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Novelist Joanne Harris on how Chocolat best-seller changed her life

PUBLISHED: 19:30 25 March 2019

Joanne Harris who has just published a sequel to her best-selling novel Chocolat. She will be interviewed at Woodbridge Library about her life as a  writer. Photo Kyte Photography

Joanne Harris who has just published a sequel to her best-selling novel Chocolat. She will be interviewed at Woodbridge Library about her life as a writer. Photo Kyte Photography

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Best-selling novelist Joanne Harris has just released a new instalment to her Chocolat saga. She speaks about how the books have completely changed her life

Juliette Binoche tempts Judi Dench with her sinfully delicious chocolate treats in Chocolat. Photo MiramaxJuliette Binoche tempts Judi Dench with her sinfully delicious chocolate treats in Chocolat. Photo Miramax

Joanne Harris, the author of the bestselling novel ‘Chocolat’ has returned to the world of Vianne Rocher, her daughters Anouk and Rosette, and their chocolaterie in the French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes for a new book called ‘The Strawberry Thief’.

It’s 20 years since ‘Chocolat’ was published, and turned into the Oscar-nominated film of the same name, starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp.

Joanne has written more than a dozen other bestselling novels, two cookbooks and many short stories since then. Her work has covered magic realism, suspense, historical fiction, mythology and fantasy, and yet she is still known best the world over for ‘Chocolat’. This new book is the fourth in the series.

Vianne Rocher and her younger daughter, Rosette, are happily running the chocolate shop in the square when life is disrupted by the death of the florist, Narcisse and a mysterious new shop opens in town.

Juliette Binoche tempts river gypsy Johnny Depp with her sinfully delicious chocolate treats in Chocolat. Photo MiramaxJuliette Binoche tempts river gypsy Johnny Depp with her sinfully delicious chocolate treats in Chocolat. Photo Miramax

This year is the 20th anniversary of the release of ‘Chocolat’. How do you look back on its publication?

It was all a bit bewildering. It was a book I was told wouldn’t sell and didn’t have an audience! I am tremendously fond of it still. It doesn’t seem like 20 years ago by any means.

Joanne Harris' latest book Ther Strawberry Thief is a sequel to her best-selling novel ChocolatJoanne Harris' latest book Ther Strawberry Thief is a sequel to her best-selling novel Chocolat

It was a bestseller and then a hugely popular film. How did you feel about the response to ‘Chocolat’?

It was with disbelief and some alarm because it wasn’t my first book - I thought I’d got the measure of what my writing was going to be and that I was going to be able to write and continue teaching.

All my family are teachers, it’s what they consider to be a proper job, and I thought those two aspects of my life were not going to be in conflict. Obviously with ‘Chocolat’ it became very clear that I was going to have to give one of them up.

Eventually I quit teaching, with some reluctance, but with the safety net of thinking I could always go back to it. My mother still says this occasionally. I’m sure she does it to wind me up.

Having met so many readers over the years, what do you believe is the reason why the story means so much to people?

I really don’t know. I think there was an element of luck. Literary fiction at that time was dominated by a kind of bleakness, a seriousness and a kind of grim earnestness. ‘Chocolat’ was so different with so much sensuality, so much description and so much food, and there was a message that it was OK to be kind to yourself, to forgive yourself and to enjoy life. I think people went for it because they were so relieved that they could feel things again.

This is the fourth in the ‘Chocolat’ series. Why did you decide to return to the story?

It still surprises me that its audience is so enthusiastic and wants to read more about those characters. I’ve been returning to the story on a fairly regular basis.

We have been together for a long time, Vianne and I. We have watched our children grow, we have shared our deepest fears.

Some aspects of my life have evolved alongside the life of my characters. When I was the mother of a young child, I wrote about being the mother of a young child. My daughter is now 25 and has got married and moved to Moscow. With ‘The Strawberry Thief’, I’m writing from a different parental perspective.

I wasn’t interested in duplicating the story I actually wanted my characters to change and to grow, but to do that I had to change and to grow. It wouldn’t have worked if I’d tried to write four books consecutively, it wouldn’t have been the same kind of development.

How do you feel about comparisons being drawn between your life and the lives of your characters?

It’s very tempting for people to assume that I am Vianne and that Anouk is my daughter. Obviously I put a certain amount of myself into all my characters, but I think it’s a bit misleading for people to assume Vianne is me; they’ll be quite disappointed. In the early days I got lots of offers of marriage from young men who had fallen in love with Vianne, and primarily with Juliette Binoche, and they were quite disappointed that I wasn’t her!

How did the film impact your writing?

It didn’t. I had a very privileged perspective in that I had already completely visualized all my characters and so the movie wasn’t going to influence me. From the start, it was clear the movie wasn’t going to be exactly like my story and it meant it could exist on a different plane. Those characters got a happy ending, that was nice. But I knew that in my story that happy ending hadn’t happened yet. It was a different dimension completely.

In all these years, how have your characters taken on a life of their own?

As soon as characters start dictating what happens, you have to listen to them. Characters don’t stay alive if you make them serve an agenda.

In ‘The Lollipop Shoes’ so much later after ‘Chocolat’, Vianne had changed and seemed to be in a trough of self-doubt. People said they didn’t like what I’d done to Vianne. But I had to say life did that to her - keep reading, that’s what happens to people. Life affects us and we change. I was more interested in writing about things that are real and resonant. I couldn’t have Vianne living happily ever after making chocolate in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes. That’s what movies are for.

What are you hoping for from your visit to Suffolk?

I’d like to just walk about, and get out into the countryside. But I also want to know what the readers think about the book.

This is a story about letting go, and adulthood, and falling in love, and learning to accept the marks and scars that life inflicts on us.

I want to see from the readers if I’ve got it across right. It’s always a bit stressful in that respect. I will heave a big sigh of relief at the end of it if I find out that what I wanted to say has been understood.

What chocolate do you like?

I am not one of those people that eats chocolate a lot. I enjoy it when I do. My favourite is a whole cherry dipped in chocolate. They are quite common in France, you can’t often get them here.

Joanne Harris will be in conversation with Catherine Larner at Woodbridge Library on Friday 5 April, at 8pm. Tickets are £20 and include a copy of ‘The Strawberry Thief’ (RRP£20). Available from Browsers Bookshop, 60 Thoroughfare, Woodbridge. Tel 01394 388890

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