Joanne Harris MBE is the author of 14 novels, including Chocolat (1999) which was made into an Oscar nominated film with Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche. Joanne is an honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, and has honorary doctorates in literature from bothSheffield and Huddersfield. She recently published The Loneliness of the Long Distance Time Traveller which is the latest Dr Who Time Trips story for the BBC. Ink Pantry elf Deborah Edgeley caught up with Joanne.
You have a form of synaesthesia, which is experiencing certain colours as scents. You also dream in colour, sound and scent. This is fascinating. To what extent has this influenced your work and can you please give an example of one of your amazing dreams?
It’s hard for me to analyse how much my condition influences me (not having a great basis for comparison), but I am aware of using a great number of sensory images in my work, especially where scent, taste and colour overlap. I have a recurring dream, in which I am floating on my back at night in the ocean, watching the stars. A ship sails into view in the sky, surrounded by a soft light. Human figures fly repeatedly from the decks and into the rigging and out again, to the sound of an unearthly music. On waking, the music always vanishes before I can write it down; but the sensation of floating and the quality of the light often stays in my memory for hours.
When you met Ray Bradbury, you were overwhelmed. What is it about his work that inspires you?
His enthusiasm, both for life, and for language; his ability to articulate the deep and conflicting feelings we experience in childhood; his compassion; his transcending of genre; his delight in experimentation.
Inky elf Jennie Campbell reviews A Cat, A Hat and A Piece of String
Why have one kind of chocolate when you could have a box full? In A Cat, A Hat and A Piece of String, Joanne Harris offers a collection of short stories with something for every taste. As the unusual selection of items in the title suggests, the sixteen stories are diverse, with no particular pattern or theme.
The collection is bookended by two stories set in Africa. River Song tells the tale of a young girl who risks her life swimming in the Congo River, in return for small gifts from the people who watch her. In Road Song a different girl is the centre of a sad story of family sacrifice and human trafficking in Togo.
Rainy Days and Mondays and Wildfire In Manhattan, two linked stories about a rain god in New York, have a magical mood. There is more magic in Muse, a story about a novelist finding inspiration in a very unusual café, which creative writers will especially enjoy.
I like short stories with a bit of bite, which linger long after you’ve stopped reading them. Two stories in particular satisfied my taste for darkness. Cookie is a harrowing tale of emptiness and longing, with a sinister twist. In The Game teenage gamers become addicted to a simple, but peculiar computer game, with unforeseen consequences.
Faith and Hope, characters who will be familiar to readers of the author’s previous short story collection, Jigs and Reels, make their return in a double bill. These two reluctant care home residents are deliciously subversive in their quest to find a little joy in a hopeless place. Despite Faith and Hope’s plight, their sense of mischief is delightful and the stories feel triumphant. The characterisation of the main, and supporting characters is particularly skilful, and these are perhaps the strongest stories in the book.
Readers in search of romance are also spoiled for choice. Ghosts in the Machine gives a fresh twist to the Phantom of the Opera fable. The Phantom hides away as a late night DJ, while a listener with a secret of her own slowly falls in love. In Harris’s own words Dryad is ‘an odd little tale’ which ‘may well be the only inter-species non-mammalian love story ever written’. To say any more would be to spoil your own discovery of this unusual, beautiful love.
There is a streak of dark humour throughout most of the collection. Harry Stone and the 24 Hour Church of Elvis provides a lighter comic relief. Jim, the protagonist, is a hapless Elvis impersonator, dreaming of working as ‘lone gumshoe’ Harry Stone. Nobody wants to hire him, but Jim won’t let that stop him. Can Lil from the chip shop talk some sense into him before it’s too late?
Other treats include a pair of stories about a man who believes that Christmas comes every day, and a couple of satisfying ghost stories, Dee Eye Why with a traditional haunted house and Would You Like To Reconnect? where the haunting takes place on the internet.
I wish I had read A Cat, A Hat and A Piece of String when I was learning to write short stories. The creation of such a wide range of genres, moods, characters and locations in the collection is a real achievement, and leaves the reader never knowing what might be coming next. Will it be a dark truffle, bittersweet salted caramel or buttery fudge? Buy a copy and let yourself be tempted.
Many thanks to Joanne, Anne Riley, Jennifer Robertson of Kyte Photography and Politicalgarbagechute.