After months of treatment for breast cancer, the Chocolat author is back with two new books — and a message for ‘privileged’ writers like John Banville
Ever since her breakout novel Chocolat, published in 1999, Joanne Harris has been staggeringly prolific, writing 25 books across a wide spectrum of genres: non-fiction, historical fiction, fantasy — and even mythpunk.
The first Covid lockdown, imposed in Harris’ native UK in late March 2020, was a particularly busy time for the writer. She had completed three books, published two more, successfully shielded her elderly parents from coronavirus, and even managed a Couch to 5K challenge.
Once Harris had handed in the edits on her latest book, the hugely ambitious Honeycomb, in January this year, she promptly went into hospital for breast cancer treatment. The writer was diagnosed after a routine mammogram right before Christmas, and delivered her news online with the sort of dark humour that her many fans love.
“Today in #ThisWritingLife: In which Joanne learns she has breast cancer. Oh, 2020. You are really spoiling us,” she tweeted to her 86,000 followers. “It is a primary cancer (which makes it sound like a cute toddler), so should respond to surgery and radiotherapy. But, yeah. It’s still scary, and it sucks. So send me your pictures of otters, cats and recommendations for box sets.”
Speaking over Zoom from her home in Yorkshire, Harris says that the diagnosis, and subsequent treatment, didn’t derail her considerable creative output (she’s also in a band with her husband, Kevin). If anything, starting a new book brings her ‘back to life’ creatively.
“I’ve always found it quite easy to disappear into work, and the more I have to disappear from, the better actually,” she says. “Because all of this happened in lockdown, I guess that’s the one big advantage. Obviously, cancer is tremendously time-consuming, because you have to go for all these treatments and the rest of it. And I would have found that really difficult to fit into a kind of professional life, if I’d been doing festivals and touring and stuff. But I’m at the end of my chemo and hoping to look at resuming whatever normality I can get this year.”
The irreverent humour with which she has relayed her ongoing cancer journey to her online community has been largely appreciated. “Well, people approach these things the way that feels natural to them,” Harris shrugs. “And you know if felt natural for me to look at things in a certain kind of positive way. Visualising my cancer as a sort of little goblin that has to be exorcised was part of that process.”
We are talking because Harris has not one but two books on imminent release to promote. Illustrated by Charles Vess, Honeycomb has been described as an “book of fairy stories for grown-ups”. The collection was born out of a number of bite-sized stories that Harris previously shared on Twitter.
“I wrote them initially as a kind of forward-planning exercise,” she says. “I was getting immediate reactions from the audience and soon people were saying, ‘why aren’t you [using] these stories? What’s happening to them?’ I realised I had a sort of ongoing story involving ongoing characters, so I made them into Honeycomb, which is effectively neither a novel nor a collection of short stories, but a mash-up of both.”
A Narrow Door, the latest in a trio of novels set in St Oswald’s Grammar School (the others were Gentlemen and Players and Different Class) sees the return of elderly Latin Master Roy Straitley.
In this third instalment, which is easily enjoyed as a standalone title, fortysomething Rebecca Buckfast is appointed headmistress — the first in the school’s 500-year history. She is keen to enact changes for the better, but comes up against a wave of sexism and snobbery.
Things become even more complicated when students appear to find human remains on the school grounds. A year after a paedophilia scandal, the school is keen to address the matter immediately, only to find that Rebecca already knows about the remains.
A Narrow Door is muscular and multi-layered, and benefits greatly from Harris’ insights as a former teacher at Leeds Grammar School. (After the release of Chocolat, which resulted in her induction to the ‘Millionaire’s Club’, a group of authors who have achieved a million sales of a single book, she left teaching to pursue writing full-time).
“I was part of that world for 15 years, so it was probably inevitable that I was going to write about it in some form,” Harris says. “I was brought up by parents who were teachers, and my grandfather was a teacher so I was aware from a very, very early age that schools were filled with stories and drama and tragedy and thoughts and all kinds of things. I actually promised myself then I wouldn’t write about teaching, because it would open a can of worms. I do think I was possibly waiting for some of my colleagues to die.”
Harris has previously revealed that the quixotic Luddite Straitley was affectionately based on a former colleague of hers, Derek Fry. “He’s kind of an amalgamation of people,” she adds. “There’s a fairly big dollop of me in Straitley, to some extent.”
Harris recalls being one of a handful of young female teachers. “It was clear to me that most of the members of staff were men of a certain age,” she says. “Some were grumpy, some were less grumpy, but there was a sense of tradition, by which I mean, if you sat in the wrong place in the staff room during the headmaster’s briefing, you could start a war.
“I don’t have Rebecca’s backstory, but I did have the same kind of tussles against the patriarchal establishment.”
Both Honeycomb and A Narrow Door couldn’t be more stylistically different: another book, released at the end of last year, Ten Things About Writing, a self-help book for writers, was different again.
Harris likes to tinker around with different projects at the same time. “I just do it in the same way that I read across a very wide range of topics,” she says. “I know some people only read in one genre, but I would get bored. Any project that hasn’t felt like I’m doing something new or taking some kind of risk … well, what’s the point in doing it?”
Little wonder, really, that Harris had been outspoken in the past about perceived sexism in book publishing. The conceit that women are seen as somehow second-rate flared up again recently, when Jeanette Winterson spoke about how her republished works were being presented as “wimmins fiction of the worst kind”.
“I mean, I love Jeanette, but it was perhaps an unwise thing to say as it hits a sore spot with a lot of women writers, and feeds into an already existing view that writing and women’s writing is not the same,” Harris says.
“Women’s writing is seen as domestic and therefore trivial and possibly, God help us, even romantic, and therefore not as interesting as men’s fiction which is universal and important. We should have grown past this in publishing by now, and seemingly we haven’t.”
Some might disagree with her: after Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain won the Booker Prize in 2020, John Banville famously noted that it was becoming “very difficult” for straight, white male authors to succeed.
To which Harris replies: “Here’s a man who is so entrenched in his privilege to the extent of not actually seeing it as a privilege. The minute somebody questions it, he feels victimised.
“As a white woman, I’ve got my own privilege to cope with here, but it still very much feels that middle-aged white men feel aggrieved that anybody else has a voice. We really are not going to make progress as fast as we should. I do think it would be very helpful if we had discussions about this, instead of just people who have enjoyed everything on a silver platter talking about things coming on a slightly smaller platter now.”
‘Honeycomb’ (Orion) is out now; ‘A Narrow Door’ (Orion) is out on August 4.