It has been a long time in coming, but after more than 25 years the children’s book originally penned by Joanne Harris has finally been published.
The story – a 1,000 page whopper called Witchlight, written when she was a 19-year-old student – was squirrelled away after numerous rejection slips from publishing houses. It was thought to be too dark, too long and too complex.
But, thankfully, five years ago the script was taken out of a drawer and looked at again. The author read it to her daughter Anouchka, then aged nine.
The girl loved it, so Harris, author of much-loved sensual novels as Chocolat and Five Quarters of the Orange, wrote another story just for her. That was Runemarks, a Norse-based adventure with goblins, gods and runes.
And thanks to her daughter’s persistence, the book is now able to reach a wider audience.
“She was the one who wanted me to get the book published,” she explains, from her Yorkshire home.
“I had such a good time with it; it was such fun to write, there just came a point when we decided it wasn’t the kind of thing we should keep to ourselves and that it should be published.”
At 504 pages long, it is another on the growing list of crossover books – novels that are perfectly pitched at both adults and younger readers.
“I deliberately didn’t pitch it for any age; it doesn’t make any sense to me to have books for this age or that,” she says, briskly.
“Adult readers are familiar with it, as are younger readers. I’m happy to be read by anyone who will enjoy it.”
Barnsley-born Harris, aged 43, came to prominence in 1999, when her delicious book Chocolat was published, which was later turned into a film starring Juliette Binoche.
She’d already had two books published by then, but it was the success of Chocolat that gave her the chance to concentrate on writing full-time for a career.
She left her job at Leeds Grammar School, where she taught modern languages, and has not looked back since.
“I liked my job as a teacher and I wouldn’t have left it if I hadn’t had to give up one job or another,” muses Harris. “It was time for me to leave and as much as I loved it I can’t help thinking if I was 21 again I wouldn’t choose the teaching profession.
“I have enormous sympathy for members of the profession as they are asked to do impossible things.
“There is a huge responsibility in terms of assessments and forms to be filled in and meaningless testing, which inevitably stops them doing their job.”
She has strident views when it comes to standards in education and despairs at the ever-increasing pass rates in GCSE and A-level, as well as some “Mickey Mouse” university courses.
“It is literally depressing. No one can deny it,” she sighs. “There is such an emphasis on exams being accessible to everybody, universities being accessible to everybody.
“Exams are supposed to test someone; universities are meant to teach, but they are not right for everyone.
“We’ve lost the idea that there are different levels of ability. We’ve got this terrible sense of sameness. It would be nice, instead of teaching an impressive and huge curriculum with so many different things that we taught the basics really well. It’s common sense.
“If teachers were allowed to do this they would be able to do the job they want to do. It’s no wonder they feel demoralised and disaffected.”
The country needs apprentices in trades, not every teenager amassing thousands of pounds’ worth of debt doing courses that have been created by universities to make money, she maintains.
It is an opinion she may well voice when she visits a Dudley school in two weeks’ time as part of her promotional book tour.
Is she looking forward to standing in front of a group of schoolchildren again? Or will she automatically revert to her former schoolteacher self?
“I like being with children very much; they are fresh and invigorating, but it will be very different from teaching: I can relax for one thing as I’m not there to keep discipline or see who’s not paying attention,” she says in her mellifluous voice, smiling gently.
“I hope I can get their imagination alive. It’s quite rewarding.”
Their imaginations should fire up very easily when they delve into the Norse-legend influenced Runemarks. It is set in a universe of nine worlds, 500 years after the end of the world. The world has been rebuilt without the old order and with the New Order religion.
But there is a young girl in a tiny village who has powers. Maddy Smith, a strong determined teenager disliked by her family and townspeople, has the gift of the mark of the rune.
This marks her out as different and the story follows her journey to discover herself, her past and her powers. Harris has long loved Norse legends and has interest in the runes, ancient letters. She has used both an Icelandic version and Old English runes for the story and has borrowed terms from Old Icelandic – mainly because she cannot take made-up languages seriously.
Harris likes the idea of a strong, young female heroine. “I wanted someone who would be believed in the real world. There is a little bit of Anouchka in there,” she says.
“The stories seem to come out of nowhere. I often wonder if the goblins brought them to me in the night.”
One can only hope that the goblins are hard at work, bringing more tales of Maddy Smith and the Inland. But on that, Ms Harris remains tight-lipped.