An Interview with Joanne Harris

Photo by Jennifer Robertson

Photo by Jennifer Robertson

With countless novels and short stories to her credit, Joanne Harris is perhaps best-known as the author of Chocolat. Her most recent works include, A Cat, a Hat, and a Piece of String (just out in paperback), The Gospel of Loki (available in hardback on February 13th), and The Little Book of Chocolat (slated for realease on March 13th). Her works have been published in over 50 countries and have won numerous international awards.

Is it true you were born in your grandparent’s sweet shop? Is that astory you liked hearing growing up?

Yes, it’s true. But it wasn’t the kind of chocolate shop I wrote about in Chocolat. It was a Northern corner sweetshop, selling newspapers and boiled sweets from big glass jars.

What were your families like? Do you think it is fair to say they encourage strong women? What would you say is the most important thing you learned from them?

The dominant personality on my English side was my grandfather, an ex-miner turned gardener who was a big influence on my childhood. He taught me everything I know about gardening, wild plants, animals and birds and the countryside. On the French side, the women ruled. The greatest influence there was my great-grandmother, the family matriarch, whose stories and superstitions were inspirational throughout my formative years.

Do you happen to remember what your very first favourite story was?

The Pied Piper. I’ve blogged about it here. I first discovered it in an illustrated fairy book, and I’ve been fascinated by it ever since.

What did you love most about being a teacher? Do you ever miss it?

To me, the most important part of teaching was the human stimulus; the day-to-day interaction with people and the daily challenge of new and unpredictable situations. Nowadays I’ve learnt to find that stimulus elsewhere; on my travels around the world. I still miss it occasionally -though not enough to go back…

What is like dealing with synaesthesia? If you don’t mind my asking what is it like to experience certain colors as scents? Does any one particular color smell better than the rest? 

I can’t really explain what it’s like, because I don’t have any basis for comparison. I’ve never experienced what passes for “normal.” But yes, some scents are pleasant, some unpleasant. There’s a bright red that smells of chocolate, and a muddy yellow colour – rather fashionable with designers last year, I’m afraid – that smells of rotting fish. (You can probably guess that I avoid that one.)

You were once thrown out of the Eqyptian Museum of Berlin for not wearing any shoes. Did it feel freeing to be shoeless in such a place? 

I did when I was eighteen. Nowadays I don’t find walking barefoot in cities as appealing.

Why do you think you are happiest when by the sea? What do you love most about that whole environment?

I spent all my childhood holidays by the sea at my grandfather’s house on the island of Noirmoutier. For seven or eight weeks a year I was free to do what I liked, go where I liked, walk barefoot if I wanted to, sail, ride my bike, swim and explore freely and unsupervised. Seaside places still give me that feeling.

What is it like to have your work distributed in over 50 countries?

It’s great to have such a broad readership, but honestly, it doesn’t feel entirely real to me.

Did you ever dream that would happen when you first started your career?

Yes, I dreamed. Isn’t that what writers do? But I never expected the dream to come true…

What was it like to see Chocolat come to life on the big screen?

I’ve written a lot about this on my website (find it here;, but it was a lot of fun. Stressful in parts, but mostly fun, because the actors, director and crew were so good to work with. Everyone had a terrific time.

What do you love most about the act of writing?

All of it. The voodoo.

You have said you like to pack for imaginary journeys. When did you first begin doing that? What would your favourite imaginary journey be?

I’ve always done it. Nowadays my journeys are more often likely to be real, but I still find it therapeutic to pack a bag for Hawaii, for instance, or for Alaska. I like to think that I’ve got so good at packing that if I had to fake my death and flee the country, I could be out of the door within five minutes…

Do you think people in today’s hectic world should try to use their imaginations more?

Yes. Imagination leads to empathy, and with that we could fix pretty much everything that’s wrong with the world.

What advice would you offer the women of tomorrow?

The same advice I’d offer to anyone: you can be anything you want if you’re prepared to work hard enough.

Can you tell our readers a little about the next three titles you having coming up?

A Cat, a Hat, and a Piece of String is a collection of short stories of all kinds, written mostly during my travels. The Gospel of Loki is a retelling of the Norse myths from the perspective of Loki, the Trickster. The Little Book of Choclat is… exactly what the title suggests. A little chocolate cookbook, with some chocolate facts mixed in.

What other projects are you working on at the moment?

I’m writing a novel called Different Class, which is set in a Northern grammar school; working on a Dr. Who novella and developing a TV project for the BBC. It’s a busy time…

What do you believe, personally is the key to living a life well spent?

Love, kindness, pleasure, curiosity. Joy in simple things.

Do you believe in the afterlife? What are your feelings on death?

I believe in this life. As for death, I’m avoiding it as best I can.

How do you hope to be remembered when you go?

With fondness.


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