Author Q&A: Joanne Harris

The Strawberry Thief (Orion, £20) 

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Vianne Rocher has settled down. Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, the place that once rejected her, has finally become her home. With Rosette, her “special” child, she runs her chocolate shop in the square and is part of the community. But when old Narcisse, the florist, dies, leaving a parcel of land to Rosette and a written confession to Reynaud, the life of the sleepy village is once more thrown into disarray.

The Strawberry Thief is the fourth book in your Chocolat series set in the fictional French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes. Would Vianne Rocher’s 20-year tale have worked as well in, say, West Yorkshire?
It might have done – small communities are often very similar wherever you find them – but I wanted to portray a traditional Catholic community, and the France of my French family and of my childhood holidays.

How has our perception of witches and witchcraft changed since you wrote Chocolat and do you think this changes the way we read about Vianne and her family today? 
Not significantly, no. There’s still a lot of ignorance, hatred and prejudice around people who are other – whether that’s because they believe in magic or whether they’re from another religious or ethnic group.

From The Girl With The Pearl Earring to I, Mona Lisa and The Goldfinch, works of art seem to provide a good starting point for modern authors. Why do you think this is and how did William Morris’s Strawberry Thief come to be the central image in your book?
It’s a book about patterns and markings, and the way we mirror each other by our actions and behaviours, as well as the way in which life marks us, and how different attitudes and experiences imprint their patterns onto us. The Morris pattern was a useful starting point to illustrate those ideas.

The series has explored divisions in communities and in this book Vianne, who was the unwelcome newcomer in the first book, is unwelcoming to a new tattooist in the square. Is this a warning against the conservatism that often comes with age and security?
It can be: or you could see it as an exploration of fear that comes with social insecurity.

While the book reveals a less favourable side of Vianne, it’s a redemption tale for Reynaud, her adversary in the first book. Tell us about the evolution of his character. 
Initially Reynaud comes across as a stiff, intolerant bigot. He’s a product of his strict religious upbringing, though, and gradually, through the course of the books, he learns some important life lessons. By the end of The Strawberry Thief he has managed to come to terms with his past, his guilt and his feelings, and I think he’s a lot more vulnerable – and likeable – for it.

You’re an outspoken campaigner for authors’ rights. What is the most pressing issue for writers today?
Professional writers earn significantly less than they did 10 years ago – on average, less than the minimum wage. That’s all the more concerning in that publishing is booming. But issues like piracy, heavy discounting and publishers throwing huge sums at celebrity book deals rather than nurturing new and diverse voices – all these are contributing to the impoverishment of writers, the decline in reading choices for readers and the lack of diversity in new writers. Publishers need to understand that the authors who keep their industry afloat need to make a living too, and that readers want a wide variety of voices and topics, not just a handful of bestsellers.

Food’s a key theme for you. What’s your favourite snack while writing?  
I don’t snack while I’m working, but I do drink a lot of tea.

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