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Joanne Harris: playground tales

I came from a family of teachers. My parents both taught in the same school: the Girls’ High School in Barnsley. From an early age I was immersed in stories of school life: the scandals, the fights, the rivalries of any small community. My mother – who took no pregnancy leave, conveniently giving birth to me on a Friday morning and returning to work on Monday – would leave me with my grandmother, who would bring me in at lunchtimes, to be breastfed in the stock-room during my mother’s lunch hour. I was almost literally breast-fed the atmosphere of that girls’ school; the scent of floor polish and plimsolls, school cabbage, chalk and cut grass. As a toddler, I spent the occasional days when my grandparents were not available for babysitting in school, and some of her pupils (Jenni Murray was one of them) still remember a little girl who spoke French, sitting under the teacher’s desk, drawing endless pictures of rocket ships and princesses on pieces of sugar-paper. Later, when my parents did their MAs at Sheffield University, I was the little girl wandering through the stacks at the University library, or riding the pater-noster lift, or sitting quietly in the cafeteria, listening to the conversations of the students and lecturers.

malbry novels by joanne harrisWith such a start, and with so many stories of teaching already in my head, I seemed predestined for teaching. The fact that I liked stories too came as a useful bonus: schools are full of stories, and though it may often be draining, demoralizing and hard, teaching is never boring.

And so I became a teacher; first in a comprehensive school in Dewsbury (in fact, the very same school that featured in Educating Yorkshire), then at a boys’ grammar school in Leeds, where my youth, gender and generally combative disposition made me stand out like the single flamingo in a flock of grey geese. It felt like a very male, very old environment. Women teachers were scarce; young women teachers, even more so. Everything I did at that time seemed to incur the wrath of some venerable member of staff – a borrowed coffee-mug; sitting in the wrong chair during the Headmaster’s Briefing; the innocent suggestion that we change an antiquated (and very difficult) French syllabus to one that would yield better results.

On my first day I wore a navy-blue trouser suit, and was first mistaken for one of the boys and shouted at for being in the wrong place, then sternly told by the Third Master that trousers were unsuitable for “lady members of staff”, and to wear a dress or a skirt instead. The next day I turned up early, wearing a red miniskirt and boots. I went to the Third Master’s office and meekly told him that I had taken his advice on board, but that I’d brought the trouser suit with me, just in case he felt the dress code might be in need of an update.

malbry novels by Joanne HarrisI wore the pants. No-one mentioned them again.

You may now be starting to see where Chocolat might have come from. The story of a woman, an outsider, entering a patriarchal community, struggling against prejudice, defiantly being herself in the face of disapproval. But there was a lot of sweetness, too: an affection for that community, its characters, its quirkiness. I wrote it in the odd hours I had between teaching, marking, lesson plans, looking after my four-year-old daughter and invigilating exams. It wasn’t supposed to be a success. It certainly wasn’t supposed to take me out of that community – one I’d been part of for 12 years – and propel me into another world.

I’d written two books before Chocolat. Their success had been modest, at best: not enough to tempt me away from the job I’d learnt to love – a job with a pension, and prospects – into the uncertainty of being a full-time writer. But Chocolat destabilized the balance I’d managed to find between teaching and writing. I had to give up one path or the other. And so I gave up teaching, and headed into the unknown.

For a long time I promised myself that I wouldn’t write about teaching. That world was still too close. But as time passed I realized that everything I’d written so far – those stories of small communities, rebellious women, conflicts against authority, troubled children, outsiders, bullies, influencers – all of that had been about the world I’d been a part of. And so I wrote Gentleman and Players, which was a kind of homage to all the schools and universities I’d been a part of, both as an adult and a child. Of course, I borrowed elements from my time as at Leeds Grammar School, although none of the incidents in that book, or in the news one, Different Class, were exact representations of what really happened, or to whom.

malbry novels by joanne harrisBut you can learn a great deal from fifteen years in teaching. I saw a pupil die; at least one other go to jail. I saw a colleague imprisoned for historical sex offences. I saw members of staff come and go; I saw many boys go on to do interesting and exciting things. Some of those stories ended up as part of the great patchwork that became Gentlemen and Players and Different Class: both stories of psychological suspense, troubled children, class differences, secrets and murder. St Oswald’s Grammar School, the setting for these stories, is also a kind of compound entity of all the schools I’ve ever taught (or been taught) in, comprising pieces of Leeds Grammar School, pieces of Barnsley Girls’ high School, even pieces of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, with elements of Gormenghast and Molesworth thrown in for good measure.

And Roy Straitley, my unlikely hero? Where in all this did he come from? Sixty-five; a bachelor; devoted to the School and his boys, though blissfully unaware that he has certain favourites; stubbornly resistant to computers, e-mail, Powerpoint; awkward around women; combative with authority; swearing at his colleagues in Latin; profoundly flawed, and yet principled, gruffly kind and stubbornly pursuing the truth, wherever it leads, even to disaster–

To be honest, I have no idea quite where Roy Straitley came from. He just turned up one day, fully-formed, wearing his old academic robe with the board-rubber marks on the back and smoking Gauloises against his doctor’s advice. Like Vianne Rocher, he is a rebel – albeit a less flamboyant one. Like Vianne, he is an outsider, left behind by an educational march of progress that rewards theory, rather than practice. Like Vianne, he has a kind of moral integrity that has nothing to do with the social group he inhabits. Like Vianne, he has certain insights. And like Vianne’s, I found Straitley’s voice particularly easy to channel. Does that mean he’s like me? I don’t know. But what I do know is that if I turned up at St Oswald’s one day, wearing a navy-blue trouser suit, he probably wouldn’t quite approve – but he wouldn’t tell me to wear a dress.

Joanne Harris

Joanne Harris spent fifteen years as a teacher before (somewhat reluctantly) becoming a full-time writer. Her first novel, the bestselling Chocolat, was made into an Oscar-nominated film with Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp and turned into the sensuous Lansquenet trilogy (along with Lollipop Shoes and Peaches for Monsieur le Curé). She has since written acclaimed novels in such diverse genres as fantasy based on Norse myth (Runemarks, Runelight, The Gospel of Loki), and the Malbry cycle of dark psychological thrillers (Gentlemen & Players, Blueeyedboy, and Different Class).

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