Chick-lit is an insulting term
As her new book The Gospel of Loki is released, author Joanne Harris shares her views on fantasy fiction and women in literature with Shreeja Ravindranathan
Loki, her latest book and the third instalment of her Runemarks series. The third book she nonchalantly mentions is Chocolat, theWhitbread shortlisted fairy tale-esque novel that catapulted Harris to international acclaim. Widely remembered for its scrumptious descriptions of food that kick-started the gastromance novel trend ( Mistress of Spices and Eat, Pray,
Love) it also inspired the whimsical Oscar-nominated film starring Juliet Binoche and Johnny Depp.
Harris has no qualms with the movie even though it’s far from true to the darker tone of the book: “I enjoyed the film very much, although I don’t really think of it as my work, she says. “I was lucky the adaptation of Chocolat, though different in some ways from the book, retained much of the spirit of the original.”
She isn’t as generous when it comes to her work being classified as easy reading solely because of the use of food. “I prefer to think of food as a metaphor to represent different ideas such as tolerance, acceptance, pleasure, nostalgia, celebration, culture, divisions between social groups and within the family,” she says. “Food is a subject that we invest with all kinds of emotional resonance.” It’s easy to understand
why critics and readers alike shelve her under the contrived gastromance genre. Her novels right from Chocolat, Blackberry Wine, Five Quarters of the
Orange to Peaches forMonsieur Le Curé burst with flavourful rhapsodies. Several readers have said that lines from Peaches for... such as “It speaks of winter mornings and bowls of chocolat au lait, with thick slices of good fresh bread and last year’s peach jam, like a promise of sunshine at the darkest point of the year” have left them ravenously hungry and heading for the fridge.
But in the case of the author, it’s a hunger for versatility that drives her to try not to be pigeonholed into a specific genre. And rightfully so. Harris has tackled it all – from short stories in Jigs and Reels to magic realism in the Chocolat trilogy, to a thriller in Gentleman and Players to hard-core fantasy with her Runemarks series about a post-apocalyptic world set in the NineWorlds of Norse legends.
She is also prolific, having released a book or a short story every year since 2000. But it’s not all sales or the battle to thwart expectations of critics that motivates this MBE winner to churn out tome after tome.
“I write because I like it, and because I need to write,” she says. “I’ve never sought or trusted any other reason. I’ve always written exactly what I wanted to write, regardless of expectations. To do anything else, or to try and fit into any genre just because it might sell more books would be both dishonest and impossible.”
Apart from the aspects of “fantasy, folklore and suspense” that she’s
quick to point out are unifying factors in her work, what stands out are “themes of the outsider in the small community and ultimately of identity. I’m interested in how we see ourselves; in how our experiences shape our development and in how we project ourselves to others. Everyone has a secret; everyone is the product of their past; everyone lies about something.
“My stories come from those secrets; those lies; those glimpses into the psyche.”
Despite growing up in England, Harris’ first language is French. Perhaps her fixation with identities is a glimpse into her feelings about a dual nationality? “To what extent I feel French versus English is difficult to answer,” she says. “But having a dual nationality gives a broader cultural experience, which I’m sure has affected my writing.”
An obvious instance is her childhood fascination with Norse mythology, resulting in the Runemarks trilogy. “I’ve always loved Norse mythology. Partly because I’m from Yorkshire, where the Viking influence is so strong. It’s in the language of the place; the folklore, the names and the geography.”
But it’s her experience as a teacher that gave her an understanding of how small communities work. “Schools are excellent examples of the microcosmic community at work,” she says. That inspired her novel Gentlemen and Players, which is set in a boys’ school.
Harris enjoys interacting with readers through blogs, Twitter and social media. In fact, cyberspace spurred her to pen Blueeyed Boy, a psychological thriller about online fan-fiction communities. “I think that any social interaction with people on a day-to-day basis is bound to inform a writer,” she says.
So does she miss teaching? “Not really, I find that travelling, meeting the public and all the things I now do to promote my books give me all the human stimulus that I need.”
Her journey for human stimulus brings her to the book festival in Dubai, where she will be talking about The Gospel of Loki. So is there a surge in interest in fantasy fiction? No, says Harris. “I don’t think it’s a sudden surge at all. Fantasy writing is the oldest form of literature, and has ceased to be popular.
“Fairy tales were not originally designed for children, but for adults with bleak and difficult lives; the magic and horror within them was a means of trying to give coherent shape to an incoherent and confusing universe. Our demons may have changed over time, but we all still need to believe in our power to overcome them.”
As writers go, Harris has causes she’s passionate about, specifically the literary ones of women in fiction and literature’s future. Like her heroines – Maddy in
Runemarks and Chocolat’s Vianne whom Harris confesses she shares “an unusually close relationship to” – Harris too is independent and blunt with her opinions.
“There is a dearth of strong-willed, interesting female characters in literature,” she says.
“Too many literary heroines are solely motivated by the desire to get a man – it’s refreshing to find one occasionally whose journey doesn’t end in romance, and whose concerns are as varied as those of their male counterparts.”
What riles the author more than gastromance is the liberal use of the ‘chick-lit’ label. “I think chick-lit is an insulting term, both to readers and writers. I don’t use it, or encourage its use. I don’t believe books should be divided by gender, or that fiction by women should be seen as a ‘genre.’”
Harris loves that her career takes her around the world. “I travel a great deal and meet a lot of people. Many of my writing ideas come from chance encounters and stories I’ve collected from the strange places to which my writing has taken me. Literature is perhaps the most universal of art forms, and potentially the most versatile, establishing lines of communication between times, cultures and places. It is our way of expressing our shared human experience; of reaching out to the rest of the world; of informing the next generation; of proving to ourselves that we are not alone.”
‘Too many literary heroines are solely motivated by the desire to get a man’
Joanne Harris’ The Gospel of Loki is an epic fantasy rooted in Norse mythology
The movie Chocolat retained the spirit
of the book
Harris feels close to the character