Ottawa, Mayfair Theatre, 18 May 2010
Who’s Who lists her hobbies as “‘mooching, lounging, strutting, strumming, priest-baiting and quiet subversion of the system,’ although she also enjoys obfuscation, sleaze, rebellion, witchcraft, armed robbery, tea and biscuits. She is not above bribery and would not necessarily refuse an offer involving exotic travel, champagne or yellow diamonds from Graff. She plays bass guitar in a band first formed when she was 16, is currently studying Old Norse and lives with her husband Kevin and her daughter Anouchka, about 15 miles from the place she was born” (taken from her website).
Now I ask you, is there any more intriguing author description than this? I think not.
Even better, I’m sitting at the Mayfair Theatre in Ottawa, several rows up from the stage, waiting with bated breath and pounding heart to meet this very person, someone I’ve admired for years—and not because I too love witchcraft, rebellion, diamonds, tea, and biscuits, although I do. It’s because she is none other than Joanne Harris. If you don’t know who Joanne Harris is, shame on you. (You’re missing out.)
As part of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, Harris is to read from her newest novel blueeyedboy and then participate in a Q&A, later open to the audience. After that you can get your book(s) signed (there’s a limit of 42 per person, artistic director Sean Wilson jokes, and thank God, because I brought five and had wanted to bring more), and then nestle back into your seats, popcorn on your knee, for a special screening of Chocolat, which is, of course, one of my favourite films.
My coffee table overfloweth
Before everything starts, I quickly visit the book table where Harris’s books are being sold and pick up a copy of Chocolat. Mine has the film cover, and I don’t prefer that for my books, but after deciding I don’t much like this other cover either and considering the sentimentality I have for my well-read copy, I put the new book back and return to my seat. I’m trying to remain calm but I’m buzzing. Harris has come all the way from Yorkshire (incidentally my favourite place on the planet) and this is her first visit to Canada, the first time I’m seeing her in person.
And then I turn to my right, wondering where the throngs of fans are, and there she is. Joanne Harris, author extraordinaire, is casually perched on the arm of one of the theatre seats, clutching a gargantuan cup of what I later learn is Coke, sipping merrily through her straw while chatting with two other women. She’s smaller than I thought, topped with a close-cropped pixie, clad in a black soft leather motorcycle jacket, red blouse, and black jeans. The finishing touches: ballerina flats and a sparkling necklace. She looks edgy but sweet: a little dark with the light. How very like her.
I realize I’m beaming. Joanne Harris looks to me like an imp, and I do not mean that in a bad way. Suddenly she laughs, and her youthful, vibrant face is instantly and amazingly transformed. She is one of those people who lights up when she smiles, eyes crinkling to crescent-moon slits. I want to gobble her up.
I also want to go over there and meet her. But I’m looking about and not a single person aside from the two women with her, who seem to be involved in the event, acknowledge her presence. Either they don’t think it’s proper writers festival event etiquette or they’re too polite. They can’t possibly not know it’s her. But no one is even looking her way. I’m both flabbergasted and trying to swallow my racing heart. Aw, screw polite, I finally decide (I’m not totally Canadian anyway!), and make my way over to her. I’m not missing out on this opportunity. I came three hours to see her, after all.
Of course I’m a complete bumbling fool when I ask if I can interrupt and then try hard not to come across as the creepy fan who ends up in horror stories, or the Twihard-ish enthusiast. But I can’t help it. I’m practically vibrating with nervousness and excitement and I say stupid, inarticulate things. And then it’s Joanne being polite and calming me down by being so remarkably grounded and casual and making it seem as though she’s an old friend. She’s one of us. But I know there’s something special about her. One of the women obliges me with a photo of the authoress and me, which comes out looking as though we are two classmates goofing around in a photo booth. It is brilliant—until I realize later I had forgotten to save it. Merde.
We chat about Yorkshire and I tell her I’ve brought her a taste of home—Yorkshire Tea—and she thanks me for being so thoughtful and says that had she had it this morning, her day would have been completely different: hence the giant Coke. Apparently we don’t know how to make tea here (I quite agree!). She tells me a story about Betty’s, where both of us have been, that makes me guffaw and thus embarrass myself. But Joanne Harris is full of stories, and before long we’re chatting and laughing almost like people who’ve met before. I’m enamoured, and suddenly I know that tonight will never be long enough to say all the things that have been building up for years. Especially since most of it won’t come to me till she’s gone.
The lights dim and I return to my seat. The magic is about to begin. A spotlight illuminates the already glowing author, and she begins to introduce blueeyedboy, warning us that this is not a book about food, and it is not a book that takes place in France. It is not, in fact, even a book that many people like, seeing as they found no likable characters in it. With this, she elicits appreciative laughter from the mostly senior audience. Then she begins to read. In my seat I shiver with delight, listening to her round tones and alto voice as she enunciates the words she’s written as though she remembers the love of her craft, which she poured into this book. Her rich English accent makes me think of hot chocolate with cream and chili. I could listen forever.
All too soon, the bit she is reading is over and she takes a seat, concession stand drink in hand, one leg crossed over another at the ankle. The questions are good, about blueeyedboy (though because the book has many twists, not much can be discussed at the risk of spoiling it for those who haven’t yet read it) and herself, too, and she answers them freely and off the cuff, intermittently taking sips through her straw. What we learn is that she is not at all like Gloria, a horrid woman in blueeyedboy, and that she does not like to be asked which of her characters she is. (This is understandable. People have this very interesting need to make books at least somewhat autobiographical regarding the author, which confounds me because it strips away the author’s very purpose, which is to imagine outside herself.) We also discover that a certain red evokes the smell of chocolate for her (thus she calls it chocolate red), and that she dislikes and ignores when people tell her she must write a certain way about certain things (e.g., about food and France).
Listening intently, I realize with chagrin that I’ve been a very naughty and negligent girl having written a review directly after finishing blueeyedboy far too late at night and having read others’ reviews to feed my own. It’s irresponsible and unintelligent, and even kind of cheating, and I’m deeply ashamed. Of course the point was not to like the characters. Of course there’s deeper things going on than I allowed myself to process, having devoured the book as quickly as possible in preparation for this event. In light of having met Joanne and hearing her speak her mind, in remembrance of the brilliance of her other books, and thinking about the book in retrospect, I feel diminished, and look forward to racing home to delete or vet my review, as cowardly as that is. The things is, I’m still not sure what exactly I would change, even though it’s not a good review.
I find myself also desperately wanting to chime in during the Q&A period, to get in on the conversation, to protest that indeed blueeyedboy does have food in it, and lots, as a matter of fact. There’s biscuits and pies and rotting vegetables and fruit and likely more I don’t remember, not only the vitamin drink. Joanne can’t help but include food, it seems (and I certainly don’t object). In fact, what I’ve noticed about all her books is how sensual she is: how prominent are the senses of taste and touch and smell and hearing. Colours also factor in many of her books, right from her first novel, The Evil Seed. These are thesis topics, methinks, and though it’s been ten years since I graduated from uni, I think I may yet pursue them.
One audience member asks her question in French, and without hesitation Joanne answers her back also in French, with an impeccable accent. Of course I knew she could speak it, but for me to hear it, and for her to have the opportunity to do it here in Ottawa seems meaningful to me. Even more so when the audience obviously understands her answer.
Finally, it is time for her to sign our books. The lineup isn’t long but, sadly, neither are there many in the audience. “Better than Glasgow,” Joanne said to me earlier, where only two men showed up, and one of them to escape the weather. Nothing could be worse than Glasgow, she said wryly, though apparently she still managed to enjoy herself.
Gamely, Joanne signs all five of the books I’ve brought and takes two more photos with me, unfortunately neither as good as the one that got away. She accepts the Yorkshire Tea as well, but only one teabag to sneak for breakfast next morning. Much to my pleasure she remembers the story of my copy of The Evil Seed, which was out of print until recently and is still unavailable in Canada. I’d written her about how I acquired it a few years ago, and now looking at it she tells me that only 1000–2000 copies had been printed, and only in the format I own. I have in my possession a rare book indeed, and now it’s signed. Too bad it’s also stamped by the Nipissing Public Library.
Joanne Harris and me
I can’t stay for the viewing of Chocolat, as much as I would like to. I am happy at this event, with Joanne, mingling with other people who appreciate good literature. I’m in my element, and I know in my heart this is where I ought to be on a regular basis, among authors and good books, and people who love to read. But I am staying with a friend, who eagerly awaits my report on the evening.
Amid moviegoers trickling in, I leave the theatre and Joanne, stepping out into the cool night regretfully but also exhilarated, and at the same time somehow knowing I will meet her again. Joanne Harris is not a woman one easily forgets, her magical writing not so easily put aside. I feel certain that her next book, or perhaps the next after that, will have me not on the train but rather boarding a plane for Yorkshire.