I’m always happy to answer questions, but before you send me a question, it might be a good idea to check out some of the most frequently-asked questions of the past few years…
One of my most persistent and unwelcome FAQs in recent months has been this one:
How can I download your books for free?
The short answer is unprintable. Read the long one here.
I’m writing a dissertation on…. (insert book title here). Can you help me?
This is by far the most frequent question that people tend to ask me, and reflects the tendency of A-level and university teachers to assume that (a) authors know all there is to know about their own books and (b) that my opinion counts for much more than yours. Neither assumption is necessarily true. So, the best help I can give you is as follows. First of all, pretend I’m dead. Then read the book carefully. Draw your conclusions. Don’t be afraid to express your own opinions. Back them up with reasoned argument and reference to the text, along with any other references that strike you as appropriate, including from literature, folklore, legend, current affairs or anything else you may have read. Avoid the so-called model essays that are rife on the net. You can – and should – do much better than this. Good luck!
How do I book a talk or visit?
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.
Why do food and drink play such a major role in your books?
I think tastes and smells are particularly evocative to us because as newborns we first experience the world through those two senses. That means that our emotional response to a taste or a smell (think of Proust and his lime-blossom tisane) can act upon us at a very powerful, subconscious level. This is also true in literature, folk tale and mythology, where food and drink have played an important symbolic role for centuries. In more recent literature, such references provide a handy means of reflecting different cultures and distant places. It’s also a very useful indicator of personality. Eating habits provide us with an insight into a person’s background, character, family and upbringing, as well as their general attitude to life and to other people. Besides, readers understand food; in our increasingly diverse and multicultural society, eating remains one of the very few experiences we all have in common; a pleasure, a comfort and a means of expression.
Does it get harder to write when previous novels (such as Chocolat) have met with such 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.
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.
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.
Do you identify with your characters?
Yes, often; I don’t think it’s possible to avoid it really, although I don’t usually tend to identify with one specific character. Instead I try to understand all the characters I write; even when they are difficult, harsh people, it should be possible to identify why they behave as they do, and to feel some sympathy for their position.
You’re now a household name. How have you responded to this? How has life changed for you?
I don’t try to respond, because I’m not sure there is an appropriate response I could have. I just keep doing the things I’ve always done as best I can.
Do you have any advice for the next generation of writers?
Be yourself. Don’t be too proud to take advice – but don’t be afraid to ignore it, either. Most of all, enjoy what you do.
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.
Where do you find your inspiration and your ideas?
Everywhere; from items in the newspapers, from T.V., from watching people on trains, from talking to people on my travels. I find that I can’t generate ideas if I stay cooped up at home; I need regular changes of scene to maintain my creative output. I have to read a lot, too, to make sure my windows on the world stay open.
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.
How do you work? Do you have a special routine, or any rituals you need to complete before you begin?
I travel to promote the books all year round, so I rarely get the chance to develop a working routine. Instead I write when I can; usually when I am at home, although I have been known to write in hotel rooms, at airports and on trains. I use a laptop so that I can use any available time, and I carry notebooks around with me so that I can jot down thoughts and ideas. I tend to work better in the morning, and when I am at home I try to write then, although I can’t always be choosy, especially when faced with deadlines (which I hate). I prefer to be on my own, although when I have to (and when I’m in the Zone) I can write on a train, in my daughter’s playroom or in a classroom full of pupils. My optimal writing conditions are: an empty house; a tidy desk; an endless supply of tea and biscuits; fine weather (I don’t write as well in winter, when I get depressed, or at night); and no deadline. Needless to say these rarely, if ever, occur….
How long does it take to write a book? How many drafts do you need to write?
On average it takes me about a year, and between three and five drafts. It depends; some books take longer and are more difficult to write. I write irregularly, with quiet intervals in between frantic bursts of activity. I always get stuck about three-quarters of the way through a book, and panic that I’m not going to be able to finish, but usually within a week or two the problem has worked itself out.
Do you plan your books before you begin, or do you let the story evolve as it goes along?
I sometimes think I ought to plan more carefully, but most of the time I begin with a vague idea and work it out as I go. Sometimes I know the ending, but have no idea how to get there. I have to have the narrator’s voice before I start, otherwise I don’t do much advance planning – it’s more fun this way!
Do you base any of your characters on real-life people?
Sometimes; my daughter Anouchka has made a few appearences in my books, as have some members of my family – and even a few ex-colleagues! Most of the time, however, I don’t even try to show an accurate portrait; I use little details and mannerisms I might have noticed, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable describing real-life people in detail.
Do you have anything to do with deciding what goes on your book jackets?
Usually; Stuart Haygarth used to design my U.K. book jackets, and he consulted me and I would send him a photo of a member of my family to put on the back. This person was usually the person to whom the book was dedicated; my great-grandmother in Chocolat, my English grandfather in Blackberry Wine, my French grandfather in Five Quarters and my mother in Coastliners. Now the Art Department at my publishers usually design my book jackets but, again, they ask for my suggestions and send a draft for my approval. My foreign publishers don’t always use the same jacket as in the UK, however, and sometimes I don’t find out what is going to be on the front of the book until the publication date!
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.
Will there be any more books about Vianne Rocher and Anouk?
There have been two already and there is a very good chance that there will be another one..
How are your books received in France?
Pretty well now, although the French were reluctant to publish at all in the early days. I think originally there was some mistrust of me because I have an English name, and I was presuming to write about their country. My first offer, from a very large French company, was conditional on my writing under a French nom-de-plume; I refused, and eventually went with a much smaller publisher, Table Ronde, which deals in mostly academic texts. I’m happy to be in print at all over there; at least this means my non-English-speaking family can read my books now!
How do you research your books?
I don’t do very much research, and if can get away without doing any, I will. I use reference books and the internet when I need specific details on something, but most of the time I write about topics where I already have some knowledge, or where I have access to someone who can give me first-hand information.
What do you do to relax?
I don’t sleep well. I suspect I’m not terribly good at relaxing. I like to read; I watch videos (especially Westerns, low-budget sci-fi and Japanese action movies); I listen to music; I cook; I do the gardening; I like theatre and ballet, although I rarely want to go out in the evenings. Instead, I spend my free time watching films with my daughter, watching UK Gold and drinking too much red wine. I buy shoes compulsively and take ridiculously long baths. I enjoy being alone much of the time. I find noise stressful. I avoid phones. I sit at the bottom of my garden, listening to the sound of the trees.
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.
It isn’t a very girly list, is it?
I know. Sorry, girls.
What’s the song that Vianne sings in CHOCOLAT and THE LOLLIPOP SHOES?
It’s an old French folk song that dates back to the 16th century.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Drop the word “aspiring.” Write. Then, write some more.