After reading some of her terse tweets directed at lazy journalists who ask too many obvious questions, I feel slightly nervous before meeting Joanne Harris. But fortunately the English author proves to be warm and engaging company, although I'm careful not to inaccurately describe her latest book, Peaches For Monsieur Le Cure, as the final instalment in a trilogy that supposedly started with her 1999 best-selling third novel, Chocolat.
"I found a story and just followed where it led," says Harris of the new novel. "I hadn't necessarily planned to do it. I've said before that I thought that there might be another story to tell about Vianne and Anouk but I wasn't sure where or when it would happen."
Turned into a Hollywood blockbuster starring Juliette Binoche as enigmatic chocolatier Vianne Rocher and Johnny Depp as her gypsy paramour Roux, Chocolat spawned an unexpected sequel with 2007's The Lollipop Shoes, which saw Vianne and her daughters Anouk and Rosette relocating to the historic Parisian district of Montmartre. Lured back by a mysterious letter, the trio has now returned to Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, the small fictional village in southwest France where Vianne first opened a chocolaterie nearly a decade ago.
"I didn't want to go back there without a good reason because I didn't want to go backwards in terms of what I was exploring," explains Harris. "I wanted to continue Vianne's trajectory and I thought that she was probably going to continue her travels elsewhere. When I last left her in Paris, she thought that she would never go back to the provinces but then I began to think about Lansquenet as a character, which it is, because places often become characters in their own right. So if Vianne, her children, and all the other characters all have trajectories, then perhaps Lansquenet should have one too."
But much has changed in the isolated rural community over the intervening years as its inhabitants' traditional ways are threatened by a sizeable influx of Muslim immigrants from former French colonies like Morocco and Algeria.
"At the time, when I was trying to think of another story to write, there was a lot of stuff in the news about the veil, as France was about to ban it and Belgium had already banned it," recalls Harris.
"It just struck me that it would be an interesting story after having written a series of books about the idea of identity and how we present ourselves to the world affects how the world sees us. And when I think about France, I inevitably think about the other books that I've written about it."
Crucially, the novel is set in August 2010, immediately before the French government controversially outlawed the wearing of the Islamic niqab, not just in schools, but also in all public places. Originally titled Peaches At Ramadan before her publishers requested a change, it takes place during the Muslim holy month.
"I've written about fasting and feasting before from a Catholic perspective," says Harris, referring to Chocolat, which occurs during Lent. "I thought it would be interesting if I looked at it again but from a completely different side, to try to see what would happen if not just people but also places had changed since then. Circumstances and politics have both had a role in bringing this village to a kind of pivotal point."
With tensions running high after an Asian gang was recently convicted for being part of a sexual exploitation ring that preyed upon teenage white girls in the Yorkshire town of Rochdale, Peaches For Monsieur Le Cure touched a nerve in Britain. But while Harris insists the novel's themes are "relevant wherever the veil exists", some critics have accused her of sitting on the fence by not explicitly stating whether she believes Islam to be a force for good or evil.
"If I wanted to do that, I would have done so. But the answer is not as easy as that," she says. "The reasons for wearing the veil are very varied, while the reasons for banning it seem both illogical and unclear. Personally, I don't like to see any woman wearing the veil but it hasn't been handled in a sensitive or sensible way in France. It raises a lot of questions about culture, alienation and revolt and it has become incredibly politicised, as opposed to being uniquely a religious symbol, because its religious significance is disputed. It's completely possible to be a devout Muslim woman without wearing it. Obviously, the choice to wear it is more complicated than 'I am devout' or 'I'm not devout' but the many reasons why women wear it have changed over the last few years, in some cases in response to the hostility towards it."
Being physically divided by the river Tannes that flows through its centre, Lansquenet's Christians and Muslims actually have much in common, Harris points out. "In both camps, you've got a strong religious leader and an upcoming religious leader; you've got families with strong female matriarchs and families with problems; and you've got gossips and people who fit in and people who don't fit in," she says. "These things mirror each other on both sides and basically what you have is two very similar communities that perceive each other as being very different when really they're not."
Harris has long been fascinated by the nature of religious belief. "It's interesting what people believe in because it's such an integral part of some people's make-up," she says. "That's particularly true in a community that defines itself as Muslim as opposed to French, Moroccan or North African, and where faith plays such an important part in day-to-day matters because even in the villages in France, Catholicism has been diluted. It doesn't have such a strong identity anymore."
As the book's title suggests, Catholic priest Father Reynaud features prominently. But after opposing Vianne's decadent plans in Chocolat, he is now a more sympathetic protagonist, as not just the Muslim interlopers but reformist factions within his own church threaten his position.
"To me, it's never really been about heroes and villains," says Harris. "I don't like those kinds of generalisations because they're a bit too black and white. What I'm interested in is people and their stories and interactions with each other. He was never intended to be the bad guy in Chocolat and he's even less like that in this book, because he's changed to a certain extent. He's become much more human and a lot more vulnerable to outside events. He's learnt to look at himself from a critical perspective."
After emphasising Vianne's uncanny abilities in The Lollipop Shoes where she is seduced by the bewitching Zozie de l'Alba, Harris downplays the otherworldly elements this time around. "It's much gentler in this book because it's less about the magic, which was always just one step along in this investigation I've been doing about the nature of perception," she says. "The Lollipop Shoes was very much about magical perception and magical deception. This is more about faith and the deeper meaning of simple ideas like home, isolation and acceptance. To me, there is no real distinction between religion, superstition, legend and myth. They're all aspects of belief, as a legend is something that was once a religion. Even a superstitious belief is not that far away from a religious ritual. We're still very ritualistic in the way that we approach religion and even the less superstitious of us sometimes hesitates before walking under a ladder."
As someone who leads an itinerant lifestyle, Vianne has no understanding of the concept of home. "She's never really had one, so in that respect she's a little bit like me," says Harris, who was born in Barnsley to a French mother and an English father. "She's always felt like she has never quite belonged anywhere she has been, so she has never been able to motivate herself to stay anywhere for very long. Some of that is partly to do with her fear of rejection or loss. But the idea that Lansquenet is actually her true home is something that was always in her mind, even in Chocolat."
Consequently, Vianne is shocked to discover upon arriving in her erstwhile hometown that her former chocolate shop has not only been converted into a Muslim school but has also been severely damaged in a suspicious fire.
"It's changed identity, which partly motivates her to investigate the cause of the blaze," says Harris. "She also investigates this other community and gets involved, which is not something she intends to do at first. She doesn't really know why she's there, she's been drawn to come back."
As Harris notes in the book, food often acts as a passport between different societies that don't speak the same tongue. "It's like the first elementary contact," she says. "It doesn't necessarily offer a vast amount of understanding but it's the first contact with a culture because it's something that everybody can understand. It's not like a language that you have to learn or a culture that you have to buy into. It's a simple way of offering or accepting hospitality. It's the first few stumbling phrases in something that will later become a dialogue."
Since the runaway success of Chocolat in 1999, Harris has made food and inhabitants of small towns the stars of her books. Her sales have been formidable - more than four million books in Britain alone. They have been translated into more than 30 languages and are hugely popular in Italy, Spain and Croatia.
A former schoolteacher, she began writing Chocolat on Saturday mornings while her daughter, Anouchka, was watching kids' television. It was her sixth attempt - her first two novels were published but failed to sell, while her next three were rejected by publishers. She started out trying to write a "literate horror novel" about a crowd of vampires living in Cambridge but quickly realised she was on the wrong track.
Instead, it became a quirky, sensuous book set in the French countryside, in which food dominates events. After producing two unexpected follow-ups to Chocolat, Harris admits that this might not be the last that we see of central character Vianne and her family.
"Perhaps I'll do something else at some stage but it won't be immediately. But having said that I wouldn't do it twice and having gone and done it twice, I can't say for sure that I wouldn't do it again, so it might happen. It depends on the story.
"Right now I'm not sure what happens next to Vianne, in the same way that I wasn't sure what happened to her at the end of the last two books.
"I don't know if she stays in Lansquenet or if she goes somewhere else. So there might be another story about her, but there might also be a story about Anouk or Rosette, who are young and have a whole bunch of stories ahead of them, so who knows?"
Peaches For Monsieur Le Cure by Joanne Harris (Doubleday $37.99) is out now.