Harris returns 20 years later to magical characters of ‘Chocolat’

Joanne Harris: “Vianne’s invested a lot of her emotional energy in her children. The idea that one of them is flying off to a remote location is difficult for her to understand and come to terms with.” Picture: Kevin Harris/PA

Bestselling author Joanne Harris talks about the surprise of her success and how life has changed for both herself and her characters. But this is not a sequel, she tells Hannah Stephenson.

Enigmatic chocolatier Vianne Rocher swept into our psyche in the picturesque, sleepy little fictional French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes some 20 years ago — and today, Chocolat creator Joanne Harris contemplates how life has panned out for herself and her heroine.

The bestselling novel, for those who don’t know it, starts at the beginning of Lent, when Vianne arrives in the village with her six-year-old daughter Anouk to open a chocolaterie in the square opposite the church, to the outrage of the local priest, Father Reynaud. Yet despite his protests, she gently changes the lives of the villagers who visit her, with a combination of sympathy, subversion and a little magic.

The Oscar-nominated film adaptation starred Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp and Alfred Molina — and even now, Harris seems a bit bewildered as to how her little book, written on Sunday mornings between her teaching job and looking after her then-four-year-old daughter, became a global sensation.

“It’s completely unexpected, because I was told Chocolat wouldn’t sell and people wouldn’t be interested in that sort of scenario,” she says now.

Clearly that wasn’t true, and I’m astonished on a daily basis as to how many people are still deeply invested in those characters and those stories — and it’s wonderful.

Her publishers are pushing the boat out with a new book jacket for the hit title’s 20th anniversary — it’s actually the original jacket, but Harris has written a new introduction for it.

“I celebrate Chocolat every day. To me, the fact that those characters are still alive and still have stories to tell is a matter for celebration.”

Harris has also written a new book, The Strawberry Thief, the fourth continuation — not sequel, she is adamant — of the story, which sees Vianne for once feeling a little insecure and unsure of what the future holds, as her daughter Anouk has flown the nest.

When the local florist dies, leaving a piece of woodland to Vianne’s other daughter, Rosette, it stirs up all sorts of trouble, as the late florist’s own money-grabbing daughter tries to reclaim what she believes is rightfully hers.

Harris admits that Vianne — and indeed of all of the remaining characters — have changed, just as she has in the last 20 years.

“She has changed because I have changed. I’m not quite the same person I was 20 years ago. We are not each other, of course, but we do have a lot of things in common,” says Barnsley-born Harris.

“We are both the mother of a child. When I wrote Chocolat, I was the mother of a four-year-old and now I’m the mother of a 25-year-old, and you can write from those perspectives only when you’ve actually been there.”

In the book, Vianne misses her eldest child Anouk (Harris’s own daughter is called Anouchka). Similarly, Harris admits she did feel a sense of empty nest when Anouchka left home.

“Vianne has never really found a place to settle down, so she’s invested a lot of her emotional energy in her children. The idea that one of them is flying off to a remote location is difficult for her to understand and come to terms with.

“I think every parent goes through this to a certain degree, but with Vianne, it’s more intense. Of course, I wrote The Strawberry Thief in the year my daughter was preparing to get married and move abroad, so some of those things have come from me.

“This book is very much about separation and loss and coming to terms with the fact that you don’t have quite the same role as you once did as a parent, and children have to be free to live their lives and do what they want to do. It’s a difficult thing for any parent.”

When her daughter’s plans to live in Moscow (Anouchka’s husband is a Foreign Office diplomat) were changed several times due to world events, Harris found herself in turmoil.

“There was the whole preparing to say goodbye to her and preparing for her to move out — and there was a certain amount of instability at that time. It can be very distracting and can contribute to those feelings of not quite knowing what your role is any more.” Harris threw herself into her writing as a distraction.

“It’s what I’ve always done. I invent worlds that I invest time and emotional energy in because I like being there.”

Born in Yorkshire, the daughter of teachers, Harris’ father met her French mother on an exchange in Brittany, and brought her back to live above his parents’ sweet shop. Growing up, the family spoke French at home and she always felt a bit different.

“Being brought up in the north of England, we were very foreign. There were very few foreigners in Barnsley, where we lived, and we were considered very strange,” she has said. “As a small child, I remember my mother taking me to school and the other mothers hearing us speaking in French, and physically moving away because it was that peculiar.

“There was a lot of suspicion and a certain amount of fear.”

She went on to Cambridge, where she read modern and medieval languages, and had a brief career in accountancy before becoming a French teacher at Leeds Grammar School for boys. She met her husband Kevin at sixth form college — he now does her accountancy, paperwork and helps Harris manage her schedules.

Away from her computer, Harris is never happier than when she’s walking around the five-acre plot surrounding her lovely Victorian home in the Yorkshire countryside near Huddersfield, playing bass guitar in the band she’s been in since age 16, or simply lounging around. She writes from a posh stone shed she had built in her garden, where she is not disturbed by telephones, wifi or other distractions.

She has no idea — nor does she seem to care — if a Chocolat movie sequel could be on the cards. Several of her other books, including Blackberry Wine and Coastliners, have been optioned for movies, but she’s not holding her breath.

Options get sold all the time, but films rarely get made as fast as Chocolat was made.

"The process is long and boring and the author doesn’t have much to do with it. It’s not something I get excited about.”

But she has kept in touch with Juliette Binoche, who she sees at events from time to time. Chocolat was a tough act to follow, and originally she didn’t plan to do any follow-ups, for fear of being pigeonholed, she explains. She has since written across many different genres, including crime, fantasy and even several cookbooks.

“People who would have not necessarily followed me into fantasy or crime or psychological thrillers have, because they just happened to like the way I wrote,” she says. “That empowered me to go back to the world of Chocolat, because although publishers may like to put you into little boxes, readers are very accepting.”

She doesn’t think we’ve seen the last of Vianne Rocher, though.

“It’s not a full stop. It’s a heavy punctuation point,” says Harris. “A lot of things have been resolved and have come to an end, but I may well go back to that world...”

The Strawberry Thief, Joanne Harris, Orion, £20


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