New Chocolat book + interview with author

The fourth novel in Joanne Harris’s Chocolat series has just come out in paperback. The writer spoke to Jane Hanks about her writing, her French/British background and the influence of France and her French family on her work.

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Joanne Harris was born in Barnsley in 1964 with a French mother and an English father. She studied Modern and Medieval Languages at Cambridge and was a teacher for 15 years, during which time she published three novels, including Chocolat in 1999, which was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp.

It was filmed in various locations in France, including Beynac, Dordogne and Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, Côte-d’Or. Since then she has written 15 more novels, two collections of short stories, two novellas, several screenplays, a musical and three cookbooks. Her books are published in over 50 countries and she has won several awards, and was made an MBE in 2013.

Influences and inspirations

Though she was brought up in Yorkshire, her first language was French: “My parents still always speak French at home, and I often speak French to my daughter. “I think being from two cultures makes for an interesting perspective on community and belonging. It also gave me access to two different traditions – that of the north of England, with its very strong cultural heritage, its folklore, literature and food, as well as that of Western France and Brittany. “I think it gave me a different attitude to language, a broader vocabulary and a wider range of influences from which to draw.

“I spent all my school holidays in France while I was growing up. I spent six or seven weeks every summer with my grandfather in his house on the island of Noirmoutier, which has given me some of my fondest childhood memories.” Chocolat was followed by The Lollipop Shoes, Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé and now The Strawberry Thief. Four other books are also set in France, Coastliners, Five Quarters of the Orange, Holy Fools, and Blackberry Wine: “I wanted the opportunity to write about the people and places of my childhood. “France has always been very important to me, and besides, those stories are so heavily influenced by the history, food and culture of France that they could not have been set in any other place.”

Reading about Lansquenet-sous-Tannes in Chocolat, makes us instantly feel we are in a French rural town. Harris says it has been influenced by real places: “It’s a fictional place, based on a number of real places along the Tarn and the Garonne. I don’t tend to write often about real places – it’s too limiting – and I prefer to leave something to the imagination.” The descriptions are often so vivid you imagine she must have been in France to write the books, but “I didn’t have to be. I prefer to use my memories and my imagination.” She said she could not have written the same story set in an English village: “Location is central to all of my books. Five Quarters of the Orange is very much about a community in rural France during the Occupation. Chocolat and its literary siblings are strongly built around the influence of Catholicism in rural French communities.

“I couldn’t have transplanted those themes, even if I’d wanted to. In the same way, stories I’ve written set in Yorkshire mining villages couldn’t have been possible to relocate to France.” The setting also affects her characters: “The differences are subtle; communities and personalities share a lot of similar qualities in many parts of the world, but obviously language, tradition and culture differs, and these are reflected in my characterisation.”

Food is central to the French books and often their titles, but she said that is not just because they are set in France: “I think tastes and smells are particularly evocative because as newborns we first experience the world through those two senses. “That means that our emotional response to a taste or a smell (think of Proust and his lime-blossom tisane) can act upon us at a very powerful, subconscious level. “I don’t think France is unique in finding food significant, but I write about France largely from affection and nostalgia. Because I live in England, I don’t find it necessary in the same way to keep my connections alive in this way.”

The film Chocolat was a huge success and though some details were changed, Harris said she “liked it very much”. “It wasn’t exactly the story I wrote, but the casting and direction were both terrific, the music was wonderful and the overall aesthetic was a delight. The story was simplified and sweetened to make it more acceptable for a cinema audience, and I didn’t always agree with all the changes which were made, but I liked it anyway. I was delighted with all the cast – I’d always imagined Juliette Binoche in the lead role and Lasse Hallström is a terrific director.”

So what's it about?

Chocolat begins with the arrival in a tiny French village of Vianne Rocher, a single mother with a young daughter, on Shrove Tuesday. Vianne opens a chocolate shop opposite the church, to the disapproval of priest Francis Reynaud as his congregation are tempted to over-indulge at Lent. Much of the book is based on a conflict between church and chocolate, dogma and understanding, pleasure and self-denial.

Harris said it was a mistake to change the priest in the film to a mayor: “I know the decision came from concern that Catholics might be offended, but by the time the film came out the book had already gained so much popularity that many readers were puzzled and disappointed at such a radical change. Personally, I was less concerned. My intention was never to highlight Reynaud’s role as a priest, or to denigrate Catholicism, and I think most readers understood that."

“Reynaud is basically a man who uses his ideology to maintain control over other people, who misinterprets Catholicism in order to enforce an agenda of his own, and that does come over very well in the film.” But she says she is aware that films are not the same as books and that you cannot expect them to present a completely accurate and in-depth interpretation of the book from which they are taken: “As such, I think Chocolat stands up very well indeed, and I’m delighted to have been part of it. As adaptations go, this seems to me to be a sensitive and faithful one; certainly not as dark as the book, but I like milk chocolate, too.”

The Strawberry Thief

In the new book, The Strawberry Thief, Vianne Rocher has finally settled down and she continues to run her chocolate shop in the square and lives with Rosette, her “special child”, while her older daughter, Anouk has left home to live in Paris, to the heartache of her mother. The story revolves around the death of the old florist, Narcisse, who leaves an area of woodland with a strawberry patch to Rosette, much to the disgust of the florist’s daughter. A mysterious new shop takes the place of the florists and is mistrusted just as Vianne’s chocolate shop was, years earlier.

Harris said it was not difficult to continue her characters’ story: “It was easier than I would have thought when I first started writing Chocolat over 20 years ago. These characters have changed with time, as I too have changed with time. “Vianne’s story isn’t the same as mine, but we have a number of things in common – especially the relationship we have with our children – and we have grown alongside each other, collecting stories along the way.”

Some of her characters in her French books are based on her French family. Harris’s French great-grandmother was one of the influences behind Vianne and Chocolat is dedicated to her. “She was a wonderful cook, a powerful matriarchal figure as well as being a lively, eccentric and generous Mémée. “She was denounced from the pulpit for daring to send her son to a secular school rather than a fee-paying Catholic one.”

Five Quarters of the Orange

One of the novels Harris enjoyed writing most, Five Quarters of the Orange, set in a small village near Angers on the Loire, against the background of the German Occupation, was inspired by stories told to her by her grandfather when she was a child. He was in the army during the war, and was decorated twice. He was denounced to the Gestapo by the wife of a friend who was in the Resistance and he and his family were forced to hide-out on a relative’s farm in the country. She heard hundreds of his stories about his experiences and she was always fascinated that this old man who smoked a pipe and liked fishing had once been a real hero.

She also loved writing the main character, Framboise, who goes back to the village she lived in when it was under Occupation: “I enjoyed her voice so much; that stroppy we’ll-do-it-my-way-or-not-at-all manner of hers. I liked writing as an old person, too, because there are so few of them in fiction, and because they so infrequently have interesting roles to play. “I wanted to challenge that general feeling that old people don’t feel passions, that old people can’t fall in love, that old people are patient, wise and resigned to their eventual fate. “Framboise is anything but these things: she isn’t always easy, but she’s very tough and although she has experienced some terrible things, she has never lost her sense of herself.”

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Harris’s books are published in France and she has had some fan mail from French readers. At first, the French were reluctant to publish in the early days and she thinks there was mistrust because she has an English name, and yet she was presuming to write about France: “My first offer, from a very large French company, was conditional on my writing under a French nom-de-plume. “I refused, and eventually went with a much smaller publisher, Table Ronde, which deals in mostly academic texts. “I’m happy to be in print at all over there; at least this means my non-English speaking family can read my books!”

She began writing at a young age: “I’ve been writing ever since I was a child. I was already telling myself stories before I learnt to read.” She said that she writes wherever she is and whenever she can as she does not have the luxury of a regular routine: “I have a lot of other commitments that means I have to fit my writing around other things – festivals, foreign visits, touring, other projects. “I sometimes have to work from hotel rooms, in cafés, on public transport. But when I’m at home I prefer to write in the mornings, in my shed in the garden.”

She said she does not have a favourite book among those she has written: “I don’t usually think in that way. All my books are unique, and reflect aspects of my life and development as a writer. I don’t tend to have favourites.” And she had good news for Chocolat fans – there may be other books in the series: “I wouldn’t be at all surprised,” she said. “Vianne’s story isn’t over, nor are Anouk’s and Rosette’s, so it’s quite possible that one or more of them will come to me in a few years’ time with another story to tell.”

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