Author Rachel Joyce talks to Chatelaine about her novel about a man who one day sets off on an entirely unexpected journey to help a friend dying of cancer. The novel, Joyce’s first, has its roots in her background as a writer of radio plays. She discusses how that career informed the novel, how her father – and others – shaped the character of Harold, and how she balances a busy life as a mother of four children with her writing.
Q: The idea for your book started as a radio play for BBC Radio 4. How did that come about?
A: I have been writing for radio for about 16 years. When I began this play seven years ago my father had just told me he was dying of cancer – it was a particularly vicious cancer – of the head and neck. My parents lived next door to me in those days so I couldn’t exactly walk to save him but I wrote this story instead, knowing that I would never tell him about it, and also knowing he would never live to hear it. (I was right about both these things.) I like to think that even though it has my heart in it, the book would have made him laugh. He was a very witty man. I loved to make my father laugh.
Q: The book is dedicated to your father. Was he a model for Harold?
A: Yes, and no. A few people have asked if Harold is my dad. I would say that there is a bit of my dad in Harold, and a bit of me, and also a bit of all of us. My dad was an extremely fit and sharp-tongued man but also perhaps very typical of his generation: quite formal, quite ‘by the book’. We didn’t talk about his cancer or the fact that he was dying because he didn’t want us to discuss things like that. He didn’t want to die – not right until the end. He insisted on doing the London – Brighton bicycle race shortly after one operation just to show things were normal. After another, I’d go to visit him in hospital and he was in an awful way, but still wearing a jacket and tie. Just like Harold. But his openness to others – his sense of being a passerby – is something I feel myself.
Q: When did you decide to turn the play into a novel?
A: I had wanted to write a novel for a long time but never had the courage. Nearly two years ago, when I finally made up my mind to shove everything to one side and do it, this was the story I wanted to write. There was still much to say about it and explore. (A radio play is only about 7,500 words long.) It also seemed the right place to put my feelings and ideas about love and loss and being a human being. Having written so many radio plays, I wanted to write something that was complete in itself – or as complete as it could be without a reader. A play needs so many other people – actors, a producer, sound engineers, let alone the listener, before it can become the thing it should be.
Q: How similar are the play and novel?
A: The bare bones of the story – a man who walks to save a woman who is dying and leaves his wife behind – are the same. Everything else is new. The people, the places, the themes. Even the ending is quite different! I think stories evolve, though. The longer you sit with them, I believe, the bigger they grow. This was certainly the case with this story.
Q: This is your first book. How long did it take you to write?
A: The book took about a year to write – that was the first draft – because I am a terrible fiddler. (By which I mean that I keep twitching words and phrases and scenes and ideas, as opposed to playing fine music. I am especially guilty of this with the opening of a novel. I can’t stop fiddling.) After that, I spent about six months working on the editing process. That was much easier, though. For me, the first draft is by far the toughest. There is so much to discover and there are so many wrong turnings to take (and reject).
Q: The themes are quite dark. What made you decide to tackle them all?
A: These are the things that I think about.
Q: How did you manage to balance those themes so the book wasn’t overwhelmingly sad?
A: I suppose it is just the way I am; I see the painful things in life, and I feel them too, but I also see small, ordinary things that make me laugh. I am so grateful for those small, ordinary things. And that is why I wanted to write a book that celebrates them.
Q: Why did you decide to choose a male protagonist? What is appealing about that? Was it difficult/challenging to write in a male voice?
A: When I started writing for radio I always chose stories with female protagonists – partly because I felt there wasn’t enough drama for and about women, and partly because I felt more comfortable writing from a female perspective. But Harold Fry came with this story. He is the story. He seemed very clear as a person to me – though I think that maybe he has a little bit of the female as well as the male. It also became very clear to me as I wrote his story that I must peel the wrappings from his wife, Maureen, too. (On first glimpses, you might say there is something masculine about her.) So I hope I have achieved a female and male perspective. For me, writing is about the imaginative leap. You start with what you know and you begin to weld it into something new. Maybe writing from a male perspective ( as I am with this new book) gives me more freedom to make that leap.
Q: At the beginning of the book is a quote from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Do you see Harold as a sort of Everyman, representative of all of us?
A: In some ways, yes I do. He is an ordinary man – he is someone you might pass at the side of the road – and yet he is also a man with a unique story. This is true of us all, I think.
Q: Was The Pilgrim’s Progress a conscious model for your book? Was any other book or play?
A: It wasn’t a conscious model, no. I think poems, stories, phrases are sometimes in our consciousness without us always knowing it. People have also asked about films, too – if they inspired me. I think Harold’s story is simply what it is. But I sometimes I find lines of Shakespeare drifting into my head – maybe that is my theatre background.
Q: Did you travel the entire route that Harold takes yourself?
A: Harold’s route begins and passes through places I know, love, or have passed myself. So a lot of the places Harold goes through are places I know. That is the way with this book – it has a lot of what I know or have seen. (This is true too of the people Harold meets.) Kingsbridge, for instance, which is Harold and Maureen’s hometown, is where my husband was brought up. The barn where Harold spends his first night outside is next to where we live. Every day on the school run, I pass the view where Harold makes his big realization about the nature of his walk. But when I didn’t know a place myself, I researched it very thoroughly. I studied maps, guide books, the internet and photos. As I wrote the book I had endless notes about Harold’s journey. I knew which road he was on every day, as well as how many miles he had walked and where he slept. I knew the reader didn’t always need to know these things but I also knew that I did. In the end I cut out the pages of our road map and stuck them in a long chain up two walls of our house. My husband rang one day – lost on the A 46 – and said, “The road map has jumped from page 5 to 38. Is this anything to do with you?”
Harold’s journey, though, is also for me an emotional one. It’s about doing something against the odds. And I felt that in writing my first book, I was on exactly the same journey as Harold; mine too was an act of faith with no guarantee of success or completion. His fears and doubts and moments of certainty all echoed mine.
Q: You were an actress before having a family, then started writing radio plays. What made you want to become a writer?
A: I have written since I was a child. I wrote all the time that I was acting – I just didn’t show it to anyone. Once I had children, I realized the life of an actress didn’t really work for me any more. I think there is a link, though, because in both professions you are holding and examining and showing what you feel. You have to be unafraid of that, I think.
Q: Could you tell us something about what roles you played as an actress and why you decided to move away from acting?
A: I was in a lot of classical plays – Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen – and I tended to play those passionate parts. Before I stopped acting, I played Emilia in Othello with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I was very pregnant then (but hidden under cloaks) – and I loved the way Emilia gets to voice all the things the audience have been wanting to yell at Othello. I always worked in theatre because that was what I loved. And I was lucky too; I got jobs and made a living out of it. The magic of the theatre remains for me; I always cry when the lights go down. It just touches me that we all gather to share a story.
I moved away from acting when the radio writing took over. Again I was lucky because that coincided with the changing demands of a growing family. I have always been quite a private, quiet person, though – a bit of a watcher, I would say. Maybe writing suits me better than acting.
Q: How you did you begin writing radio plays and what was your favourite of the ones you’ve written?
A: I started writing for radio when I told a producer about a great story I had read in the newspaper. He said, “It is a great story. Now go away and write it.” So that was that.
I don’t think I have a favourite. All of them have been quite different, but when I am writing them they always feel like the most important story I have written. I battle with self-confidence, however, so none of them ever feel like my best.
Q: You signed up for a writing program when you decided to commit to Harold Fry. What was it and why did you think doing that was important?
A: I signed up for the Faber novel-writing course at the start of the year in which I wrote the book. I felt that even though I had been writing for a long time it was important to go back to ‘school’ and learn again. I think it is important to do that sometimes – to be very humble about what you think you know. Enrolling on the course was also part of my commitment to writing a book. It was me saying, “Yes; I am going to stick with this.”
Q: You also turned down work to complete this novel. Can you speak to that a bit?
A: I turned down quite a few television opportunities. I also pushed aside a lot of radio work. I had to write the book by that point. It didn’t even seem a choice. The thought of abandoning Harold was too painful.
Q: Have you always enjoyed writing?
A: I think it is how I express what I am. Sometimes I feel I don’t quite fit in with day to day living. I don’t mean because I am clever or anything, I mean because I feel things keenly and sometimes that makes me feel like a terrible outsider. I also love making things – I always did – and that is how writing seems to me. A bit of playing. A bit of making.
Q: What was the first story you ever wrote?
A: It was an illustrated series about a family of fully dressed cats. I think I was six. I also wrote my autobiography when I was eight. (It was short.)
Q: What inspires you on a day-to-day basis when you’re writing?
A: A sort of visceral need to communicate, I think.
Q: How do you balance writing and raising a large family? (Joyce has four children.)
A: I juggle. Doesn’t everyone? I have bits of paper all over the house that I am constantly scribbling on. I suppose I treat my stories like my children and take them with me everywhere; the only difference being that you can pop stories in your bag. When I was writing this book, I often got up in the night when my family were asleep. Or I’d have to stop the car on the way to school and jot something down on a bit of paper. My children got very good at taking notes as I dictated them. The other day I found one in my bag jotted down by my youngest daughter. It says: “what is Harold’s atitud to alcool?”
Q: When and where do you write?
A: I write in my study when I can. The moment the children leave the house I start. My shed is a wooden shed in the garden, which overlooks the valley and a wide stretch of English sky. We store home-grown garlic in here as well as potatoes, onions, jams, chutneys and windfall apples, so on a warm day it can smell a bit. For a while my children reared a box of guinea fowl chicks under a heat lamp in here. They smelt an awful lot, and made a racket. Having said that, there are times when I can’t get into my study and I have to make do. Once I took the children to see a film and wrote through the whole thing.
Q: What are you working on now? Is it similar to Harold Fry or a complete departure?
A: I feel it is important for my second novel to be a very different creature, although it explores a couple of similar themes. It is about a boy who believes his mother has done something terrible that he needs to protect her from, and also a man who lives in a mobile home. What I can’t get away from, though, is my way of seeing the world; so the ‘voice’ of the new book will be the same – celebrating the ordinary, linking laughter and pain. I can’t help that or change it.
Q: What was your reaction to being named one of the Waterstones 11 (an acknowledgment by one of the top booksellers in the UK), and what has the reaction to the book been overall so far in the UK? Are you surprised?
A: I was very excited about being selected. It meant a lot to me to be put in that ‘basket’ of fine debut novels. And it is quite nerve-racking waiting for a book to come out, waiting to discover whether people warm to what you say, or don’t, so approval from Waterstones meant a lot to me. Having said that, it also meant a lot when someone who had just read the book told me about his own journey through life.
I am really moved by the way readers have taken this story – and Harold – to their hearts. People seem to know what I’m talking about. And that’s a wonderful thing. This book and these characters – people I was alone with for so long – are suddenly ‘out there’ and they have a life that isn’t to do with me any more. It’s a bit like when you watch someone from a train, and you wonder about their lives, and they don’t even know you’re noticing them. It makes me feel connected up.