"Let them read Harry Potter" - in conversation with Joanne Harris

Joanne Harris, bestselling author of a prolific body of work and delightful human being, recently graced our shores as one of the international authors joining the Franschhoek Literary Festival which took place this past weekend. We had the chance to catch up with her in between panels – here’s what she had to say.

I’m fairly certain you must get asked for your advice for aspiring writers all the time. In hindsight, what advice would you give to yourself when you were first starting out in writing and publishing?

Try be less of a dope with the press; try not to say the first thing that comes into your head because it will come back to bite you!

I’m a believer in learning from your mistakes. I think the fear of making mistakes is crippling and you shouldn’t really think about it too much. If I’d had advice I might have done things slightly differently but on the other hand I might not have learnt so much. So I don’t tend to have regrets about things like that.

There’s a lot of promotional work that goes hand in hand with being an author – book tours, events, travel, festivals. Do you enjoy what seems to be a rather tiring aspect of the job, or is it more of a necessary evil?

Well it’s not necessary because you don’t have to do it. Nobody is forced to do it, and some people don’t.

I do like it – I think sometimes it gets a little bit tiring, but I do find it interesting, and to a certain extent, necessary. The whole of my process has been based on human interaction in one way or another – some of it I get through social media, some of it I get through traveling around, some of it I get through sitting in coffee shops and listening to other people’s conversations, thinking ‘My God, this dialogue is gold!’

But I actually have to meet people, otherwise I know that if I sit for any length of time on my own, I am going to get slower and slower, and eventually my ideas run out. I find that even if I’m a bit tired, things spark off me when I’m travelling, when I’m talking to people, when I’m doing festivals or social media.

I think there is a tendency among certain people to think that literary festivals wouldn’t be for them. As such, it would be good to do some outreach, and particularly into schools.

At the heart of everything that I do, there is this interest in people. I’m much, much more interested in other people than I am in myself, and so sitting on my own, with just me, that’s not going to be a creative place to be for long.

Your books are never formulaic, and you work in a range of mediums from short stories to musical storytelling. For you, is creativity along the lines of a muscle, where the more you use it, the stronger it gets, or are there times when the muses abandon you?

I’m not sure if I’ve got a muse! I don’t think people from Yorkshire get them - I think we’re just expected to get on with it.

I find it difficult to think of creativity as something outside of me, or something that I have to access. I think it’s just something that’s part of my personality, and if I wasn’t writing, then I would be doing something else. I’d be drawing or taking photographs, or making up stories about the people I meet on the train.

It just happens – it’s just the way my mind works – so it’s not as if that’s going to disappear or dry up. Sometimes I have more ideas than other ideas. But the whole business of creativity being something you have to tap into – like the cloud – that’s not the way I see it.

WATCH: Changing the world, one story at a time - a TED talk with Joanne Harris

What are your suggestions on how we can make literary festivals more accessible and more inclusive?

I’m not sure if there’s an instant solution to this, but I think it is quite important to try and bring other people in. I think partly there’s a trickle-down effect from the guests you have. If you have a cast of authors that’s not ethnically diverse, then I don’t think you can automatically expect the audience to instantly gravitate. But I think it’s more than just that.

I think there is a tendency among certain people to think that literary festivals wouldn’t be for them. As such, it would be good to do some outreach, and particularly into schools. I would like to go into schools, and possibly to bring schools to the festivals. And perhaps even have specific ‘for school’ events at the festival. But I think that would be a good start. It would be nice to have more events for children. I think very often, children and young people are overlooked.

Stop banging on about how crap Twilight is, and just thank every God you believe in that the kids are reading anything

I like panels. Now there are a lot of panels at this festival, which makes me very happy, because I think that they’re great for introducing conversations and generating a buzz with the audience.

English festivals aren’t so good with panels. Genre festivals have them, but mainstream lit fic festivals do not generally do panels very well, which is a pity because you can do with a panel something that you can’t do with just one author going ‘Hey, this is my book, read it please.’ You can bring in current events, and things that might be on people’s minds.

But I also think that although literary festivals do a great deal for literature, books and book sales, they don’t do a lot for literacy. And they should. And we should be looking at outreach here, because if people don’t come, then we have to come to the people and persuade them that not only are there books for them and they are wanted – that they will be interested in what’s going on – but that we are willing to make an effort to include them.

How do we encourage a reading culture among the youth, especially teenagers?

Again, there is no simple way of doing it, but I think there are a number of things we need to address. One is how literature is taught in schools. You get inspirational teachers – of course you do – but within mainstream school education there is this awful, turgid lack of comprehension of what books are for.

This constant obsession about grammatical terms rather than actually teaching kids how to use grammar. [We should be] teaching them how to be creative, to understand that they can tell stories without necessarily knowing what an imperfect subjunctive is and why that is important.

And for God’s sake, stop judging what kids read! Stop banging on about how crap Twilight is, and just thank every God you believe in that the kids are reading anything. Let them read Harry Potter. Let them read comics. Let them read graphic novels.

Let them read stuff you think is trivial, because guess what, kids learn by doing stuff. You do not look at your two year old just learning to walk and go ‘Why aren’t you an Olympic athlete?’

This is what parents are doing. When I was a teacher, you got a lot of men in particular saying ‘Oh my son, he never reads anything but rubbish! He should be reading Chaucer.’ No he shouldn’t! He should be reading Terry Pratchett and Steven King – stuff that they like.

You start judging what they read and go ‘this is tripe!’, and guess what? Next minute you’ll have a kid who doesn’t read at all.

I think it’s sometimes disconcerting for people if they start to perceive that their favourite author is a different person to the way they thought they were

READ MORE: 5 books for the Harry Potter fan in your life

You’re a fairly prolific social media user.

Social media feeds into what a lot of us do nowadays. It’s a means of keeping in touch with people you like and you wish you saw more often. It’s a means of becoming accessible to a readership which is becoming more and more hungry for access and conversation.

It’s informative in that I get involved in conversations with people about things that I know nothing about. I’ve been involved with a lot of people who are talking about areas of society and topics of gender and ethnicity and things I haven’t any real experience of, which I’ve been very interested to learn from.

And in terms of how social media impacts the relationship between authors and readers?

If you’re going to interact with somebody then it’s a good idea to remember that they are a human being, and that they will have opinions on things, and even opinions that may not coincide with your opinions.

This is okay! I’m all for authors being human beings. It would be nice if they were, at least most of the time, nice human beings, but that’s not always a given. I think it’s sometimes disconcerting for people if they start to perceive that their favourite author is a different person to the way they thought they were.

We should comment on things, and we should have discussions about things. We can all do it without being confrontational and horrid. I think it is quite important, when you’re in a privileged position, and when you are talking about a different group of people that you don’t belong to, not to make arrested pronouncements, especially when this community is going ‘Excuse me! Right here! Something to say!’ It’s important to listen.

You may decide not to do anything about it, you may decide that you still hold your point of view, but just to deny that there can be another one at all seems to be completely the antithesis of what an author ought to be doing.

Are there any particular genres you enjoy reading in?

I read in pretty much every genre there is. I will read things partly because I like the author; I’ll read things because other people are reading them and I want to be able to discuss them because they have been contentious in some way; I’ll read things because I like the jacket… I’m a tart, I will read pretty much anything!

I’m aware that I have a comfort zone – rereading books I already know very well. I have to stop myself from doing that sometimes and read something new. I go through phases of reading different things – I’ll go through a horror phase, or a sci-fi phase, or a Japanese magical realism phase.

I like YA [Young Adult]. I think there’s a huge amount of really exceptional YA around.  It gets sneered at a great deal by people who have never read any. There’s obviously a disconnect somewhere within mainstream adult lit fic and people who like to read, because, let’s face it, a lot of lit fic is almost plot-free and is about fine writing – about which most readers do not give a hoot. Whereas YA is for people who want to read stories and care about characters.

Much of it is also very well written and very well plotted. The fact that we have so many adults of all ages wanting to read YA just proves that there is something lacking in much of the mainstream because they’re drawn to an area where they were not expected to be. There’s obviously something a little bit wrong about the way literary prizes and the literary world perceives the readership and where the readership should be. Good for the readership, I say. Voting with their feet and reading what the hell they like.

I think to a certain extent we have to thank Harry Potter for this, and the Harry Potter phenomenon that certainly gave people permission to read, and to enjoy, and talk about a children’s book. I think it’s an excellent thing, and very good for the literary world.

Can you share any information for our readers about your future projects or endeavours?

I’ve got a book coming out in October which is called A Pocket Full of Crows. It’s a short book with illustrations for adults, although I think it’s probably more of a YA thing since it’s a coming-of-age story; a love story about magic and revenge based on one of the child ballads which is a massive folkloric resource in England which is underused and under acknowledged in terms of its literary importance. It’s basically about how it’s probably a bad idea for a young man to mess with a witch. I’ve had enormous fun writing it.

I’ve got Honeycomb, which is my Twitter #Storytime stories which are being illustrated by Charles Vess, hopefully as we speak, and should be coming out next year.

I’m just finising editing a book called The Testament of Loki which is the sequel to The Gospel of Loki. Hopefully, it will fit Runemarks, Runelight, and Loki all together and people will go ‘Oh, that’s what she was doing!’ and will answer a lot of questions about why Loki talks like a nineties teenager.

I’m also writing a musical with Howard Goodall about pre-raphaelite women, which is also hysterical fun - Howard is brilliant to work with.

I like to be busy, I like to have more than one project, and I also like to work with other people. So I’m really enjoying illustrators and musicians and composers as part of the process.

For more information about Joanne, you can visit her website here.

Check out more of Hannah's bookish posts on her blog, Fullybookedreviews.com.

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