When Joanne Harris first published Chocolat twenty years ago, she never thought that a novel about a chocolate shop and a small French village would achieve worldwide success and acclaim. A very popular film adaptation and several awards later, Joanne has published the fourth book in the Chocolat series – The Strawberry Thief.
Published in April this year, The Strawberry Thief continues the story of Vianne Rocher and the village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes. She will be talking about this new book next month at Marlborough LitFest.
Part of what has made the Chocolat series so successful is the characters that are known and loved by so many readers. Joanne thinks that an important aspect of the charm of characters like Vianne is that people relate to them easily.
“I think that if characters are relatable – if their experiences, dreams and fears reflect those of the readers – then people will feel affection and understanding for them and want to follow their journey. Readers have told me that Vianne gives them courage – and yet, she’s a flawed character too, with her own issues and fears.”
Characterisation is a technique that varies from author to author – some spend hours creating character profiles and planning, other say that their characters “write themselves”.
Where does Joanne fall on this spectrum, considering she has said that she finds it hard to think of her characters as fictional at all? “I find that my characters develop over time, as does my relationship with them.”
“Like any relationship, it goes through phases. Time and experience changes people, so my characters are always changing, too. I’m always learning new things about them, and they often still surprise me.”
Marlborough LitFest is known for welcoming a variety of less-well known and debut writers, as well as bestselling authors. The industry has changed since Joanne published her first book, and it is more difficult than ever for the next generation of writers to get noticed and secure a publishing deal.
“Lots of things have changed over thirty years; especially the rise of e-books and the digital industry. New authors have a different set of challenges now – they have to compete with a celebrity culture that didn’t really exist when I was first published.”
However, there is a positive side to this – authors are increasingly choosing to self-publish, and the indie community is thriving.
She also stresses that although it is now harder to write for a living, it shouldn’t put people off expressing themselves creatively: “It’s perfectly possible to follow a creative path without writing for a living. Lots of authors have day jobs, and it doesn’t make them any less creative or valuable.”
“Even if my books hadn’t been successful, I would certainly have written anyway – although I would almost certainly have stayed in teaching if I hadn’t been in a position to write full-time.”
Her advice to today’s writers? “Read as widely as you can. Be curious. Be patient – and most of all, enjoy your writing. If you don’t love it, then who will?”
Joanne Harris will be speaking at Marlborough Town Hall on Saturday, September 28 at 6pm – tickets are £10 each. The Strawberry Thief is published by Orion.
Tickets can be bought: Online: www.marlboroughlitfest.org (no booking fee, postage £1.75 if required). Telephone: 0333 666 3366 Mon-Fri 9am-7pm, Sat 9am-5pm (through TicketSource £1.75 booking fee applies, + postage if required). In person: at The White Horse Bookshop: Mon-Sat 9am-5.30pm, Sun 11am-4pm (cash/cheque only).