You’ve said that when asked about a sequel to The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry you never originally considered writing from Queenie’s viewpoint.
When The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was first published, a few people asked if I would be writing a sequel and I was adamant I wouldn’t. I felt I had explored Harold’s story and that to keep with it would only be raking over the same ground. Besides, I had other stories I wanted to write. So quite how or why the idea for writing Queenie’s story came to me, I can’t explain. It just happened very forcefully one day in our kitchen when I was making lunch. And as soon as I opened my mind to the idea and voiced it, it seemed blindingly obvious this was a story I needed to write, I wanted to write. How does a woman who is dying wait for a man to walk the length of England? I realized that in reversing the story, I had huge vistas to explore that I hadn’t really thought about, or which I had only thought about at face value.
Why do you think Queenie’s story begged to be told?
There is always another side to any story. We live our lives as if we are the central character and we forget that of course, in other people’s stories, we may well be no more than walk-on parts. Maureen, for instance, was an essential part of Harold Fry’s story because she is his wife. In Queenie’s, she has only one scene.
I was surprised when reading the new novel that the story was so intertwined with that of Harold Fry (I suppose I was expecting a pre-brewery, pre-Harold Queenie…). Was that a surprise to you, too?
It wasn’t really. I wanted to write about a woman who has loved a man without telling him, so the key moments – once I had established what in Queenie’s childhood and upbringing has made her the person she is – were what happened when she met Harold, and how she hid her true feelings. The first thing I did was to go back to the first book and look at all those moments he shared with Queenie. I asked myself, How can I expand these? What I came up generally took me by surprise. It was like wrenching something right open and having a good old rummage inside. Queenie is mostly silent in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. But what is really going on in those car scenes, where she says so little? Although a woman says nothing in the passenger seat of a car doesn’t mean that she has not a whole universe of thought and feeling and words inside her.
Was there anything else that surprised you about Queenie’s story?
There are always surprises when I write. I generally know where I am trying to get to, but what I am never quite sure of is how I will get there. It’s a bit like knowing you are going on a gap year that will end in, say, Rome, but having no clue as to all the places you will visit en-route. For example, I didn’t initially plan all the other patients at the hospice, who become such a key part of Queenie’s journey. They arrived in my head, rather indistinctly at first and then, the more I worked with them, the more I saw, the more they said. I love this about the process of writing; that it is only really in doing it that you discover what will work and what doesn’t.
With Harold Fry you showed an actual journey; with Queenie, a metaphorical journey. What were the differences/ difficulties involved in portraying those?
With Harold Fry, I thought a lot about the seven stages of grieving, because it seemed to me that was something happening in his life, but I also had to think a lot about the physical landscape of England. When it came to Queenie’s story, I had to replace the broad physical landscape with the changing minutiae of a window scene. I had to make her journey an inward one. That was when I decided to mirror Harold’s journey in Queenie’s story. When Harold feels confident about his walk, Queenie feels confident she can keep waiting. When Harold pushes his walk too hard and collapses, Queenie pushes her letter-writing, her mental exertion too hard, and she too collapses. When Harold is joined by a band of followers, Queenie is joined by a band of followers at the hospice. And when Harold is finally left alone with only the truth and the walk, his shoes taped to his feet, Queenie is also left alone with her letter and the truth, her pencil strapped to her weak hand.
Queenie works with a nun named Mary Inconnue to write her letter—or story—to Harold. Why did you decide to use her instead of simply having Queenie write the letter?
When you have already written a character, you have to be true to the constraints you have imposed. So when I began Queenie’s story, I knew several things; she can’t speak, she is in a hospice, she is very weak. It didn’t seem truthful to me (and I was initially cursing myself for this) that she could sit and write a whole letter without anyone’s help. But if we are, as it were, inside her head, if this letter is a part of her process of letting go, then I believe she can remember in this much detail and with this imperative to be heard.
That name, Inconnue, meaning “unknown,” has significance…
Of course. And that is another ambiguity. I have a version of what Inconnue is and it may be different from someone else’s version. There is room for both.
Through telling the story of her life, Queenie is also preparing for death, isn’t she?
She is letting go, yes. In acknowledging the truth, she can let go of it. So long as you are hiding the truth, you cannot let go; the truth is alive and active inside you. There is a point at the beginning where Queenie’s fear is that if she doesn’t tell Harold about her life, it will all have been for nothing. She has moved on from that by the end. She comes to a place of acceptance. Queenie sees she has led a single life and she has also been a part of something bigger. That bigger thing was there all along; she just didn’t see it.
I always have that in mind! Though I suppose these things don’t always make me laugh. I notice the small things and would argue that it is often in observing the very small that you see the true nature of things. I would also say you must never discount the difference that one person, or even that one “small thing,” can make.
What would you answer to people who’ll say, Oh a book set in a hospice; how dark!
We have made death so fearful. We have a whole load of euphemisms to avoid saying the word. The reluctance to look at death is the cause of much unhappiness. I would say you can’t write about life unless you accept the fact of death, just as you can’t write about happiness without acknowledging there is also sadness. One is meaningless without the other. In learning how to die, we accept how to live.
What research on hospices and hospice care did you do?
I visited several hospices. I read a lot about caring for the dying. I spent an evening with three Macmillan nurses. It is not an exaggeration to say we spent the whole meal howling with laughter. Their stories were irreverent and real. I thanked them at the end for giving me so much detail, so much to think about, and they said ‘Oh, thank you. No one ever asks us about our work.’
So there were revelations?
As I said before, laughter. Sunlight. Genuine kindness. A robust sense of what is real. Health care is not always about curing; it is about care. Sister Mary Inconnue’s lines are (for me) the centre of the book; “Pardon me, you are not here to die. You are here to live until you die. There is a significant difference.” I wanted my hospice to be not a place of darkness, but a place of light. And it is, I think. It is loud, noisy, wild, unexpected; I hope it is funny.
In your books, you tackle issues of mental illness. Why? Is it a particular interest?
Because mental illness, by which I suppose I mean emotional struggle, is another subject that doesn’t get talked about enough and (as far as I see it) there is a lot of struggling to be done in life. People get hurt. They make mistakes. They fall off the path they thought they needed to be on. This is not something we should be afraid of, or shun in other people.
And research in that area?
I am married to a psychotherapist. We read and talk a lot about people.
You’ve said people who are outsiders or don’t fit interest you most. Because they make it easy for you as a writer in terms of introducing conflict, or they’re simply fascinating to portray?
Because they evoke my compassion. I am probably quite introverted myself and so I know how it feels to be stuck on the edge of things, to fear that you will never quite fit, or even to fear that you will never be “right.”
The crux of the book is the idea of guilt and regret and coming to terms with those. But there’s also a notion of how little control we have over whom we love and how that love is received. For instance, Queenie’s for Harold, Harold’s for David and Queenie’s for David…
We want something back for our love. We want it to mean something. We want the person we love to feel changed, blessed by our love – and in return to shine their love on us. Queenie is denied those things. It doesn’t make her a saint, though. She makes lots of mistakes. Her letter is an atonement for those. I think she reaches a place where her love for Harold has become a love for humanity.
What significance does the natural world play in your books and in this one in particular?
When you write, it is hard not to be the person that you are. For instance, I am never going to write a gritty urban thriller. No one would believe a word of it, including myself. But the nature of light and shadow, the patterns in the sky, these are things I notice and it gives me pleasure to explore them. Besides, if you are someone who believes in the changing nature of things, as I do, then the changes in nature are a kind of reassurance, a kind of lesson. Queenie, like me, believes she needs to channel her sense of loss into something creative. For her, it is a magical garden by the sea. For me, it would be a book.
What are you working on now?
I am writing a new novel about music and a man who cures people through music. I am only at the beginning and so everything is up for grabs – there is so much to work out – but I am happy. My husband gave me a card recently with a picture of a music shop. Inside he had written, “We are waiting for you to come and find us.” This is how it feels.
What are your favourite books/authors?
I am lucky. I love reading. I love being conjured into a new place. So long as I believe in the words, I will go there willingly and with delight. I always return to Penelope Fitzgerald. But favourite books? I have so many. I Heard The Owl Call My Name. Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Alice Munro, of course. Wilkie Collins, Thomas Hardy, Edith Wharton, the Brontes. And plays. Shakespeare. Chekhov. Lope de Vega. Michael Frayn. David Hare…No, no. Don’t get me started. The list is endless.
This interview has ben edited and condensed for clarity.