Joanne Harris released her most famous novel, “Chocolat” in 1999. She arrived at the Literary Festival in Vilnius in November 2018. The conversation took place at the Old Town Hotel, “Shakespeare”.
Oh, what an interesting question. Yes, but I don’t think it’s complete. I don’t think anybody’s worldview is complete. I have a way of seeing the world, which I’ve always had, but I’ve been expanding it. I have an expanded worldview, but I don’t think it’s complete.
Well, it’s difficult to say because obviously, perspectives depend on what we’re looking at. I mean there’s a political worldview, there’s a literary worldview, and there is a worldview that has to do with cultures and their interactions. I would say that because I’m from two different cultures (British and French) and because from a very early age I’ve been aware that interaction between cultures is not telling me it’s possible and necessary, but also sometimes quite tricky for some people.
As I’ve gone through my life, I’ve realized that there are certain universal avenues of communication between cultures and different people of different classes and types and experiences. Many of these things boil down to our ability to form stories and narratives. I’m a great believer in bringing people together through narrative and story and the communication and empathy, which has generated through a story. I mean, possibly this is because I’m a writer. Perhaps, it’s also because I was an educator. But we all have stories to tell and we all should tell them.
Are we talking here about fiction or life?
Well, it depends. I think fiction has its own narrative rules, and there are not necessarily the narrative rules of real life. Real-life tends to be random, and it’s not based on effect. It’s based on things happening. Life and fiction run parallel to each other. Fiction has to do with bringing rhythms and order into the life that don’t exist. And so it’s, it’s a way of articulating and sharing our human experiences in a way that makes sense. And not only artistically, but also emotionally to people. Whereas, life doesn’t always make an emotional or artistic sense at all. Life is often the opposite.
Not always. To me, writing a novel is a little bit like going for a walk through the woods. I mostly know where the starting point is and I mostly know where the finishing point is. I know that there are going to be a certain number of landmarks there. I don’t know what I’m going to encounter, who I’m going to encounter, how that’s going to happen, how I’m living at the time is going to intersect. I like to keep the writing of the book fluid so that things that are important to me and things that are happening to me or things that are happening around me tend to find their way into the narrative, not just because they’re there and because I’m thinking about those things. And that’s not always predictable to me. So I will have several landmark points, but I won’t wait until I have a complete architectural plan of the novel because that’s not the way I work. I like to introduce elements of uncertainty and organic movement into the book. I think if I’m writing a book which is reliant on surprises or twists or revelations, it’s quite nice to be surprised myself, at least on some levels, if I went to surprise the reader.
Yes. There is a coloration if that’s what you’re saying. Two different novels and depending on the approach and the central and emotional core of the novel, it will be in darker shades or lighter shades in my view. I don’t always know if a novel is going to be dark or not. I have quite a broad register of coloration within my novels. For instance, the one I just finished turned out to be quite a lot darker than I thought it was going to be, simply because of the things that drew in from the real world around its creation. So I knew that it was going to have a certain shape and that it was going to be from a certain emotional part of me, but I wasn’t aware that it was going to be as emotionally challenging as it was. So sometimes, I will start with a general shape, but the coloration of it will then evolve, if you like, in a way, which isn’t always entirely expected.
Yes, it’s not quite unconscious, but yes, there are elements of that in there — elements of fluidity and organic growth.
Yes, there’s that too. But there is no such thing, exactly. When I was at university, I studied a lot of German philosophers, I studied a lot of the psychoanalysts, and I read a lot of . He and I probably had a similar worldview when it came to the creation of characters and their place within a story. So a lot of it is already there, I’m just discovering what it is if you like. So if that’s an unconscious process, and maybe it is so. But it’s already there and already available to me on some level and I’m just finding out where it is. Sometimes it’s almost like writing books.
What I try to go for is to give a character as much space and agency as possible. There are two kinds of characters. There are the kinds of characters that are very obedient and do what the plot requires them to do. But I don’t think that those characters are very interesting. And then there are the characters who come to life and develop agency and then become awkward because they don’t always necessarily do what the plot requires of them and the plot has to be adjusted accordingly. And these are the characters that I’m going for because characters with individuality and agency find their place in the world. They ended up becoming separate people, and people believe in them as if they were real, which they are because they have become real. So this is what I try to go for if possible in most of my stories.
Okay. Now we may come back to your life perhaps. Tomorrow, hopefully, you will join us for dinner. There will be a nice crowd gathering of different people and visitors to this festival, also other friends from , and a friend of mine visiting from , philosopher, and publisher of a fabulous magazine. We suggested not only to have fun and eat food but also to discuss a topic, which is “Random events and their consequences”.
Huh, Okay. Interesting.
So as a warm-up for that conversation, would you care to look at your life, to your personal story and think maybe of what events had a major influence and consequences and how much they were and maybe even chosen by yourself.
That’s interesting because a whole conversation can start with the idea of randomness and how random anything can be. I think, in a lot of ways it’s very difficult for any human event to be mathematically random because everything is built up from different things. So there’s that. But I do believe in happenstance. Under such, chance meetings and events which become fortuitously important, perhaps. I think the death of my great grandmother was one of them. She died when I was four, and I wrote about her in “”.
Yes, she was a formative influence in a way that it was almost after the event really, in some ways. But I do remember her, and she was important to me, and she was a big influence in my development because her story was so powerful to me.
Well, there’s that, but I learned about her life after she died because she died when I was 3.
Yes, I remember her very well, although I was very young when she died. She made her decision to give up her medication and to eat and drink and live the way she wanted to. She had diabetes and was unhappy having to do what the doctor told her, so she decided that she was going to have an enormous blow out with her family and eat and drink what she wanted, and then afterward she didn’t care. She died on the day that we were supposed to leave after Christmas. I was three and a half.
My mother told me this story many times afterward because I didn’t understand at the time exactly what was going on. She made a big influence on my mother too, of course. She was her grandmother.
It laid a template in place for not only the character of a strong independent woman but also, a pattern to follow in life for somebody who lived life on her terms in spite of having been dealt a pretty poor hand by fate. Generally, she was a completely uneducated woman who couldn’t read and write, who was a peasant in France and who had married her employer (who was a farmer) when she was 16. He’d been killed in the war when she was 18, leaving her with two children and an enormous farm to run on her own. She made a pretty good job of it and continued to live her life fighting against everything available because to be a young woman in such a situation was almost unheard of. Rural France was not ready to accept a young woman being in charge of a lot of men on a farm without a husband.
I don’t know what age she was. I don’t think any of us knew what age she was, but something like that. Yes.
Yes, I think so. It was the first major event that I remember — the first significant thing I remember ever happening. I have a lot of memories of childhood that proceeded, but that was the important thing.
Oh, yes, I’m sure I do. We all do, don’t we?
Yes, it’s not only important, but it’s also necessary. We need to keep readjusting our view of ourselves as the centre of the world. We all think of ourselves as the centre of the world. It’s the human condition, and it’s also the human condition to find it very difficult to understand a world where we won’t be there anymore. It’s easy to dwell on this. My general conclusion usually has to be “seize the day” rather than worry too much about whether people will remember me enormously after I’m gone.
I haven’t found an answer to it. I found a lot of people who think they know the answer. I believe in many ways, the only thing that we leave is other people and their memories of us, how they remember us, and how they choose to do it. With a lot of the family that I have, the way they are remembered is through stories and also through recipes.
My great grandmother was very fond of cooking and had a general view that you could tell most of what was needed to be known about anybody through the way they ate and the way they related to food. So my mother was talking about her grandmother, she would always tell stories about her as she was cooking her recipes. And she continued through the recipes and through the stories. There are stories and recipes connected with other grandparents because these are the things that we’ve remembered.
It just happened so for me. And now you are an established brilliantly gifted writer, but other people may look at you almost as a lady from the kitchen. I’ve noticed, that many interviews of yours focus on food and recipes: “Okay, Joanne, give us another recipe!”, or “What chocolate do you prefer”?
Welcome to the patriarchy. [Laughs]
Well, it’s partly that. I believe there is a particular view. This is certainly true in the UK, it may not be correct here, but there is a tendency to look at women’s writing and to make it domestic and to concentrate on its domesticity. In contrast, men who may be writing about the same thing tend to be viewed as people who are writing for posterity and about the human condition.
It’s a very interesting viewpoint. I do find that when people interview me in the UK about the same topics that they would interview a man about, their attitude is very different.
Not like mine exactly but you have people like who wrote the “”, for instance, which is filled with recipes, which came a couple of years after “Chocolat”. It’s a wonderful book of darkness and childhood experience and suspense, but it is entirely constructed around meals and food.
I followed him and his success with this book because first of all, it was a great book and I was also sort of interested in how they were interviewing him and nobody asked him about the food. Nobody asked him what his favorite food was. Nobody did that. Instead, they were interested in the narrator, the narrator’s psychology and the human politics of it. Nobody expected him to tell them what his favorite recipe was, because he was a male author and there was a tendency to distance the domestic side (which was very much present in his book) and to take it instead into a different direction.
So I do think gender does have a certain amount to do with it, but I also think to the other side of it is that it’s just the easiest point of access. When people are reluctant to perhaps look at the different levels of a book and the more challenging complications of a book, the easy level of entry is to talk about the food.
Easy ways are always attractive and tempting. I wonder — I don’t know if they tried to mention this in literature — but I know famous chefs who also are very active in writing books, presenting recipes and promoting themselves being male. So perhaps, it might also be a case when a masculine writer is jealous of your success, commercial success most of all because that’s an easy way to achieve that. If you follow a popular trend… I speculate it’s like that.
It’s possible. Although when I wrote “Chocolat”, it wasn’t a popular trend. It became very popular afterwards. But at the time of writing “Chocolat”, I was pretty much alone writing what I was doing. There wasn’t anybody else doing it. And in fact, it was very new. At least not new historically because there’d been lots of authors writing about food, but it came at a time when what was popular was almost writing. It was very gritty, very realistic. There was an actual active attempt to suppress the sensuality of writing.
There was a whole movement called going on in the UK, which was mostly young writers writing about terribly serious things without any imagery whatsoever. So my book was quite different and very unfashionable, but also a bit of a release for people who perhaps felt that they had enough of this very gritty issues-based writing. It was, a relief for them to be able to read something where they were being told that it was okay to enjoy yourself, to have pleasure, to experience sensuality and also to experience the sensuality of language, which is not that different from the sensuality of food.
Of course. And even when you say it now, it sounds more trivial than it is in the novel. I guess the adaptation for the film was very much in that direction because a film is easier to access than the novel.
Yes. my one regret about the film, which I did like — I enjoyed the experience and I’m very happy that it happened — but my one regret was that people who had seen the film and had not read the book thought that they understood what the book would be like.
Many of them thought that my other books would not be for them because of what they thought the book that they had not read would be like.
And so I still get mail from, particularly, men. I got one the other day. It was a very nice letter, but it was a clumsy apology from a man who said, “Dear Mrs Harris, I watched “Chocolat” with my wife years ago, and for years I thought that your books would be the same, and so I never read them. I recently read (then he said the book that he’d read) and I realized that you’re not at all like that. I liked your writing, and I’m so sorry I misjudged you.” And I get a lot of this.
It’s difficult sometimes not to judge the film and the book in the same way, but the direction that they took my story to was a very different direction to the way I had taken it. So I’m often pushing back against a reputation, which is entirely based on somebody else’s work because obviously, I didn’t adapt to the film. I didn’t make the film. So this reputation that I am somebody who writes light romantic comedy is not entirely an earned one. It’s not really me.
But people are like this, and there are all sorts of levels on which you can appreciate art. Some people read my books just for the plot, sometimes they read them for the ideas and sometimes yes, they read them because they want to read descriptions of food.
[Laughs] Americans particularly seem to talk about food a lot.
I’m sure that’s true.
Absolutely. [Laughs] Even now I get people expressing surprise. Usually, Americans are expressing surprise that they hadn’t come across the book before and had not realized that it was a book. I mean, it had been a bestseller. Still, films have such a wide reach compared to books, and some people came to the book through the film, some people had read the book before, and those people obviously might have quite different ideas of how the book related to the way the story unfolded in their minds.
But, regarding the saturation, a film is so much more possible and so much bigger than the attraction a book has.
I guess, this is how the things are. Even tonight they will be screening that film in a program of the literary festival, which I was a bit surprised about. But it’s understandable. Well, what’s your prognosis of the outcome in this battle between a text and an image?
I don’t know if I have a prognosis. Stories find their media. We have told stories since the beginning of civilization (pre-civilization). People were able to get together in little groups around the campfire to tell stories. Sometimes those stories have been disseminated through an oral tradition, sometimes through music, sometimes through the written word, and we are now developing other ways of communicating narratives. We’ve got films, we’ve got plays, we’ve got games now, we’ve got interactive storytelling, and the digital media has created and will continue to create more and more media for telling stories.
It’s all good and I’m completely approving of all of it. I don’t think any of them are exclusive. The existence of film is not a threat to the existence of books. The existence of digital media is not a threat to the existence of books. I think in many ways it is an expansion of the way we tell stories and articulation of our need to tell the stories and that will continue.
I liked what you said, how you described this, how the stories find their media. Beautiful. People like me get inspired to read more novels from you. If any of them gets a new adaptation, will there be nothing wrong with that?
No, not at all. I always sell film rights, and I realized much later after the “Chocolat” movie had come out that it was normal for a film to be made so quickly after the rights had been sold after the book had been published.
Lots of. I sell them all the time.
None have them have been developed into anything meaningful at this stage. I sell them, things bubble under, I sell them again, and things bubble under. I’ve got two ongoing projects which may or may not become something. The film world works very, very slowly, and so I tend not to pay much attention unless something happens. So when something happens and I have a movie of one of my short stories, which has been in pre-production now for about 15 years and it may or may not ever see the light of day. So until it does and when it does, I’ll be very happy to take part in it in whatever way they want me to. But until it does, I’ll keep working on different things.
I’ve just finished co-writing a musical, a stage musical with a British composer called and I’m working on that. That’s something that, at the moment, I’m excited to see what that turns into.
I’ve got a stage show of my own that I’m doing with the band that I’ve been in for a long, long time, which is exploring different forms of narrative through a story, song, original music, and also images on a projected screen.
Well, I play bass and flute, and then I also sing some of the vocals, and I tell the stories. So I am the front person. But this too is another way of getting stories to reach an audience and sometimes a very different audience, so we’ve been doing a tour this spring and summer where we did a lot of music festivals, which is not usual for a literary thing. But music festivals seem to like that thing so we’ll keep doing that. We’ve just got a CD out — a tiny CD.
I close my eyes; otherwise, I can’t tell. I can’t always tell. I mean, sometimes I can tell because there’s an obvious source. For instance, this green in the sunlight has a very particular smell to me. It smells of hot popcorn. You know there’s a hot popcorn smell. I know that there is no hot popcorn in the room and I know that that color smells like popcorn and so I know that that’s the color that I’m smelling. I shut my eyes; there is no smell of popcorn. I know exactly what that is exactly a synesthetic smell, and that’s entirely my brain.
Yes, I can remember it, and I also know that it sits. I can’t smell it anymore. If the sun went out, if it got dark, that probably wouldn’t trigger the color anymore, because only bright colors are sunlight-triggering. So if it’s very, very bright and if I’m in a room that smells a fish or something horrible, if I wear dark glasses, it will usually tone it down, and I won’t get so much of it. Bright colors in bright light do it mostly. Neutral colors don’t do it at all. Dark colors don’t do it very much.
But yes, it’s quite a funny thing and I tried to explain this to people, and it just sounds like I’m completely crazy.
That’s a very powerful sense of smell anyway. Recently, I became involved in the fragrance foundation, which is the fragrance industry, and I judged one of their prizes (one of their journalism prizes). I won one of their prizes for a piece on perfume journalism, so now I get invited to a lot of perfume launch parties.
Then I get sent a lot of perfume scents that I’m making. I’m working with a big perfume lab called “CPR labs”, and they’re making me a perfume based on a passage from my new book, which is coming out next year. That’s a very interesting process because we’re going to use it in the promotion and I’m going to have some scented proofs and scented bookmarks. But also I wanted an excuse to get into the lab and see how things worked. They brought several perfumes that they’d made to see which one I liked best and they realized that without telling me what was in it, I could tell them the components of their perfumes. They were very excited, and they said, “Oh, you’ve got a nose!” I said, “Well, of course, doesn’t everyone?” And they said, “No, no, not like yours.” [Laughs]
And so, now we’re going to play with actual scent creations and see if they can help me learn more because I’m just at the beginning of learning about perfume and how interesting it is.
There’s bound to be a book in this at some point because it’s just such an interesting topic.
This is one of the reasons — the scent and the synesthesia thing is one of the reasons that I tend to notice smells and colors much earlier than most people I know. I’ll walk into a room, and I’ll say it smelled of this, it was that color before I started seeing what was in it and who was in it and what they were doing, which is not a normal way to see the world, frankly.
It isn’t perfectly normal, perhaps, and it’s adding another sensitivity, which is great. That’s a gift. I guess you could expand your way of viewing the world. That sounds great. Thank you for sharing it.
Oh, it was a pleasure.