Born Joanne Michèle Sylvie Harris in Yorkshire, England of a French mother and an English father, her family life was been filled with food and folklore, an environment that would play a key role as an adult in the development of her novels.
She was educated at Wakefield Girls' High, Barnsley Sixth Form College and read Modern and Medieval Languages at St Catharine's College, Cambridge. After graduating, she began a career as an accountant but switched to teaching, eventually teaching French at Leeds Grammar School and later a French literature course at Sheffield University.
In 1999, her whimsical though slightly dark and mystical story titled Chocolat, based on food and an exotic locale in the Loire Valley of France, reached No. 1 in the London Sunday Times newspaper's bestseller list. The book was shortlisted for the 1999 Whitbread Novel of the Year Award and the movie rights sold to Miramax Pictures. The success of the motion picture, starring Juliette Binoche, brought Ms. Harris wide recognition in North America.