Interview by Jennifer Ciotta; Introduction by Carly Cassano
It was a pleasure for Literary Traveler founder, Francis McGovern, and editor-at-large, Jennifer Ciotta, to travel across the Atlantic with authors Bill Bryson and Joanne Harris on the Queen Mary 2 Luxury Ocean liner. The Westbound Transatlantic Crossing leaves port in Southampton and docks in New York City.
Francis and Jennifer reveled in the literary prestige of the line, which has hosted many authors and celebrities throughout its years of service, including: David Niven, H.G. Wells, Helen Keller, Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams, and W. Somerset Maugham.
Please enjoy the transcript of Jennifer Ciotta’s interview with Joanne Harris, author of books like Chocolat and Blue Eyed Boy, among others.
Jennifer Ciotta: We’re here with Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, The Lollipop Shoes, and her newest work, (the) Blue Eyed Boy on the Queen Mary 2. Welcome Joanne.
Joanne Harris: Hi there!
In your lecture, you discussed how food evokes emotion in its universality. How does presentation, luxury and setting of the food aboard the Queen Mary 2 evoke emotions for you as a writer?
JH: Well I think if people want to travel on an ocean liner then obviously they have a certain view of the world; or they want a certain view of the world. And I think that that entails a certain level of luxury in presentation. I think the food is presented to reflect that.
So, it’s often quite splendidly old fashioned food: things like baked Alaska, which I haven’t had in absolute years; and things like Chateaubriand steaks, and this kind of thing. (Because) People are buying into account of a rather retro view of the world, where eating takes time, where travel takes time. And I think, you know, that the kitchens have identified that and played to it. And very successfully.
JC: And how do you like… the chocolate on here? We get chocolate all the time!
JH: Oh, the chocolate!? I like everything, it’s all very good. It’s all very nicely presented. And I have to say I’m a huge fan of whoever it is who carves the little vegetables and the melons, and who makes the ice sculptures and this kind of thing. (Because) There’s obviously someone behind the scenes who’s a real artist.
JC: Haha, that’s true. Food is becoming extremely linked with travel and with literature. For example, on the Travel Chanel there’s a lot of food shows. Do you believe food is a popular theme in literature, and do you think it’ll become more popular like Chocolat?
JH: Well I think it’s always been popular. And I think, you know, I’ve been very wrongly but flatteringly attributed this, this task of having sort of brought this food in fiction to popularity. This isn’t at all true; food has always had a place in fiction. And I think with its link to travel it is one of the accessible ways to travel, you know, of accessing a culture, by embracing the food. Or, or actually by traveling virtually by reading about a culture, I think one of the things you can respond to most readily is how people eat and how that effects, well all sorts of things from the welcome that you’re given to the kind of things that are grown, to the geography and topography of the place. And all that is linked in the food.
JC: And then, what is your favorite meal? And do you like to cook?
JH: I do like to cook! My favorite meal will vary enormously depending on where I am and on the season. I do like to eat things in their seasons. And I like the sense of anticipation when something is approaching its season, and so, you know, that will vary very much in different types of place and times of year.
I tend to like simple things that haven’t been messed around too much. So I eat a lot of fruit and vegetables at home, a lot of things that require minimal presentation; and this is good because I don’t have a lot of time to cook very complicated things. So I do cook, but it tends to be quick cooking, more assemblage than cooking, really.
JC: Is there a French meal you enjoy? An English meal you enjoy the most?
JH: Well there are lots of things I like for the sake of the nostalgia that they evoke. (And, uh) When I’m in France there are certain things that I will eat that I wouldn’t necessarily eat anywhere else.
Things like black pudding, for instance, which is very a Yorkshire thing, but I don’t eat it in Yorkshire because I don’t like Yorkshire black pudding. I’m not used to it, so I would eat the French sort.
And a certain kind of rye and buckwheat pancakes which was always made in the place that my grandmother lived. And so you will have that, and that’s a very traditional dish over: black pudding and pancakes, and apple. That’s one of my all-time comfort foods.
JC: Mmm, sounds good.
Do you cook for your children? What’s your favorite group of people to cook for? Your children, or friends, or…?
JH: Well I cook for my family all the time. I very rarely have friends around for dinner parties because when I do have friends around we usually get a take-away. (Laughs) But I cook for my husband and for my daughter. And because they are both vegetarians, I have quite specific requirements. What I do tends to be limited to what they will eat, as opposed to, you know, special things that I might cook for myself. That doesn’t happen.
JC: Have you gotten very good at [cooking] vegetarian dishes because of that?
JH: They’re very easy. I find they’re very accessible. A lot of people have this idea that vegetarian food is either dull, or difficult, or somehow you have to think very hard, but I don’t find it difficult at all. I find it very easy to assimilate. (And uh) You know, most of the time I don’t miss the other stuff except perhaps when I’m somewhere like this, where I get a chance to eat all kinds of things that I wouldn’t normally!
JC: In your lecture you said, I write because I can’t really not write; since a lot of our audience are writers, could you tell us about how you kept you ambition to become a published author despite all the rejections, and could you also tell us about your rejection sculpture?
JH: Well I don’t really have any ambition. I’m not one of those ambitious people. I would have been very happy to keep on writing at whatever level I was able to. It’s obviously very nice to be published, but it’s not something I would’ve stopped doing just because rejection got on top of me, because publication was never my initial objective. You know, in my wildest dreams sometimes I used to think how wonderful it would be if I could write for a living and be paid for it, but not everybody gets the chance.
So it was something that, you know, I was never really convinced that I was going to make it in any kind of meaningful way. And so I kept writing because I liked it, and because I wanted to do it, and on some level I guess I had to do it. I think really I got into being published out of curiosity, because I thought, ‘well what if I follow this path, how far will it lead me?’ And I really never expected it to lead me to anything much. When my first book was published I was absolutely delighted. I could quite easily have kept it at that level but, you know, I got lucky. And I eventually got a little bit better than just published; I actually got read by people, which is a nice thing! But, yes, I collected quite enough rejection slips and letters, helpful but not very helpful comments, to actually make a sculpture. And it became a bit of a joke, the sculpture at some point was about 4 feet high. I was going to make it into a phoenix, which I would then set on fire for some art installation that never quite happened; I think it got rained on from a hole in the roof!
But no, it was never something that I really expected seriously to do, and so every stage of the publication and the success of my various books has come as a bit of a surprise, because I’m always expecting someone at the back of the room to go, ‘that’s not a proper author, that’s just Mrs. Harris who used to teach me French’!
JC: Do you feel that the publishing industry today is very different than the one you started in?
JH: It has changed quite a lot. It’s not been that long, but it’s changed immeasurably, I think. The whole business of e-books for example, has come out of nowhere, really, and continues to revolutionize publishing. But I also think that when I was first published there was still, only just, but there was still the net-book agreement, which meant that books were sold at face value and never any less, and the collapse of the net-book agreement meant that sales of books were made in a completely different way; best-selling books could be sold at very, very small prices at supermarkets and this kind of thing; therefore introducing loss-leaders and whole different cross-currents and dynamics in the whole book-selling market, which have now obviously changed the way books are acquired by publishers… .
I think the bottom line is that it’s much, much harder for the midlist and the less successful, the less well-known author, to actually manage to raise their head above the parapet. And as such, it’s harder for young authors to get published without some kind of instant, recognizable, commercial aspect to their work, and when I was starting off that wasn’t the case; people were still quite ready to take a punt on something that might not be a huge commercial success. That doesn’t happen so much now, very unfortunately. I feel very sorry for all these young authors trying to break into publishing and feeling terribly frustrated because it is dominated by the same big names, over and over.
JC: When a young author does get to a stage to get an agent, do you have any advice for them on how to get an agent, or how to find the right agent, or how to go about that?
JH: I think the whole business of getting an agent is quite a personal thing, and it really depends on what an individual’s requirements are; I have never wanted to be with a big agency, even now that I have the option (and I think initially I didn’t have the option, but even now) I want somebody who I can have a one-to-one relationship with who is not just a colleague but who can also be a friend, and who I don’t have to make appointments with and meet behind a desk. Some people are completely the opposite, and they would like a kind of glorified bank-manager-psychiatrist kind of person who they do make appointments with, who works mysteriously behind the scenes and never keeps them abreast of anything.
I would say, as a general piece of advice, it is useful to get an agent who is part of a professional agents association, because anybody can be set up as an agent, but there are professional associations, like the Association of Authors’ Agents who are there to put limitations on the power of an agent and what an agent can bill you for, for instance. So you know that the ones who are members of those organizations are subject to a certain level of scrutiny, let’s say. And it’s important to have someone you can get on with, I think, because you are going to be with them all the time, hopefully!
JH: And you are going to pay them a lot of money…hopefully!
JC: I want to get back to a little bit about the writing process because you had talked about how you like to write organically instead of planned. So I’d like you to elaborate on that a little bit.
JH: Well I think generally speaking, there are two ways of approaching a book, and I have met people who work equally one-way-or-the-other. There is the kind of ‘industrial machinery lay-out option,’ whereby you have very carefully made plans or blueprints of your plot, you know exactly how it’s going to go, and you will spend 6 months plotting and the other 6 months actually writing everything that you know is already going to happen. And then there’s the kind of ‘general itinerary, sort of wandering through the woods, stopping here and there’ kind of way of writing, which is messy, and which is my way.
Which I call organic because you have a general trajectory for your plot, but you don’t necessarily know what you’re going to acquire and what might grow onto your plot, and what you might decide needs adjustment. And this is a messy way of writing but it’s the way I operate. I find that I’m very bad at following plans. And so my latest has been, just not have a plan at all, and to see where the story leads me. And sometimes means cutting, or it means adjusting because it has got slightly out of shape; but the great thing about Microsoft Word is that actually we can do all these things and still come up with something that’s relatively neat in the end of it.
And the interesting thing about writing is that we all get to the same essential result, which is a book, in so many different ways. And there is no single right way to do it. There is a right way for me, or a right way for you, or a right way for any other writer, but it is not necessarily the same way.
JC: To get back to your travels on the Queen Mary 2, what do you think a community on a cruise ship is like, since you talk about writing about small French communities?
JH: Well I think any small community is interesting. And I’ve written about communities in France, in England, and on islands, in institutions like schools, and I think in many ways a liner like this is a very interesting study of a close community, and would I think be very fruitful for somebody who wanted to write about something like that, because you do get a very strong sense of community.
You’ve got lots of little enclaves within the ship: you have entertainers; you have caterers; you have stewards; and of course you have the passengers, who are also grouped rather scientifically into little communities. And so you have basically what is a huge kind of conglomeration of little villages. And I think, you know, that there are quite intense relationships formed, and quite lasting ones! I’ve been talking to all sorts of people who’ve been coming year-in, year-out, meet the same people. [I’ve been] Joining this community for a relatively short period of time, and it’s a great thing to do.
JC: Do you get to join the activities when you’re not speaking?
JH: Oh yeah! I do plenty. Yes, I do all sorts of things. The great thing is there’s something to suit a diversity of tastes, and there is no particular pressure to do any one thing.
JC: Is there any activity you particularly enjoy?
JH: Oh, I enjoy all kinds of things. I enjoy the music a great deal, and I’ve followed some of the theater, and I’ve seen a lot of the lectures. As a matter of professional curiosity I always go to see the authors, so David Monket and Bill Bryson, I was at both their lectures and they were both excellent.
I think with something like this you have to walk the line between not feeling pressure to do absolute everything, which would leave you exhausted, and just picking the things you really like the look of.
JC: What would you tell our audience about traveling aboard the Queen Mary 2?
JH: Well I think some people approach it with preconceptions which are not always particularly useful; I mean for instance, [on] this particularly trip a couple of friends of ours are here, and it took a very old friend of mine a long time to understand that he was the kind of person who could come, because he thinks he’s not very posh, he thinks that he will not get on with people, but he’s had an absolutely fabulous time. I’ve barely seen him in fact, because he’s been off socializing with his new Queen Mary friends! (Laughs) I’ve hardly seen him at all. And I think it’s very important to enjoy it, and to relax and to just be yourself and have fun, because this is what everybody does here!
JC: Well thank you for talking with us, Joanne, it’s been a pleasure.
JH: It’s been a pleasure, thank you.
Originally published in 2011