If you’re in need of a sweet escape wrapped up in family secrets, The Chocolatier is definitely the book you need to be reading right now. Set in Italy’s Amalfi Coast, The Chocolatier tells the story of Celina Savoia who travels to Italy following her husband’s mysterious death. The novel has everything you could hope for with its lush scenery, family secrets, romance, and of course, chocolate.
In this interview, Jan shares about when she first came up with the idea for the novel, her researching process, the character who we’d all like to meet in real life, and more!
When did you first come up with the idea for your most recent novel, The Chocolatier?
Aside from being a chocoholic, I’ve always been fascinated with gifts from the earth—wine, perfume, and, of course, chocolate. Italy is one of my favorite countries to visit, and the beautiful Piedmont region is one of Europe’s great capitals of chocolate. This love of chocolate spills through the entire country, with highly-rated chocolatiers throughout Italy. And since I love to feel a sea breeze on my face as I write, what better place than beautiful Amalfi by the sea?
As to the story, many of my historical novels involve secrets concealed in families. After reading accounts of people who’d recast their lives at a pivotal point—often after immigration or war—I wondered what it would be like to make such a discovery in your family.
Since I love for my female protagonists to be accomplished and artistic, I stirred in chocolate, and Celina Savoia became a chocolatier who’d learned the craft from her mother. I also enjoy writing about children and the lengths that mothers will go to protect their children, which drives their decisions. And did I mention love? Oh yes, there’s that, too. Tastefully rendered, of course. Lauro is devoted to his family, which is a trait I admire in strong men.
Since the novel is set in the past (in the ’30s & ’50s) how much research into the time periods did you do before you first started writing the novel?
As an avid fan of history, I’ve written other books set in the 20th-century (The Winemakers), and I love including period details to immerse the reader (and myself) into that time. In writing, I often draw on period fashion, music, and food to bring my characters to life.
More than that, I research the prevailing sentiments—what were people concerned about in their daily lives? I’ll study old catalogs and photographs, search vintage fashion blogs, scour vintage menus, and read old online newspapers and magazines. My mother had an incredible memory, and having lived through those eras, she often aided me with details.
My preliminary research on The Chocolatier involved an extensive study on the history and production of chocolate. I also studied settings in San Francisco—where the story begins—as well as in Amalfi and Naples, and finally, Peru, where cacao beans are grown. Architecture, fauna and flora, maps, images, history, industry—all of these details bring the story to life.
My historical writing is more time-consuming and research-oriented than my contemporary series, such as the Summer Beach: Seabreeze Inn saga, which I write in between to give myself a break at the beach.
What made you decide to set The Chocolatier in the Amalfi Coast and did you do in-country research for the novel?
Amalfi is a stunningly beautiful location on the coast and is known for its incredible lifestyle—and lemons. Limoncello, anyone? In The Chocolatier, I brought the family from Piedmont with a history in the chocolate business. As for research, Italy is one of my favorite places to visit, and I’ve traveled through the region. I’m always taking photos and making notes to use in my writing—it’s such fun, and I love traveling. Books were my first passport, so I enjoy bringing locations to life with vivid details that draw on all the senses.
I also have a good friend who is an actor from Naples and knows the Campania area very well. Luca Della Valle helped with language and offered insights into culture and settings and details, such as fine regional wines (Piedirosso) and the hair-raising hairpin roads along the Amalfi coastline. Plus, I received an in-depth education on how coffee differs throughout Italy, with Neapolitan being quite a distinct, flavorful coffee. Luca’s favorite, of course!
Did you take chocolate-making classes or talk with chocolatiers to research for the novel?
Part of my writing process is to learn as much as I can from experts in their field. A few years ago, I had the great pleasure of meeting a chocolatier, Michael Antonorsi of Chuao Chocolatier, in Carlsbad, California. He attended culinary school in Paris and descended from Venezuelan cacao growers. What a joyful experience to tour the Chuao factory and delve into the inspiration behind chocolate-making. Chef Michael is committed to serving joy in the world, which is something we certainly share.
The team at Valrhona Chocolates of France was also incredibly supportive. They arranged for me to meet with Peruvian cacao planters in San Francisco to learn about the rare Gran Blanco, or white cacao beans, that nearly became extinct. The tasting, history, and technical details helped me weave authentic details into The Chocolatier.
In the back of the book, I included a truffle recipe from Chef Michael that is also getting rave reviews from readers. I also include reader discussion questions for book clubs in The Chocolatier. Several people have made these truffles and served them along with other chocolate-tasting goodies at book club meetings.
I love how through your descriptions of Celina (the main character in the novel) the reader can picture the character as they read along. Do you plan out each character in detail before you start working on a novel, or do you see where the individual characters take you?
Before I write, I develop my characters on a giant spreadsheet, adding background details that bring them to life. Along with envisioning common traits such as eye and hair color, I also construct their personality, style, mannerisms, sayings, education, family tree, etc. This is valuable in the writing process. Yet my characters always surprise me as they grow much more layered and complex in writing, particularly as they face challenges and make difficult decisions.
Are any of the characteristics of Celina and Lauro based on people you’ve met in real life?
While I’m an avid people watcher at parties and in public, I draw my characters strictly from my imagination, which I suppose is a giant Mixmaster of sorts. Any similarities to real people are purely coincidental. However, I also weave in actual people and companies, so you might encounter a well-known personality along the way.
If you could meet one of the characters from your novels, who would it be?
Many readers tell me they would love to meet my dreamy Lauro. So would I! I wonder, if I keep writing him, will he come along?
What was the hardest scene to write (or) the scene you enjoyed writing the most?
I love to write scenes with strong emotions that make me laugh or cry. (Yes, I sometimes shed tears or chuckle while writing at Starbucks—they’re used to it.) That said…
I have many favorite scenes in The Chocolatier. One is when Celina and Lauro meet in Lauro’s chocolate factory in Naples…hot enough to melt the chocolate, so to speak. (But still tasteful—I write relatively clean. Otherwise, I never would’ve heard the end of it from Mom!) Celina’s scenes in which she makes difficult decisions for her young son are emotional on another level—they involve the selfless purity of a mother’s love for her child. Throughout, Celina drives the story through her intense devotion to her child, her craft, and her belief in love.
The emotional culmination in Peru and the dangers they face demanded intense emotional writing. Readers tell me they’ve reread the last few chapters several times because they love the outcome so much. That tells me I’ve done my job for my readers, and I am humbled and grateful that others find joy in these pages. Now, more than ever, my goal is to give readers an emotional journey that, while challenging, is also uplifting and inspiring. That’s my vibe, and I love sharing it.
As a writer, what is the most important part about maintaining a working relationship between yourself and your editor at the publishing house?
I’m fortunate to work with an excellent editor at Goldmann/Random House in Germany, just as I have had at St. Martin’s Press. The Chocolatier and other books are translated and published with several publishers in Europe and other parts of the world, and I now reserve English rights for my own publishing imprint. The most important part of a working relationship with any editor or publishing partner is to understand the vision of what they want to serve to their reader base, and how I can meet that need through my stories.
According to your bio, you’re currently working on your next historical novel (Hepburn’s Necklace), can you give us a sneak peek into the plot of the novel?
Hepburn’s Necklace revolves around a young woman from Texas who began her career with a small part in Roman Holiday, which was filmed in Rome in 1952 and starred Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. (I just adore Audrey Hepburn.) In later years, this woman, now an accomplished actress, yearns to relive her happiest days in beautiful Lake Como and reunite her family by revisiting decisions that divided those she loved. More secrets to come, along with fabulous 1950s style, Italian food, and one very special man… Look for Hepburn’s Necklace on pre-order now and to debut in winter 2020-2021.
In the summer of 2020, readers might enjoy my summer trilogy, beginning with The Coral Cottage, which also includes insights into the past and is set on the contemporary beaches of Southern California. Plus, the audiobooks for the popular Seabreeze Inn trilogy debut in April of 2020.
Jan Moran is an author of historical novels, including The Chocolatier, The Winemakers, and Scent of Triumph. St. Martin’s Press and Goldmann/Random House have published her novels. She also writes the popular contemporary beach series, Summer Beach, including Seabreeze Inn and The Coral Cottage.
Pick up your copy of The Chocolatier.
All photos in this post are provided by Jan Moran.