My grandfather was a teacher. My parents were both teachers. Their friends were all teachers, which meant that at home, their conversation revolved almost exclusively around teaching. For me, as a child, that meant a constant stream of school stories, drama and intrigue. It also meant that for many years it was more or less accepted that I, too, was destined for the teaching profession.
And when, age 9, I timidly dared to challenge this decree and suggest that I might try writing books instead, my mother showed me a room in our house, in which stood a wall of books—all by 19th-century French novelists, all having died in poverty, of syphilis and TB—after which she said to me: “And that’s why you need a Proper Job!”
And so I became a teacher. I liked it—I was good at it—and yet I kept on writing. During that time—over 15 years, most of which I spent teaching in a boys’ grammar school in Yorkshire—three of my books were published, though it was only after the unexpected success of Chocolat that I was able to give up teaching for good. And my mother’s advice served me well, for during those 15 years I was able to collect enough wild tales, dreadful scandals, quirky characters and everyday moments of drama to fill a hundred books.
I realized during those 15 years that a school is a factory of stories. Small communities so often are, and schools, with their volatile chemistry, cut off from the rest of the world by arcane rules and rituals, are a kind of microcosm, a mirror for the outside world. And it is from the events and experiences of those 15 years that I built my books—especially Gentlemen and Players, and my new book, Different Class: both set in St. Oswald’s, a fictional boys’ grammar school in the north of England.
Knowing this, it must be tempting for readers to assume that the events depicted in my books are based on some kind of real-life event. The fact is that real life is nowhere near as plausible as fiction, at least as far as schools are concerned, and if I were to base my books on actual, real-life incidents encountered during my teaching career, the critics would scoff and refuse to believe that any such thing had happened. Having said that, schools are filled with stories; they’re communities in which tragedy and farce are only ever the turn of a page away. My teaching career saw plenty of both, and it is inevitable that certain stories, incidents and characters remained in my writer’s subconscious.
The writing process is very much tied up with memory. But St. Oswald’s is a construct, rather than a portrayal of any single place. It contains elements of schools (and universities) at which I was a pupil, as well as the schools in which I taught. Some minor incidents are based on things that really happened. The main plots, however, are mostly made-up or loosely based on current events.
As I was writing Different Class, I was also watching the unfolding of the Operation Yewtree police investigation, the results of which rocked [the U.K.] and implicated a number of TV and radio celebrities in a series of accusations of historical sex abuse. This scandal, with all its complexities, seemed to have disturbing parallels with the book I was writing. Again, I didn’t plan it this way. Ideas are like dandelion seeds, landing where the wind takes them. That year, the wind was full of tales of past and present abuses. Some of them must have made their way into the book I was writing: a story about the past, about memory and perception, about loyalty and childhood and guilt and of the dark side of friendship.
I find my “dark” books at the same time curiously satisfying to write, and emotionally and intellectually draining. But I believe that stories should contain equal proportions of light and shade in order to be meaningful. The monsters of our daily lives are not the demons and werewolves of fairy tale, but sexual predators, murderers and those who hide their malevolence behind an everyday façade. Stories enable us to face our monsters, and sometimes, learn to fight back. Facing them isn’t always easy, but maybe that’s the point.
During her 15 years as a teacher, Joanne Harris published three novels, including the bestselling Chocolat (1999), which was made into an Oscar-nominated film. Since then, she has written 15 more novels, two collections of short stories and three cookbooks. Her new novel of psychological suspense, Different Class, is set at an antiquated, failing prep school. A new headmaster arrives, bringing changes that seem more corporate than academic. While curmudgeonly Latin teacher Roy Straitley does his best to resist these transformations, a shadow from his past begins to stir—a boy who haunts his dreams, a sociopathic young outcast from 20 years before. Harris lives with her husband and daughter in Yorkshire, where she writes in a shed in her garden.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a review of Different Class.