Thursday, May 10, 2012

Interview with Joanne Harris, Author of Chocolat

Joanne Harris wearing Classic Coup's "Subversive"

By Cindy McCain

Classic Coup celebrates writers long taught in classrooms—like Fitzgerald, Frost, S.H. Hinton, and Harper Lee.  Because their universal appeal makes them too cool for just school, adult readers return to them, appreciating their wisdom, wit, and words.  The following interview with Joanne Harris launches Classic Coup’s series on “the new classics”—timeless and contemporary works and the men and women who write them.

I wanted to interview first  Joanne Harris, the author of Chocolat, for many reasons. 

There’s the work itself, the story of a free-spirited single mom trying to make a new home in a small French town for her daughter.  Vianne’s confections arouse the villagers’ appetite for the sweet life…and the clergyman-in-control’s vow to fight her and “her kind” to-the-death.   The novel has spoken to me for over a decade as a tale touting tolerance, chosen family, and freedom over fear.  It explores how hard change can be…even for those who crave it.   It feeds lovers of food, travel, and diversity with its complicated characters and magically realistic setting.

Another reason to feature Chocolat is because of the movie it inspired.  It is my favorite film—nominated for five Academy Awards in 2000 including Best Picture--starring my two favorite actors, Juliette Binoche (nominated for Best Actress) and Johnny Depp. 

And there’s the author—a Renaissance Woman who has not only written multiple books but also mastered martial arts, multiple languages and music.  She spends Saturday nights playing bass in her band.  From her biography, I discovered we are in many ways kindred spirits.  She, too, taught English for years and has a child about to leave the nest.  We love rebels, reds and rivers.  (She’s conquered the Congo; in a couple of weeks I go take on the Amazon.) She says her imagination was cultivated in the gardens of her French and English grandparents.  My grandmother launched me on many-an-adventure to Paris from the arm of her rocking chair.  Then there’s the moors.  Harris hails from the land of Heathcliff and on BBC she named Emily Bronte as first among Yorkshire’s greatest women.  Classic Coup’s first shirt was dedicated to my favorite novel, Wuthering Heights, another story of the clash between individuality and conformity, fear and passion.

Finally, Joanne’s book tour for her third work in the Chocolat trilogy begins next week in the UK.  In Peaches for Monsieur le Cure, Vianne will return to the town of Chocolat and again confront her nemesis, the book’s namesake.  (The US title to be released this fall is Peaches for Father Francis).  This time the rebel writer takes on immigration as a universal issue, proving again that Lit is Life.  Rereading where the whole thing began, Chocolat, is a good way to rev up for the new novel. 

Thanks to Joanne Harris for answering my many questions.  Below she speaks candidly about the classics, her characters, and life.  

Q:  What is your favorite literary classic?  Who is your favorite classic author?

A:  Victor Hugo, and LES MISERABLES. The monolithic masterwork of a marvellous storyteller.

Q:  What is your Top 5 Must-Read List of books/ authors? 

A:  I don’t have a top 5. It varies according to the person. But some of my personal essentials are: Hugo, Nabokov, the Bront√ęs, Flaubert, Maupassant, Kafka.

Q:  Which contemporary authors stimulate your heart and head and write in a style equal to the canonized masters?

A:  Styles (and editors) have changed. I don’t think we can make a fair comparison any more. But I enjoy Iain Banks; Haruki Murakami; Stephen King; Angela Carter; Elif Shafak; Ray Bradbury. All unique in their different way. All master storytellers.

Q:  Do you prefer Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre?  Why?

A:  WUTHERING HEIGHTS always spoke to me more, although I loved them both. The darkness of the characters, the paganism of the landscape, the lyrical style – at fifteen, I was swept away.

Q: You spoke on BBC of the importance of place—landscape and weather—to Yorkshire writers.   As a Southern American writer, I’ve grown up hearing place  preached.  How do you think the Yorkshire climate affected the Bronte sisters?  How has it affected your writing?

A: I think landscape is often a factor in writing. In my case I write about different landscapes  - with an emphasis on the inner landscape of the subconscious – but there’s no doubt in my mind that the Yorkshire countryside and climate affects my imagination.

Q:  My Master’s thesis was on The Scarlet Letter due to its lasting impression on me.  However, I find Chocolat more modern-reader-friendly in teaching some of the same life lessons.  Is there some of Hester Prynne in Vianne? 

A:  Perhaps, although Vianne probably wouldn’t think so. Vianne is at the same time unaware and uncaring of any stigma put upon her – it isn’t any kind of a burden to her. She is much more of a free spirit and less of a victim than poor Hester, who feels her condition keenly.

Q:  Both are targeted by those who control the church, seem to share fierce love for and need of a daughter, and are caught in the tension between the freedom and fear isolation brings…  Perhaps modern readers prefer Vianne who not only speaks her mind but also helps others find their own? How would you compare these two characters (and other famous women of literature)?

A:  I escaped academia precisely so that I wouldn’t have to make these kinds of comparisons! In CHOCOLAT Vianne is as unaware of her effect on other people as she is of their disapproval; she does change in THE LOLLIPOP SHOES, becoming a timid shadow of herself, obsessed with the idea of not making a difference, but her true nature eventually resurfaces, allowing her to accept her identity as an agent of change, and to embrace it.

 Q:  For Vianne, does motherhood trump romantic relationships? The love scene with Roux is fruitful and beautiful.  Why did you bring them together but not allow them to stay together?    How did you feel about the movie bringing Roux and Vianne into a relationship?  How do you feel about feminist thought that women don’t need a partner to be complete?  As a child of the ‘60s and a long-married woman, how important is having a life partner/family to you?  How do you manage roles of self, mother, and wife with other relationships/responsibilities? 

A:  A lot of questions there! First, understand that Vianne’s thinking and mine are not always the same. Vianne finds relationships difficult to sustain, especially as she is as yet incapable of staying in the same place for long. Motherhood is something different and less easy to control. She and Anouk are inseparable. In THE LOLLIPOP SHOES, Vianne and Roux manage to make a life together, but there is doubt as to whether this will last. As for the movie, it provided the Hollywood ending everyone expects, but that life often fails to deliver.
     As for myself, I don’t believe in these generalizations of feminism, roles and completion. No-one is ever either entirely complete, with or without a partner. Some partners help us on our journey of self-discovery, others don’t. Our choice.

Q:  You’ve said Reynaud is not the villain, that his “dark past” makes him “more a victim than an oppressor.” Is he based on anyone you have encountered in or out of the church? 

A:  Yes. Several people, although my characters are all fictional.

Q:  Sadly, I’ve heard strong and/or physically attractive women say that married men in the church are aloof toward them.  Reynaud seems tempted and repelled by Vianne’s perfume, outgoing personality, and looks.  The movie was set in the late ‘50s in a conservative village, but have you seen this same dynamic today?

A:  The movie may have been set in the 50s, but the book was not. French rural communities are still sometimes driven by the same dynamic. We see it even more in Muslim communities (which is the basis of my next book about Vianne and Reynaud). 

On the Institutionalized Church vs Personal Faith/Love

Q:   An interesting five-year study published last fall revealed that three out of five young people raised in the church disconnect permanently or for an extended period of time after age 15.  Reasons given included:

“Christians demonize everything outside of the church… Church ignores the problems of the real world… Christians think they have all the answers and are antagonistic toward science... Churches ‘are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths’… and they  ‘are forced to choose between faith and my friends’….One-fifth of young adults with a Christian background said ‘church is like a country club, only for insiders.’  They also felt they were not able ‘to ask my most pressing life questions in church’…and their faith ‘does not help with depression or other emotional problems’ they experience.”

Your book illustrates all of the reasons younger adults are leaving the church.  Have you seen this in your country as well?

A:  Yes. I think human nature is basically the same all over the world.

Q:  I love that you said, “…like Reynaud we have learned to demonize pleasure and to be afraid of our feelings,” that the book is “a plea for tolerance of others but also of ourselves, a reminder that to be fallible is both natural and allowed; that self-indulgence isn’t always bad.”  Reynaud illustrates what C. S. Lewis described as “teetotalism” rather than temperance as a virtue: “One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up.  That is not the Christian way.  An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons—marriage, or meat, or beer; or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turn.” 

 What personal experiences influence your “priest-baiting and quiet subversion of the system”? Do you attend church regularly?

A:  I don’t go to church. I don’t subscribe. I’m interested in what people believe, but have no desire to join a club.  As for my personal influences, I’ve been gathering them since I was a small child.  The main one was my grandfather, the son of a widow. She was devout but poor, so poor that at one time they only had one pair of shoes between them, and couldn’t afford to send my grandfather to the Catholic school. Instead he went to the State school, and for 6 years, every week the priest denounced them both from the pulpit in front of the whole village, accusing my great-grandmother of being indecent and immoral, and advising people not to give her work. This marked my grandfather, who grew up with a deep hatred of the clergy.
     It is not an isolated tale. I’ve heard it again and again from Catholics living in Italy, Ireland, Portugal, and it was the basis for my original story for CHOCOLAT.

Q:  Likewise, Vianne’s “own need to belong, and her fear of being rejected” is familiar.  I’ve realized that fear of rejection causes people to try to control at times—whether by fight or flight.  How do you identify with Vianne?

A:  I try not to. I’m at least as close to Reynaud as I am to her.

On Politics and Personality:

Q:  How much of Reynaud and Vianne’s differences are grounded in the two camps of most of our personalities:  classical (logical/traditional) vs romantic (emotional/experimental)?  He seems to be the conservative while she is the liberal, two bents which polarize people and politics.    Is this part of their battle?  Her free-spirit is offensive to him; he represents all the rejections of the past.  Are you more sense or sensibility?

A:  I don’t see either of them as being inherently right or wrong. Both are extreme personalities, fated to clash.

On Immigration/”Outsiders”

Q:  I write for and on issues of diversity, including immigration.  In Chocolat, the river gypsies most feared were from Marseilles and Eastern Africa.  There was a reference to Arabs as well.  Since you wrote the book, has the political climate on immigration changed? If so, how? 

A:  Xenophobia on both sides has become more pronounced. It’s the core of my new novel, PEACHES FOR MONSIEUR LE CURE.

Q:  Is there a difference in how people in small towns view immigrants vs residents of London?  You live in a small town but are well traveled.  What are the advantages and disadvantages of living in a small town?

A:  Cities are more cosmopolitan, more multicultural, and therefore have lost a lot of their identity. Villages are at the same time more traditional but less radical; more inclined to deal with individuals rather than racial or social groups en bloc.

Q:  What are some of your favorite places?  Have you been the places Vianne traveled, such as Turin, Italy?  (I taught English to Italians there and like that it isn’t as prone to tourists as Venice, Florence, or Rome). 

A:  Yes, I’ve seen a lot of the places Vianne has seen, and more; I love Italy, but also Alaska, China, Hawaii. I’ve travelled extensively in Africa, and although the conditions were tough, I loved seeing the Congo and meeting its remarkable inhabitants.

On Writing, Teaching, and the Movie

Q:  Your website describes my “dream life” of writing fulltime one day.  For now, I teach nearly 100 students college writing and literature courses.  How did you find time to write when you were teaching?

A:  The way anyone finds time to do what they most want to do. The time is there. It’s just a matter of priority.

Q:  Any advice for teachers who want to write fulltime?   What comes first, the blog or the book?  Some say we need blog readers to launch a book. You’ve said to write what we love.  Do you agree with “Leap, and the net will appear”? 

A:  I don’t blog, so maybe I’m the wrong person to ask about this. Publishers don’t seem to care about blogging, but it does help raise an author’s profile in some cases. Basically I think it’s such a chancy business that there is no single way to go about it. Just go with your instinct. As for “leap and the net appears”… My advice? Try it over water.

Q:  You recommend getting a literary agent.  How/when did you get yours? 

A:  Looked some agents up in the WRITER’S HANDBOOK and made a submission.

Q:  I’ve know you were pleased with the casting for the movie.  How did you feel about the changes made to your book?   Were you consulted on any of them?

A:  There’s a lot on my website about this already, but I liked the casting very much. To me it redeemed what I felt were unnecessary changes to the basic plot – the priest to the Mayor, the love story. I was consulted, though my role was a small one, and I was happy to let others get on with their interpretation.

Q:  Any favorite memories of Juliette Binoche when she stayed in your home? Of other cast members?   

A:  Cooking with Juliette when she stayed in our house; happy times on set with a delightful, friendly cast. Most writers don’t have such an enjoyable experience. I was one of the lucky ones.

On Your Nest

Q:  What is your favorite dessert?  Your favorite dish to cook?  Do you prefer gardening or cooking?

A:  I don’t eat desserts very often. Maybe lemon cake. I cook simple and easy dishes for the most part; Mexican food or Italian - I don’t have time otherwise. I enjoy both cooking and gardening, but spend most time in the garden (we have 5 acres).

Q:  My younger child is going to college in August and I dread the empty nest.  Like Vianne, I want to hold him tight as I tried to do with my daughter who flew away first.  Any advice on parenting with a full or empty nest? 

A:  I don’t think I’m qualified to give advice. “Listen more often than you speak” is often a good motto…

Q:  Any other thoughts you'd like to share on reading, writing, living?  Any favorite words to live by?

A:  Some days the dream machine doesn’t work. That doesn’t mean it’s broken.

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