Joanne Harris: Best-selling author of Chocolat

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image-joanneharris200Joanne Harris is the best-selling author of 14 novels, including Chocolat, Blackberry Wine and Five Quarters of the Orange. Her latest novel is Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé, the third book in the trilogy that started with Chocolat and Lollipop Shoes.

In Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé, single mother and chocolatier Vianne Rocher returns to the village of Lansquenet, eight years after she left. The village is changing and there are tensions building between the old residents and the growing Moroccan muslim community. Set during Ramadan in 2010 (around the time the French government banned the wearing of full-face veils), Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé explores religious tolerance and change.

While Joanne is most well-known for her whimsical and magical “food-lit”, she has also written fantasy fiction for younger readers. Runemarks was published in 2007 and was quickly followed by Runelight. She has also published a collection of short stories and two French cookbooks.

Click play to listen. Running time: 16.04

Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Danielle
Thanks for joining us today, Joanne. Just tell us a bit more about the latest book.

Joanne
Well, the latest book is called Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé, and it is the third in a series of stories about Vianne Rocher who first appeared in Chocolat with her daughter Anouk. The second one was called The Lollipop Shoes and it happened four years after the events of Chocolat, and this one is four years after that, so eight years have passed between the events of Chocolat and the events of Peaches. Vianne has moved on, or at least she thinks she has, but she is called back to Lansquenet, the village in which Chocolat is set, by a letter from a friend who died many years ago and she never expected to hear from again. She finds the community very changed and in need of help.

Danielle
Now you mentioned this is the third book in the trilogy, and it started with Chocolat in 1999, so there’s been quite a big gap between the second book and now the third, what is it about these characters that has prompted you to keep revisiting them?

Joanne
Well, I think that Vianne is one of those characters who is on a personal journey of her own and it’s clearly not finished yet. I always I thought at the end of Chocolat that she had perhaps more stories in her at one point, and that turned out to be true. I don’t set out to write about her particularly, but occasionally a story just comes and I know that she will be a part of it somehow.

In this case I wanted to write a story about hijabs, the Muslim face veil, because I had written stories about the idea of identity and perception before. It was about current topic at the time. France was talking about banning it, Belgium had already banned it. I wondered what would happen if one of these kind of very traditionalist little Catholic communities in the south of France was faced with a community of Muslims in which there were women wearing this veil. I thought, “Well, what if I set it in Lansquenet?” And it became a story about those communities, and Vianne came into it very naturally.

Danielle
So was it difficult to write about the Muslim religion. I know it’s been quite topical in France, obviously, because they’re not keen on the head scarf. Was it difficult to write about Islam, and particularly Islam in a community that’s not very accepting of strangers?

Joanne
Well, I live in a community with a very large Muslim contingence, so it’s not something that’s new to me, I know a lot of Muslim families and I spoke to a number of them about the issues they face, they have now been banned in France, it’s not banned in England.

Danielle
Right.

Joanne
And a number of young women have started choosing to wear it. I was curious as to why they did when their mothers didn’t and their grandmothers didn’t. So, I canvassed a number of women and I got some stories and collected some stories, one of them became one of the central stories in the book. Now, it’s something very natural to write about these things. I don’t see it as being as alien as some people do think it is. I don’t see myself as writing about Islam. I am writing about people, some of whom happen to be Muslim, some Catholic, some neither of those things.

Danielle
Another thing that features heavily in all of your books is food. Was it a different process writing about food for Peaches, because I assume you would have touched on a lot of the Middle Eastern cuisine, as well as the French, which you obviously talked about a lot in your past books.

Joanne
What I think is it doesn’t really matter what kind of food it is, it’s more about the emotional resonance of food and what it means to people, and this I think is a universal thing. Wherever you go in the world there are the same broad attitudes to food, and it is about family, hospitality, sharing, celebration, affection, sometimes also about things like guilt or need, but those are things that are absolutely understandable wherever you go, and it’s one of those kind of universal passports, it’s one of those things that we use to bridge the gaps between cultures, because if you don’t know a culture, if you can’t speak the language, you can still accept the gift of food and be welcomed into the community that way.

Danielle
Just tell us a bit more about why food features so heavily in your books. I know when I read Five Quarters of the Orange the descriptions of the food were just stunning, and it kind of kept coming back to preparing food and eating food. Why is that such a strong theme in your writing?

Joanne
Because it’s one of those things that everybody understands. There are so few things that all cultures understand equally, and because my books are published in so many different places sometimes it’s difficult to explain what rural French life is to someone living, let’s say in Japan, or Estonia, or somewhere like that. It is not difficult to explain about people coming together to make food, or passing recipes on, or desperately wanting something, but not being able to get it because you’re in a country at war, as in Five Quarters of the Orange. These are all things that sort of speak emotionally to people on a very easy, direct level.

Danielle
So in 2007 you took a bit of different tack with your writing, and your first fantasy book came out, Runemarks. What prompted that shift to a new genre?

Joanne
I don’t think it’s shifted at all and I don’t think it’s new at all, and I’ve been writing on the edges of fantasy since I started writing, both my first books were supernatural thrillers of one sort or another. A lot of the books in which Vianne Rocher plays a part have a strong supernatural element and I’m very interested in the role that the folklore and fairytale has in influencing modern fiction. So, it really wasn’t a change for me. Instead this was kind of much more flat fantasy because I was able to sort of create an entirely different world, but to me it’s still very much connected with what I’ve always done.

Danielle
But given that you were writing a completely different world, or a completely different setting, was your planning process different for Runemarks and Runelight at all? Or was it very similar to how you write your other novels?

Joanne
I think it was quite similar in a lot of ways. I mean I had established the world right at the beginning, and it is a world very much based on the world of norse mythology which I’m familiar with and have been influenced by since I was a child really. I think the first things I wrote were set in that kind of universe, so it was quite easy to revisit it. But, within that the kind of communities that I write about in the Ruin books are actually very similar to the ones that I write about and the ones that communities that are set in France, they’re the same kind of insiders, and outsiders, and gossips, and religious leaders, and people who do wrong for reasons that they think are right and all of the rest of it. It’s still about people.

Danielle
So tell us a bit about your journey to writing, because Chocolat wasn’t your first book, but it was the one that kind of established your reputation, I guess.

Joanne
Yeah. I had been a teacher for 15 years and I had already published two books before Chocolat, but most of the time you can’t make a living just writing books, and so I had this day job and for a long time it was perfectly compatible. When Chocolat became unexpectedly as popular as it did I was put in the position where I had to give up teaching or give up writing. And so I went into writing without really knowing whether it was going to really work, but knowing that I had to take a punt on it because otherwise I would always been asking myself what would have happened.

Danielle
And then of course Chocolat was made into a film a couple of years later. What was that process like? What was it like to watch your book being adapted to a film, and then presumably a new audience coming to the book from that movie?

Joanne
Well, it was quite surreal. Obviously I didn’t have all that much to do with it. I was just kind of on the periphery of it because all of my work had already been done. So, I watched it with curiosity and not much belief in it as of being made because most of the time options are taken out that you never get to see the end product.

Danielle
How did that feel though? I mean watching it –

Joanne
Well, it felt great. I read several versions of the screenplay, from that I had a certain idea of what they were going to do. And they kept changing the roles, so I was very relieved when finally they went back to something that was much closer to my original story, because they had gone through a phase of wanting to set in the States and wanting to change the storyline outside of all recognition and then they went back to the original story and they had a European director, a very good European cast.

Danielle
So, tell us a bit about your daily writing routine, obviously you have published quite a few books – 14 novels I believe, in a relatively short period of time. What’s your process like while you’re writing? Do you sit down and do a few hours each day, or is it more organic?

Joanne
It’s not very much of a routine at all because I can’t afford a routine. I’m traveling around so much, I do so many different things that the idea of being able to say, “I will be available to work between these hours…” just doesn’t make sense. So, the work gets done when it gets done.

Because I’m used to having other jobs going on at the same time, I’m not bound by a lot of rules about where I’ve got to be, or what time it’s got to be, or what the circumstances have to be. I just tend to use the time that’s available. So, if I’m traveling I can work in hotel rooms, I can work on planes, if I am at home I have the luxury of working at home, which is nice.

Danielle
So do you tend to stick to one project at a time? Or do you always have a few different things on the go?

Joanne
It depends. Very often I have several things on the go, because I don’t always work in a linear way from one end of a book to another. Very often I’ll leave something for months or sometimes even for years before I’ll come back to finish it and during that time I’ll work on something else.

Danielle
So are you working on a new novel now, while you’re jetting around the world for the latest promo?

Joanne
I’ve got another one of my Rune books on the way.

Which I’m working on. I’ve been writing short stories, as I often do when I’m kind of in the middle of other things. And then I guess at some point there’ll be something else, but I don’t know what it’s going to be yet.

Danielle
Yep, sure. You just mentioned short stories, is that something you do a lot of?

Joanne
No, not very much. I don’t find that short stories come very easily to me, and so if I write three or four a year that’s usually the maximum.

I just have a collection of short stories that I’ve just finished, and it’s just come out now, called A Cat, A Hat, and A Piece of String, and that took me about six years to put together. Before that I had a collection of short stories called Jigs and Reels, which had taken me another six years to put together, so that’s not a good time scale. But they tend to be very varied and they tend to be based on all kinds of things that usually I have encountered on my travels – people, places that have triggered these stories.

Danielle
Is that why they tend to take a few years to get a collection together, because you’re… I guess waiting for the inspiration?

Joanne
Well, yes. I mean I’m not particularly motivated to look for short stories, they tend to come to me and usually it’s triggered by an event or something that I’ve seen, or a place that I’ve visited, and a lot of them have been written while I was traveling or in connection with something that happened when I was traveling.

Danielle
Yes. So, just one final question, what is your advice to budding authors?

Joanne
Well, I’m not sure I should give any advice to budding authors, really. Except that they should read as much as they can, because this is how you learn. And, that whatever they do other than writing – they should love writing, because so few young authors get a chance nowadays in conventional publishing, there’s so much rejection out there, that people who go into thinking that they’re going to do it and get famous, or get rich, or get girls, or whatever, tend to be on the wrong track. You have to love it first and foremost because that’s the way it sustains and that’s the way you can get passed all of the awful problems of getting to print.

Danielle
OK. Well, that’s very good advice. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us today. I know you’re very busy with your book tour. And, good luck with Monsieur Le Curé.

Joanne
Thank you very much.

Danielle
Thanks a lot, Joanne.

Joanne
Thank you. Bye-bye.


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