JOANNE M HARRIS
The author of Chocolat returns with A Pocketful Of Crows. Because A Pocketful Of Lint sounded rubbish.
Being worried about the loss of our heritage isn’t a new idea. In the late 19th century, Harvard academic Francis James Child began to gather and publish the lyrics of British folk songs, and their American variants, lyrics he was worried might otherwise be lost. His English And Scottish Popular Ballads, better known as the Child Ballads, offer a precious snapshot of our islands’ folklore. “They ought to be as famous as Grimms’ Fairy Tales, but for some reason they haven’t become so,” says Joanne M Harris, with just a hint of reproach in her voice.
Perhaps that’s about to change. A new novella from Harris, A Pocketful Of Crows, was inspired by ballad 295 of 305, “The Brown Girl”. A dark and magical tale of love and revenge that its author says is “part fairytale, part almanac”, and part a paean for the English countryside, it taps into “the idea of ballads as a storytelling tradition”.
If that sounds nostalgic, nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, this is a case of Harris trying to tap into the power of these stories. But doesn’t this power in itself make it difficult to escape the template of the original tales?
“It’s quite easy [to break free] once we think of stories as not particularly anchored in one time and place,” says Harris. “This is the reason stories stay alive, it’s because people retell them. Otherwise, they would disappear. And people retell them to suit the place they’re in, the time they’re in, the kind of society they inhabit, so they find things that are relevant to their own situation.” A while back, Harris adds, she did an event with Ben Okri where the two novelists realised that many traditional Nigerian tales were actually based on French stories that had reached Africa during the colonial era.
There’s another reason not to think of Crows as nostalgic. In its earliest form, it was distributed via Twitter, which Harris sees as closely related to the tradition of oral storytelling. “I was telling these little stories and writing them as I went along, and people were listening to them very much as they do at storytime at school,” says Harris.
The notion of telling stories in snippets of 140 characters or less has proved a fruitful jumping-off point for the author. Harris has a second Child Ballads novella in the works, based on ballad 113, an Orkney song about a silkie or changeling. In addition, her #Storytime Twitter tales are being collected under the title of Honeycomb in an illustrated storybook for adults, with Charles Vess of Stardust and Sandman fame providing the visuals.
Then there’s #Storytime live, which Harris describes on her website as “a kind of musical storytelling show – as yet, still under construction – combining original music, songs and stories as part of an exploration of different forms of narrative. Basically, Jackanory, with drums.”
Considering many will think of Harris primarily as a literary novelist, the writer of Chocolat, this may all suggest someone travelling a long way from her roots, but that’s not how Harris sees things. Rather, she sees herself as someone who’s written “across quite a broad spectrum”. At one end, there’s “outright fantasy”. In the middle there’s – for want of a better phrase, it’s a term she hates – the magic realism of Chocolat. Finally, there’s the “internalising of magical things” that goes on in her psychological thrillers.
“All of those things sit quite easily with each other in my head,” Harris says. “I don’t feel that I’m doing vastly different things, I just feel that they’re different parts of the same canvas.”
Albeit a big canvas, to the extent Harris talks about “an embarrassment of projects”. In addition to those she’s already outlined, Harris also hopes to deliver another book in the Chocolat sequence next year. More immediately, she’s been giving “a baby polish and an edit” to The Testament Of Loki, a sequel to The Gospel Of Loki, her 2015 novel offering the trickster’s perspective on events in Norse mythology. It’s a book set between Gospel and her Runemarks where, helpfully from a storyteller’s perspective, “you’ve got a whole block of time not accounted for”.
trick or treat
Perhaps surprisingly, her take on Norse mythology, she says, has gone down well in Scandinavia. “I think they liked the fact that I deliberately stepped away from the grand and epic, and went somewhere else,” she says of books that display an impish sense of humour. Certain comic-book fans, however, have been less positive. “People who only know Marvel and only want Marvel open my books, and they don’t get Marvel,” she says.
There are, Harris adds later, people who prefer “stories to stay in one place”. Which is of course ironic, considering how Stan Lee and Jack Kirby pilfered mythology for Thor. We’re back to the idea that old stories take on new lives – especially in post-Brexit Britain, suggests SFX where so much is in flux and we look to the past for clues about how to go forward? Harris concurs. “We’ve not had so much uncertainty within living memory of exactly who we are.”
A Pocketful Of Crows is out now.