A day in the life of… Joanne Harris

August 26, 2013 | By | 12 Replies More
Joanne Harris

Joanne Harris

Ever since I left teaching in 1999, I’ve been waiting for a typical day to come along, so that I could describe it to all the people who kept asking.

Some time ago, I realized that typical wasn’t really a word that fitted my life all that easily. When I was a teacher, I had a timetable. I had predictable hours. I had breaks; free periods; weekends and bank holidays. I arrived at seven-thirty; I talked to my colleagues in the staff-room. I read the paper; drank tea; did a few pieces of admin. Then I started the working day; I dealt with problems; taught classes; planned lessons; marked books. Things were simple, at least in that I knew what I was supposed to do, and when I was meant to do it.

Nowadays, I have to determine my own hours, which means that I’m on duty all of the time, or none of the time, whichever way you choose to look at it.

When I left teaching, I became Schrödinger’s Writer. I couldn’t work out quite what I was. I spent half a year just making toast and watching old episodes of Dr Who, waiting for someone to stop me. When no-one did, I realized that that part of my life was done, and started working things out for myself. At the time, my daughter Anouchka was young, and my work-time revolved around her. When she was six, we agreed that I could write until lunchtime, after which we would spend the rest of the day together, doing whatever she liked. Now she’s at university, but when she’s at home, the rule still applies. In the afternoons we watch movies, play laser tag, eat ice cream, go for walks in the woods. In the mornings, I work.

Define work? Well, that depends. Sometimes – often – I write. Whether that really counts as work or not depends on the day. Sometimes it’s editing or copy-editing or proofing, which is also work. Sometimes it’s blogging, or answering mail, or writing screenplay treatments, or synopses, or doing e-mail interviews, or reading review copies, or prize submissions, or researching stuff online. Sometimes I do some pro bono teaching – but not often, and not just for anyone. I’m still not totally convinced that creative writing can be taught, or indeed, that it should.

I tend to travel rather a lot, mostly to promote my books. When I do, the typical day becomes even less typical. Festivals, readings and signings; interviews with magazines; radio; TV. It all sounds pretty glamorous, and sometimes, yes, it really is. But a lot of the time it’s about early mornings and late nights and catching planes and worrying about the luggage, and having to pay $20 a day for internet access, and last-minute junk food in airports and missing all the people at home and trying to work out how to say “Can I have a receipt for that, please?” in Estonian.

I work from wherever I’m travelling – planes, trains, airports, hotels. I don’t have a PC, only a laptop that goes everywhere I do. When I was a teacher, I wrote all my books sitting on the living-room floor. Later, I moved to a house with more space. Now, I work from a shed in my garden – a rather nice stone shed, built for me by my husband Kevin so that I could have my own place. I can still work in public places when I have to, but the shed is a luxury it has taken me twenty years of writing to earn: a designated writing space where no-one else goes without my permission.

When it was built, two years ago, the shed was bare and monastic. I didn’t have any internet – I wanted to avoid distractions. Since then, I’ve accumulated: books, an armchair; an enormous tree-root; candles; a kettle; some artwork; a kite; a Chinese parasol and many, many tea-mugs. Turns out I thrive on distractions. I also have the internet, partly because I was tired of having to run to the house to check my e-mails and messages.

The Shed

The Shed

Nowadays, my routine goes like this. In the morning I go to the shed. This is good because it establishes a psychological divide between home space and work space. I make tea. Sometimes, if I feel the need for an extra hit, I drink a can of something caffeinated. I say hello to Twitter. I look at the news. I check on my friends and colleagues – most of them people I wish I could see more often in person, but whose lives are as busy as my own. Instead, we talk on Twitter, which has become my virtual staff-room, and into which I like to dip at intervals during the day. A number of my ex-pupils even visit me there nowadays. I’m always glad to see them, though; and I never set detentions. After that, I start work. I often work on more than one project at once. For me, a book needs to be given time to rest and to develop; while that’s happening, I like to work on something else – another book in a different style, or maybe a short story.

I find that all my writing benefits from being read aloud – the great advantage of having a shed is that I can do this without funny looks from other people. I can talk to myself; pace; throw things (this sometimes happens if things aren’t going as smoothly as I would like). I drink many, many mugs of tea. I have a cache of biscuits. Sometimes I play music – not when I’m actually writing, but when I’m proofing or editing.

I have an internet radio that plays a variety of ambient sounds – running water; birdsong; waves on a Hawaiian beach. Some are more unsettling – howling wolves, angry mobs – or simply surreal. I wrote a whole short story once to the sound of a man snoring. Sometimes I go for a walk around the garden, or water the plants around the shed. Sometimes I burn sweetgrass, or sage, or scented candles from Diptyque. It always smells good in here, anyway; the green oak that makes up the roof-beams has a marvellous, dry, woody scent. Scents are very important to me. So is light; one of the things that prompted Kevin to build my shed here is that it gets the morning light before the rest of the house. Before I began to write here, I used to suffer from SAD: now I have beautiful natural light, even in the winter.

I used to think that at some point, I’d start to feel like a proper writer, rather than a teacher on a very long sabbatical. I’m now beginning to understand that this probably won’t happen. Even if it did, I’m not sure it would make me a better writer. I’ve always been more productive working outside my comfort zone. Maybe it’s because I’m from the North, where people still tend to be cautious of folk who make stuff up for a living. When I was a child, my teachers often told me that I wouldn’t amount to anything if all I did was dream all day. I wish I could tell them that dreaming is harder work than they think it is.

Joanne Harris was born in Barnsley in 1964, of a French mother and an English father. She studied Modern and Mediaeval Languages at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge and was a teacher for fifteen years, during which time she published three novels; The Evil Seed (1989), Sleep, Pale Sister (1993) and Chocolat (1999), which was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp.

Since then, she has written ten more novels; Blackberry Wine, Five Quarters of the Orange, Coastliners, Holy Fools, Gentlemen and Players, The Lollipop Shoes and Runemarks, blueeyedboy, Runelight and Peaches for Monsieur le Curé which was published in May 2012, plus two books of short stories; Jigs & Reels, and A Cat, A Hat and a Piece of String, and, with cookery writer Fran Warde, two cookbooks; The French Kitchen and The French Market. Her books are now published in over 50 countries and have won a number of British and international awards.  In 2013 she was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List.

She plays bass guitar in a band first formed when she was 16, is currently studying Old Norse and lives with her husband Kevin about 15 miles from the place she was born.

Follow her on twitter @joannechocolat or visit her website Joanne-Harris.co.uk


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Category: About Women Writers, Women, Books, British Women Writers, Contemporary Women Writers, On Writing, Women's Books and Writings

Comments (12)

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  1. Thank you for this Joanne. I’ve been working from home for eighteen months now and keep feeling like I’m a bit of a fraud – this really helped. I look forward to reading more of your work.

  2. Many things here chime with me.
    The psychological divide: (I am so much more productive when I have one, but unfortunately I’m back in the corner of the bedroom again; the desk helps, but…)
    The period of adjustment: I’d always worked out of the house, first in a high pressure NHS environment, then in more recent years at various kinds of educational institution. So working from home – and never feeling like I’m quite ‘on holiday’ and allowed not to work – has taken some getting used to. And a lot longer than I expected.
    As for the waiting to feel like a ‘proper writer'(and a proper grown-up!),I’ve come to the conclusion that it never happens, so I’m not going to worry. I can’t wait any longer! 🙂

  3. fumiko agogo says:

    i will re-read yr piece again, more slowly, to seek your approach to writer’s blockages and other challenges.
    i took a sabbatical and ended up on the floor for five months with my cat, curled up, following patches of sunlight as the day progressed. i can’t say that was idyllic. a lack of imposed schedule can be debilitating for some. not to sound grim, but such is what some of us experience. fortunately, all things are impermanent, thus we do eventually get up, having squandered precious writing time…
    maybe i was drinking the wrong kind of tea?!! 🙂

  4. This is great! I too was a teacher, and so your words resonate deeply. And, it drives home, for me, that no matter the reason we leave one life for another the adjustment period is not what we expect it to be – until we finally learn that all of living is adjustment! Thank you for sharing your story, and for the last delicious line: “When I was a child, my teachers often told me that I wouldn’t amount to anything if all I did was dream all day. I wish I could tell them that dreaming is harder work than they think it is.”

  5. Amy Mackin says:

    I watch friends and neighbors live a “normal” life–not anxiously checking that inbox every morning hoping an agent has replied and feeling absolutely defeated when there’s nothing new. They get their kids off to school and talk about work or day-to-day events, while I’m always daydreaming, creating the next story. I sometimes envy their sense of contentment, as I am never complacent, never done with the work at hand, never really at peace come the end of each day. Even when I tell myself that I won’t worry about the writing this week but instead will focus on my kids–their education and sports and social lives–I can’t keep that promise. The need to create never stops.

    “I wish I could tell them that dreaming is harder work than they think it is.”


  6. Chris Allen says:

    I always knew about the shed, from what you tell us on twitter. But playing the bass guitar in a band as well!

  7. Norah says:

    What a lovely insight Joanne. Thank you for sharing. I have read and enjoyed so many of your wonderful books – believe me: you are a proper writer. That statement reminded me of the realisation I came to in my mid-forties: I wasn’t wise and mature. For some reason I had obviously expected to be by then, and since I wasn’t, thought I probably never would be, so decided I’d just stay young and enjoy myself for ever! I love the sound of your shed and can imagine the spurts of creativity, distraction and vigorous writing. Dream on! We need more of your stories!

  8. Lovely, interesting interview. Thanks for sharing, Joanne.


  9. Barbara says:

    “Dreaming is harder work than they think it is.” Beautiful.

  10. I believe you’ve nailed something that’s hard to explain to people: the need for a ‘psychological divide’. I still struggle with this. Helpful article.

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