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
Sunday 03 March 2013
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
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