Joanne Harris at the Oxford Literary Festival

Posted on April 16, 2019 in Oxford

One of the nicest things about living in Oxford is how lucky we are with literary events. One of the literary highlights of the year is always the Oxford Literary Festival, and, as usual, this year we were spoiled for choice when it came to choosing what to attend.

Joanne Harris was one of the last speakers of the festival, and was interviewed in the glorious Sheldonian Theatre by Financial Times reviewer Suzi Feay. As an extra treat, she was awarded the honorary fellowship of the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival at the end of the interview, and the audience were invited to participate in the ceremony.

“If anyone is an expert in storytelling,” Suzi began, “it is Joanne Harris”, before exploring Harris’s process, themes, and her views on publishing.

Of course the logical place to start is with her new book, The Strawberry Thief, the fourth book in the beloved Chocolat series, which Harris had never intended to write a sequel to. “Most of the time,” she said, “the story comes to find me.”

It just so happened that the writing of The Strawberry Thief coincided with the recording of the audiobook of Chocolat, which Harris read herself. This, it turned out, turned out to be extremely valuable to the writing process.

“It reminded me of all kinds of things I had forgotten,” she smiled, “this book feels closer to Chocolat than the others, and completes the story.”

As with previous instalments, the book centres closely around the theme of otherness, which continues to fascinate Harris. “People who don’t belong are good at observing those who do,” she mused. This is a quality seen through both of the protagonists of Chocolat, Vianne and Roux, about whom she said “People like Viane and Roux feel uncomfortable owning property because they don’t think they can belong to a place for very long.”

Another element that was explored was fairy-tales, which continue to fascinate her, but which she approaches with her usual deftness of craft. “Viane has extraordinary insight and this isn’t witchcraft…it’s being a good person. I wanted to keep the witchcraft element as fluid as It could possibly be, so people weren’t left out of the story.” It seems Harris’ compassion for the outsider in fiction leads to a particular thoughtfulness in ensuring no reader is left out of her fictional worlds.

Harris also shared her process; “I try to do 300 words a day. If you keep to that every day you have the end of a draft in a year.” While she described a lot of her writing time as ‘thinking time’ she was clear on the importance of staying in touch with your book every day.

“If you leave a novel for a week,” she said, “it goes feral, and you have to tame it again.”

From here the conversation moved to publishing. Harris has been vocal on Twitter about the damage caused by book piracy and the new challenges faced in the industry. “We used to have the net book agreement,” she reminded us, “which meant books were always the same price and meant a level playing field for booksellers, and meant authors could earn money and not be badly disadvantaged by not being well known.” The transition to digital, which, she said, has some very positive aspects, has also created some new struggles for authors, because “people tend to forget that copyright theft is actually theft…the problem of piracy is a big one.”

However, Harris ultimately has faith in her readers, and in the market’s desire for books in all their forms. “There’s still a huge amount of passion…people want to read. Most readers understand that if they want authors to be able to continue writing, those writers must be able to make a living.”

She also acknowledged that ebooks have led to a rise in beautifully produced hardbacks, and sees the value of both ebooks and physical. “It’s nice that people have a choice,” she says.

When asked how everything happening in the world has impacted upon her writing, she remained hopeful, and showcased the love of fairytales which seep into all of her books. “Writing for me is like the red shoes – I can’t stop….This is a time that will give birth to some very good dystopian sci-fi!”

We wonder if 2020’s Oxford Literary Festival will see her promoting a new dystopian novel!


Written by Kate McNamara