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Interview with Joanne Harris: “Writing just a few hundred words a day can help me maintain focus.”

Joanne Harris (OBE) was born in Barnsley in 1964, of a French mother and an English father. She studied Modern and Mediaeval Languages at Cambridge and was a teacher for fifteen years, during which time she published three novels, including Chocolat (1999), which was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche.

Since then, she has written 19 more novels, plus novellas, short stories, game scripts, the libretti for two short operas, several screenplays, a stage musical (with Howard Goodall) and three cookbooks. Her books are now published in over 50 countries and have won a number of British and international awards. 

She is an honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, has honorary doctorates in literature from the universities of Sheffield and Huddersfield, and has been a judge for the Whitbread Prize, the Orange Prize, the Desmond Elliott Prize, the Betty Trask Award, the Prima Donna Prize and the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science, as well as for the Fragrance Foundation awards for perfume and perfume journalism (for which she also received an award in 2017).

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Hi Joanne, thank you for joining us today. We’re super excited to talk about your writing routine. To get things started, would you able to tell us a little bit about yourself and writing career to date?

I’m the author of 19 novels, (including Chocolat, which was made into a movie in 2000), plus scripts, novellas, short stories and stage projects. I was originally a teacher, but have been writing professionally for over 20 years. I’m published in over 50 countries, have received a number of British and international awards, including, most recently, an OBE by the Queen. 

I am the chair of the Society of Authors (the authors’ trade union in the UK). I have an unusual form of synaesthesia, which means that I smell colours – which explains my use of colour and scent during the writing process. I live in Yorkshire, in the north of the UK, with my husband, and we have one child, aged 29.

What was the process like for adapting Chocolat into a film? Were you involved much in terms of creative input? 

By the time a book is made into a film, the author’s work is long finished. Mine was very much a spectator’s role, although I did get a Special Adviser credit (probably because Juliette Binoche wanted me on set). I enjoyed the process enormously – but I don’t flatter myself that I had more than a courtesy involvement in the process.

Can you take us behind the creative process for your recently published novel, A Narrow Door

This novel draws heavily on my experiences of being a junior teacher at a boys’ grammar school in the mid-80s. It’s part of a series of three novels (Gentlemen & Players and Different Class), but stands alone. I wrote most of it during lockdown, at my home in Yorkshire, in my shed (which is my favourite workspace.)

During lockdown I was mostly at home, so I was able to establish a regular writing routine for the first time in 20 years. The scent I used for this novel was Dzing! (by L’Artisan Parfumeur), a dry woody scent which smells largely of books and paper. (more about my method of using scents in writing here.) The font I used for the main draft was Calibri, after which I edited in Times New Roman (more of this later).

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

If I’m at home, I work from my shed in the garden. I start work at about 8 or 9, after breakfast. I don’t have many writing rituals (I’m used to grabbing what time is available wherever I am), but I do check Twitter, where I tweet my daily update from the Shed (which changes shape and location every day).

For each of my books I use a different scent as a trigger to get myself into the right frame of mind (This time it’s Dzing!). I start by reading aloud the section I wrote the previous day, and making any necessary edits. Then I begin writing, usually until mid-afternoon, when I stop for the day.

Do you have a target word count that you like to hit each day? 

I aim for a minimum of 300 words every day, without exception. It’s a deliberately small number, so that I never have an excuse to miss a day, and so that even on very busy days I can keep my work-in-progress going. Much of writing is thinking time, and writing just a few hundred words a day can help me maintain focus.

Whenever you hit a roadblock during a writing session, what are some of the methods you use to get back into the flow of things?

I go for a run, or take a day off to do something else, to read, watch movies, listen to music. I think you need to consume art to make art: and creators often suffer creative exhaustion without realizing it. If my dry spell lasts longer than a few days, I will usually move to writing something else. I often work on two or three projects at a time, and sometimes a book just needs time to develop. During these waiting intervals I like to work on something different: short stories, a novel in a different genre, or some other project. That way I don’t feel disconnected from my work, and I can come back to my original project when it’s ready.

Can you talk about some of your must-have writing tools?

I use a laptop for all my writing nowadays, although I still keep notebooks. (I prefer black, lined Moleskine notebooks: anything else is usually too pretty to use. I find fonts important: I use Calibri for my first drafts, then change the font for the editing process: it allows me to look at the manuscript with a new eye. 

What would be your top advice for writers out there trying to get published? 

Don’t try to get published. Try to write the best novel you can. Getting published comes later.

What does your writing workspace look like?

I work in a stone-built shed in my garden. There are green oak beams, which smell marvellous, and a slate floor. In winter it’s warm (there is underfloor heating), and in summer it’s deliciously cool, as it’s surrounded by trees. It was supposed to be quite a monastic interior, but a lot of my favourite things have found their way here – some family keepsakes and souvenirs from my travels, a painting of Ray Bradbury that the writer gave me, some Wendy Froud figures based on my novels, etc.

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