Jane Harris (writer)

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Jane Harris (born 1961) is a British writer of fiction and screenplays. Her most recent work is the critically acclaimed Gillespie and I. Her first novel, The Observations, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2007. Waterstone's, the UK bookstore chain, has chosen her as one of its 25 Authors for the Future.

Early life and career[edit]

Harris was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and spent her early childhood there before her parents moved in 1965 to Glasgow, Scotland. On leaving school she studied English Literature and Drama at the University of Glasgow, then trained as an actress at the East 15 Acting School in London.

After a few years of trying different careers she worked abroad, variously as a dishwasher, a waitress, a chambermaid and an English language teacher. She began writing short stories during this period, while confined to bed in Portugal with a bout of flu.

On her return to Glasgow several of her short stories were published in anthologies. In the early 1990s she was a regular panellist on STV's Scottish Books programme.

She went on to study for the MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia under Malcolm Bradbury. After gaining a distinction in her degree she completed a PhD at the same university.

After UEA came a two-year stint as the Arts Council Writer-in-Residence at HMP Durham (1992–4). Following this Harris worked as a script and novel reader for film companies and for The Literary Consultancy, and as a script editor. She also taught Creative Writing for many years, principally at the University of East Anglia.

Harris lives in East London and is married to the film and TV director Tom Shankland.

Themes in writing[edit]

The Observations was acclaimed for the playful and compelling voice of its narrator, Bessy Buckley, and for its humorous treatment of dark themes.

Reviews of her second novel, Gillespie and I, have remarked upon its themes of obsession and loneliness.

Harris's work is also notable for dealing with characters on the edge of society. Other common issues in her work centre on family, immigration, exile, national identity, (particularly Scottish and Irish), crime, prostitution, madness, poverty, sexuality, gender roles and hypocrisy.

Short stories[edit]

Her short stories have received a number of prizes including the Penguin/Observer Newspaper Short Story Award, 1993. She was awarded an Arts Council Writer's grant in 2000.

Harris has been published in a wide variety of anthologies and literary magazines including New Writing 3, edited by Andrew Motion and Candice Rodd, and in several volumes of New Writing Scotland.

Ascension 1979 was commissioned for BBC Radio 3's The Verb. Jane read the story when it was broadcast live from Radio Theatre at BBC Broadcasting House on 6 May 2011.

Screenplays[edit]

Harris has written a number of award-winning short films, culminating in 2000 when Bait (funded by Film Four) was BAFTA nominated. The film won the Kodak Award and Best Short at the Newport Film Festival in the US.

In 2001, Going Down (funded by Working Title) was also nominated for a BAFTA and won prizes for Best Drama at the BBC Short Film Festival, Best Short at the Angers Film Festival and was runner-up in the Turner Classic Movie Awards.

Harris was shortlisted in 1999 and 2000 for the BBC's Dennis Potter Awards.

Gillespie and I (2011)[edit]

Harris's second novel, Gillespie and I, was published to critical acclaim in the UK in January 2011. It is a chilling tale, largely set in the late 19th century, and involving anonymous letters, sleazy journalism and a notorious court case.

It would appear that I am to be the first to write a book on Gillespie. Who, if not me, was dealt that hand?

As she sits in her Bloomsbury home, with her two birds for company, elderly Harriet Baxter sets out to relate the story of her acquaintance, over four decades previously, with Ned Gillespie, a talented artist who never achieved the fame that she maintains he deserved.

Back in 1888, the young, art-loving Harriet arrives in Glasgow at the time of the International Exhibition. After a chance encounter, she befriends the Gillespie family and soon becomes a fixture in all of their lives. But when tragedy strikes – leading to a notorious criminal trial – the promise and certainties of this world all too rapidly disintegrate into mystery and deception.

Featuring a memorable cast of characters, infused with atmosphere and period detail, and shot through with wicked humour, Gillespie and I is a powerful and haunting second novel from one of today's most striking new voices.

Text taken from the hardback edition of Gillespie and I

Daisy Goodwin in the Sunday Times has described it as, "Like a Hitchcock film, every detail is there for a reason. . . It is rare to read a literary novel where the storytelling is as skilful as the writing is fine, but in Gillespie and I, Harris has pulled off the only too rare double whammy – a Booker-worthy novel that I want to read again."

The Observations (2006)[edit]

Harris's acclaimed debut, set in Scotland in 1863, is narrated by the lively, sharp Bessy Buckley, who leaves Glasgow and happens into a job as a maid at Castle Haivers.

Arabella, her mistress, encourages Bessy to write her thoughts and experiences in a journal. She also subjects Bessy to odd experiments, but Bessy goes along with them because she is flattered by the attention and quickly grows attached to her mistress.

Things change when Bessy snoops in Arabella's locked desk and discovers the book Arabella has been writing, The Observations, a study of the "habits and nature of the Domestic Class."

Bessy is incensed to read criticisms of herself in the account, and also learns of Arabella's affection for one of her predecessors, a girl who died under mysterious circumstances.

Bessy concocts a revenge that ends up having consequences far more lasting than she ever envisioned …

The Observations is published in the UK by Faber and Faber, in the US by Penguin, and in Australia/New Zealand by Allen & Unwin. Since its release in the UK and US it has been published in the Netherlands, Italy, Denmark, Greece, Spain, Germany, Norway, Poland, France, Portugal, Sweden and Brazil. It is due to be published in Israel, Serbia and Montenegro, Romania, Croatia, Russia, Turkey.. An audiobook version is available, narrated by the author. There is also a Danish audiobook version.

Radio[edit]

Ascension 1979, a specially commissioned short story, was read by Harris live on BBC Radio 3's The Verb in May 2011.

Jane Harris talks to Jane Garvey on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour in May 2011.

The Observations was adapted by Chris Dolan and dramatised on BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour in April 2007.

The Observations – awards[edit]

  • Prix du Premier Roman – France (2009)
  • Waterstone's Book of the Month (April 2006)
  • USA Book of the Month Club's First Fiction Prize (2007)
  • Waterstone's 25 Authors for the Future

The Observations – shortlistings[edit]

Gillespie & I – shortlistings & longlistings[edit]

References[edit]