Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 29 November 2014

when two worlds collide

Joanne Harris tackles a clash of culture and religion in her latest novel. But, as she tells Hannah Stephenson, she's not holding her breath for another movie starring Johnny Depp

Former teacher and now best-selling author Joanne Harris is busy preparing for a major book tour of the UK followed by promotions in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the US.

"It's nice to be in demand," she reflected. "I find that the attitude of people in different countries to literature varies enormously.

"If I'm in Scandinavia, they tend to ask me very intellectual questions about the themes and metaphors and the process of writing, whereas if I go to Italy, they tend to ask me more lifestyle questions and about cooking and relationships.

"And if I go to the States, they want to know about movies and if I got to meet Johnny Depp."

Fans of her best-selling novel Chocolat, which was made into a hit movie starring Depp and Juliette Binoche in 2000, are now clamouring for a copy of Peaches For Monsieur Le Cure, the third in the series featuring the same characters, following on from The Lollipop Shoes.

It is set eight years on, when the deliciously sinful chocolate shop in the rural French village of Lansquenet is now a ruined building owned by a mysterious newcomer, Ines Bencharki, whose face is hidden by a niqab (a veil worn by Muslim women).

The village priest, Father Reynaud, has become the outcast amid a community of Moroccans on one side of the river and locals on the other, and finds an unlikely ally in the form of Vianne Rocher, his former enemy who once owned the chocolate shop and has now returned.

Set during Ramadan, author Harris has taken the bold step of focusing her story on how the two different cultures and religions clash, moving boldly into territory which more cautious writers might avoid.

"I wrote it during the year when a lot of European countries were talking about banning the veil, in that period of political debate and protest and upheaval. About two months after Ramadan they did ban the veil in France, so the story was shaped to some extent by current events."

She stresses that the book is not meant to be political and there are no villains of the piece. But the novel displays how communities can become segregated through their own cultures and prejudices.

"Human nature is such that people tend to justify all sorts of things by putting forward arguments, be they religious or political or otherwise, to justify their bad behaviour or to create a 'them and us' situation," Harris said.

"Historically, religion has been used to make it OK to be mean to another group of people."

Harris doesn't anticipate any flak from the Islamic community, as she says she's treated all her characters equally and hasn't made any judgments about what it's like to be Muslim or Christian.

"It's about interacting within a certain kind of community and the things we do to alienate each other or bring each other together," she explained.

While she's reluctant to go into the politics of it, Harris, who is half French, says that the French dealt with the issue of banning the Islamic full veil in public poorly.

"They took something that had a certain amount of rational justification and made it into a situation which was bound to go bad - and it has done. On the other hand, I don't like the veil," she said. "It has been put forward as something that is necessary and Islamic when actually it's not really."

Living in Huddersfield helped her research into different cultures, said the 48-year-old.

"I'm surrounded by ethnic groups; I know plenty of Muslim people and some are very devout and some less so. It's quite easy to imagine the situation condensed into a little French village."

Harris herself felt like an outsider during her formative years. Born in Yorkshire, the daughter of teachers, her father met her French mother on an exchange in Brittany and brought her back to live above his parents' sweetshop. The family spoke French at home and she always felt a bit different.

"Being brought up in the north of England, we were very foreign. There were few foreigners in Barnsley, where we lived, and we were considered very strange."

Harris went on to Cambridge where she read modern and medieval languages and had a brief career in accountancy before becoming a French teacher at Leeds Boys' Grammar School. She met her husband Kevin at sixth form college and he now does her accountancy and paperwork.

They have an 18-year-old daughter, Anouchka, who is now on a gap year before going to university in London.

She has no idea - nor does she seem to care - if a Chocolat movie sequel could be on the cards. Several of her other books, including Blackberry Wine and Coastliners, have been optioned for movies, but she's not holding her breath.

"I don't make movies. Options keep being taken up and they are put down again. I will probably start to take notice if something actually happens but most of the time nothing happens, and to me it's all just paperwork," Harris added.

Harris's new short story collection will be coming out in the autumn. Time will tell if she reintroduces the Chocolat characters in another volume.

"I've revisited these people three times and it's a good bet that I will again at some point. But when it will happen I don't know."

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