A Sense of Discovery: 'Chocolat' Author Joanne Harris on Routine, Inspiration and What's Next

Author Joanne Harris discusses her writing routine, her journey to becoming a full-time author, as well as her upcoming book The Strawberry Thief, which is set in the same universe as her 2000 hit novel Chocolat.
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English author Joanne Harris is an English author best known for her award-winning novel Chocolat (1999), which was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp in 2000. She has penned 18 novels, two original novellas, two collections of short stories, a Doctor Who novella, 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.

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Joanne Harris photo credit: InfoGibraltar [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Here she discusses with us her writing routine, her journey to becoming a full-time author, as well as her upcoming book The Strawberry Thief, which is set in the same universe as Chocolat.

Writing Routine

You write on your laptop, but how do you make notes? Computer too or paper?

I generally use notebooks when I’m travelling—I have dozens of them, filled with drawings, little stories, notes, ideas, observations on what I’ve seen—although I sometimes use the notebook option on my phone if I don’t have a physical notebook handy. I think differently when I working on paper—and I like to use different media for different things. It helps with mental flexibility.

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Are you a plotter or a pantser?

I like to keep a sense of discovery and surprise when I’m writing. I think that if I can surprise myself (or allow my characters to surprise me) then the readers will be more likely to feel that way, too. So I allow my plots to develop organically, although I always have a general sense of which direction I’m going in.

What time of day do you work best?

Mornings are best for me, although not exclusively. I work best when it’s light.

What does your famous “Shed” currently look like?

It’s a small stone building, with green oak beams and a York stone roof. My husband built it for me as a garden office, and I usually work there when I’m at home.

Do you ornament it differently book to book? Scene to scene?

Not really, no: The things that are inside have gravitated from the house; some because I needed them (books, etc.), some because I just felt they belonged there.

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What does the lucky stone on your desk look like?

It’s black, with a white circle. About the size of an apricot.

How do you edit?

I edit using my laptop. I change the font (from Calibri to Perpetua) to make it look different, and read the text aloud to check the rhythms of the phrases.

How do you clear your mind when you need a break?

Running.

Favourite writing snack & flavour of tea?

I drink ordinary breakfast tea, but I generally don’t snack much when I’m working. Sometimes I might make toast, or in summer I might pick something from one of the fruit trees outside the shed (the plums were pretty good this year).

Do you write to music?

No, it upsets the rhythms of the words, but I do make playlists for each book to get myself into the mood.

Writing Journey

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?

I remember writing a kind of Rider Haggard pastiche when I was very young called "The City of Gold." (I was probably about seven.)

Three writers you read in your formative years?

Willard Price, Enid Blyton, A.A. Milne.

Who do you read now?

All kinds of things; many new authors, both of fiction and non-fiction, but I always look out for new books by Haruki Murakami, Neil Gaiman, Brian Vaughan or Stephen King.

When did you decide to professionally pursue writing?

When my third book did rather better than I’d expected, and I began to see a way of making a living writing books.

During your pre-Chocolat days you wrote on the side while you were a teacher. Did you enjoy that time?

I enjoyed it and was good at it—in some ways I found it hard to leave.

So, it wasn’t stressful, juggling both?

Writing professionally is a lot more stressful, risky and demanding than writing on the side.

What advice would you give to authors wishing to write full-time?

Be sure that’s really what you want to do before you quit your day job. And rid yourself of the idea that writing for a living is a glamorous, exciting lifestyle. It can be, but mostly it’s difficult, uncertain and poorly paid.

Did you have a feeling while writing Chocolat that it would be a hit?

No, it was precisely the opposite of what was fashionable at the time.

Do you read your reviews?

Sometimes, although I don’t generally go out of my way to find them all.

About The Strawberry Thief

Thank you for the return to Lansquenet-sous-Tannes. Where did that name come from, by the way?

It was a joke, like a lot of my names: “Lansquenet” is an old French children’s game, and “soutane” is the French word for a priest’s cassock.

Do you read certain books to get back into the spirit of this magical town, aside from your own?

No. In the case of The Strawberry Thief, I found that recording the audiobook of Chocolat helped me remember a lot of things I’d forgotten.

The darker twist this book seems to bring, with murder—was that something you foresaw eventually arriving at when you wrote the first in the series?

I often find that the unanswered questions in my books get answered at some later time.

How is your relationship with Vianne Rocher after all these years?

A lot of people assume that I am Vianne. I’m not, although she reflects certain parts of my life and personality. One of the things that links us is Vianne’s daughter Anouk, who was based on my daughter Anouchka, who has grown to adulthood, both in real life and in fiction. One of the reasons these books have taken so long to be written is that life often surprises us, and I had to wait for my own experience of life (and my daughter’s) to complete the fiction. I’m certain that those characters will continue to reveal things about themselves. I’ll keep my readers posted when I know more.

If you had to affiliate Vianne with a colour what would that be?

Vianne’s colour? Red.

Given your synaesthesia, what does your favourite color, arterial red, smell like to you?

Chocolate.

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