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Chocolat Author Joanne Harris On Yorkshire, Hollywood And OBEs


Barnsley-based author Joanne Harris talks to Bethan Andrews about over two decades of writing, seeing Chocolat made into a movie and what’s next

You’ve had quite the illustrious career as a writer. Tell us, how did it all start?

I started off as a teacher in Barnsley and then in Dewsbury in Leeds. I was a teacher for 12 years, and during that time I wrote and published three books. After my third one, which was Chocolat and was very unexpectedly successful, I quit teaching to write full-time. That was 23 years ago and since then I’ve written 20-odd novels and a number of other things such as non-fiction, screenplays and a musical. I’ve also judged a number of literary prizes and I’ve just been made a fellow of the RSL – and of course, there’s been a movie made of one of my books. It’s been a very interesting time!

Has anything surprised you on your journey to where you are today?

All of it! I was told that writing wasn’t a viable career and that, even if it were, I wasn’t writing the right sort of thing. Very few people live on writing these days. I’m chair of the Society of Authors and the last time we did a deep-dive on this we found that the average full-time professional author earns less than the minimum wage, which is depressing for everybody. I’ve been lucky with that, so I’ve been very surprised by all of that.

With Chocolat, did you envisage the success with the movie and global reader reception?

I was told it wouldn’t sell because it wasn’t the kind of thing people wanted to publish at the time! It was difficult for me to get a publisher for it so when it was an unexpected success, everyone was surprised. It kind of came out of nowhere as far as I was concerned. I was writing exactly the opposite of what I was told was commercial.

What surprised you about having your book made into a film?

Everything! The fact that it was being made at all was surprising. It happened very fast after the success of the book, whereas it normally takes a lot longer. I had a courtesy involvement where I was consulted on a few minor things. It was nice to be on set and be included a number of times, but I didn’t have much of a role. Most authors don’t necessarily enjoy the process as it really depends on the personalities involved but, luckily, it was a lovely cast, the director was great and it was fun for me.

A Narrow Door
A Narrow Door is her latest release

What are you working on at the moment?

A My book A Narrow Door has just come out in paperback so I’m in the middle of touring for that, and I’ve got another book called Broken Light coming out next year. I’ve got a number of other projects going on too, so there’s another book I’m working on that will come out the year after next. I’ve got some musical projects that have started back up again after lockdown, too. We have a theatre storytelling show, which is original music and stories from my books, so we’ve got a few gigs lined up for this summer – it’s quite a busy time!

Speaking of a busy and exciting time, you were recently awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Jubilee Honours. How did that feel?

I don’t expect any of these things! It’s very nice to be honoured, but it’s not just something that happens to me, it’s something that lifts the whole industry. Authors don’t get honoured as much as sporting people, for example, so when it does, it bumps the whole industry and it’s nice to see that kind of belief in the arts being honoured publicly.

You’ve lived in Yorkshire all your life. What do you love about the county?

It’s hard to say, really! I think what I love most is the countryside and the fact that we have this astonishing natural resource that I think people outside the county don’t really think about too much. We live in this inspirational landscape that inspired the Brontës and other authors and we tend to be thought of as the industrial north by everybody else, which is wrong. My favourite memories as a child were traipsing around the landscape on my own, which was something that I was allowed to do and that I took advantage of.

Where are your favourite places in Yorkshire and what calls you home when you’ve been travelling for work?

I like to go to Haworth and I like to walk around there. I like to go walking on the moors, although it’s not particularly specific to one area. But where I live now, I can drive for ten minutes down the road and be in the middle of nowhere. I can walk there and I won’t meet anybody and that’s one of the things that I really like about still living here. I like to enjoy where I am in the Yorkshire countryside, and I live in a little wood, so it’s quite nice to enjoy being at home given that I’m not at home for a lot of my time. It’s nice to be out of an urban environment and it centres me, regroups me and I like to work best in peaceful surroundings.

Haworth is a popular spot

What do you think people don’t realise about Yorkshire, and what do you love to share with people?

Oh, I think there’s a lot of things! People don’t realise how big it is or how enormously varied it is, how massive and varied the landscape is and how accessible that is to people. I also think people don’t realise how much of the arts is going in Yorkshire and how many theatres there are. Even things like the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which is just next door to me and is so beautiful and I love going there, it’s wonderful to have places like this, but I don’t think Yorkshire is a county that bangs its own drum enough. I think people are surprised when they come and see the wealth of amazing stuff there is here – museums, galleries, theatres. Restaurants have boomed, there’s such a richness of things to do!

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Picture of Mark Kebble

Mark Kebble

Mark's career in journalism started in 2001 when he landed a role on a small lifestyle magazine in Angel, North London. Soon enough, the magazine was purchased by a larger organisation and Mark found himself promoted to editor at the tender age of 23. He later became group editor, working on magazines for Angel, Crouch End, Muswell Hill and Highgate. He was also involved in a launch in Hadley Wood and a major new group website, later becoming Group Hub Editor. In 2021, Mark joined Zest Media Group and oversaw the launch of many Absolutely titles across the UK. To date, Mark has launched in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Sussex, Essex, Yorkshire and Cheshire. When he does have some free time, Mark is also the Chairman of an amateur football club in Surrey and is also a fully qualified FA football coach.
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