Exclusive Interview: Honeycomb Writer Joanne Harris & Illustrator Charles Vess


Depending on your perspective, Twitter is either a great way to connect with people, a horrible spreader of misinformation, or a little of both. But for writer Joanne Harris, it was a place to spontaneously write some fantasy tales and fables. Now those stories are not only being collected in the book Honeycomb (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook) as an interconnected short story novel, but she also got artist Charles Vess to do new illustrations for it. In the following email interview, Harris and Vess discuss what inspired their parts of this fantasy and fable collection.

Joanne Harris Charles Vess Honeycomb

Joanne Harris (© Joanne Harris), Charles Vess (Photo Credit: K. Marie Shaffer)


Joanne, I’d like to start with you. What is Honeycomb, and when and where does it take place?

Joanne: Honeycomb is both a novel and a collection of short stories and fables, all set in the same expanded multiverse as my other fantasy novels. Some of the stories stand alone, but the central narrative follows the tale of the Lacewing King, magical trickster and amoral ruler of the Silken Folk; his misadventures, his treacheries, and his pursuit through many Worlds by both the vengeful Spider Queen and the deadly Harlequin. On his journey through the Worlds of the Folk, of the Sand Riders, the Undersea, the River Dream and even the Kingdom of Death itself, he encounters a multitude of characters, each with their own story — a clockwork woman, a watchmaker’s boy, a huntress with a mechanical tiger, an undersea Queen in love with the Moon, a princess who dreams of a library — before he finds redemption at last, and a final purpose.

You originally wrote Honeycomb in real time on Twitter. Are the versions in this collection different from what you originally wrote on Twitter?

Joanne: The stories I wrote on Twitter, which make up about two-thirds of the book, are more or less unchanged, except for a word or two here and there. As with the oral tradition of storytelling, I found telling stories on Twitter a very different process to writing them on the page, and I wanted to retain as much of that ephemeral, spoken quality as possible.

As you said, the stories in Honeycomb are fantasy stories, though it sounds like they’re more in the vein of fairy tales than, say, Game Of Thrones. Is this how you’d describe them?

Joanne: Some follow the tradition of classic European folk tales: dark, sometimes gruesome, and filled with magic and the supernatural. Some are more like fables in the tradition of La Fontaine or Aesop, usually referring to current or political events. In both cases, fantasy fits the description, although these stories are original, rather than retellings in the tradition of Grimm and Perrault. I wanted to try and create a kind of new folklore, building on past traditions, but incorporating more modern themes, social dynamics, and gender roles.

Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on the stories in Honeycomb but not on anything else you’ve written?

Joanne: All my books are rooted in aspects of myth, legend, and folklore, and I think Honeycomb continues with this, albeit in a slightly different way. Our folkloric heritage is an incredibly rich seam of inspiration, which lies at the heart of a lot of our modern literature, whether or not we choose to label it as fantasy. There are influences in Honeycomb from the Child Ballads; Norse myths; the Thousand And One Nights (especially in terms of structure); La Fontaine’s Fables, Anouilh’s short stories, as well as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market.

How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games; did any of those have an influence on Honeycomb?

Joanne: I think much of the original aesthetic of Honeycomb (especially the descriptions of the Silken Folk and their realm) comes from painters like Richard Dadd, whose Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke was one of my early obsessions. I also owe a considerable debt to illustrators like Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac, as well as to Fuseli and Harry Clarke, and the marvelous work of Brian and Wendy Froud.

Now, one of the interesting things about Honeycomb is that it features illustrations by Charles. Whose idea was it to have someone illustrate these stories?

Joanne: It was entirely my idea. I wanted to create something beautiful, nostalgic and in the tradition of those Golden Age illustrated books that had enchanted me as a child: essentially, an illustrated fairy book, for adults.

When you say this book is for adults, I assume you don’t mean it’s racy like Alan Moore’s Lost Girls, right?

Joanne: No, I mean it’s not a children’s book.

And then whose idea was it to have Charles do these illustrations?

Joanne: Once again, it was my idea. I knew Charles’ work and I’d admired him for a long time — he really is one of only a handful of old-style fairy painters left in the world. I knew that if I could get him interested in the project, he would do it justice. I actually approached him before I even told my publisher about the existence of Honeycomb — that’s how much I wanted to work with him…

So, Charles, what made you interested in illustrating Honeycomb?

Charles: Many years ago, I was asked by the editor of Faerie Magazine (now called Enchanted Living) to illustrate one of Joanne’s short stories. I leapt at the chance because I was such a big fan of her writing. Afterwards, Joanne emailed me to ask if I would be interested in illustrating a book of the same type of material. I, of course, said yes, but was in the midst of working with Ursula K. Le Guin to illustrate her collection of Earthsea stories, so Honeycomb was put off for a few years.

This, of course, is not the first work of prose you’ve illustrated. Neil Gaiman’s Stardust comes to mind. How did working with Joanne and on Honeycomb compare to other books you’ve illustrated?

Charles: Stardust was a very unique project in that it was written and illustrated at the same time, so both the art and the text each affected the other in real time. Most of the other books that I’ve illustrated were, like Honeycomb, finished text that I would read and read again looking for scenes or characters who leap off the page and cry to be drawn or painted. I love to read, so it is always a thrill and a challenge to try to find a visual representation of an author’s words.

In working with Joanne on Honeycomb, did she ever offer suggestions or anything that prompted you to change anything in one of your illustrations?

Charles: No, she was extremely patient with my long delay in getting started on her book and then remained appreciative as I sent each drawing via email as they were done. Of them all, there was only ever one small suggestion sent back to me. But there were probably many more thoughts going through her head, such as “Why isn’t he drawing that scene?” or “He / she doesn’t look like that at all!” And I must thank her for the freedom that she gave me.

And I think I know the answer already, but I’ll ask anyway: Joanne, did any of Charles’ illustrations ever prompt you to change anything in Honeycomb?

Joanne: The text was complete by the time Charles started on the illustrations, so there was nothing I could change, but I was careful not to be pushy or controlling over what he chose to illustrate. I wanted Charles to have as much freedom as possible over the stories and scenes he wanted to tackle; and with 100 chapters in the book, there was plenty of choice.

Now, Joanne, earlier you said Honeycomb is a “both a novel and a collection of short stories and fables,” while in the press materials you refer to it as, “a novel in the shape of a jigsaw puzzle made up of exactly one hundred chapters, each one a story in its own right, in which every story is a piece of the larger picture.” Does that mean you think people should read this straight through?

Joanne: I don’t want to dictate to people how to read my books. We all approach reading differently, just as we all have differing perceptions of the world. Some people may want to dip into Honeycomb as they would a short story collection; others may prefer to follow the tale of the Lacewing King from beginning to end and explore the other stories at leisure. Any way you choose is fine. This book is a walk through a forest: there are many paths to explore and many places to linger.

It’s been my experience that short story collections are a good way to get to know a writer…but not always. Do you think Honeycomb would be a good jumping off point for someone to explore your oeuvre?

Joanne: This too, I think, is a very individual choice. All my books are different. All of them are in their way challenging and experimental. Honeycomb stands alone: you don’t need to have read any of my other books to enjoy it. All I can suggest is try not to approach it — or any of my books — with too many preconceptions. Half the fun of the ride, I think, is not quite knowing what to expect.

Joanne Harris Charles Vess Honeycomb

Finally, if someone enjoys Honeycomb, Joanne, what book that Charles did the art for would you recommend they check out next, and Charles, which of Joanne’s other novels would you suggest they read next?

Joanne:  The illustrated Earthsea is, I think, one of Charles’ grandest and most impressive projects. But I first came across his work via the books of Charles de Lint — including A Circle of Cats, Seven Wild Sisters and The Cats Of Tanglewood Forest, all of which are equally magical and sensitive. I love the tenderness and intimacy of some of these smaller projects, as well as the gentle humor and the impressive attention to detail.

Charles: Well, certainly Chocolat is a supremely delightful novel, both darker and deeper than the film adaptation and its follow up, Blackberry Wine, which is not a sequel but is partially set in the same French village and thus shares some of the same characters. The Girl With No Shadow is captivating as is Five Quarters Of The Orange (but in a completely different manner). I also very much enjoyed A Pocketful Of Crows.



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