Every Monday, best-selling author Joanne Harris, 56, records a one-minute video diary in her shed and posts it on YouTube. She began the series, Writing Life, last September to tell her readers about the challenges of bringing out a book in lockdown.
With physical events cancelled because of Covid, she wanted to stay in touch. But she hadn’t foreseen that, by January this year, she would be recording her video diary at her home near Huddersfield, in Yorkshire, with her head shaved, or wearing a series of headscarves and beanie hats, because of breast cancer.
Harris, who has written more than 20 novels but is best known for the heart-warming Chocolat (made into an Oscar-nominated film featuring Juliette Binoche), was diagnosed with primary breast cancer after a routine mammogram on December 21.
That same day she shared the news with her 85,000 Twitter followers: ‘Today in #ThisWritingLife: In which Joanne learns she has breast cancer. Oh, 2020. You are really spoiling us.’ Later, she added: ‘It is a primary cancer (which makes it sound like a cute toddler), so should respond to surgery and radiotherapy. But, yeah. It’s still scary, and it sucks. So send me your pictures of otters, cats and recommendations for box sets.’
Joanne Harris, 56, (pictured) who lives near Huddersfield, in Yorkshire, was diagnosed with primary breast cancer after a routine mammogram on December 21
Her Twitter feed (@joannechocolat) was soon awash with pictures of cats (and a photo Julian Clary posted of his dog).
Black humour is clearly Harris’s forte, and she decided to name the cancer ‘Mr C’ and treat him like ‘an unwanted Christmas guest that you need to evict and clean up after’.
Today, she tells me that being honest has been the best way through six months of treatment.
‘What I’ve tried to do by being very public about my cancer is to take the curse off it, to stop people from worrying whether they should or shouldn’t mention it. One of the reasons I chose not to get a wig is it’s not up to me to do that, to make people feel more comfortable in that way. It’s up to them to understand that it’s not something that they need to feel uncomfortable about.’
Harris says she also wanted to inspire other women to have regular check-ups. ‘I thought: “Can I actually keep it from people?” And I realised that no, I couldn’t. And that perhaps I shouldn’t. Rather selfishly I started off thinking: “If I announce it on social media I won’t have to explain it to dozens of people over and over.” But I also realised, as soon as I did talk about it, there were a lot of people who were responding to that, and altering their own behaviour accordingly.
‘I had lots of women saying: “I heard about you and I booked myself a mammogram because I’d thought that during lockdown I couldn’t.” Or: “I was going to miss my routine mammogram, but now I’m not going to.” Or messages from people who had been diagnosed and just felt less alone. Because this is a topic women don’t talk about much. You can feel very isolated.
‘I thought: “Well, I’ve got this little bit of a platform, perhaps it will help people.” And it does seem to have done.’
Joanne (pictured) said she has used all sorts of ways to get rid of ‘Mr C’ and has found giving him a personality helps
Harris talks with real sensitivity about her fellow patients in hospital. But she writes about her own illness with anarchic humour. While waiting for surgery, she dreamed up new ways to torment Mr C and keep him at bay.
In January, she wrote on Twitter: ‘Plans to dispose of Mr C, who has long overstayed his welcome: Kill him with musical theatre. Drown him in an ocean of tea. Tickle him until he pukes. Nuke him from orbit, just to be sure.’
It was a typically ballsy update from Harris, who is also a musical performer (she has been in a band with her husband Kevin and two friends since she was 16).
‘I’ve used all sorts of ways to get rid of Mr C,’ she tells me today. ‘I found that giving him a personality helped enormously.
‘It’s interesting the way we perceive the monstrous in our lives, because some people big monsters up, and the bigger a monster gets, the more frightening it is. But actually the way to reduce a monster is through humour and laughter and a certain kind of ridicule.’
The irony is she’d had rather a good first lockdown; completing three books and publishing two more, running her first ‘Couch to 5K’ challenge, shielding her elderly parents, and keeping in touch with her grown-up daughter, Anouchka, 28, in London, through video calls.
‘There hadn’t been a time in the past 20 years when I wasn’t travelling every month to a foreign country or a festival event. I had the luxury of space and some savings, so I didn’t feel I was in a moment of crisis.’
Joanne who met her husband at sixth-form college, said the pandemic has brought her closer to her husband. Pictured: Joanne in hospital after surgery
Lockdown had also brought her closer to her husband, whom she met at sixth-form college and married in her late 20s. (He now manages her schedules and ‘holds the fort’.)
‘We both like our own personal space from time to time, and it’s good that we’ve got that, but I really have not seen anybody in the flesh apart from my husband more than a tiny handful of times in the past 15 months.’
Her diagnosis came as a shock. The good news was the cancer was caught early. She went into hospital on January 13, once she’d handed in edits on her 400-page new book Honeycomb, and posted photos of herself in bed after surgery and later reading a haiku poem she had written about her ‘radioactive boob’.
Each week on the video diary she takes us through her treatment; reading out her pathology report (‘it looks like the cancer hasn’t spread’), or explaining that she had cut off her ‘bushy lockdown hair’ and then shaved her head completely before starting treatment, ‘to save chemo the job of doing it’.
‘I just thought I’ll get it done, and once you’ve crossed that little hurdle, which gets higher and higher the longer you wait, then people are pretty good.’ She mourns the loss of her eyebrows and eyelashes. ‘I look a bit like a potato, but people have got used to it very fast.’
She is, she stresses, still working; signing foreign contacts, reading film options, promoting the paperback of The Strawberry Thief (the continuation of the story of Chocolat’s single mother Vianne Rocher, which began 22 years ago).
Joanne (pictured) said her husband has been extremely supportive and not controlling, as she continued working through chemo
You find yourself marvelling at her energy. In March, in a gap between chemo sessions, she went to London to record the audiobook of Honeycomb; the first time she’d left the house properly in eight months.
In April, she began weekly treatment cycles of the medication Taxol, and revealed she had embarked on two brand new books, ‘which always brings me back to life creatively’.
But if she has a bad day or experiences brain fog as a result of the chemo, she is honest about how she is feeling. In one video she is very funny about the raging hunger she felt after chemo, which led her to eat ‘every carb dish in the world’.
She tells me: ‘I maintain a reasonably cheery outlook, but sometimes I think it’s OK to go: “I feel completely filleted by this.” And I think this is something people who have been through this feel guilty about, unless they realise that it happens to everyone.’
Did her husband worry about her working through chemo? ‘I think he understands that if I’m not working I’m feeling glum and sitting around. He’s been extremely supportive, but not controlling. I think he expected me to be much more ill than I was.’
It’s perhaps no surprise that Harris revealed her initial diagnosis on Twitter. The social media site inspired her latest book, Honeycomb, in which every story is a piece of a larger picture. It is built from 100 chapters, or ‘cells’, and started life as a series of posts on Twitter, written under the hashtag #Storytime.
Joanne (pictured) revealed her latest book is inspired by Twitter, with every sentence crafted like a little message in a bottle
‘For years I would write the stories live and from scratch, at odd moments during the day. I wrote them on trains; in airports; in response to current events. And because I was using the character limitation imposed by Twitter [up to 280], I had to structure them in a very different way to writing on the page. Every sentence had to be crafted like a little message in a bottle.’
She never intended to keep the tweets. ‘I liked that ephemeral feeling that if you weren’t around for #Storytime, then you’d miss it.’ But fans kept them and sent them on to her. She started a file. Eventually, she realised she had enough material for a book of interconnecting fairy stories.
‘I started to toy with the idea of putting these pieces together to create an original, illustrated book for adults, in the tradition of the classic golden age of fairytales.’
Harris thinks we need fairytales more than ever in 2021, to help us believe that our own monsters can be defeated; that love can save us; that a kind of magic exists. ‘Fairytales are basically the secret language of the human subconscious.’
Eagle-eyed readers may spot references to current events — from Trump and Brexit to J. K. Rowling being outed as the male author Robert Galbraith. ‘Some reflect things that were going on in politics or in publishing. Some came from items I saw in the news. I quite liked the idea that if I could tell a story about a mad king living in a golden tower, and Trump had said something idiotic, you would get real life and the story intersecting.’
She also likes the fact readers will interpret stories differently. ‘I like to leave things reasonably fluid so people don’t feel excluded, because I’ve never really enjoyed putting labels on people.
Joanne (pictured) who read modern and medieval languages at Cambridge, had her third book Chocolat shortlisted for the Whitbread award
‘I’m interested in voices and in language partly because English wasn’t my first language, anyway. And also because I think writing is a performance; it’s meant to be read aloud.’
Harris’s Yorkshire father met her French mother on an exchange in Brittany, and brought her back to live above his parents’ sweet shop in Barnsley. The family spoke French at home and Harris always felt a bit different. Hence her interest in outsiders in her novels.
At Cambridge, she read modern and medieval languages, and had a brief accountancy career before becoming a French teacher at Leeds Grammar School for boys for 15 years.
Her first book, a literary vampire novel, sank without trace in 1989. But her third, Chocolat, was shortlisted for the Whitbread award and put her on the map.
The advance wasn’t huge, but once all the foreign deals came in, it was enough for Harris to leave teaching and move into her current home; an 1840s mill-owner’s house with five acres of woodland.
In 2012 she became one of four female members of the ‘Millionaires Club’ of authors (including J. K. Rowling) who have achieved a million UK sales of a single book. In 2013, she was awarded an MBE.
She feels passionately that women authors are not always taken as seriously as men, and is a judge for the 2021 Comedy Women In Print awards.
Joanne (pictured) who finished chemo last week, said she’s hoping that by the end of July, she will be out of the tunnel
‘I would argue that a lot of my books are humour. My new psychological thriller, A Narrow Door, out in August, is really quite dark humour.’
In Harris’s thriller, a headmistress has been appointed to modernise a failing English grammar school but she clearly has a complex past of her own, having survived a teenage pregnancy, career sexism and a double mastectomy.
Harris wrote the book before being diagnosed with cancer. ‘I have to watch what I write,’ she says dryly, ‘because things pop off the page and go into real life.’
She finished chemo last week. ‘Now I’ll have a little bit of radiotherapy and I should be good to go. I’m having genetic testing to see if I’ve got the BRCA1 gene [which can raise your cancer risk], so I may have to revisit some decisions at that point. But I’m hoping that by the end of July, I’ll be out of the tunnel.’
She stresses that it’s never a given that you will be free of cancer for life. But, by being matter-of-fact, she can break taboos.
‘It’s one of those things that people feel almost superstitiously unable to talk about,’ she says. ‘This idea that if you say cancer often enough, then it will visit you somehow. I just wanted to demystify that and go, OK, this is what happens, it’s just an illness. There are ways of dealing with it, and these are some of the ways.
‘It doesn’t have to be a terrifying monster. It’s something you can defeat. You can fight it, you can get your happy ending.’
Honeycomb (£25, Orion) is out now; A Narrow Door (£20, Orion) is out on August 4.