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The Writer's Life > Synesthesia and the Writing Process: Joanne Harris, Author of Chocolat

Synesthesia and the Writing Process: Joanne Harris, Author of Chocolat

Bestselling author Joanne Harris (Chocolat, The Strawberry Thief and other books) is synaesthetic, which means she smells colours. Here’s what her red sofa cushion smells like (yum!) and how synesthesia affects her writing process.

“Every book I write has a different scent,” says Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat and, more recently, A Narrow Door. This British author isn’t just a synaesthete (synesthete), she actually uses her synaesthesia (synesthesia) to write novels. Every book she writes has its own colour and smell.

Apologies in advance for using both synesthete and synaesthete in this blog post. Synesthesia is the American spelling; it’s more often recognized and searched for. Synaesthesia is the British/Canadian spelling. I want to be fair and found, so I’ll be using both when I describe this synaesthetic author’s writing process.

In a recent interview with Dan Simpson on his Writer’s Routine podcast, Joanne shared how she experiences colour and smell. Even more interestingly, she described how her synaesthesia feeds her creative writing process.

“Essentially I smell colours, how crazy is that?” Joanne said. “It’s an element of neurodiverse brain structure. Certain colours will trigger physical scents around me. Right now I’m looking at a red cushion, and the red triggers the smell of CHOCOLATE.” 

How Synesthesia Affects Writing: Joanne Harris, Author of Chocolat
Chocolat, based on Joanne Harris’s novel

In How Colors Affect Your Mind, Mood and Mental Health I describe how “neurotypical” or nonsynesthetic people are affected by colour. Synesthesia is different, though. 

What is Synesthesia?

Synaesthesia is a brain phenomenon—a neurological condition—that causes people to experience one sense when another is triggered. For example, a synesthete may hear a sound and see a color, or smell a scent and feel something on their skin. Someone else with synesthesia might see colors associated with letters and numbers, or hear sounds when they taste food.

Just about any sense combination is possible. Some people, like the main character Sage O’Murphy in my novel Almost Sage, are synesthetic on multiple levels. Sage tastes words, sees voices and feels shapes on her skin. This isn’t a fictional trait! Some authors, composers and musicians “see” music and translate the shapes, colors and images of that music into books or songs. Wouldn’t that be a fantastic way to get your creative inspiration back once you’ve lost it?

How Author Joanne Harris Uses Synaesthesia in Her Writing

“Part of my writing process is perceiving the world through colours and scents,” says Joanne, who recently wrote the novel called A Narrow Door. “I thought I could use the scent associations to [inspire my writing]—and it works for everybody, not just people with synaesthesia. We have strong associations with scents that we’re not always aware of.”

Joanne adds that she’ll allocate a scent to a book, and only wear that scent when she’s writing that book. 

“Just the smell of whatever that thing is will get me temperamentally into the space that I need to write my book. I’ve been doing this for over 15 years. Every one of my books has had a scent. Gentleman Players, A Different Class and A Narrow Door all have the same scent because they’re all set in the same world.”

The scent Joanne Harris wore when writing her last three novels is Chanel’s Coromandel (a “spirited scent featuring notes of patchouli, frankincense and benzoin”, according to Chanel).

“Woody, slightly floral but also quite old-fashioned because it’s quite an old-fashioned setting that I’m writing about,” says Joanne Harris. “I’m trying to bring back the past from my own personal experience of teaching.”

How does Joanne allocate certain scents to different stories?

“I think about the story and what it feels like,” says Joanne. “Sometimes the story is very much about the main character, so it’s the scent the main character would wear. Sometimes it’s something else. For instance, I wrote a story called Blue-Eyed Boy…the scent I wore [while writing the book] was L’Heure Bleue which is a rather interesting, dry, iris-based scent. It was the scent the mother wore. My main character associated that scent with his mother, and with hatred, fear and pain.”

Joanne adds that she was never able to wear that scent again, which is too bad because she really likes it. 

“Now it’s stuck in that book, and I have to leave it there.”

She also says she wrote Chocolat (the novel) in four months! She hardly edited it at all, it just flowed right through her fingertips. Funny, that’s how it was for me when I read it. I don’t think her ability to write that book that fast has anything to do with her synaesthesia, but it is an unusual (and highly welcomed!) experience for an author.

Chocolat by Synesthetic Author Joanne Harris
Chocolat by Synesthetic Author Joanne Harris

Questions I’d ask Joanne Harris about synaesthesia and writing

“What scent did you associate with Vianne Rocher, the main character in Chocolat?”

I assume it’s not chocolate—and if it is chocolate, it has to be a deep, rich, dark chocolate. Maybe like the chili chocolate bon bons she gave to the husband that got him all peppy for his wife 🙂 

“Did Roux—played by Johnny Depp in the Chocolat (the movie) have his own scent?”

From Joanne Harris’s interview on the Writer’s Routine podcast, I gather that each of her books has its own scent (and perhaps colour, given that she’s a synaesthete). However, I have to wonder about the characters. They’re so unique and colourful—how could they all smell the same?

Chocolat Movie Synesthesia Author Joanne Harris
Chocolat Movie Synesthesia Author Joanne Harris

Possibly because they don’t. The characters are held by the book. If each character had his or her own colour, they’d smell different. 

Maybe one day I’ll interview a synaesthetic author like Joanne Harris. For now, I’ll happily immerse myself in writing about characters with synesthesia and blogging about blossoming on the road 🙂

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