In 1964, author Joanne Harris was born into a mixed family —to a French mother and an English father—in the city of Barnsley, in the industrial North of England. Since then, Harris has come a long way and is now an official member of the Order of the British Empire as well as one of the few female representatives of the so-called Millionaire Author’s Club, which gathers all British writers who have sold more than one million books.
Although she is regarded as a prolific author and most of her books are seen as best-sellers, Harris is internationally known for her third novel, Chocolat (1999), that was “surprisingly” adapted one year after its release to a critically acclaimed film in which Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp starred. The novel is set in a fictional small town in France where Vianne, a single mother with some kind of ancestral “magical abilities” starts to change the lives of her new neighbors through her chocolaterie, actions and daring attitude.
Harris takes pride in her rich cultural background and, as we’ve seen, she has explored her French roots through many books including Chocolat. She not only says that has worked as an advantage for her as it “gives you more resources” but also that it makes her having a “different perspective on the way people behave” and therefore on the understanding of other cultures and their portrayal in literature.
Nowadays, alongside her husband Kevin, she resides in a beautiful manor in Almondbury, West Yorkshire, surrounded by nature, just a few miles away from her birthplace. She spends most of her time working on her novels in her garden shed that has been turned into a studio, a safe haven for her and her creativity. Although London is considered by many the cultural center of the United Kingdom, Harris doesn’t find the capital city a good place for her work as “it’s noisy, it’s polluted, there’s a lot of litter…” and she wouldn’t be able to afford a house similar to hers anywhere near. Instead she owns an apartment there which she uses whenever she needs to, getting the best of both worlds in that way. Even though she thinks that the city is not made for her, as she prefers rural environments, the countryside and spacious and clean green spaces, Harris assures that “a great thing about being a writer is that you can write anywhere.”
After serving us a cold drink, we sit in her cozy living room that’s been extensively filled with towers of books and shelves, and we start a rather calm and close interview, almost familiar. Taking a look at her properties makes us wonder how she got to her current situation and the answer to that question is Chocolat itself. Her third novel, in which she developed her own voice as a writer, was already a success and a best-seller when it was picked-up as a film, but the movie adaptation allowed Harris to keep on writing what she wanted.
As a way to earn money she auctioned the rights and despite the very “unlikely” odds, Chocolat made it to the silver screen. Initially she was offered the chance to write the script but she declined because of her situation at the moment, as she had a four-year-old daughter, she would’ve had to travel constantly to Los Angeles and she was working as a teacher. Nevertheless, Harris accepted to aid the screenwriter and guided him to a closer adaptation of her book. Due to the guidelines stated by the studios and the cinematic language itself, the movie differed from the base material, but according to an unbothered Harris “there’s no such a thing as a proper adaptation” and what works for a book is not the same as it does in film.
Thanks to the money she earned through selling the rights she was able to quit her job as a teacher for a two year probation period to solely focus on her novels. After the success of her two subsequent novels, Blackberry Wine and Five Quarters of the Orange, which became best-sellers, she quit her job as a teacher and began writing on a full-time basis.
Throughout her career as an author, Harris, now in her fifties, has been able to explore different styles and themes in her books. Her first works, The Evil Seed and Sleep, Pale Sister, drew inspiration from the Gothic novels of the 19th century but they weren’t able to showcase the writer’s voice, which she had already perfected by the time of her best known work. She has also explored thrillers, such as Blue Eyed Boy, in order to distance herself from the more Chocolat-alike books, which are set in France, in a dark atmosphere and that include magical elements.
Since the second half of the 2000s she has showed interest for the Nordic mythology stories she read as a child. Thanks to this inspiration she decided to start a saga of books known as the Rune series. These fantasy books started in 2007 with the publication of Runemarks, which was followed by Runelight (2011), The Gospel of Loki (2014) and The Testament of Loki (2018).
Even though Chocolat exhibits magical realism influences, Joanne Harris has never limited herself to one specific style. She doesn’t even consider them as different genres —although they’ve been marketed as such— and prefers to stick to the idea of her being “in some sort of elliptical orbit” where she revisits some spaces she has already explored, themes or similar characters and environments whenever she gets “bored” of what she’s been doing. Harris is aware that each type of novel attracts a different audience and understands that there’s a branch of her readers who have followed her since her Chocolat days, others who came after the film was successfully released and others who only like a certain type of books and never stay for more or different genres.
She takes pride in her ability of doing so and expresses that “it means that I’m able to do what I do without feeling that I’m letting down a public that expects something that they are never going to get”. Harris even considers herself “lucky” for being able to do that without losing her readership. “It’s not so much changing because I’m afraid of staying in the same place. It’s always just been what I’ve done”, she explained about the reason why she keeps changing.
She recalls a fan signing where she was asked by a reader, dressed in cosplay, if she would write another story for the companion books of the British cult show Doctor Who (Time Trips), to which she jokingly responded with a “probably not but thanks for coming”. Unlike other authors, Joanne Harris’ goal is not to create a brand that could run until the audience got bored, but to “try stuff, see what works”.
The Lollipop Shoes, a sequel to Chocolat, was published eight years after the original novel. When asked about writing a sequel Harris had always expressed her skepticism as she “didn’t want to be just Joanne Chocolat” and become typecast as an author. After years of process she thought: “I’m okay revisiting the same characters but I don’t want to write the same story again”.
She waited to be in another stage of her life to write about them one more time as she wasn’t “going to make Vianne into the Doctor who just pops-up somewhere, fixes something and leaves”. That way, she imagined where the characters would be and drew inspiration from her own experience as mother to portray Vianne’s character and used again her daughter Anouschka to write Anouk, the main character’s daughter. Harris repeated the same process to write a third installment in the series, titled Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé, and to start the fantasy saga Rune, whose books don’t follow a linear chronology and juxtapose and overlap themselves.
In her free time, Harris likes to travel whenever she can and likes to keep her social media up to date. In fact, the author thinks that the internet has turned into an “essential” tool to interact with her readers and occasional trolls. She also believes that it’s her duty as a public person to speak up about issues she considers she can contribute to with something, such as about the struggles of a female writer in world mainly dominated by men.
Currently Joanne Harris has just released the fourth part of the Rune books with The Testament of Loki on May 17th and is already preparing a possible sequel to Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé, which will probably be the final book where Vianne appears and that will involve the death of one of the characters readers have grown to love. Whether she decides to continue the storyline after this novel, she’s convinced it would be centered on the daughters. After teasing us she returned to her sunny, almost magical garden to keep working on her stories.