Edinburgh International Book Festival: Joanne Harris
Another sell out event in the Baillie Gifford Theatre, this time welcoming the enormously popular Joanne Harris in conversation with Steven Gale. Harris is perhaps best known for penning Chocolat, which was later adapted into the successful Hollywood film of the same name, but she is also the author of an additional eighteen novels, a collection of short stories and two recipe books. Earlier this year her prolificacy was recognised in the Queen’s birthday honours list and she received an MBE for services to literature.
Her latest novel, Peaches for Monsieur le Cure, sees a return to the fictional French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, the setting of Chocolat and The Lollipop Shoes. Harris explains that, after making a decision not to write anymore novels set in Lansquenet, she began research for a book about Muslim women and the niqab face-veil. Living in an area of Yorkshire with a strongly developed Muslim community, she spoke to local women and discovered that the veil was about to be banned in France. It was then that she found her mind wandering back to the Gers region: what would happen if a group of veil-wearing Moroccan Muslims were to arrive in the predominantly right-wing rural area?
The subject matter is one that has potential to provoke strong reactions, and Harris explains that her publishers persuaded her to change the title from the original Peaches for Ramadan. Hot on the back of Salmon Rushdie’s event in the same venue last week, Harris jokes, "the last thing I want is a Fatwa!" Responses from the Muslim community have been predominantly positive, however.
For Harris, the biggest challenge in writing the book was in persuading herself the trilogy’s protagonist Vianne could return: "she’s not one to go back and usually neither am I." She also apologises to Johnny Depp fans for the absence of Roux, the character he played in Chocolat.
The motif of food and drink runs through her writing, apparent even from the titles: Five Quarters of the Orange, Blackberry Wine, The Lollipop Shoes. Harris remarks that food has the ability to link people from all cultures and countries: readers can instantly relate to eating as an act of celebration, love, or comfort. She is particularly interested in the political and psychological connotations that food holds, noting "a sandwich is never just a sandwich."
A member of the audience asks where the original idea for the character of Vianne came from, and Harris responds that the question is an almost existential one which authors dread. She says that "she just turned up in my head and wouldn’t leave" does not feel like an acceptable response, but that sometimes for an author the line between interest and obsession is a very fine one.