Life is a box of chocolat

by Tze Ming Mok / 22 May, 2004
Bestselling author Joanne Harris tries her hand at short stories.

She's to blame for that monstrous bestseller Chocolat, as well as Five Quarters of the Orange and Blackberry Wine, but Joanne Harris has avoided the "gastromance" genre of late. And yet, what is the first nursery rhyme she thinks of to test my tape-recorder? "Jack Sprat would eat no fat," she pronounces very correctly in her schoolmarmish, and oddly elderly voice. "His wife would eat no lean (of course naturally), then between them both, they licked the platter clean (which seems to me a very wifely thing to do)."

She has the ability to speak in parentheses. Went to Cambridge, you see.

Her new collection of short stories, Jigs & Reels*, romps along in a very even, chatty and rapidly consumable style. So easy to read; why, then, does Harris feel the need to buffer each story with a short introduction?

"Because they are so very diverse, and they are so very different to what readers of my novels have been expecting, and I thought it would be a useful thing, given that one of the most frequent questions that I get asked is, why did you write this?

"A lot of people have come to me and said, 'We don't usually read short stories, how are we to do it?' Sometimes people need to be helped."

Jigs & Reels certainly chucks in some unexpected flavours - it is shot through with streaks of fantasy, fairytale, sci-fi and savage satire. Futuristic extrapolations on contemporary hypocrisies feature strongly. Also reeling through the pages are droves of downtrodden and secretly rebellious women, grumpy freaks, queasily convincing angry-little-men, and lonely outsiders with the occasional supernatural secret.

The stories are frequently hilarious, although "Tea with the Birds", "Breakfast at Tescos" and "The Little Mermaid" strike out, with varying degrees of success, at the raw stuffing of humanity. "Come in, Mr Lowry, Your Number Is Up!" is quite plainly the best of the lot, a balance of all her strengths. One of Harris's favourites, too, it's a lightly cynical gem about a dour statistics-obsessive who wins the lottery, goes on a well-planned bender, and makes a final, aspirant lunge at freedom from the Eiffel Tower with the aid of a small trampoline.

As well, there's an existential lament of a working-class vampire, a sour take on Harry Potter, and several moments that reek of the Twilight Zone. Have people familiar with her earlier fiction been surprised by her stories?

"The reaction has been very positive! I think my conclusion is that people enjoy being surprised once in a while." Then, seemingly hinting at the existence of a quite fantastic secret life, Harris says: "These stories are much more a reflection of what I'm like on a day-to-day basis, and things that cross my mind and the things that I respond to.

"They're very much a product of travelling about, and experiencing different things, perhaps noticing things or having odd thoughts in the middle of the night in a different time zone ... This is why most of these stories tend to be written in hotel rooms or on aeroplanes, or a kind of place I've never been before and I'll never go to again."

They're fleeting, diverting, amusing thoughts that come to her while staring out train windows, and which she uses to pass little snatches of time. "I write for the fun of it," she says. "If I don't enjoy it, then I know that nobody else will, that's for sure.

"I don't understand why people make distinctions between literature and entertainment. I mean, I understand that some things may be entertaining but they may not be of any literary worth. But I don't agree with the very rigid distinction that is made nowadays between literature, which is good for you and which by definition can't possibly be amusing or fun, and things which are reasonably well written, but which people will take pleasure in reading - and which may also be literature."

While elaborating on the literary snob-factor, Harris grandly holds forth on the influence of the Commedia Dell'Arte - a theatre form that was the focus of her last novel Holy Fools, and which was perhaps Early Modern Europe's equivalent of The Simpsons. In doing so she manages to show off another Cambridge trick: speaking in capital letters.

"Now The Comic Playwright of the 17th Century is Moliere. The interesting thing about Moliere is that he is completely fresh and accessible. I don't think that any of the great classics would have remained alive and relevant to us if people haven't loved them and been entertained by them as well.

"And so I think the whole system has sort of developed a tremendously snobbish streak whereby people are actually afraid to like what they read. It Is Acceptable to Enjoy Reading. But a lot of rather insecure people nowadays, prompted perhaps by a little group of critics with an agenda, have begun to dispute this, have begun to say, 'Unless it's really tough going, it's not literature and you shouldn't like it.' Very odd.

"I'm not really somebody who writes for the sake of an issue or for the sake of posterity, or even for the sake of the reader," she says. "If the story is a good story, then it's worth writing, as far as I'm concerned."

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