Creative Conversations: Novelist Jane Harris

Published

Credit: Jerry Bauer

Niki Radman
Writer

An ongoing series of talks hosted by the University’s Creative Writing department

Jane Harris is standing behind the podium, her gaze sometimes detaching itself from the text and wandering off into the audience over the square frames of her glasses. As she reads from her first novel The Observations, Harris’ voice travels loudly and clearly through the chapel. She is assuming the accent of Betty Buckley, an Irish girl working as a maid in Edinburgh, who finds herself strangely entangled in the mysteries of her employer’s life. It is unsurprising that this voice would come effortlessly to Harris, who is originally from Northern Ireland and spent most of her early childhood in Belfast. Harris’ family moved to Glasgow when she was still in school, and the author went on to study at the University of Glasgow, eventually graduating with a degree in English Literature and Drama. On the table in front of her is a gold-framed picture commemorating this event.

“If you’d told 19-year-old me that I would be invited to read from my novels here someday…” – Harris interrupts herself – “actually, if you’d told 19-year-old me that I’d be standing in a chapel at the University someday, I wouldn’t have believed you”. When host Louise Welsh introduced her as “a big shot in literature” at the beginning of this week’s ‘Creative Conversations’, Harris just shook her head in amusement. Harris was, in fact, on the shortlist for 2007’s Orange Prize for Fiction thanks to her debut novel and has likewise received critical acclaim for her more recent work. Her second novel Gillespie and I takes place in Glasgow during the time of the International Exhibition and traces the story of Ned Gillespie, an unsuccessful artist, through the eyes of Englishwoman Harriet Baxter. As Harris reads – nay, performs – an extract from this novel, her voice takes on a breathy, upper-class English accent, only enhancing the words and their comedic effect. Later in the conversation, she cites Jane Austen as one of her favourite writers – Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens and Anne Tyler also made the list – and so it comes as no great surprise that some of Harris’ work would tap into a kind of irony, which reveals and challenges naiveté or false sophistication – one that readers of Austen know only too well.

Harris, skilled in developing voice and character as she may be, found it more challenging to create the right linguistic style for the protagonist of her latest novel. Sugar Money is based on a true event and told from the perspective of Lucien, a slave in Martinique tasked by his French masters with a darkly ironic mission. Lucien and his brother are sent out to retrieve 42 slaves, which the French allege were “stolen” from them by the English, from their native Grenada. The creation of Lucien’s character required vocabulary and syntax, which would have been informed by several different languages, including a French creole, Scots, English and French itself. Harris says she immersed herself in the French creole particularly, through voice recordings she found during her research and through listening to people speak while visiting Grenada and Martinique. However, Harris’ research did not stop at there.

A writer’s dedication to the story has seldom found a more intense manifestation than making one’s way through the Grenadian jungle with a machete, which is exactly what Harris did. Accompanied by an expert guide, the author of Sugar Money embarked on the very journey described in her novel. She did this in order to better understand what the external circumstances might have been like for Lucien and his brother. Writing the story, Harris says, required a lot of “filling in the gaps” and after having consulted archives in the Caribbean and the South of France, she found that there were hardly any sources about the story she could work from. Harris describes the process of writing Sugar Money as an “incredible emotional challenge”.

In the story, she does not shy away from accounts of how slaves were often punished in “inventive ways” by their masters. During her research, Harris says she found out that, aside from conventional methods of punishment, some unexpected ways of torture had been practised. “Particularly towards the end of the novel, I was in a very dark place.” In writing a piece of historical fiction that addresses a topic as painful and sensitive as slavery, the author found it helpful to consult academics who focus on the history of this particular topic. For instance, Dr Stephen Mullen – co-author of a recent report titled “Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow” – read the first draft of Sugar Money and provided feedback on its historical background. Lucien’s story might seem far away from the realities of modern-day Glasgow were it not, in fact, riddled with references to Scotland’s involvement in slavery. Cruel masters in this story do not come exclusively from England or France, a good number of them are explicitly described as being Scottish. Harris’ latest novel, in the end, paints an all too vivid picture of the realities of slavery, and the West Indies slave trade in general, while contributing to the ongoing process of openly acknowledging Scotland’s involvement in it.