Today I’m a bit awestruck and I’ve gone all coy and nervous, because I’m welcoming to my blog a long-term writing hero of mine: the wonderful Joanne Harris. I read her best-selling novel Chocolat when it first came out in 1999 and was completely seduced by the world it created: a rare thing for me as a reader. I remember soon after seeing an interview with her on TV and it said she lived in Yorkshire and I thought to my utterly naive self, I didn’t know famous novelists lived anywhere but London or New York or glamorous places like that. And I watched her talking in what looked like her living room and it said she had been a teacher. I thought, Well, I’m a teacher. And that’s a brilliant novelist there and she seems like a normal person, like someone I might work with or actually know; she seems like someone like…me. And it changed me; I’d been writing short stories and started a novel but I was still a teacher and hadn’t taken myself seriously as a writer. But when I saw Joanne, I knew I could at least try and have a go at it too, and make writing my Plan A rather than B. I’ve followed her career with great interest ever since.
Her latest book is THE GOSPEL OF LOKI, a witty and insightful retelling of the Norse myths from the trickster god’s viewpoint. I asked Joanne about her interest in mythology and storytelling, subjects I find fascinating and which are very close to my heart. Here’s what she had to say:
 As a child,
what are your earliest memories of mythology and what effect did these have on
My parents had a good friend, an academic called Terry Pratt, to whose
house we were often invited. While the adults talked, I would go through his
bookshelves. He had a whole collection of vintage, beautifully- matched volumes
on world mythology. My favourite was H. A. Guerber’s MYTHS OF THE NORSEMEN – lavishly
illustrated, with beautiful antique colour plates, each protected from the
print by a layer of tissue-paper. I read it so often that finally Terry gave it
to me for my ninth birthday (quite ruining his collection, but he sensed that I
would take good care of it. And, of course, I did).
I loved all the
mythologies, but to me the Norse myths were closer to home in so many ways,
less rarefied and more human. Although later chroniclers tried to Christianize
them and lend them a more “epic” tone, the essential humour and humanity still
shines through, and the cast of characters is marvellous, filled with eccentric
detail. My favourite character was Loki, for his moral ambivalence, his
outsider status and his existentialist humour. I always felt he got a bad press
(mostly, I think, because the Christian scholars who transcribed the myths
handed down by the oral tradition were trying to establish parallels with the
Biblical Lucifer), and also because he so rarely gets to speak for himself,
except in Lokasenna, in which his
voice is so strong and clear that it seems almost inconceivable that it should
only exist in a single fragment of verse.
Lokasenna by Lorenz Frølich
Writing THE GOSPEL OF LOKI, I wanted to return to the robust style and
sly humour of the oral tradition, to take the myths back from the academics who
have controlled them for so long, and to give them back to the people…
E. M. Forster
 What do you
think about this quote from HOWARDS END by E. M. Forster regarding English mythology?
“Why has not England a great mythology? Our folklore
has never advanced beyond daintiness, and the greater melodies about our
country-side have all issued through the pipes of Greece. Deep and true as the
native imagination can be, it seems to have failed here. It has stopped with
the witches and the fairies. It cannot vivify one fraction of a summer field,
or give names to half a dozen stars. England still waits for the supreme moment
of her literature–for the great poet who shall voice her, or, better still,
for the thousand little poets whose voices shall pass into our common talk.”
When E. M. Forster wrote this, it was from the perspective of an age
that had already done its best to sweeten, romanticize, censor and otherwise
distort the folkloric heritage of Britain.
If he’d read more of the original texts, instead of those fake and
saccharine Victorian re-tellings, he would have realized how much richness
exists in British mythology and throughout our heritage, despite all attempts
from the early Church (and later, the Victorian prudes) to suppress it.
nothing dainty abut Beowulf, or whimsical
about the Mabinogion. In fact, the
beliefs of our Celtic ancestors are still a strong part of our culture,
although censorship, invasion by other cultures and countless re-inventions
have marginalized them. Those voices are there, if you listen for them. All it
takes is to wander off the beaten path for awhile, and see what we encounter
 One of the themes in ‘The Gospel of Loki’ seems to me to be about
the importance and words and of storytelling. Could you give us a flavour of
your philosophy about the central role of narrative to humans?
I probably say it best here, in my TEDx talk in Salford: Changing the world, one story at a time.
Joanne during her fascinating TEDx talk – go and watch it!!
 What appeals to
you about cultures with many gods as opposed to one? Do you feel gods are
projected aspects of all our personalities?
The idea of a single, omnipotent god is really limited to Abrahamic
religions with a strong agenda of exclusion and conversion. Most polytheistic
religions have no such agenda, and are often able to co-exist quite peacefully.
I like the fact that with these religions, there is no exclusive method of
worship; people are free to choose and to focus on what matters most to them at
any given time – childbirth; love; war; death; the harvest.
Dagr by Peter Nicolai Abo – Dagr is day personified.
Gods are seen as
seasonal beings, with powers that ebb and flow like the tides. They are often
mortal, or at least vulnerable, and they are complementary to each other,
rather than claiming an all-powerful status. Some are antagonistic to men; some
are fickle, and must be befriended. This makes them closer to the archetypes of
the human psyche as described by Jung, and their worship allows people to investigate
their relationship with their world, with each other, with death, with their
fears, dreams and ambitions through an overarching narrative that allows them
to express thoughts and ideas which may be too complex, frightening – or simply
too abstract – for them to explore outside of stories.
The wolves pursuing Sol and Mani by J. C. Dollman, representing the brother and sister Sun and Moon.
 You’ve written
stories in historical settings as well as fantastical ones – what parallels do
you find between the world of the past and invented worlds?
There is no such thing as a purely invented world. Even imaginary worlds
must draw from our own experience, even when this experience is filtered
through layers of fiction, it always reflects some part of the truth – even
though this truth may sometimes be reversed, subverted, idealized or
re-arranged. I find many authors who purport to write historical fiction are
really writing a fantasy, based on their imagining of what a past world might
have been, as writers of science-fiction create the fantasies of the future.
None of these worlds are quite real,
and yet, on a psychological level, they still reflect our current
preoccupations, through which we create these fantasies, laid out as imaginary
maps of the landscapes of the mind.
 You’re very
active (& entertaining!) on social media. What advice would you give a
debut author just starting out about how to use social media to their advantage
and how to balance it with their writing life? Do you thrive on it or do you
ever feel a bit weary with the merry-go-round of it all (or a bit of both)?
My first piece of advice is; if you’ve already tried social media and
don’t enjoy it, don’t bother. It’s a hobby, not a job, and it should be treated
as such. Too many authors are pushed into using Twitter or Facebook by their
publishers as a means of promoting their books, and this can be very tiresome,
both to them and to those who try to interact with them. I really only use
Twitter as a social platform, but I generally don’t use it to promote my books.
I use it for fun, and to interact with people I find interesting, and to answer
questions, to give out information (and sometimes to ask for it) and to explore
the community. Basically, I think of it as a cocktail party, to which you can
invite anyone you like. There’s no reason for anyone to follow people they find
dull, or to talk to people who are mean and antagonistic. Instead you can talk
to actors and musicians you admire (I do this quite often), or get updates on
your interests; or simply make friends (I also do this often). However, no-one
wants to come to a party where total strangers approach you out of the blue and
try to sell you their products. These people are being boorish as well as dull,
and as soon as other social media users realize this, people will usually stop
talking to them. I might well become interested in someone’s new book (or play,
or blog, or album) after interacting with them in other ways first, but
cold-callers, trolls and bullies get blocked pretty fast. This is the way it
works for me – but I don’t see it as a duty, or a chore. Instead, it serves the
purpose of a few minutes’ chat at the office water cooler, after which I can go
back to work, feeling refreshed and reconnected with the world around me.
What a delight to talk with Joanne. Thank you for your time, dear writer, and for sharing your unique and compelling philosophy here today.
You can find Joanne online here:
She is just BRILLIANT on Twitter – storytelling, funny, fascinating and so generous too. So do Follow her. And her joannechocolat blog on Tumblr is also rich and random, so Follow here here too:
and discover more about the background to all her books and news of her upcoming events here on her website:
THE GOSPEL OF LOKI is out in hardback in the UK right now, out in paperback on June 4th (published by Gollancz) and it is out now in the US, hot off the press (from Saga Press).