1. How and when did you start writing?
I’ve always written. As a child and an adolescent I began by copying the writers I most admired, then I began slowly to find my own style. It took a while, but eventually it began to emerge when I was in my twenties, although it wasn’t until several years later that I felt confident enough to take the plunge and try to make a living from writing books. Until Chocolat, the thought had never crossed my mind; I liked my teaching job; I enjoyed writing in my spare time, and until then the two things had been perfectly compatible. With the success of Chocolat, I found that the demands being made on me to promote the book in England and abroad were too much for me to handle whilst teaching full-time, and with some regret (and a lot of anxiety) I had to make a choice. I’m glad I made it; but it was a tough decision.
2. Does it get harder to write when previous novels have met with success?
Not really; I don’t measure success by what the critics say, or by the number of copies sold (though I have been fortunate in that area), or by how many film options have been taken up. First and foremost I write for my own satisfaction, and I think I’m grounded enough to have retained a fairly lively sense of self-criticism. My readers are very loyal, too; and I think they understand that I have to keep taking risks in order to grow – the safe option has never held much appeal to me.
3. What did you think of the film of Chocolat? Were you upset about the changes to your story?
I liked the film very much. It wasn’t exactly the same as my story – it was simplified and sweetened to make it more acceptable for a cinema audience – and I didn’t always agree with all the changes which were made, but I liked it anyway. I was delighted with all the cast – I’d always imagined Juliette Binoche in the lead role – and Lasse Hallström is a terrific director. The look of the film, too, was just right, with lovely sets and beautiful photography, and the music was perfect. I still think it was a mistake to change my priest to a mayor, though; I know the decision came from a concern that Catholics might be offended, but by the time the film came out the book had already gained so much popularity that many readers were puzzled and disappointed at such a radical change. Personally, I was less concerned. My intention was never to highlight Reynaud’s role as a priest, or to denigrate Catholicism, and I think most readers understood that. Reynaud is basically a man who uses his ideology to maintain control over other people, who misinterprets Catholicism in order to enforce an agenda of his own, and that comes over very well in the film. Plus, the creation of the role of Père Henri, the young priest (played by Hugh O’Conor) was a very good compromise, and opened up a lot of comic potential. I enjoyed the comedy in Chocolat – the book was never meant to be a hundred percent serious in the first place – although I’m aware that many of the subtleties and the darker moments in my story have been lost. This, I’m afraid, is the nature of film. I think you have to take films as they are and judge them accordingly, rather than expect them to present a completely accurate and in-depth interpretation of the book from which they are taken. As such, I think Chocolat stands up very well indeed, and I’m delighted to have been a part of it.
4. How do you develop your ideas for new books?
My stories are most often character-based, so I usually begin with a character or two. I don’t approach my novels with any specific point or issue in mind; I don’t believe in preaching, and I prefer the reader to draw his or her own conclusions rather than impose my own ideas. With a new book, I don’t usually begin writing straightaway; instead I play with the idea for a few months (or longer) until the time seems right to begin. I often work on several things at a time, depending on my moods; it isn’t unusual for me to work for six months on one book, then start something else for another four, before finishing my original story. I have been known to leave a book unfinished for years at a time before returning to it, although most things do get finished in the end.
5. How much of your stories do you base on real life characters and situations?
Most of my stories have some kind of base in fact, although as a writer of fiction I’m allowed to take liberties (and I do). Occasionally, as in Holy Fools, I will use a real incident or historical figure as the starting-point of a story, but most of the time my plotlines are entirely my own invention. Sometimes when I am creating a character I adopt certain features of the people around me (family, friends, colleagues), although I never try to re-create a real-life person on the page. Instead I try for emotional realism; the details may be invented, but if the feelings are true (be they rage, love, or the desire for revenge), then the characters will come to life and the plot, however unlikely, will seem more convincing to the reader.
6. Among the books you have written, which is your favourite?
I think it’s Five Quarters of the Orange, mostly because of Framboise, the main character. She was such fun to write, and I enjoyed her voice so much; that stroppy we’ll-do-it-my-way-or-not-at-all manner of hers. I liked writing as an old person, too, because there are so few of them in fiction, and because they so infrequently have interesting roles to play. I wanted to challenge that general feeling that old people don’t feel passions, that old people can’t fall in love, that old people are patient, wise and resigned to their eventual fate. Framboise is anything but those things: she isn’t always easy, but she’s very tough and although she has experienced some terrible things, she has never lost her sense of herself. I got the chance to write about her as a child, too; but she is an odd, savage, self-contained child, very different to most depictions of children in literature. I like drawing imperfect characters because I find them more interesting; Framboise has many faults, and she is conscious of them, but I like her anyway, and I’m glad I could think of a happy ending for her that I could believe in.
7. What is your all-time favourite novel?
The Gormenghast trilogy, by Mervyn Peake. To me these books define what literature was meant to be: totally original; uncompromisingly personal; rich, dark and with the ability to grow with the reader so that every time I re-read them, they reveal a little more.
8. Which writers do you admire, and which ones have influenced you?
All kinds of people in all kinds of ways. Among others; Ray Bradbury, Mervyn Peake, Vladimir Nabokov, Jules Verne, Christopher Fowler, Angela Carter, Rosemary Sutcliff, Charles de Lint, Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, Thomas Lovecraft, Roger Zelazny, Oscar Wilde, H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur Rimbaud, Louis Pergaud, Jules Renard, Jacques Prévert, Ogden Nash, Jerome Bixby, Walter Tevis, H. G. Wells, Guy de Maupassant, Gustave Flaubert, J. R. R. Tolkien, Wilkie Collins, Cormac McCarthy, William Golding, Anthony Burgess, Aldous Huxley.
9. Having previously been a teacher, would you use your current position to voice your opinion of changes in education?
I have already written about teaching several times, both in short stories and in my novel GENTLEMEN AND PLAYERS, which is set in a boys’ grammar school. I don’t exactly miss teaching, but I do think of it fondly, and a lot of my memories are tied up in that book.
Yes, I’d go on Question Time (and have done so already), but I’ve never felt that it was my responsibility to bring politics or social issues into my books. My opinions on many educational issues are already there (Roy Straitley and I think alike in many ways), but that’s not really the way my mind operates when I’m writing a story. I’ve been pretty outspoken already on what I think of the educational system and how it has slipped, but I don’t feel the need to use my books as a platform for my personal views.
10. Are you happy to share your story?
I was born in Barnsley in 1964, of a French mother and an English father. I studied Modern and Mediaeval Languages at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge and was a teacher for fifteen years, during which time I published three novels; The Evil Seed (1989), Sleep, Pale Sister (1993) and Chocolat (1999), which was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp.
Since then, I have written eight more novels; Blackberry Wine, Five Quarters of the Orange, Coastliners, Holy Fools, Gentlemen and Players, The Lollipop Shoes and Runemarks, and most recently blueeyedboy which was published in March 2010, plus; Jigs & Reels, a collection of short stories and, with cookery writer Fran Warde, two cookbooks; The French Kitchen and The French Market. My books are now published in over 40 countries and have won a number of British and international awards. In 2004, I was one of the judges of the Whitbread prize (categories; first novel and overall winner); and in 2005 I was a judge of the Orange prize.
My hobbies are listed in Who’s Who as: “mooching, lounging, strutting, strumming, priest-baiting and quiet subversion of the system”, although I also enjoy obfuscation, sleaze, rebellion, witchcraft, armed robbery, tea and biscuits. I am not above bribery and would not necessarily refuse an offer involving exotic travel, champagne or yellow diamonds from Graff. I play bass guitar in a band first formed when I was 16, am currently studying Old Norse and live with my husband Kevin and our daughter Anouchka, about 15 miles from the place where I was born.