A dear writing friend, who would have loved to have come to Winchester, asked me about Joanne Harris\’s keynote speech. There was so much to inform and absorb at the conference that I had forgotten some of the delicious nuances of Joanne\’s inspiring talk, so I was glad of the prompt. Here\’s what I remember:
\”Oh, you asked about Joanne Harris – she was truly magnificent. She didn\’t chat with any delegates but gave the most wonderful, fluent keynote speech. She spoke for 50 minutes without pause or notes and it was totally entertaining. She began with a laugh, saying that she rambled when she talked or wrote, and even convinced me for a while that she was, but there was a point to every word. She cleverly brought the beginning, which seemed funny but irrelevant, back into the point she made at the end. A masterpiece! She encouraged us all. She had, despite her wonderful humour, a lot of gravitas and spoke with clear diction, without fuss or hurry in a friendly chatty way, as if across the kitchen table, and just with you.
She told us about how she was an underage but avid fan of her local library, Bradley, I think – in Yorkshire, anyway. She wangled her way in, despite her mother\’s outspoken misgivings, to the adult section at the age of 9. The librarian and her mother monitored her choices closely, so she discovered that if she took books on myths and legends she could access all the adult subjects of blood, gore, murder and sex, with their innocent approval. She had a favourite book in this section, whose title now escapes me, but after talking at length about how this early reading informed her later work and especially how society, wherever it is in the world, is composed of small, bound, communities where resentments and slights can simmer for years, she tried to buy the book for her own daughter. Her childhood library had sadly closed, as had so many others, so she searched on line for ages until she eventually found a copy. When it was sent to her house and she opened it, Joanne had one of those spine-tingling moments. Inside the cover was the library ticket, stamped with her library number, over and over again. It was the very copy she had read so many times in her youth and was now dog-eared to prove it. It had come home to her and now belongs to her daughter. Her writing took her to the Congo where she canoed up the river to an old woman, who was dying of sleeping sickness. Joanne\’s first cookbook\’s royalties were assigned entirely to the Medicines Sans Frontiers charity and particularly to help people suffering with this curable disease. She met the old woman – 97 years old – whose family surrounded her with pleas of letting go into the next life, all of which she repudiated with spirit. The medicine cured her. She and Joanne had many long chats about life and Joanne discovered that the community dynamics were just the same in the depths of the Congo as they had been in the Leeds school in which she had taught French for many years. The old lady went off, full of wellbeing and determination, back into the forest with the parting shot of – \’keep writing your stories, Joanne\’. And thankfully for the rest of us, she\’s following those instructions.
As you can imagine, the applause was deafening! A real privilege to have been there.\”