Joanne Harris: Not all sweetness and light

The author has returned to the world of her 1999 best-seller 'Chocolat' with renewed desire to provoke, she tells James Kidd

Quentin Tarantino and Joanne Harris are not obvious soul-mates. Harris's most famous work – one of the rare novels to sell more than a million copies in Britain – is Chocolat, which inspired a movie described by one critic as a "gooey, sticky, mushy, sickly-sweet confection". But in another life, Harris assures me, she might have been collecting an Oscar for Django Unchained last week. "I am Tarantino's separated twin," she jokes.

Her childhood certainly carries the right tone of solitary television addiction. Now 48, she cheerfully –admits sending youthful fan letters to Lee Majors, David Carradine and Marine Boy. ("None of them ever wrote back. Of course, Marine Boy was a cartoon ...") Full-blown geek immersion was stifled by Harris's strict academic mother, who had relocated from France to Barnsley. "I just managed to get Dr Who and Blake's 7 under the door. Comics were banned. The first thing I did on leaving home was catch up with an adolescent phase that should have burned itself out."

Harris gorged on spaghetti Westerns, samurai films and horror movies. And continues to do so, often with her own daughter, Anouk. "By 11, she'd seen every Kurosawa movie, every Clint Eastwood, every movie with a Morricone soundtrack. I showed her Kill Bill when she was 12. That's probably bad parenting."

Harris is full of agreeable surprises of this sort. The Chocolat movie shaped a lot of preconceptions. "The film did excise a lot of the darkness from the novel," she explains. "There's an expectation that things are sweeter and more easily resolved in my books than they are. I did get tired of having to say, 'I didn't write the film, don't judge me on other people's work.'"

We talk in the writer's shed in the garden of her Yorkshire home. In conversation, Harris is frequently funny and at times almost sentimentally cute. She is keen to show me fan-art sent by readers of her young-adult "Rune" stories. Occasionally, this unaffected friendliness is jostled by a sharp intelligence. Harris forthrightly dismisses money as a factor in either of Chocolat's two sequels: The Lollipop Shoes and Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé: "If I wanted to write 'Chocolat 2', I would have done it 12 years ago and earned a bloody fortune. I said [to my publishers] – and I blush to remember it – 'You will never give me a deadline and you will never tell me what to write next. Then we will get on just fine, won't we?'" At moments like these, one is reminded that Harris was a schoolteacher for 15 years. She speaks with natural authority, and the bravado of someone for whom international literary success was an added professional bonus.

Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé reflects all sides of its creator's imagination. By turns romantic, sensual and eccentric, the story is also darker and more provocative than previous episodes. "I told my publisher I was writing another book about Vianne Rocher, and they went: 'Hurrah!' I told them it has food in the title, and they went: 'Hurrah!' I said it's called 'Peaches for Ramadan', and they went: 'Oh.' That was the original title. I am rather sorry it didn't get used."

Vianne returns to Lansquenet to find a village divided by race and religion. A thriving Islamic community has inspired both affection and resentment. At the centre of the crisis is the local priest, Francis Reynaud, and an enigmatic veiled woman, Inès Bencharki. Set on the eve of the French government's ban on the hijab, the novel explores the veil from multiple perspectives. "It's an interesting paradox," Harris says. "In this country, the veil doesn't work as a means of not attracting attention. In Arab countries where all women are veiled, it makes a different kind of sense.."

Chocolat's withering portrait of the Catholic Church earned Harris a reputation as an antagonist of religion. It is a charge she refutes. She does admit to scepticism about organised religion. "Anything based on ancient texts is difficult for a modern reader to get their head around. Stoning people may have been fine at one time, but it isn't any more. The same goes for incest and human sacrifice."

Nevertheless, Harris talks proudly about receiving fan-mail from young priests, and skewers the excesses of militant atheism. "There's an aspect of it which is as disagreeable as religious fundamentalism, and as incapable of listening. I want to have T-shirts made with the logo 'It's just a bit more complicated than that'."

This motto also describes Harris's other new work: a short story called "A is for Acid Rain, B is for Bee…" in Beacons: Stories For Our Not So Distant Future (Oneworld, £8.99), a charity collection about global warming. Harris imagines a planet on which almost all life is extinct. The only way to see the titular bee is on a screen. This being Harris, there is almost literally a sting in the tail. "We think certain things are immutably permanent, and they are not. I feel very sad, for instance, that we will shortly have to explain to our kids what a library is. With the planet, we are like children coming to terms with their parents' mortality. We know it will happen, but don't quite believe it."

Before I leave her book-strewn Yorkshire home, I am shown the rehearsal room where Harris plays bass every Saturday in a prog-rock band, alongside her husband Kevin. It says something for the persistence of her teenage dreams that Harris talks as passionately about a recent gig in Doncaster as meeting Johnny Depp. ("He was all right. Not my type really.")

Indeed, about the only person who remains unenthused by Harris's achievements is her mother. "She still thinks I don't have a proper job. She's been known to use the phrase 'adolescent retardé'; she thinks I'm living out an extended adolescence, doing what I please." Harris giggles. "I'm just lucky to get away with it all."

Peaches For Monsieur le Curé, By Joanne Harris

Black Swan £7.99

"I have never belonged to a tribe. It gives me a different perspective …. To belong so often means to exclude; to think in terms of us and them – two little words that, juxtaposed, so often lead to conflict ..."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea