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

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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

of Vianne

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