Talking to Chocolat author Joanne Harris is like dipping into a box of soft centres that has lost the little guide that usually comes tucked into the lid: you don’t know what delightful surprise you are going to get next.
First she tells me that, aged 54, she’s thinking of getting her first tattoo, an inking of Pantoufle, the imaginary friend from her smash-hit novel. It’ll be the end of a 30-year wait but she’s taken her time because she thinks tattoos are a bit like ‘a splinter of your soul rising to the surface’ and must not, therefore, be hurried.
Chocolat author Joanne Harris. Chocolat became a success so fast Harris was technically still on sabbatical from Leeds Grammar School when it was made into a 2000 film
Next she tells me that her house in Yorkshire’s eastern Pennines has two ghosts. ‘There’s a white dog in the garden, protective, and a pantry ghost who rattles the doorknob and upends trays of home-grown apples when he wants attention.’
Then there’s the fact that she has a form of synaesthesia, which gives her the uncanny power to smell colour. ‘Barbie pink has the scent of gas, like at the dentist; there’s a particular shade of sky blue and white which is coconut; and if I see yellow and purple paired together it smells fishy, unpleasantly fishy. Right now there are enough red things in this room to trigger my red response.’
What’s that? ‘Chocolate.’
If she wants to smell the only thing I can smell – the hyacinth top notes of a floral candle burning on the mantelpiece – she has to close her eyes.
Best of all, she says ‘people are always, and I mean all the time’ asking her to join their coven because they suspect she’s a witch.
Has she ever accepted? ‘No. There are plenty of witches and people who follow Wicca [a modern pagan movement] and perceive a pagan element in my writing and think, “Ha! She is one of us” but I am not the coven-joining type.’
Harris is talking to me in her library, which is all you would wish it to be for such an idiosyncratic author – a floor-to-ceiling cathedral of books, with a cassock hanging on the back of the door (Chocolat was seen, mostly in America, as an attack on the Catholic Church; the real Catholic countries, France, Italy and Spain weren’t bothered), a fire, a view, papers, curiosities and a push-button Nineties telephone. She has a box of biscuits – chocolate, what else? – to hand and is drinking from a mug of tea stamped ‘Queen of F****** Everything’.
It’s a challenge to imagine her as a teacher, but that’s what she was doing when Chocolat came out. Set in the rural French village of Lasquenet-sous-Tannes (the name is a pun on the word soutane, the cassock worn by Catholic priests), the novel tells how the bewitching Vianne Rocher blows in one Lent to open a chocolaterie, where secrets and dreams are on offer alongside the mendiants and macarons. It is a brilliant book, which predicted so many coming trends you might have thought Harris had the power of divination herself. Published in 1999, it presaged our current obsessions with fabulous food and mental wellbeing, as well as the kind of full-on swords-and-sorcery magic that has made Game Of Thrones a global phenomenon.
Chocolat became a success so fast Harris was technically still on sabbatical from Leeds Grammar School when it was made into a 2000 film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. There were early plans to transpose the story from France, which says more about Hollywood’s hubris than the need to relocate a book with the universal themes of family, love, faith and tolerance.
‘At first, Miramax was going set it in the American Deep South, in the 1800s with Whoopi Goldberg. It would have had a heavily Americanised racial agenda. Fascinating, but I don’t know what that would have left of my story,’ says Harris. ‘That didn’t work, so then it was going to be set in modern New York with Gwyneth Paltrow in the lead. Good luck there, I thought. Like she eats chocolate…’
Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp in the 2000 film Chocolat. There were early plans to transpose the story from France, which says more about Hollywood’s hubris than the need to relocate a book with the universal themes of family, love, faith and tolerance
Unsurprisingly, the publishing industry begged for what Harris witheringly calls ‘Chocolat Two and Chocolat Three’. She declined at the time. ‘It would have been Midsomer Murders with chocolate and no murder,’ she says. Instead she launched herself into an ‘elliptical orbit’ of other genres: psychological thrillers, a Doctor Who book and a series about the Norse gods. She also co-authored a couple of French cookbooks, though she is not as good a cook as her fans seem to expect. ‘I keep getting asked to go and cook on TV with celebrity chefs, but honestly, no one wants to see me chopping carrots.’
If you take away the broomsticks and pyrotechnics, witchcraft is the capacity to effect change
Today she is writing a musical and a novella and, having created a storyline for cult exercise app Zombies, Run!, she wants to write more scripts for computer games too. She defies categorisation but navigates her way around her own literary multiverse, pointing out that ‘if you change direction often enough you go back to where you were before’.
This year it’s time for a return to Lasquenet-sous-Tannes. She has revisited that world twice before, once in 2007 with The Lollipop Shoes, and then again in 2012 with Peaches For Monsieur Le Curé. Now, to mark the 20th anniversary of the original Chocolat, there is a fourth book in the series. In The Strawberry Thief, Vianne is still using chocolate to see into people’s souls, Anouk, her eldest daughter, is in love and living in Paris, while her youngest daughter Rosette, 16, inherits a wood and a wild strawberry patch from village florist Narcisse. His unexpected bequest causes an earthly furore, while an unearthly one is caused by the arrival of a woman who shares Vianne’s power. The book continues Harris’s literary exploration of what she calls ‘everyday magic’, the sort practised by Vianne and which has now sold two million books in the three novel series worldwide.
‘Witchcraft has had a bum rap over the centuries, but if you take away the broomsticks and pyrotechnics and the Malleus Maleficarum [the famous witch-hunt manual], it is the capacity to effect change,’ says Harris. ‘It is the ability to walk into the room and make a difference with charm, glamour and charisma, which are all human qualities. It is about knowledge and personality – in my representation, anyone is capable of magic, anyone is capable of change.’
The idea grew from her Anglo-French heritage and a childhood dense with food and folklore. Harris was born in Barnsley, the child of two modern-language teachers (her mother was French), and was an only child for ten years – ‘the ones where it matters’ – before her brother was born. Today she is married to her teenage sweetheart Kevin who, when she lost her wedding ring, melted down his own to make them a new one each. They are both musical and play in a band together every Saturday, as they have done for 20 years. He drums, she’s on bass, flute and vocals. The couple’s daughter, Anouchka, now 25, married last year and lives in London.
There’s an internet myth that Harris moved to France after she published Chocolat. She has never fancied it, though it would have been an easier proposition to sell to her old neighbours than going 12 miles down the road to Huddersfield, buying her Victorian villa with its ghosts on the early proceeds of her success.
‘It would have seemed more normal if I’d gone to London or Los Angeles. But going from a mining town to a textile town with a rival football team…’ she pauses, briefly lost for words at the magnitude of it. Her roots are here in the Pennines, and anyway she has such a vivid inner life I’m not sure the externals matter as much as they might to others.
She’s got a very clear idea of why magical stories such as the Chocolat series and Game Of Thrones are loved. (She was a ‘Throner’ long before the books were turned into television.) ‘The way we live now makes us susceptible to various kinds of fantasies. There are so many complicated events over which we have limited control, we don’t feel as if we make much of a difference. We move about but the places we visit are so similar. We are not as connected as we once were. We are under pressure socially, financially, at work. The idea of opening a door into another world with domestic, everyday magic or full-on magic with dragons and spells is compelling. We are desperate to believe in the power to change. Books are a safe place to do that, with a hot chocolate and possibly a cat, in your armchair.’
A book about everyday magic and a familiar spirit? She may never have said yes to any of the invitations to join a coven, but you can see why the witches asked.
‘The Strawberry Thief’ is published on Thursday by Orion, priced £20