Buxton International Festival: Author Joanne Harris talks Different Class... and familiar themes

Joanne Harris will talk about her latest book, Different Class.
Joanne Harris will talk about her latest book, Different Class.

Of all the authors speaking at the Buxton International Festival this year, Joanne Harris is perhaps the most intriguing.

Barnsley-born but half French, she is forever associated with her award-winning novel Chocolat, made into a film in 2000, but has since defied categorisation with a string of very different, best-selling novels. Her work has sold an estimated 30 million copies worldwide.

At first glance her 2016 book, Different Class, which she will discuss at the festival on July 21, would seem to have little in common with Chocolat. But this story of a crusty Latin master rebelling against a new headmaster and confronting terrible evil, has themes that will be familiar to her loyal readership and even to those who only know Chocolat’s tale of a spirited single mother scandalising a French village and its church by opening a chocolate shop.

Joanne, who lists “quiet subversion of the system” among her hobbies in Who’s Who, says: “I relate to all my characters one way or another”.

But she admits when it comes to idiosyncratic teacher Roy Straitley in Different Class: “I like his way of doing things and I think in some ways we shared a few things in common.”

Twenty years ago she too was a teacher at an independent school in Leeds, where she taught modern languages, and says: “I got away with pretty much creating my own syllabus. As long as the boys passed their exams, it really didn’t matter how you got there.”

Different Class is one of three gripping thrillers set in the same school and readers can expect more in the series: “I’m not sure exactly when but I don’t think those characters are done yet.”

Her diverse readership includes “some people that only read the crime novels, some who only read the fantasy novels, some who only read the French novels and some who read them all”, but as a writer she says: “I don’t think: ‘Aha! This one is going to be in this genre’... nor do I really find it meaningful to decide which book is my favourite given that they’re all snapshots of parts of my life.”

Festival-goers will see another side of her on July 20 when she teams up with the Storytime Band for a show featuring original stories, music and songs. Audiences should expect “a certain kind of folkloric fairytale”.

She explains: “They are often quite supernatural and a bit surreal in the way that the old Grimms and Andersen and Perrault fairytales have always been until they got cleaned up by the Victorians and post-Victorians and made into things for children.”

For aspiring writers seeking to create some of their own brand of literary magic, she suggests: “The first piece of advice I always give is to drop the word aspiring. It is pointless being an aspiring writer; you need to actually write something. The important thing is not to want to be a writer, it is to want to actually write.”

There may be something magical-sounding about her life as an author, working from a garden shed and living in a little wood in Yorkshire, but there is nothing fairytale-like about her profession.

Joanne says: “It was just something I knew I wanted to do and I got better at it, but it’s not a viable career option in perhaps the way that being a doctor or a teacher is.”

Practice is key, she adds: “You have to write badly for an awful long time before you get to be good. I think a lot of people are slightly afraid of starting.”