Monday, May 24, 2010

Joanne Harris

Review: Sue Leonard<

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Joanne Harris
Doubleday; €14.99

WHEN the novelist Joanne Harris was 11-years-old, a teacher mentioned that she was unnaturally quiet. Enraged, Joanne decided to challenge that assumption and to show how silly such snap judgements are. So she was an extrovert in one class, quiet in another and displayed different mannerisms for all the different teachers. At the end of the year the reports came back sounding as if they were about different children.

At 45, Joanne remains an enigma. With her short cropped hair, air of certainty and her no-nonsense manner, this Yorkshire woman comes across as straight-laced. When she tells me she had her entire future mapped out at 16 – a Cambridge degree, followed by teaching until she could afford to write full-time – I’m not in the least bit surprised.

When she smiles, though, and her eyes crinkle, she seems altogether softer; perhaps that’s the influence of her mother’s French blood. Quite where her rebel side comes from, though, is harder to guess. When she arrives, she is wearing a leather jacket – and she plays bass in a band.

That sense of identity, and the difficulties of ever really knowing someone else, has always fascinated Harris. She explored the issue in Gentlemen and Players and has extended her complex study of it in her dark new novel, Blueeyedboy. An intricate thriller with multiple twists and teasers, Joanne describes the novel as a Rubik’s cube.

Blueeyedboy, or BB, is 42, but still lives at home, in Yorkshire, with his monster mother. A hospital porter, he spends most of his time online on a website called badguysrock. But are the murders he so lovingly describes really fiction?

"I started wanting to write about a dysfunctional family; one where there’s never really been a father figure," says Harris. "And I wanted to start with the relationship between a man and his mother."

The idea has been germinating for some years, since Joanne was in Naples chatting to a taxi driver.

"He was telling me about his hard childhood and about his two brothers who were close to him in age. His mother had decided they would each wear a particular colour through their childhood, so if anyone lost their clothes she would know who it was. I thought, what would that do to somebody as they grew up? I noticed he was dressed all in his colour, blue. Yet he was in his 50s and his mother had been dead for 20 years."

The novel came out of a hard time. Harris had split with her agent and was being sued by her American agent for something out of her control.

"I was being threatened with arrest in America unless I went to court. To have that kind of thing hanging over you, I don’t think you tend to write too well." She shrugs. "It happens."

Unable to write books, she wrote online, enjoying the freedom of role play, as she entered various communities there.

"I have a friend who spends most of her life online. She’s in a wheelchair and cannot speak. The internet is her window on the world. In the street, she is a victim in a wheelchair, but online she is ebullient, funny and kind of flirtatious. It’s an interesting new personality. Before her stroke she was a quiet, timid person."

Colour pervades Blueeyedboy. It dictates the way the characters respond and behave. More than one of the characters has synaesthesia, a condition that is central to the plot. Blueeyedboy is not an easy read; intensely thought-provoking, it’s also disturbing and confusing.

Harris describes the book as literary Marmite, since fans of her previous books, such as Chocolat, seem to either love it or hate it.

Her American publishers were so disturbed by the change in style that they turned the book down. Harris is unrepentant.

"I’ve branched out in different directions on purpose. I didn’t leave teaching to do another job where people told me what to do."

How, though, did she keep a handle on her new novel’s action?

"Some of it is planning, but a book, to me, has to remain organic. If I plan too rigidly I tend to find the plot starts to overwhelm the characters and the characters start to serve the plot. That is death to a book, so I tend to like a general trajectory, and I fill in the details as I go along.

"I don’t think of the process of writing as creation," she muses. "To me it’s much more like method acting. I nearly always write in the first person, so the more I know about the characters the better I am at writing them. I have to work out a lot about their past.

"Like an actor, I don’t feel myself possessed by characters. I can take off the clothes at the end of the day, and say, ‘right, that’s you done’."

Even so, Harris admits to sharing some of her anti-hero’s darker sensibilities – and that extends to thoughts or murder.

"It’s difficult to believe anyone who hasn’t, even fleetingly, imagined murdering somebody. And given the different pressures that motivate people to commit a crime, anyone is capable of doing it. I could quite imagine committing an act of violence if someone threatened my daughter," she says. "That would be my trigger."

For her next novel, Harris intends to please the fans who found Blueeyedboy a bit too hot to handle.

"It will be easier for them to read. And less emotionally draining for me to write." She pauses. "But books should not just make you feel good. I feel, strongly, that if you don’t explore the dark side from time to time, then the rest of it has no meaning.

"I’m kind of with Blueeyedboy on this one. At one point he says ‘it’s getting the reaction that matters’. If you can get somebody to hurl abuse and death threats at you, that’s better than ‘so what?’ There is nothing as bad as getting no reaction."

This story appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Saturday, May 08, 2010

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