Author Joanne Harris is best known for her novel Chocolat, which was made into an Oscar-nominated film. Here she tells FrenchEntrée about the effect that France has on her writing.
What’s your earliest memory of France?
I first went to France when I was two weeks old. My grandparents had a holiday house on the island of Noirmoutier (pictured above), where I spent all my summer holidays, but lived in my great-grandmother’s house in Vitré, where we went at Christmas and Easter.
My earliest memories are of that house: its parquet floors, on which we had to wear special over-slippers (patins) to avoid scratching the polished wood; the wood-oven (Mémée disapproved of electric appliances); the little blue bed in which I slept, painted with pictures of sailing-boats; the huge and shadowy attic, which was both terrifying and filled with treasures; old books; photographs in gilt frames; chests filled with old-fashioned clothes.
I remember my first Easter parade, sitting in the bedroom window, watching the carnival go by in the street below, with its chars and majorettes and fifes, and people throwing confetti and sweets and long paper streamers, which I later collected in the street, when it was over. It’s a memory that has never left me.
Your mother is French, and you were brought up bilingual. What affect did this have on your novels?
French was my first language, but English is the language in which I write. I think this has made me particularly sensitive to certain sounds and cadences, as well as making me more than usually careful about grammar and spelling.
Being from more than one culture tends to give a different view of the communities to which we belong. I write as an outsider, even to the community I inhabit. And of course, two cultures means a richer heritage of stories, literature and folklore.
How is your French now?
I always speak French to my parents, who live in the same village, and I often speak French to my brother, and sometimes to my daughter, too. I don’t find my language gets rusty, but it is a very pure kind of literary French that may sound a little odd to people used to current slang and modern lapses in grammar. That’s because I don’t tend to know a lot of modern colloquialisms, which gives my French a different tone.
We recently reviewed your Little Book of Chocolat (Doubleday), co-written by Fran Warde. What’s your favourite recipe from the book?
Anything containing salted caramel. It’s my favourite combination with chocolate.
Do you think that we experience cultures through their food, and what do you love the most about French cuisine?
I think food is an easy way to sample a foreign culture, although it can only take you so far. But to understand the rituals of food, the times of celebration, the staple foods of a foreign diet that reveal so much about the history and the agricultural tradition of a country – all these things are valuable.
French food is still closely linked to geography – driving through France is often like motoring across a menu with a very varied wine list. French cuisine is still closely linked to the idea of patrimoine, the traditions of the countryside, small farms and vineyards, and to the stories and folklore of France. This is what I like most about French cooking – the idea that recipes are a kind of folklore, handed down through the generations, to be treasured and celebrated.
● To find out more about Joanne’s novels, visit her website. Book review: ‘The Little Book of Chocolat’, by Joanne Harris