PW: Why does Holy Fools' Juliette seem like an ancestor of Chocolat's Vianne?
Joanne Harris: I was writing Holy Fools at about the same time as beginning Chocolat and this is why a number of things overlap. I tend to think of it as a sort of prequel. My initial inspiration was a series of historical texts from the early 17th century, outlining the formation of an ecclesiastical order of great stringency—at the instigation of an abbess of only 11 years old!
PW: Was this your most challenging book to write?
JH: Not the most challenging, but possibly the most enjoyable, which is why it took me such a long time to get round to finishing it (six years or thereabouts).
PW: What was the most enjoyable aspect?
JH: Writing in the voice of LeMerle—which is to some extent my own voice—[laughs]—and passing it off as fiction! I enjoyed expressing feelings that were so outrageously... immoral.
PW: Why is LeMerle named "The Blackbird"?
JH: In many areas of folklore, the blackbird is a trickster (like the crow and the raven in Navajo mythology), with a certain dual nature and a mocking attitude to life. I may also have had Ted Hughes's Crow in mind. But LeMerle is also a partial anagram of Molière, who burst onto the French theatrical scene only a few years after my story ends, and who shares some of my Blackbird's subversive views.
PW: What fuels the passion Juliette has for LeMerle?
JH: What drives anyone to fall in love with anybody who is going to be so obviously bad for them? Still, it happens all the time (and we like it, really).
PW: Acting as "priest/confessor," LeMerle tricks some nuns into believing they've been possessed by Satan. Why are these nuns so susceptible?
JH: Boredom makes one susceptible, as does the desire to please. Imagine a modern situation in the context of the arrival of a new boss. The staff becomes factionalized—some trying to please the boss by scoring off their friends. Nothing has changed much. People still want the approval of their superiors. And, of course, they [the nuns] are believers. The devil plays a real part in their lives. It's a relief to them to see him take tangible shape.
PW: Will you return to these characters or period?
JH: I might. I'm fond of it because I studied it as part of my year-three thesis at Cambridge, and because it was the century in which the great French playwrights emerged. A dangerous, flamboyant era, full of cataclysmic changes and great discoveries.
PW: You're half-French and half-British. Why do you prefer French backgrounds?
JH: I choose French locations because I enjoy writing about places that I know well, but I don't really see it as being specifically about France. In most cases, I think the story could happen pretty much anywhere.
PW: How is your work received in France?
JH: It does well, although it took a while for the French to get used to the idea of someone with an English name taking such an interest in their country.
PW: You said, after Chocolat, you would never write about the Catholic Church again, but you did. Have you learned to never say "never" again?
JH: No, and I never will! [Laughs]
PW: What draws you to the conflict between sinner and saint?
JH: I am drawn by all conflict. I think conflict is the essential heart of any story.
PW: If conflict is a story's heart, what is its soul?
JH: The belief that monsters can be overcome.