Enigmatic chocolatier Vianne Rocher swept into our psyche in the picturesque fictional French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes some 20 years ago – and today, Chocolat creator Joanne Harris contemplates how life has panned out for herself and her heroine.
The bestselling novel starts at the beginning of Lent, when Vianne arrives in the village with her six-year-old daughter Anouk to open a chocolaterie in the square opposite the church, to the outrage of the local priest, Father Reynaud. Yet despite his protests, she gently changes the lives of the villagers who visit her, with a combination of sympathy, subversion and a little magic.
The film adaptation starred Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp and Alfred Molina – and even now, Harris seems a bit bewildered as to how her little book, written on Sunday mornings between her teaching job and looking after her young daughter, became a global sensation. “It’s completely unexpected, because I was told Chocolat wouldn’t sell and people wouldn’t be interested in that sort of scenario,” she says now. “Clearly that wasn’t true, and I’m astonished on a daily basis as to how many people are still deeply invested in those characters and those stories – and it’s wonderful.”
Her publishers are pushing the boat out with a new book jacket for the hit title’s 20th anniversary and Harris has written a new introduction for it. “I celebrate Chocolat every day. To me, the fact that those characters are still alive and still have stories to tell is a matter for celebration.” Harris has also written a new book, The Strawberry Thief, the fourth continuation – not sequel, she is adamant – of the story, which sees Vianne for once feeling a little insecure and unsure of what the future holds, as her daughter Anouk has flown the nest.
Harris admits that Vianne – and the remaining characters – have changed, just as she has in the last 20 years. “She has changed because I have changed. I’m not quite the same person I was 20 years ago. We are not each other, of course, but we do have a lot of things in common,” says Barnsley-born Harris. “We are both the mother of a child. When I wrote Chocolat, I was the mother of a four-year-old, now I’m the mother of a 25-year-old, and you can write from those perspectives only when you’ve actually been there.”
Away from her computer, Harris enjoys walking around the five-acre plot surrounding her home in the countryside near Huddersfield, playing bass guitar in the band she’s been in since age 16, or simply lounging around.
Chocolat was a tough act to follow, and originally she didn’t plan to do any follow-ups, for fear of being pigeonholed, she explains. She has since written across many different genres, including crime, fantasy and even several cookbooks. “People who would have not necessarily followed me into fantasy or crime or psychological thrillers have, because they just happened to like the way I wrote,” she says. “That empowered me to go back to the world of Chocolat, because although publishers may like to put you into little boxes, readers are very accepting.”
The Strawberry Thief is published by Orion priced £20.