Chocolat and Chips
How could a brisk Yorkshire schoolteacher like Joanne Harris have invented gastromance? Harriet Lane went to find out
Sunday July 15, 2001
Is it really possible that Joanne Harris - this brisk, rather beady Yorkshire lady with the formidable manner that must have held generations of schoolboys in check - invented gastromance? Can she really be the same Joanne Harris who wrote Chocolat, Blackberry Wine and Five Quarters of the Orange; quirky, sensuous books set in the French countryside, in which food dominates events as a token of love, a bargaining chip, a gesture of defiance?
Her biggest triumph is still Chocolat, short-listed for the Whitbread (and recently transformed into an Oscar-nominated film - yes, it stank, but that was Miramax's fault), which became one of those novels that everyone seemed to be reading a few summers ago. A sleeper hit like Snow Falling on Cedars or Perfume, Chocolat was a dark, dreamy fairy-tale stuffed with loving descriptions of truffles and marzipan birds, upon which bikini dieters could safely binge.
Neither of the two novels that followed has matched its success, but the most recent, Five Quarters, is a compulsive, thrillerish read, in which a family drama that took place during the Occupation is gradually and painfully unearthed. It, too, is a rallying call to readers' tastebuds. The first sentence hinges on 'a single black Périgord truffle'; the last, 'sweet black coffee and croissants and green tomato jam'. But now Harris, 36, is locking up the storecupboard and hiding the key. 'I'm tired of food because everyone else is doing it now, so I've decided to stop,' she says, characteristically definite. 'I think I'd rather do something else if it's going to be immensely fashionable.'
Harris has always been good at changing gear. After Cambridge, where she read modern and medieval languages, she financed her mortgage through accountancy ('definitely the pits. It was like being trapped in a Terry Gilliam film, but not as nice'). Then, like her parents, she became a French teacher, settling at Leeds Boys Grammar. Chocolat, which she wrote on Saturday mornings while her daughter, Anouchka, was watching kids' TV, was not her first attempt at fiction. She'd started out by trying to write a 'literate horror novel' about a crowd of vampires living in Cambridge, 'and of course it ended up whale shit in a diver's boot because nobody knew what it was'.
Harris, who cheerfully owns up to having 'terribly lowbrow tastes', still has a passion for horror fiction, cultivated in part because her mother hated it so much. For sheer impact, she says, horror cannot be beaten. 'It's an exercise in stirring up feeling. If you can actually get someone to sit on the edge of their seat and feel nervous if there's a knock at the door, then you've done something pretty terrific as a writer.
'I like literature that you respond to in some way. You laugh, you cry, you turn the light on - that's great, it's eliciting a response by proxy. That's why I derive this tremendous pleasure from people saying, "Gosh, I ate chocolate all the time when I read Chocolat." It's like a kind of voodoo.'
Actually, Harris isn't half as straight as she looks. Her head of department once wrote a report describing her as 'a brilliant anarchist'. She fondly describes her old classroom as 'like Gormenghast - in a belltower, with a balcony that was crumbling, and you could look out and see gargoyles. Mice ran around the skirting on Friday afternoons.' She remains honorary president of the Role Play Club, a semi-secret society in which pupils 'go forth as foul gnomes and hit each other with rubber swords in the woods'. Her bumper sticker proclaims, 'My other car is a broom.'
To some extent, she is an outsider, born and bred. Her father met his future wife while on a French exchange in Brittany and, having wooed her, brought her back to Yorkshire to live above his parents' sweetshop (not so much of an influence on Chocolat as you might have supposed; school holidays in western France with the maternal side of the family were much more of an inspiration).
'Basically, if you come from Rotherham you're a stranger in Barnsley, so the idea that this Frenchwoman was living there as if she had a right to be there... well, some people were friendly and others were extremely hostile. Culturally, we must have been very different to other people. We spoke French all the time at home, because my mother has always had a problem with her accent. It doesn't take much, actually, to make people think you're rather odd.'
In Barnsley, where Harris still lives with her husband (whom she met at sixth-form college), success appears to have added to her already rather exotic reputation. Shrugging, dispassionate, suddenly seeming terribly French, she describes the gossip passed back to her by a neighbour: 'I live on stuff he hears in the pub because I never go there. It's all, "Oh, she's really posh and snooty" and "She never goes out and never talks to anyone." It's funny how these rumours fly about.' She has no wish to up sticks, and certainly has no desire to relocate to London, despite the general assumption that she must be heading south: she's perfectly happy with the house she and Kevin bought 15 years ago for £9,000, thank you very much.
'If you have roots somewhere, it doesn't necessarily matter that it's not perfect. I've no reason to move, I'm very close to my family, I've got my friends here. People have this idea that it's so quaint that I'm still in my little humble abode in Barnsley, still doing all the things I used to do. What do they think I'm going to do? Writing books and being paid for it - it's not like winning the Lottery. You can't suddenly go "Yippee!" and start throwing tenners in the air. I've done pretty well out of it, but certainly not enough to say, "Right, that's me set up for life." '
Complacency is, you feel, not in Harris's make-up. Her next book, Coastliners, will be published next spring, and she has already been commissioned to assist its translation into a film. 'It struck me that it would be quite nice to have a bit more say, and I've never done a script before, so I thought I'd like to know if I could. I may be lousy at it. In which case, nothing ventured, nothing gained.' The novel was optioned in manuscript form and she turned the screenplay around in nine days.
Though Coastliners is set in a French seaside community, this will most certainly not be a novel about grilled fish and moules. It's time to move on, to call time on the food trilogy. Like all hit novels, Chocolat still casts a long, inky shadow, but Harris isn't the sort of person to be scared of the dark. 'I try not to think about [its success] too much. It's a bit like teaching. If you thought about the repercussions of what you did as a teacher, you would be paralysed. I keep meeting boys I taught 10 years ago and they'll say, "I was terrified of you when I was 11. You said this and it has haunted me." Well... you don't want to think about that.'
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001