The au­thor of Cho­co­lat re­turns with A Pock­et­ful Of Crows. Be­cause A Pock­et­ful Of Lint sounded rub­bish.

SFX - - Contents - Words by Jonathan Wright /// Pho­tog­ra­phy by Geraint Lewis

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”.

Fairy queen

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.

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