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Thursday, 29 March, 2001, 15:43 GMT 16:43 UK
Chocolat author Joanne Harris quizzed

Author Joanne Harris loves chocolate to such an extent that she decided to write a book about it.

Chocolat became an international best-seller and has recently been made into a Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche.

Her new book Five Quarters of Orange is released in the UK in April. Set in occupied France, it is a story of a successful woman whose profiteering nephew threatens to expose her hidden past.

The 36-year-old author is half-French and was still a teacher at Leeds Grammar School when she hit the big time with Chocolat in 1999.

Why did she decide to start writing novels? What inspires her? What has been her favourite book to date? What plans does she have for the future? Why do her novels have a food or drink theme?

Joanne Harris joined us on Thursday. She answered a selection of your questions in a forum.

To listen to coverage of the forum, select the link below:




Many News Online readers loved both the film and the book Chocolat but lots of them including Dominique Malaragni in Edinburgh and Colin Edmundson in Australia, ask whether you were unhappy with the changes and were you consulted on them?

Joanne Harris:

I wasn't unhappy with the changes. I understand that when a book gets optioned you basically abnegate all responsibility for it and if it is awful and they decide to set it in space - that is just your lookout and you still get paid.

I thought that the changes were quite minor and were really in the spirit of making it a better film. So I wasn't disappointed - I wasn't consulted either except in a kind of courtesy way. I think if I had hated it and I had said so they wouldn't necessarily have done anything about it. But because I liked it, I was able to put in a few changes of my own and make a few suggestions in a gentle way which were mostly taken on board.


What kinds of things did you suggest?

Joanne Harris:

Bits and pieces - mostly to do with the dialogue and in some cases, to do with the expansion of particularly Juliette Binoche's character.

Richard Reschen, Leeds, UK (An ex-pupil):

Is there much of Vianne Rocher yourself?

Joanne Harris:

There is a little bit. Not as much as I would like. But yes, I remember Richard very well - lots of my ex-pupils have been communicating with me in this way.

I think she is what I would have loved to have been but I am not in any way as confident as she is or indeed as popular. I think there is quite a lot of the priest in me as well.

Danusia, New South Wales, Australia:

Do you feel that the priest in the film lacked the vitality that he had in your book?

Joanne Harris:

The problem of course is that the character of Reynaud in the film is not a priest. He is the same as the character in the book but he has actually been made the mayor and to keep the Church in the story they have added a new dimension - a new priest character - who is very good. However, I have never quite understood why Reynaud had to be the mayor.

This was one of the little bones of contention that I had. I understand that Americans are sometimes a little sensitive about religious issues and perhaps they decided the bulk of their audience wasn't ready for a villain who was a priest. Personally I thought it was no big deal particularly with the character of this young priest who was really very appealing and would have taken the curse off the whole business of - "is this an attack against the Church" - which of course it isn't and was never supposed to be.


Did you feel that idea of the Church in conflict in some way with secular life was an important one?

Joanne Harris:

But I never thought it was the Church in conflict. I never meant one priest to represent the whole of the Church. In fact in a way he uses the Church for all kinds of reasons and he uses the doctrine of the Church and puts a completely different spin on it which is his own spin and which isn't the official Church line at all. I never felt that this was to do with religious and secular - it is a story about personalities. As such that is why I wasn't so upset that eventually he made him into the mayor because I thought the whole issue had been blurred anyway. I didn't want to make a point about religion and secular life because as far I am concerned that is not really what it is about. It is about tolerance and intolerance and you can see that from all kinds of angles including the secular.

Julie Cookson, Canada:

Blackberry Wine and your latest book, though very different, has food elements. How do you research all that?

Joanne Harris:

I have to say that I don't do a lot of research except the obvious practical research of eating things and going places and cooking things.


But those recipes - where do you get them?

Joanne Harris:

Most of them are family recipes or they are recipes that I have made up. I think if you understand how food works then you can make recipes up. I come from a family where there is a long tradition of cooking and recipes are handed down from various parts of the family - usually down the French side. So a lot of the recipes that I use are things that my grandmother taught me and that my great-grandmother passed down - which is actually what part of Five Quarters of the Orange is about; the way that recipes can be passed down a family and can be used to keep the memory of somebody alive.

Martine Barbieri, Bavans, France:

I was bitterly disappointed by the portrayal of France in the film, I felt it was cliched. Were you disappointed in that way?

Joanne Harris:

I think the film is a film and obviously a film doesn't entirely reflect real life. Also they decided that they were going to set it in a specific time which made it a period piece. This is the big disadvantage of seeing things on screen because in the book I tried very hard to make sure that it wasn't a specific time and that you think of it as being pretty much any time within the past century with a few small details that have been changed. I think as soon as you crystallise the image and you decide to put it on screen as something and you give it a face then somebody is going to feel that it doesn't quite match.

It wasn't set and filmed where I set it and I think I understand why that was done. Lasse Hallstrom told me that he had gone looking down the Garonne and into Gascoigne and he had come to the conclusion that it was all far too scenic and pretty and he wanted something that was colder and more remote which is why he set it in Flavingny. I don't know if it is cliched. It is certainly a little old-fashioned and I think that was deliberate because he wanted to maintain a kind of fairy-tale look - which he does very well. But it was not supposed to be realistic - it was supposed to have this rather unreal dimension to it.

John McNally, Singapore: (Formerly in your French 'A' level class from 91-92

I studied Moliere and Maupasant with you and would like to know which novelists inspire you?

Joanne Harris:

The novelists who have inspired me over the years are people like Nabakov and also Mervyn Peake - both of them use language in this extraordinary way and I think started giving me a love of language and words and manipulating words. I don't pretend to be anything like as good as either of them but they are two authors that I go back to again and again because I am always seeing new things there.


So not entirely a French connection there?

Joanne Harris:

No not entirely. I read French and English pretty much omnivorously.

F Gibreel, New York, USA:

Do you have to have a desire for fame to be a writer or do you find it counterproductive?

Joanne Harris:

I don't really think of it either one way or another - certainly I have never wanted to be famous and it has never been something that has motivated me when I was writing. Which is a good thing because it has taken me a very long time to get to where I have been. I think all I really had in mind was that perhaps someday I would be able to make a living out of it in some way - that I have done - anything on top of that is wonderful of course. But it is not really a central thing and not what I think about.

I think if I was the kind of famous where people pointed at me in the street I would find it quite difficult to live with but I don't think that happens with authors very often - nor would I want it to.

Kevin Patrick Mahony, Milton Keynes, UK:

Does the dream of being a professional writer compare with reality?

Joanne Harris:

I was a teacher when I began writing and sometimes I actually miss teaching. For ten years I taught and I wrote in my spare time and I found that those two things went together rather well and I enjoyed teaching and I think I was good at it and it gave me a kind of framework to the life that I lead and it also meant that obviously I met a lot of people which is always a stimulating thing and that was good for me. Sometimes I worry slightly about being more isolated or not perhaps moving in the circles that I moved before because I don't get this kind of stimulus any more and very often the work is quite solitary and I am sitting working in a study all the time. I did worry at some point that my ideas might dry up - it hasn't worked that way because actually I do a lot of other things and I don't just sit in a study. But there are advantages and disadvantages.


Obviously you still have a connection with your pupils - as you say they get in touch with you so you are not so isolated.

Joanne Harris:

No I am not. I do get lots of contact with the pupils. I get e-mails from pupils all the time and I get calls and I still see my old colleagues and I still go off to the old school occasionally and keep in touch. I think sometimes that is essential because perhaps I need a homeopathic dose of the old place once in a while just to remember that it wasn't all rosy and I am probably happier the way I am.


Almost all our readers wanted to know if you had any tips for aspiring writers?

Joanne Harris:

I think really there are just a couple of things that you need to bear in mind if you are an aspiring writer. You have to be able to take rejection and criticism without feeling that it is terribly personal because unless you are extraordinarily lucky you will get a lot of both of them. You need to be able to use criticism in a constructive way - if it is not constructive criticism then to disregard it and not to take it personally. You just have to keep going at it. I think the thing is you have to enjoy what you are doing and not feel that you are in there for money or fame. But you have to like what you are doing because then however often you fail you are getting some fun and some enjoyment out of it and you don't feel that it is a long slog which is getting you nowhere.

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