Interview: Joanne Harris on Harrogate RNIB and Johnny Depp

Author Joanne Harris.
Author Joanne Harris.

Best-selling Yorkshire author Joanne Harris came to Harrogate recently to speak at RNIB’s Tate House about the power of Talking Books. She also found time to talk to GRAHAM CHALMERS about her impressively varied career - and what it was like to meet Johnny Depp.

Amid the chatter and cakes and cups of tea, Joanne Harris MBE can’t seem to tear herself away from the residents of Tate House in Harrogate.

Afterwards, the bestselling Yorkshire-born author, tweets the following:

“Thank you to all the lovely people of Tate House for your conversation & applause and for reminding me of the importance of talking books.”

It’s a long way from this cosy and comfortable RNIB home to the Hollywood film set where Harris ‘hung out’ with Hollywood superstar Johnny Depp during the shooting of the movie version of her deliciously bitter-sweet international bestseller Chocolat.

Nowadays we’re accustomed to celebrities doing their bit for charity, even if their efforts always seem to coincide with the launch of a new song or a new movie.

Authors do things differently.

Asides from myself and staff members, no one witnesses Joanne Harris’s visit to Tate House, one of three homes for the elderly in the whole of England run by the Royal National Institute of Blind People.

One of only four female members of the ‘Millionaires Club’, those writers who have sold a million sales of a single book in the UK, it’s the first time Harris, 49, has done this sort of thing.

I ask her why. In reply, this likable but quietly steely woman chooses her words carefully - as any good writer would.

In fact, everything she goes on to says to me is precise and to the point.

“I’ve got involved because they asked me to. I thought it would be a nice thing to do.

“I know how important talking books are to the blind and what visiting speakers mean to them, too. The support the public gives to RNIB makes a huge difference to the lives of blind people.”

It has to be said, there’s a real buzz about Tate House which is located near Harrogate Town’s football ground in Wetherby Road.

Having read excerpts from Chocolat and two of her other many bestsellers, The Lollipop Shoes and blueeyedboy, Harris is happy to answer questions from the chatty, elderly residents.

Harris’s novels are particularly popular here – many of them enjoy Braille, giant print or talking book versions of her novels on electronic CD gizmos nick-named ‘daisy players’ at the home.

Harris believes losing the ability to read leaves a huge void in people’s lives, which is where RNIB’s Talking Book service comes in.

“Everyone loves stories, the blind more than anyone else. They rely on books to create a window onto the world.”

The window to Harris’s career only really opened after her first two novels - The Evil Seed and Sleep, Pale Sister - had struggled to make an impact.

Her third, Chocolat, the story of the tensions which arise in a small French village when a single mother has the temerity to open a chocolate shop opposite the church, heralded the start of a new era for Harris - and brought that meeting with Johnny Depp.

This former school teacher was clearly impressed.

What’s he like?

“He’s just like you’d expect him to be. He’s a real person. Quirky, intelligent, very nice but a bit shy. He’s a simple soul in the nicest possible way.”

Born in 1964 in Barnsley, Harris’s own origins sound the stuff of movies - or novels.

Was she really born in her grandparents’ sweet shop, I ask?

“Yes, I was born there.”

But you’re only 49, that sounds like something from the 1920s or 30s?

“Barnsley in the 1960s was a quite different place.”

Yorkshire has changed a lot in recent decades, I suggest and she adds that “Yorkshire is much more cosmopolitan today.”

I dare say the quietly playful Harris herself is more cosmopolitan these days, too.

Educated at Wakefield Girls High School and St Catharine’s College at Cambridge, little can she have dreamed while teaching modern languages at Leeds Grammar School that her own books would end up being published in 50 different languages.

Like most journalists, I fantasise about writing a novel but struggle to get past the first page.

Thankfully she offers a simple piece of advice.

“You don’t think of it as writing a novel, you think of it as writing a single sentence, then writing the next one, that way you end up with a book.

“If you started off thinking of writing a novel, it would become such a daunting prospect, you’d never do it.”

Never one to stand still, while the bestseller have continued to flow since the success of Chocolat, her range of subject material has grown wider and wider.

There’s been dark, psychological thrillers (Gentlemen & Players, blueeyedboy), fantasy novels inspired by Nordic legends (Runemarks), a couple of sequels to Chocolat (The Lollipop Shoes, Peaches for Monsieur le Curé) and even the odd French cookbook.

She also contributed a short story to a book published by Harrogate’s famous Bettys cafe about their origins a few years back.

Joanne Harris, it has to be said, seems to be up for everything and anything.

I ask that ‘why’ question once again.

“The reason I write so many different styles of books is because I would get bored otherwise. I have an imagination and would like to be able to use it.

“I would be very unhappy if I was to get stuck with some sort of ‘brand’.”

Her feisty, intelligent and restless nature seems to be reflected in everything she does.

As well as her passion for talking books and the work of the RNIB, she is also a patron of the charity Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).

Harris’s is such a wide vision and yet she reportedly does all her writing from a shed in her back garden.

Is that true, I ask?

“Yes, it’s true.”

It turns out it is a rather luxurious shed, however.

“I write in my shed in the bottom of the garden but it’s a posh shed. It’s made of stone and has heating. My house in Huddersfield has a nice garden and lies in a little wood. The shed has nice views.

“It means I’m not constantly interrupted by visitors or phone calls. It’s my private place.”

As I wrap up the interview I imagine I can see it all falling into place with this famous author’s own story.

Born in a sweet shop: her literary fascination with the sense of taste and smell.

Parents from different countries: her literary fascination with language.

Speaking out against sexism in the literary world: her literary fascination with strong female characters.

Then it hits me. I would make a lousy novelist.