An EXCLUSIVE AUTHORLINK interview with JOANNE HARRIS, MBE
The Strawberry Thief (now in hardcover and available in paperback April 2021)
Joanne Harris (MBE) is a best-selling English author known for her novel, the Chocolat (1999) which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Book Award and made into an Oscar-nominated film, starring Juliette Binoche and Judy Dench. Her books are published in over 50 countries, have won a number of British and international awards and are always on the best-seller lists.
THE STRAWBERRY THIEF is the fourth in a series that begins with Chocolat, where the beloved character of Vianne Rocher has settled down in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, the place that once rejected her, with her second daughter, Rosette, her ‘special’ child. She runs her chocolate shop in the square, talks to her friends on the river, and is finally part of the community. Even Reynaud, the priest, has become a friend.
But when old Narcisse, the florist, dies, leaving a parcel of land to Rosette and a written confession to Reynaud, the life of the sleepy village is once more thrown into disarray.
AUTHORLINK: Ms Harris, thank you so much for taking time out of your pressing schedule to talk to Authorlink today about THE STRAWBERRY THIEF. It was such a divine and wholly immersive story and much like your other books – scents, visions, tastes, and sounds – float up from the pages and into our hearts and minds. Please note that we did not ask you any questions you have previously addressed in your comprehensive website http://www.joanne-harris.co.uk/.
To mark the 20th anniversary of your award-winning book, Chocolat (1999), adapted into an Oscar-nominated film which starred Juliette Binoche and Judi Dench, The Strawberry Thief is the fourth book in a series that continues the story of Vianne Rocher and her daughters, Anouk and Rosette, in the French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes.
You wrote The Strawberry Thief when your daughter, 27, moved away to get married and live overseas. Could this book have been written at any other time? Did you know how it was going to end before you wrote it?
“None of my stories about Vianne Rocher could really have been written at other times. “
HARRIS: None of my stories about Vianne Rocher could really have been written at other times. Vianne’s life runs parallel to mine in so many ways that I simply wouldn’t have had the life experience to tackle them. This one came at a time at which I was thinking about motherhood, and how hard it can be to let children grow up: and yes, it was surprising how my story came to evolve around those early thoughts. I never really know how my books will end when I begin writing them; I only knew that in this one, three questions needed answers. One is about Vianne and her daughters. Anouk and Rosette are all she has in the world, and in her, a mother’s anxiety at seeing them grow up has become something keener and more troubling. I needed to know what that would do to her; whether she would become what she hates, or whether she could be free. Another concerns the mystery of little Rosette and her secret voice. The last is about Reynaud, his past and his chances of redemption. I wrote the book in a very organic way, scene by scene, and my characters revealed themselves – and their secrets – in the same way.
AUTHORLINK: Thank you, that’s so interesting – and organic. When it came to Chocolat, you once said you wanted to write about magic. “Not the popular view, but about the magic of everyday things and the way something quite ordinary can, given the right circumstances, take on extraordinary properties.” (Your website). You wouldn’t even describe your work as ‘magical realism’ which you consider a “generalisation”, (Serendipity, 2007) and that you believe magic, “…is the ability to walk into the room and make a difference with charm, glamour, and charisma, which are all human qualities…anyone is capable of magic, anyone is capable of change.” (Mail Online, 30 March 2019).
In all your travels, book tours and writing festivals, can you briefly share with us a magical moment?
HARRIS: I think magic, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Much of the time it appears so mundane that most people don’t even notice it, which makes the concept of a “magical moment” rather hard to quantify. I don’t think it consists of moments, as such; rather, a way of looking at the world that reflects an individual’s capacity to effect change. To me, magic is not performative, but personal: its effect is about the individual, and not how it appears to others.
AUTHORLINK: Again, very interesting response. We love how you defy categorisation and that there is no ‘typical Joanne Harris novel’. You have written in many different genres, including fantasy (‘Honeycomb’), musicals, novellas, short stories, cult exercise apps (‘Zombies, Run!’), cookbooks, Young Adult, Gothic, adult fiction, psychological thrillers, fairy tales, musical theatre, a Doctor Who book and a whole series about the Norse gods.
Would you agree that a writer’s concern is about telling a story and not about marketing?
HARRIS: Of course: marketing is a skilled profession. People take degrees in it. Writers are no more likely to be natural marketeers than they are to be natural accountants, programmers or performers. Of course, nowadays those things are sometimes expected of authors, but a writer has one job. To write as well and as honestly as they can. No-one can do multiple jobs equally well, and readers deserve the best we can give them.
AUTHORLINK: Too true! We understand French was your first language, but English is the language in which you write. This makes you particularly sensitive to certain sounds and cadences, as well as making you careful about grammar and spelling. Creative writing teachers usually support the idea that writers should put pen to paper first, no matter how bad the expression is, and then edit later.
Have you found writing easier over the years? Would you say your style is ‘literary’? What does it mean to have a literary style?
“I don’t think writing ever gets any easier. If anything, it gets harder.”
HARRIS: I don’t think writing ever gets any easier. If anything, it gets harder. As I’ve gained experience, I’ve also raised my standards. I am more critical of my own work than I was. I ask more of myself than I used to. I think a lot more about my readers than I used to. I feel their expectations, and although I can’t possibly hope to meet them all, I know they exist, and that they are waiting.
I don’t feel the need to label my work. Some people have called it “literary”. I’d rather they just read it, instead of trying to categorize it. I’ve never studied creative writing (although I have taught it from time to time), but I think that we all have very different approaches, and if the end result works for you, then the method was obviously the right one – for you.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, good advice. As mentioned above, and with your background in music and languages, we understand you tend to be sensitive to the notes, rhythms, and inflections of words that you write that might sound awkward. You find it useful to read your finished books aloud and to eliminate anything which destroys the flow of the narrative. Is that correct?
After this step, who is your first reader?
Have you always had the same agent? The same publisher?
HARRIS: I send a first draft to my agent, as well as to my editor. I’ve had several agents and editors over the past, and they have all had a slightly different approach, but it is a close relationship, and it’s always hard when such a relationship comes to an end. But I tend to be my own severest critic so that the draft I send out is generally pretty clean. That way I can incorporate ideas from outside without being distracted by details I should have pulled up myself.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, that makes sense. We love how you prefer to use several first-person points of view for your characters. It allows the reader to get into the skin of your characters and present differing points of view.
Has this always been the case? Do you think it will always be the case?
HARRIS: My style has evolved pretty organically over the years, but I’ve been using multiple perspectives and timelines from the start. I write in ways that feel natural and comfortable to me, and I don’t see that changing.
AUTHORLINK: Great. Your background history is rather poetic. Your father met your French mother on an exchange in Brittany and brought her back to live above his parents’ sweet shop in Yorkshire. Growing up, the family spoke French at home and, you always felt a bit different.
What were you like at school? Were you always good at English?
How old were you when you wrote your first complete novel? How many books did you write before you felt you could forward a manuscript to an agent?
HARRIS: I was an odd child at school. I liked creative writing, but the English curriculum wasn’t really creative-writing based, and I found it undemanding and dull. Lots of letter-writing and reading comprehension. I was a bit of a rebel: I remember getting detention for this piece in English: “Write a letter of complaint, detailing what you bought, where you bought it, and why the product is unsatisfactory.” I wrote a letter to a garden centre, complaining that my Bonsai tree had grown so unexpectedly large that it had damaged my living-room ceiling. My English teacher was not amused.
My first full-length manuscript was a fantasy novel called “Witchlight”. I submitted it to agents when I was in my early twenties, without success. Crossover fiction didn’t really exist in those days, and it was thought to be too complicated for a children’s book. Many years later, I rewrote it completely, and it became “Runemarks.”
AUTHORLINK: We’re pleased you recycled Witchlight to Runemarks. Terrific. And we love your Bonsai-complaint story. How do you feel your writing and/or your process has evolved since publishing your first book The Evil Seed when you were 25?
Are there any mistakes you made or lessons you learned along the way that you wish someone had told you before? What advice would you give to your younger self?
“As for mistakes, I think they are a necessary part of the learning process.”
HARRIS: “The Evil Seed” and “Sleep, Pale Sister” were written as I was finding my voice. Both of them were pastiches of different styles I’d tried, but I settled into my own style – and my own voice – during my late twenties. I think my style has become cleaner and more graphic, whereas then it was just overwritten and self-indulgent. I’ve learnt a lot about dialogue since then, too: originally I wasn’t good at it, but I’ve had a lot of practice. And I’m learning all the time: Twitter has taught me a lot about how to craft a sentence, and how to edit out unnecessary words. As for mistakes, I think they are a necessary part of the learning process. My younger self needed them in order to grow.
AUTHORLINK: Thank you. That gives us first-timers a measure of hope. You’ve been lucky in love it seems to have met the right person, your husband, Kevin from age 16. Early in your marriage, you lost your wedding ring and your husband melted his down to make a second for you. That’s romantic. Your husband built you a posh stone shed in your garden. That’s also romantic! It is your husband that looks after your accounting, paperwork and manages your schedules.
Now this might be too personal a question, and you needn’t answer it, but what can you suggest as a secret to a long and happy marriage?
“I believe in love, yes, but romance (like magic) is very subjective.”
HARRIS: I don’t quite believe in what novelists call romance. I believe in love, yes, but romance (like magic) is very subjective. And to me, a lasting relationship isn’t based on tricks and secrets, but on honesty, kindness, and laughter.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, lovely. How do you handle constructive criticism or bad reviews? Do you even have any? Do you take it on the chin, ignore them or just dive under the Duvet cover?
HARRIS: Constructive criticism is part of an editor’s job, and I work closely with my editors. After publication, criticism, opinions and reviews can do nothing to change what has been written. Obviously it makes me happy when readers tell me they’ve enjoyed a book, but over the years I’ve come to believe that reviews are not for authors at all, but to bring readers and books together.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, good point. Is there a noticeable discrepancy, do you think, in the publishing industry about what is regarded as literature – as opposed to commercial work – by women? Do you believe the way a book is received (and reviewed) about relationships and family, which is written by a woman, is different if it were written by a man?
Recently, you hit out at publishers for giving books by female authors pink covers with ‘frivolous cursive fonts’, claiming it’s the reason why men win more literary prizes than women. (Daily Mail, 13 February 2020) Would there be other reasons, do you think?
HARRIS: There are lots of reasons, and gendered packaging is just one of them. The main reason is that in publishing, as in our wider society, men’s work is considered inherently more valuable and relatable than women’s work. Books by men are sold as “general fiction,” but books by women tend to be marketed as “women’s fiction.” Men are assumed to be writing for everyone, while women are seen to be writing simply for other women. The same is true is society as a whole. The male position is seen as the default position; the woman’s as a niche or minority interest. Until that changes, women will continue to struggle for visibility.
AUTHORLINK: Truer words…You have a type of synaesthesia in which colours in bright light triggers scents. This might explain why your descriptions are so slanted towards scent and taste, and why you suffer from SAD in winter. You stated once that, “every one of your novels has had a particular scent” which you use to help you get into the ‘zone’. This aspect of your work is so interesting.
Would you briefly discuss, for instance, what scents you had in your mind’s eye for Chocolat (1999), The Lollipop Shoes (2007), Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé (2012) and The Strawberry Thief (2019)?
With so many scents clamouring your perception of colour, do you like aromatherapy or incense?
” The scents I allocate to my books are real…”
HARRIS: I notice and enjoy scents whether they are real to other people, or simply a part of my synaesthesia. The scents I allocate to my books are real: I use a technique that a lot of actors use to get into character. For me, scent association makes it easier to enter the fictional world, wherever you happen to be. “Chocolat” was Guerlain’s Chamade. “The Lollipop Shoes” was Chanel no. 19. For “The Strawberry Thief” it was Coromandel.
AUTHORLINK: What a delightful answer. In connection to the above question, would you kindly tell our readers how you tried to convey some of that experience by creating a scent through CPL Aromas, the world-leading fragrance company, to create a scent to accompany a passage from The Strawberry Thief. Which passage was it exactly?
We also understand you considered maybe scented book-marks – which a wondrous idea! It’s like the ‘scratch and sniff’ perfume advertisements in magazines. Can you please tell us a bit about how this is developing?
HARRIS: I wrote an article on the process, which you can read here: https://www.cplaromas.com/fragrance-trends/joanne-harris/
We sent out samples of the scent, plus scented bookmarks and some other items, to bloggers and reviewers last year when the hardback launched. I also used the scent in readings to illustrate the passage. It’s really interesting to see how people react to the introduction of scent in a book reading; some were a little doubtful about it at first, but found that it unlocked feelings and reactions in them that they hadn’t anticipated. I had to be careful, though: some people are very sensitive – or even allergic – to perfume, and I didn’t want to expose people to it without their consent. I had to limit my scented readings to small, consenting audiences.
AUTHORLINK: Thank you. How wonderful. We really appreciate what a Brigadier you are when it comes to social issues using Twitter (the metaphorical water cooler for writers) and being such an advocate for what you feel are injustices in the publishing industry, like gender bias in literary awards as mentioned above, or censorship in Young Adult novels or the commercialisation of Writers Festivals. It is so refreshing to read the opinion of someone who is unafraid to stand up for what they believe in yet clearly compassionate.
Would you say using social media to effect change has been its greatest accomplishment? Should all authors use this medium to promote their books and views do you think?
“I don’t think anyone should use social media in ways that make them uncomfortable.”
HARRIS: I don’t think anyone should use social media in ways that make them uncomfortable. Some authors feel at ease communicating with readers online, others prefer to have nothing to do with it. We’re all different, and what works for one person may not work for someone else. I happen to like Twitter and to use it in all kinds of ways, but I don’t really believe it’s a good vehicle for direct promotion. People use it to engage with each other, but advertising isn’t usually engaging. It’s often boring, annoying, and people on social media tend to ignore it. As such, I only really tweet about my books and promotions occasionally. The rest of the time my social media is just that – social.
AUTHORLINK: Considering you suffer from SADS every winter and struggle to be motivated even with your SADS lamp, have you ever considered moving to a Mediterranean country during those months? For instance, Greece? I am a philhellene and would be more than happy to show you around the island of Hydra – (my favourite island in Greece) any time you wish! 😊
HARRIS: It’s a wonderful idea, but unfortunately I can’t see a time when I would be free to enjoy three months (or even one month’s) uninterrupted travelling. As Chair of the SOA, and in my role on the board of the ALCS I have a lot of commitments in London and elsewhere, so following the sun for three months – though that sounds amazing – just wouldn’t be possible.
AUTHORLINK: The invitation has no expiry date. Are you comfortable discussing what you are currently working on now?
Is there more of Vianne, Anouk and Rosette for us?
HARRIS: I’ve just finished a novella called “Orfeia”, the third in my illustrated series of folklore-based stories. I’m working on another thriller in my St Oswald’s series, plus another of my Loki books. And I’m co-writing a musical with Howard Goodall about Pre-Raphaelite women. I do think there will be another story about Vianne and her daughters, but that might take some time – I’ve always left quite a long interval between these stories, and so finding my way back into their world may have to wait awhile.
AUTHORLINK: Wow, prolific. Looking forward to them. And now for some one-word responses to our Proust-like questions, for a bit of fun:-
- What is the trait you most deplore in others? Bad faith.
- What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
- Which living person do you most admire? Greta Thunberg.
- Which famous person, living or dead would you like to meet? Amelia Earhart.
AUTHORLINK: Is there anything else you would like to add that we haven’t included?
HARRIS: No thank you; you’ve been very thorough.
AUTHORLINK: Ms Harris, it was a real privilege to talk to you today about The Strawberry Thief and your writing in general. We wish you all the very best in the world and look forward to reading more of your books in the years to come.
HARRIS: It’s my pleasure, and thank you.
About the Author: Joanne Harris (MBE) was born in Barnsley in 1964, of a French mother and an English father. She studied Modern and Mediaeval Languages at Cambridge and was a teacher for fifteen years, during which time she published three novels, including Chocolat (1999), which was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche .
Since then, she has written 15 more novels, two novellas, two collections of short stories, a Dr Who novella, guest episodes for the game Zombies, Run, the libretti for two short operas, several screenplays, a musical and three cookbooks. Her books are now published in over 50 countries and have won a number of British and international awards. She is an honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, has honorary doctorates in literature from the universities of Sheffield and Huddersfield, and has been a judge for the Whitbread Prize, the Orange Prize, the Desmond Elliott Prize, the Betty Trask Award, the Prima Donna Prize and the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science, as well as for the Fragrance Foundation awards for perfume and perfume journalism (for which she also received an award in 2017) .
She is a passionate advocate for authors’ rights and is currently the Chair of the Society of Authors (SOA), and member of the Board of the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS).
Her hobbies are listed in Who’s Who as: “mooching, lounging, strutting, strumming, priest-baiting and quiet subversion of the system”, although she also enjoys obfuscation, sleaze, rebellion, witchcraft, armed robbery, tea and biscuits. She is not above bribery and would not necessarily refuse an offer involving perfume, diamonds, or pink champagne. She works from a shed in her garden, plays bass in the band she first joined when she was 16, is currently co-writing a stage musical and lives with her husband in a little wood in Yorkshire.