenge to me has been that of trying to explain to a somewhat blinkered “literary” world why fantasy matters; how our dreams reflect who we are, and why it counts as literature.

Is your YA fiction different in style to your adult fiction or are they connected?

I don’t think it’s at all different. My fiction spans a number of areas, from outright fantasy to psychological thriller, but to me it’s all part of the same canvas.

Fantasy writing is about the things that matter deeply to us: our sense of identity; the things we fear; the things we love and hope for.

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Which YA authors do you love to read?

Philip Pullman; Scott Westerfield; Markus Zusak.

What was the inspiration behind your Rune Series?

A lifelong passion for Norse myth.

What are you working on at the moment?

The Testament of Loki, a follow-up to The Gospel of Loki, which will hopefully fill in the gaps between Gospel and Runemarks.

Where do you write?

A shed in my garden.

Do you have any particular writing habits or rituals?

Not really; althoughI do allocate a scent to all of my books as an aid to getting into the writing mood. This time, it’s Francis Kurkudjian’s Lumière Noire.

What kind of child were you?

An odd, lonely, introverted one.

What were your favourite books when you were growing up?

Ray Bradbury’s Golden Apples of The Sun.

Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Eagle of The Ninth.

Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast.

Willard Price’s Adventure books.

Which fictional character would you most like to meet?

Jean Valjean from Les Miserables.

What’s the most important lesson life has taught you?

Carpe diem.

Do you have any writing tics or habits that you’re forever editing out?

Everyone has. I’ve noticed that my characters do far too much nodding and head-shaking.

What’s your favourite quotation on writing or reading?

Ray Bradbury:

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.

 If you had a to choose a song to be the theme tune of your life, what would it be?

Elo: Mr Bluesky.

Which book do you wish you’d written?

Les Miserables.

What three tips would you give to an aspiring writer of YA fiction?

  • Read widely.
  • Stop aspiring.
  • Just write.

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You can find Joanne on Twitter, @joannechocolat, tumblr, http://joannechocolat.tumblr.com/ and on her website, www.joanne-harris.co.uk.

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Author photo credits:  Kyte Photography