‘Chocolat’ author signs books at Author’s Symposium

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Deirdre Parker Smith
Salisbury Post
Even though her mother told her “writing is not a proper job” repeatedly, Joanne Harris ignored her.
The author of “Chocolat” and many other books spoke Thursday at Catawba College’s 22nd annual Brady Author’s Symposium.
Her new book, called “The Girl With No Shadow” in America and “The Lollipop Shoes” everywhere else, picks up a few years after “Chocolat.”
Familiar characters are back as are a few familiar themes ó magic and chocolate ó but Harris takes them all into new territory.
Holding the group spellbound as she read from the book, she introduced them to the new character, Zozie, and her insidious ways.
Known for using multiple first-person narrators, Harris uses three voices in”The Girl with no Shadow,” all distinct, yet similar ó to show the connection between the three.
Harris, looking tomboyish in black jeans and comfy sneakers, talked about her books and her stories.
Her French mother spoke no English when she came to Britain, and even after she married a British man and had a child, she insisted they speak French at home.
“I was born in Yorkshire, England, which is sort of between ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘The Full Monty.’ … I had a slightly schizophrenic life. … In France I was ‘the little British girl’ and in Yorkshire, they thought I was a complete freak.”
“My mother was a very practical, prosaic French lady who wanted me to have a job and not starve in a gutter.”
She also forbade her from reading horror or science fiction. Harris’ first published book was “The Evil Seed,” a vampire novel, “which I wrote to annoy my mother.” It didn’t sell. And her second book, “Sleep, Pale Sister,” wasn’t a big hit, either.
Those early efforts “taught me my craft, gave me my own voice.”
Her agent wondered why her books weren’t selling in America, so he asked an American editor to read her work.
“I got a long response … and it was partly because of him that I wrote the next book, to annoy him.”
He told her she was “writing totally about the wrong thing.” It was too parochial. “Who lives in France?” he asked. “What’s with the old people? Old people don’t buy books.” There’s not enough sex or explosions. “What’s with all the food?”
Right, she responded, in a typically British fashion.
She wrote “Chocolat” with food references, old people, a small village in France.
A couple of years later that agent asked to represent her. “He had no idea who I was. I said no.
“My mother still doesn’t think it’s a proper job, but I’m published in 48 countries, I’ve met the queen, the prime minister, Johnny Depp and I have two doctoral degrees I never did any of the work for.”
People kept asking her what happened next in “Chocolat” and “I said, ‘Why ask me?’ ”
Some people only have one adventure, she said. Cinderella had the “thing with the shoes, married the prince. … And you know nothing interesting happened after the wedding bells.”
Now Robin Hood, he had plenty more stories. “Vianne (of ‘Chocolat’) is sort of like him. She would have more adventures.”
When she felt comfortable enough to write those, she knew Anouk would be more important to the story. Her own daughter, Anouchka, was a young teen and had “developed an intricate secret life that was too good to be true.”
If Harris’s stories are like Westerns, with “Chocolat” like a “Fistful of Dollars” ó a stranger comes to town and things change ó then “The Girl with No Shadow” is “High Noon” with witches.
Vianne finds herself where she never thought she would be, settling down in Paris, not making chocolate, seeking a normal life for Anouk, and with a new daughter, Rosette, who has a number of problems.
She’s like the old gun slinger who gives it up and starts farming. “Some people were not made to be regular people,” Harris said.
Then Zozie comes in ó a seductive adventuress who doesn’t care what people think. Young Anouk is drawn to this. Zozie becomes “everyone’s favorite evil auntie.
“I have a close relationship with some of my villains. I enjoy that. I like exploring them.”
Just don’t think you know what Harris will do next. Her fantasy book, “Runemarks” is also new to the U.S., and she’s not sure she’s finished with Zozie yet.
But she’s always looking for new adventures.
Contact Deirdre Parker Smith at 74-797-4252 or dp1@salisburypost.com.