Interview with Joanne M. Harris (HONEYCOMB)
Joanne Harris is the author of the Whitbread-shortlisted CHOCOLAT (made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp) and many other bestselling novels. Her hobbies are listed in Who’s Who as ‘mooching, lounging, strutting, strumming, priest-baiting and quiet subversion’. She plays bass guitar in a band first formed when she was 16, is currently studying Old Norse, and lives with her husband and daughter in Yorkshire, about 15 miles from the place she was born. Find out more at http://www.joanne-harris.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @Joannechocolat
Welcome to the Hive Joanne!
Congratulations on the release of your latest collection of stories, Honeycomb. Can you tell us a little about it?
HONEYCOMB is a kind of hybrid novel and short story collection, in which every story intersects in some form – thematically, or by introducing a character, or by advancing the main plot – with every other. It’s set in the same expanded Nine Worlds as my LOKI books (THE GOSPEL OF LOKI, RUNEMARKS) and my Child Ballad-inspired novellas (ORFEIA, A POCKETFUL OF CROWS), and it follows the tale of the Lacewing King, ruler of the Silken Folk, a version of the Fae, from his birth and coming-of-age, through his many adventures (and misadventures) on his journey through the Worlds.
Had you always planned to write Honeycomb as a series of short dark fairy-tales, or did the short story form naturally occur as you began writing?
I wrote most of these little stories live on Twitter, as part of my #Storytime hashtag, so the form – and to a certain extent, the language – was dictated by the medium. The overarching themes and returning characters developed slowly over a period of six years or so, which is when I realized that this could become a book.
Your clothbound edition of Honeycomb is absolutely stunning, the illustrations by award-winning Charles Vess are such a delight too and really enhance the reading experience. Did you have much input into the cover production/design? And what was your reaction when you first laid eyes upon the illustrations?
I always take an active interest in jacket design, and worked closely with Sue Gent, who produced the marvellous cover. Working with Charles was marvellous – I’d always seen this as an illustrated fairy book for adults, in the tradition of Golden Age illustrators, so I was thrilled when he agreed to be a part of the project. I didn’t want to be too controlling when it came to his choice of subject or his interpretation of the text, so I mostly left him to his own devices. He would run the initial sketches past me for comment, but they were already so beautiful by then that I really didn’t ask for changes…
Yours is such an eclectic oeuvre of books that they defy categorisation by genre or audience. Nonetheless, do you feel there is a distinctive/common feature or fingerprint to be found across your works that mark out a Joanne Harris book?
I think that whatever the genre, I have a love of vivid imagery, especially sensual imagery based around colour, scent and taste. And I tend to rework the same themes and ideas in different genres: the theme of the outsider, of the community under pressure, of the ideas of perception and memory and of the power of storytelling.
Many of us here at the Hive first came to your work with a Hive group read of The Gospel of Loki and we loved the acerbic wise cracking genius of Loki. But this quote particularly struck home.
“After all, words are what remain when all the deeds have been done. Words can shatter faith; start a war; change the course of history. A story can make your heart beat faster; topple walls; scale mountains – hey a story can even raise the dead. And that’s why the King of Stories ended up being King of the gods because writing history and making history are only the breadth of a page apart.”
So our question is what is it that makes you want to write?
Writing fulfils a need in me that cannot be satisfied otherwise.
Some Norse legends can be very dark (such as in Darkness Forged a SPFBO finalist that retold the tale of Wayland the Smith and his brothers). Other works are being exposed to re-interpretation like Maria Dahvana Headley’s new translation of Beowulf. How far did contemporary issues and society affect how you chose to tell Loki’s story?
I think that any traditional story that remains relevant today does so for a reason. With Norse myths, it’s the characters. Loki’s outsider status; his gender-fluidity; his neurodivergent thinking – these are all aspects of his character I tried to emphasize throughout the narrative. I really didn’t want to go back to Snorri’s heroic retellings – I wanted to bring Loki’s story back to the people via a new oral tradition; hence the modern language, the slang and the deliberate anachronisms.
Are there any characters of yours, from any of your novels, which stand out as your most favourite to have written? Or were there any characters you particularly found difficult to write?
I generally only find characters difficult to write if I don’t understand them properly. That’s why I go into detail trying to work out the voices, the backstories, the emotional baggage: I need all these things to make a character real in my mind. Some characters – especially villains – are more of a challenge than others, but that’s why I like writing them so much, and why I usually do so in the first person. One of my favourites is Loki himself – his voice is so upbeat and brash and unrepentant and self-destructive, and yet underneath, he’s so fundamentally damaged that he doesn’t even realize why he behaves in the way he does. I love the fact that even when he’s narrating in the first person, the reader knows more about his motivations than he does.
One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
Sleipnir, of course. Assuming, that is, he’d let me ride him. 🙂
Obviously you’ve been going through treatment at the moment, and we all wish you well and hope for every success from it, but have there been any books that you have turned to, or gone back to for distraction or escapism?
Graphic novels and comics have been a big thing for me this lockdown, starting with a complete re-read of SANDMAN, SAGA and LUMBERJANES.
Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress? Have you any upcoming projects which you can share?
I’m working on several things, including a new Loki/Rune book, set just after the end of RUNELIGHT. I’m about halfway through it right now, which means (I hope) that I can see it finished by next year.
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
Everyone is different. Everyone finds what they can in a book. All I hope is that my readers find and take away what they need.
Thank you so much for joining us today Joanne!
Honeycomb is available now:
check out Orion’s website for details on all Joanne’s books and where you can find them.