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Author Joanne Harris on the north of England's rich literary heritage

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Author Joanne Harris on the north of England's rich literary heritage
Joanne Harris, author of award-winning novel Chocolat, reflects on growing up in Yorkshire, writing as a child and the north-south divide
Reader's Digest: What was your childhood in Yorkshire like?
Joanne Harris: My father was from Barnsley; my mother from Vitré, in northwestern France. Both of them were teachers at Barnsley Girls’ High School, and French was my first language, which made me a bit of an oddity in Barnsley in the Sixties.
"I would pick wild spinach or rhubarb or blackberries for my grandfather"
We lived about half a mile away from the school, in a bungalow next to the railway bank. During the summer holidays we would go to France for six weeks to visit my mother’s family, but when I was at home, I was often left to my own devices.
I used to play on the waste ground between the railway and the canal, where there were flooded mine shafts and ash pits and slag heaps, where I would go hunting for relics, or picking wild spinach or rhubarb or blackberries for my grandfather, who lived nearby. 
RD: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Did you write or tell stories as a child?
JH: Even as a small child, I was always inventing stories and games, and as soon I learnt to write, I began to write them down. I started out copying the styles of authors I liked, which meant that my earliest stories were flamboyant adventure stories, inspired by writers like Rider Haggard and Jules Verne.
RD: You have written across a range of genres (for example, horror, magical realism, fantasy), but how would you describe your writing style? 
JH: I don’t usually think in terms of genre. I like my writing to be as immersive as possible, engaging all the senses. Because I have a kind of synaesthesia that allows me to smell colours, I find that a lot of my writing is dominated by colour and scent. That is why some people find it especially evocative. 
RD: How has your own writing been inspired by the rich literary heritage of the north? Do you have a particular favourite northern author?
JH: I live close to Haworth, and I’ve always been an admirer of the Brontë sisters, especially Emily: her intense connection with the landscape, her fearless subversion of tradition, her uncanny perception.
Haworth, Yorkshire, England
I first read Wuthering Heights when I was 15, and have re-read it every five years or so since, rediscovering it anew at different stages of life experience.
RD: Your award-winning novel Chocolat is set in France and presumably inspired by your own French heritage, but did your northern roots influence it at all too? How do your French heritage and your northern heritage come together?
JH: Both have given me different perspectives; different literary traditions, different culinary traditions, different kinds of folklore and linguistic aesthetic. In both cultures I’ve had the opportunity to live in and observe the interactions of small communities.
"Being the product of two cultures has given me a particular insight into the significance of belonging"
But being the product of two cultures has given me a particular insight into the outsider’s role and the significance of belonging. Perhaps that’s why so many of my protagonists—including Vianne, the protagonist of Chocolatare outsiders. 
RD: How did it feel to win awards for your writing? And on the other side of that, how does it feel to be a judge for various awards?
JH: It’s wonderful to be honoured for my work, although my time as a judge has taught me that the awards system can be quite narrow in its focus: there are a lot of amazingly talented writers who never win awards, but who are nevertheless just as original and influential as those who do.
RD: Is there any location in the north that is particularly inspiring to you as a writer? 
JH: As a teenager I worked for a summer on the Coppergate dig in York, which later became the site of the Jorvik centre.
View of York Minster Cathedral, York, England
I’ve always enjoyed York, with its incredible wealth of history, its cobbled streets and its wonderful folklore; and I love Whitby for many of the same reasons, not least for its abundance of ghost stories
RD: What do you think of the contemporary literary scene in the north? Do you think there is enough support for creatives in the north of England?
JH: There has always been something of a north-south divide where the literary world is concerned. It’s not that there are no authors in the north (I live within just a few of miles of Simon Armitage, Ian McMillan and Milly Johnson, to name but three), but the London community of critics, academics and salonistas is so influential that the rest of the country is sometimes neglected.
"There has always been something of a north-south divide where the literary world is concerned"
It would be nice to see more support for writers and artists who are neither London-based nor media-adjacent, as well as for working class creators and those from underrepresented groups. 
RD: What are you working on at the moment?
JH: I’m just finishing a novel called Vianne, which is the prequel to Chocolat. It should come out in early 2025. It’s the story of how Vianne Rocher, arriving pregnant and alone in Marseille in the late Eighties, found her vocation in chocolate, and what unleashed the events that set her on the path to Lansquenet, and the story of Chocolat.
RD: And what are you reading at the moment?
JH: I’m reading Curandera by Irenosen Okojie.  Set in 17th-century Cape Verde and present-day London, it’s an astonishing novel about a group of people brought together by their fascination with ritual, miracles and a life beyond the mundane. I’m also reading The Chain, an incredible memoir by Chimene Suleyman, billed as: The Relationships That Break Us, the Women Who Rebuild Us. It’s intimate, moving, often angry, but ultimately empowering. I love it.
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Cover image © Kyte Photography
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