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.
Author:
Publish date:

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.

Image placeholder title

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.

 New from WD Books: Mastering Plot Twists: How to Use Suspense, Targeted Storytelling Strategies, and Structure to Captivate Your Readers

New from WD Books: Mastering Plot Twists: How to Use Suspense, Targeted Storytelling Strategies, and Structure to Captivate Your Readers

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.

Min Jin Lee: Finding Story Ideas That Truly Provoke Your Passions

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.

Image placeholder title
Malden_1:16

Carla Malden: Writing With Optimism and Innocence

Screenwriter and author Carla Malden explains why young adult fiction and the '60s go hand-in-hand and how she connected with her main character's voice.

writing_mistakes_writers_make_talking_about_the_work_in_progress_robert_lee_brewer

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Talking About the Work-in-Progress

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake writers make is talking about the work-in-progress.

Kelly_1:15

Greta K. Kelly: Publishing Is a Marathon

Debut author Greta K. Kelly reveals how the idea for her novel sparked and the biggest surprise of her publication journey.

Poetic Forms

Mistress Bradstreet Stanza: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at the Mistress Bradstreet stanza, an invented form of John Berryman.

capital_vs_capitol_grammar_rules_robert_lee_brewer

Capital vs. Capitol (Grammar Rules)

Learn when to use capital vs. capitol with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

Dulan_1:14

On Writing to Give Grief Meaning and Write Out of Challenging Situations

Author Lily Dulan explains why writers have to be willing to go to difficult places inside themselves for their writing to make a positive impact on ourselves, others, and the world.

Brandt_1:14

Gerald Brandt: Toeing the Line Between Sci-Fi and Fantasy

Science fiction author Gerald Brandt explains how this new series explores the genre boundary and how he came to find his newest book's focus.

plot_twist_story_prompts_moment_of_doubt_robert_lee_brewer

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Moment of Doubt

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character experience a moment of doubt.

dr_caitlin_oconnell_finding_connection_and_community_in_animal_rituals_author_spotlights

Caitlin O'Connell: Finding Connection and Community in Animal Rituals

In this post, Dr. Caitlin O'Connell shares what prompted her to write a book about finding connection and community in animal rituals, what surprised her in the writing process, and much more!