'I was told there was no market for foody books set in rural France': Joanne Harris on writing Chocolat

Joanne Harris

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the publication of Chocolat. It seems an impossible distance away, and yet it also seems as if I could get back there in the blink of an eye.

When I began the book, I lived with my husband and our three-year-old daughter in a small semi-detached house in Barnsley. I had a full-time job as a French teacher in a boys’ grammar school in Leeds. I gave private lessons and marked A-level literature papers to make a little extra money, and although I’d had two books published by then, I had little expectation of seeing my work in print again. I’d been told that my style was neither commercial nor fashionable enough to succeed, and that there was no market for books set in rural France, filled with self-indulgent descriptions of food.

‘My writing was an indulgence – my way of unwinding after a busy week’ ... Joanne Harris. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

But publication had never been my primary reason for writing. If it had, I might have given up. I certainly wasn’t thinking about fame, fortune or even escaping teaching: I enjoyed my job, and I was good at it, although I realised later that I’d been running on nervous energy for years, unaware of how tired I was.

People still ask me how I coped: how I juggled motherhood, teaching full time, marking exams and household tasks while writing a bestseller. Of course, I had no idea that this was what I was doing. As far as I was concerned, my writing was an indulgence. I wrote on Sunday mornings, on the living room floor with my laptop, while my husband was at work and my mother looked after our daughter.

During the week, the 40-minute drive to and from work gave me the chance to think out my story, and on those Sunday mornings, I wrote 20, 30 pages at a time, at a ravenous, unblinking pace. I didn’t think of it as work. It was my way of unwinding after a busy week.

I first planned out the story during the Easter holidays, while I was accompanying a school trip to France. Easter for me has many memories and associations, all of them French; elaborate carnivals, egg hunts in my great-grandmother’s garden, the exquisite displays in the windows of the confiseries and chocolateries. And the church, always the church: straddling feasting and fasting, paganism and piety with its usual panache. It was inevitable, then, that the book would focus partly on that conflict between indulgence and guilt, motherhood and patriarchy, with chocolate as the central metaphor.

It was rather a different story from the ones I had written previously. I’d never written about motherhood before, or about my own family. It felt as if I were finding my voice for the first time as an author, and it was exciting and new. My husband, Kevin, followed the tale page by page as I wrote it. I finished the first draft in less than four months, with hardly any revisions.

This seems almost impossible now. And at the time I had no idea whether anyone would like or understand it; it was simply enough to be writing it, to be immersed in the process. For those four months, wherever I was, there was always a part of my mind that was working on that story, sketching out the characters, building and shaping my fictional world.

Last year I recorded the audiobook of Chocolat. It meant I had to revisit the book for the first time in 20 years. And it felt like coming home again after a long time away; a reminder of what things are possible, with sweetness, and a little time.