As we prepare to be inspired and awed by Cambridge Literary Festival, Ella Walker discovers more about the inner workings of author Rachel Joyce.
perfect timing CAMBRIDGE MAGAZINE
sometimes to wobble those rules. But the book is really about the fact that the course of a life can change in a matter of seconds.”
hen we speak, Rachel Joyce is on a train, dipping in and out of signal.
As The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry author tries to list what she grew up reading, her voice sputtering and fizzing through static, we decide to give up, resorting to email instead.
She had already begun writing Perfect before Harold Fry was published and, when asked if she felt under pressure to produce a second novel as equally wowing as the first, notes: “I tend to run away to my writing shed and get lost in the story that I am telling. I try very hard not to judge it.
It’s a shame, but I couldn’t make her shout down a carriage, and in some ways, writing her answers seems more apt for a novelist who considers herself ‘pretty quiet and reclusive’ these days.
“I did everything I could do for those stories and then I let them go. They stand a little apart from me now. They are what they are.”
Strangely, Joyce’s career actually began on stage, first at RADA, and then with the RSC where she won a Time Out Actress of the Year award for playing Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, before giving it up to concentrate on writing radio plays and raising a family (her husband, four children and a gaggle of chickens).
writing and washing Her own ‘to read’ list is currently quite sparse (a rare finding in an author). Aside from Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood, which is on her bedside table, Joyce admits: “I find it difficult to read fiction when I am finishing a book (and I am) because I like to enter another world when I read.
“It suits me better to write,” she says, explaining how she doesn’t really long for her thespian days. “And actually, I am using the same parts of myself when I write – I take what I know, what I feel, and I jump from there into my imagination.” So far, her imagination has brought us the Man Booker long listed Harold Fry and 2013’s critically acclaimed Perfect, both of which she is due to discuss at this spring’s Cambridge Literary Festival, alongside Cambridgeshire author Jill Dawson (Fred and Edie, The Tell-Tale Heart). Now based in Gloucestershire, Joyce has written more than 20 plays for BBC Radio 4 and, alongside a Tinniswood Award for best radio play in 2007, has also crammed in adaptations for the Classic Series and Woman’s Hour.
a tender tale This is how The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, her debut novel, started out, as a radio play Joyce wrote ‘for my dad when he was dying of cancer’. If you don’t have a well-worn, twice or triple read copy of your own, it tells the tale of retiree Harold Fry who, emotionally choked, sets out to post a letter to an old friend, Queenie Hennessey, who is dying. Instead of posting his letter in the box at the end of his road, Harold finds himself walking past it, until he realises he needs, for his own sake, to deliver that letter to Queenie personally. So begins a mammoth walk to Berwick-upon-Tweed. Full of kindness and tenderness, Harold’s memories and regrets sift through his mind as he walks, leaving you a blubbery but smiling mess as you read. “In my grief, I think I needed to construct a world in which a dying woman might be saved,” says Joyce. “But I also wanted to celebrate the ordinary.” For several years Harold Fry was squirreled away, increasingly nudging at Joyce to take it further, before she signed up to a Faber Academy fiction
writing course in order to transform it from play to fully formed novel.
“That’s not a good idea when you have a story of your own, and characters of your own, all shouting for some kind of resolution.”
Does she find writing a book tougher than constructing a radio play? “Both present challenges, but I am very glad I have spent so many years writing radio drama,” she says. “It is a fantastic discipline and has taught me a lot about structure, pace and how to use dialogue.”
The book she’s in the midst of finishing is The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, a companion piece to Harold Fry. “We know the first letter that inspired his walk but there is a second letter – which she never sends. This is that letter,” says Joyce tantalisingly.
The transformation was obviously a success and, despite being beaten in the Man Booker race by the unbeatable Hilary Mantel, Harold Fry became an international bestseller and book club staple. Why does she think it struck such a chord with readers? “People ask me this question a lot,” Joyce muses. “And the truth is that I don’t know. I don’t really even want to know. Because I’d rather stay inside my writing, than jump outside it.” A habitual avoider of reviews, she is understandably pleased with how both Harold Fry and 2013’s Perfect, have been received (understatedly calling the Man Booker nomination ‘exciting and completely unexpected‘), but is intent on knuckling down to the writing, and not fussing with what people think and expect of her. Set in the summer of 1972, Perfect follow’s 11-year-old Byron Hemmingway and his friend James who is convinced two seconds have been added into the fabric of time. The consequences could be devastating for Byron’s mother, but for present day Jim, who cleans café tables and struggles to control his OCD, those life changing two seconds mean something else entirely… Noting how much darker than Harold Fry Perfect is, “We run our lives according to the rule of time. We assume everything is going forwards and at a regular speed,” says Joyce. “I think it’s interesting CAMBRIDGE MAGAZINE
Hopefully we shouldn’t be waiting too long to see it on bookshelves; she’s fiendish when in the grip of a story. “I write whenever I can – the moment my children leave the house. I have a writing shed in the garden and I am very happy out there. But sometimes I don’t get that far,” she buzzes. “Sometimes I am at the kitchen table, or stopped in a layby because I’ve had a new idea and I have to write it down before I lose it!” And what does a Man Booker long-listed author do when she’s not penning bestsellers? “The washing. I have four children.” •Read our interview with Jill Dawson on page 21 and see what our Book Club thought of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry at cambridge-news.co.uk/ Whats-on-leisure/Books/Book-Club/July-bookclub-03072012.htm •See our Cambridge Literary Festival highlights on page 115.
Lunchtime with Rachel Joyce & Jill Dawson takes place at Cambridge Union Chamber, on Friday, April 4 at 1pm. Tickets £6-£8 from (01223) 300085 / adcticketing.com.