Join Rachel Joyce to talk about January's Book of the Month, THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY, on Tuesday 29 Jan, 9-10pm

(222 Posts)

January is all about making fresh starts, new plans and wildly unrealistic promises. Most of us fall by the wayside within days. But not Harold Fry. The hero of our Booker-longlisted, January Book of the Month, THE PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY, is a retired and unhappily married pensioner living in Devon, who receives a letter from an old friend in Berwick Upon Tweed telling him she has cancer. He writes a reply, but on his way to the postbox, he decides that this is not enough. He must walk to Berwick in person, there and then. Only this, he knows, will keep her alive. And so begins a remarkable journey through the roads, cafes, tourist centres, towns and lanes of Britain. Along the way, a cast of diverse characters support, encourage and empathise with him, eventually turning into a cult following. Meanwhile, Harold's own memories begin to bubble up, and resolve the regret and sadness that have blighted his marriage and his relationship with David, the son who dramatically left home.

An exploration of grief and regret, as well as a celebration of love, faith and hope, this is a charming, moving and peculiarly British book.

Our book of the month page has more details about THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY. You can get a paperback or Kindle edition here.

We are thrilled that Rachel will be joining us to discuss the book and answer any questions about THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY, the Booker longlist and her writing career on Tuesday 29 January, 9-10pm.

Hope you can join us...

MummyBarrow Tue 29-Jan-13 21:12:03

Rachel, anything you can tell us about your next book? Many of us are waiting in anticipation!

RachelJoyce Tue 29-Jan-13 21:13:18

DuchessofMalfi

I finished reading the book last night. I liked it, but didn't love it. I didn't see the twist coming at all. I was miles off, pondering whether Queenie was going to turn out to be Harold's sister after all and he'd never known grin grin.

Anyway, I thought that Harold's reasons for his pilgrimage were rather flimsy to begin with but which deepened as his journey progressed. Perhaps that is, in essence, what a pilgrimage is - a time for personal reflection.

I felt the novel wasn't just about Harold's journey. We saw Maureen gradually discover more about herself, come to terms with her grief, and learn to move on. In some ways, she had the greater emotional journey, to return to the love of her husband.

My question for Rachel Joyce is, as it is a novel essentially about personal reflection, do you think that would translate well into film or do you think that it's meaning would be lost?

Hello Duchessofmalfi, (OOPS posted too quickly just now)

I just want to pick up on what you say about Maureen because I agree with you. Her journey is - for me - as big as Harold's; maybe even bigger because she doesn't ask to make it, and she has to do it within the confines of four walls. I thought a lot about my mum and me and my sisters when I wrote Maureen, after my dad's death. There were days it was a struggle to get up. But this is the joy for me of Harold and Maureen. They are still alive. If they can rectify the hideous mistakes they have made, there is still another chance. They can find their way back to loving.

As for the film, who knows? Books can get lost in films or they can find a new meaning. I like to think Harold is in safe hands. I saw the story and the landscape very clearly as I was writing and a few film makers have mentioned that.

RachelJoyce Tue 29-Jan-13 21:15:36

gaelicsheep

OK, if we can post questions, I'd like to ask Rachel Joyce what made her decide to suddenly become so graphic in her detail at the end of the book? For me it underlines the futility of the whole exercise, but also makes it seem that if Harold's walking had any effect all, it in fact rather cruelly prolonged someone's agony. This latter aspect left me rather ambivalent about the whole book - I wonder if that is intentional?
Secondly, if I may but don't mind if it isn't answered, does Rachel feel, in hindsight, that including the groupies in the book was a mistake?

Hello gaelicsheep,

Look, I'm going to be really blunt and honest with you. When my dad died he had a tumor growing out of his face that was nearly the size of a football. It was almost unbearable to witness. He would go to the post office to buy a stamp and people couldn't understand a word he was saying - or they stared, maybe laughed - but he kept trying to be like the rest of us. He wanted to be ordinary. He did not want to be a man with his face distorted by cancer. He didn't want to be dying. So if you have seen that, and you are writing about cancer, you can't soften that up. Besides, life is sometimes graphic in the most appalling ways.

And no, I don't regret the groupies. A few people have said they get annoyed by them - but that is good - they are very annoying people. They are loud, selfish, and most of them are acting on very different motives from Harold's. They are there, however, because if they weren't, Harold and the reader would remain in a bubble. For me, the groupies are the misunderstanding voices that he has to learn to bear.

RachelJoyce Tue 29-Jan-13 21:18:24

[quote southlondonlady]Agree this is a slow burn, I did find it very moving but lots is left unexplained. A key factor in the breakdown of their marriage seemed to be their isolation, they didn't have anyone to support them when the worst happened. My question is why had they made themselves so isolated? I didn't think was really explained in the book.

Hello southlondonlady,

It is in the book, but it is there quietly because I don’t like to spell things out. And this is a personal thing, but I like to be able to work things out when I read.

Harold and Maureen don’t know how to deal with their colossal pain. It is too big. They were brought up after the war – Harold’s father was prone to depression, his mother left when he was a teenager – so no one taught him how to talk. In time, it becomes easier to not speak than speak. I think for some people, life is like that.

To speak their grief is to admit it happened, that they could not stop it – and this is Maureen’s journey in the book. The acceptance of David’s loss.

hippoCritt Tue 29-Jan-13 21:18:37

Rachel,
I have previously posted about your book on another thread,however I'd like to ask if you ever seen a film having read the book and enjoyed it? They always seem such a let down, I feel rather defensive of Harold's journey, I wouldn't want him to be sold short by the movie makers!

michelle1979 Tue 29-Jan-13 21:19:04

Hi Rachel,

I don't have any questions, just wanted to congratulate you on your novel, I found parts of it extremely moving and perceptive. So very sorry about the loss of your Dad.

RachelJoyce Tue 29-Jan-13 21:19:52

[quote NuffinlikeaPuffin]My Sister has recently given me a signed copy of this book after raving about it ever since she read it. I'm loving it so far.

In fact she did more than rave about it - she works for Waterstones and created a huge window display where she'd hand drawn an enormous map and she wrapped some of your books up in little maps so that people could buy them and give them as gifts or just have something a little extra special for themselves. She's really clever and I'm very proud of her. I think you met her when you did a signing in her store smile

My question is - what's the nicest response you've had to this book and which is the most bizarre? Have they all been positive?

Hello NuffinlikeaPuffin,

I loved your sister’s map! It was beautiful. I loved too that she had taken the book and made something of her own with it. She asked me to sign it and I was so worried about making a mark on something so special.

What I never knew when I sat for a year in my shed, writing my book, was that anyone would ‘get’ this story. And I accept that some people don’t – of course I do. It can’t please everyone. But the warmth of some people, and their generosity too, in telling me about their own lives has been completely unexpected and very, very moving. I have received some extraordinary letters. Bookshops have made ‘Harold’ window displays, with yachting boots and maps and postcards. As for the most bizarre.. hmm. There was a man in my local bookshop who told me he was coming to a book signing NOT to buy my book (it didn’t appeal to him, he said) but to tell me I look better in real life than in my photo.

I liked him very much.

RachelJoyce Tue 29-Jan-13 21:21:15

[quote currybaby]I didn't see it as prolonging her agony. She was obviously very lonely and when she did die she was happy and was aware that someone dear to her been with her. I liked that.

I guessed about David from about a third of the way in. But I think that was supposed to happen? It became so obvious towards the end. He was doing so much out of his comfort zone but he still didn't contact him, and David didn't see him in the news and try and contact him.

The twist for me was Queenie's condition at the end. I wasn't really expecting that.

I loved the book. Someone has already said it but I would have loved to have known what happened to the woman doctor, and whether he helped her move on with her life.

Question for Rachel - did you do any walking as part of your research and if so which bits of the walk did you do?

Hello currybaby,

I am going to answer your point about the woman doctor quickly – because I grew very fond of her too. And I have my own imagined ending for her (just as I know the lines of the joke that Harold and Maureen share at the end) –but the point is that Harold doesn’t know how her story ends, and this story is told from his (and Maureen’s perspective.) For me to resolve her story, I felt, would be too neat and a cheat. Besides, life doesn’t go like that. We often don’t get to hear the whole story – only the beginning or the middle or the end.

As for the walking, yes, I walk a lot. I walk to think. But I have four children and if I had started Harold’s walk I would have had to stop every day at the same point to get home and do a school run. So I used what I know - and a lot of the places Harold visits I know – and then I imagined from there.

RachelJoyce Tue 29-Jan-13 21:22:38

[quote gazzalw]I finished reading it last night. I found that as Harold became disheartened near the end of his pilgrimage I was actually gathering momentum in my interest in the book.

I seem to recall from English O Level that we used to discuss the picaresque novel, a journey and this quietly but beautifully epitimised the emotional and physical. I very much loved the walk. I have holidayed in the Kingsbridge part of Devon and the Northumbrian part of the journey is my home turf so I could picture Harold doing his walk and it made it seem more real. I physically felt as if I was there with him all the way.

I loved the amazing array of characters he met along the way and yes felt that for whatever reason the Slovakian doctor played a beautiful part in helping the story to progress. I am not sure why but I get the feeling that a lot of Mumsnetters, like me, would be rooting for her to have a better life.

In almost seemed to me that Queenie was Harold's guardian angel. She saved him from total melt-down after David's death, but then helped him save his marriage and 'wake up' from his inertia and twenty year depression. In a way she seemed to be like the mother he never had. In fact all the talk of twists in the tale made me suspect (wrongly) that Queenie was his mother who had come back in a totally different guise to look after him. It was all the talk of her providing him with chocolate goodies on their work-related trips that made me think that.

I didn't entirely anticipate that Queenie was going to be at death's door when Harold arrived. One question for Rachel is to ask why Queenie had to have been so ravaged by cancer that she seemed more monster than human? I do appreciate that cancer whittles away at people until they are shadows of their former selves (and perhaps this description related to her memories of her father's death sad) but I am not sure that after all the emotional pain that Harold suffered (in allowing his suppressed feelings to come out in the course of his walk) that he really needed quite such a shocking meeting/resolution with Queenie. Or was it a case of him having to stare at the worst of life and death (in what had happened to Queenie and David) to complete his catharsis and fully enable him to move on with his life and Maureen.

I think it is one of those novels that will stick with one for a long time. I found it quite discomforting and challenging in a way that seemed at odds with the way in which the novel started - it all seemed so suburban and normal. A bit like a David Lynch film with the veneer of everyday life hiding ghosts and ugliness. I think we can all be capable of sinking into inertia in our lives and relationships and it is sad but true that often it takes some type of bereavement/catastrophe to wake us from this state.

I think it would make a fabulous film - have you had any approaches from film companies yet, Rachel?

Hello gazzalw,

You have said so many things that mean a lot to me. (By the way, my husband comes from Kingsbridge!) As I said earlier, for me the extraordinary things are most moving when we see and hear them in the mouths of ordinary people. (And I think of myself as very ordinary.) We don’t know things are big until after they have happened. So that is why the beginning of the book is so small and cliché’d and ordinary. You could walk past Harold and Maureen and not care, not notice them. After all, we do that every day. But I hope there is something about their courage, their humility that draws us in.

I hope I have already answered why I made the choices I did about Queenie. And does Harold prolong her agony? I think that’s debatable. Everyone else wants him to get there and save Queenie but we only step inside her head right at the end. He gives her a quartz and it fills the room with light as she dies. She isn’t quite sure she even really saw him – but she is letting go. She is able to let go. My dad didn’t want to die right until the end. He only died when he was ready to let go of us, when my back was turned.

As for films, yes, there was a lot of interest. At one point there were over fifteen companies, I think, ringing and telling me why they should make it. But we went with a British company and the director Sarah Gavron. Her ideas for the film are beautiful. So all fingers crossed, please.

RachelJoyce Tue 29-Jan-13 21:24:05

[quote HellesBelles396]My question is about Queenie and Maureen: they have such contrasting views of Harold at the beginning of the story. Queenie thinks of Harold as a good and kind man while Maureen sees him as distant and cold. Over the course of the story though, she comes to see him more as Queenie had and, of course, so do many others. Yet, he was doing something that could be seen as very selfish as he had abandoned his responsibilities and was walking as much out of his own need for redemption as for Queenie's survival.

What reasoning did you ascribe to Maureen - beyond what is written in the book - as you put together that element of the story?

Thank you for writing this book, btw, it really moved me while being enjoyable.

Hello HellesBelles,

I am glad you were moved. The thing about the story for me – about any story in fact – is that in the opening scene we can ask ourselves, What is the thing here that has to change? Clearly there is stalemate in this marriage. I don’t think Harold consciously knows when he sets off that he is walking to save many things – himself, the past, the loss of his son, his marriage – but for me these things are all there. Maureen and Harold have shared a terrible, terrible secret. It has become easier for Maureen to blame him than admit her awful pain. She feels angry about that too. Even when she thinks a kind thought about him, she can’t express it. That has become their shared language. This dead relationship.

Her softening is one of the bits of the book I most proud of – her moment with her dresses and his suits, for instance. I was very happy when I found that inside my head.

RachelJoyce Tue 29-Jan-13 21:24:57

[quote Clawdy]I remember last year reading about the poet Simon Armitage walking the entire Pennine Way,about 250 miles,relying totally on the kindness of strangers to give him a bed for the night, and poetry reading in pubs en route followed by passing a hat round for donations! I was reminded of this while reading about Harold's journey. Have you heard of anyone doing something similar?

Hello Clawdy,

I loved that book! I read it after Harold Fry came out. And no, I don’t know anyone like that. I wish I did, but I’m a pretty quiet, introspective person. If I met him I would probably smile a lot and rush away.

RachelJoyce Tue 29-Jan-13 21:25:48

[quote SunshinePanda]Rachel, I enjoyed getting to know Harold even though his actions infuriated me at times! I was struck by the impact of Harold's physical and emotional journey on his wife, more than on himself, without her being involved in walking on the pilgrimage. How important was Maureen's emotional journey to you when writing?

Hello SunshinePanda,

I think I may have answered this, but I agree with you. Maureen’s journey was very important to me, not least – as I said earlier – because she is the person left behind. It is maybe easier to re-examine and change the past when you are out of your context and away from your stuff. She doesn’t have any of that.

RachelJoyce Tue 29-Jan-13 21:27:07

[quote DestinationCalabria]Hello Rachel
I am up now when I should be asleep but can't make the chat on Tuesday as am out and about unusually for me..
I v much enjoyed the book though they were bits like sunshine panda that ANNOYED me about Harold.
And did not guess about David
Anyway, I have always wanted to write for radio (but like those with novels in drawers) never done anything about it -
What was hard about making the transition between the two?

Hello DestinationCalabria,

It wasn’t actually very hard. I have wanted to write a book for years – in fact I have written prose all my life, and hidden it away. The play was the bare bones of the story. (The budget would only stretch as far as three actors!) It was in writing the book that I felt I had the opportunity to dig deeper and use all those things like landscape, back story, other people, memory. It was very liberating. Through radio, I have spent years telling story in dialogue; using what people choose to say, as opposed to them just dishing out the story, so that the listener can piece together the bigger picture. Writing a book was like having a whole new set of colours to work with.

(PS Write that play.)

BownhillBaby Tue 29-Jan-13 21:29:08

Hi Rachel

I wondered if you could say something about your process of putting a book together - whether you get things right first time or go through a series of drafts. I'd also be really interested to know if you had all your plot points clear before you got going or if they were revealed on your own journey.

Thanks!

RachelJoyce Tue 29-Jan-13 21:29:11

[quote Eirwen]Thank you so much for the free book. I didn't get around to starting it until the snowy weekend. The evening we had planned on the Saturday was cancelled due to the snow so I sat down and began reading in late afternoon. I couldn't put it down ! I finished it at 3 a.m. on Sunday and it has been on my mind ever since. It reminds me of some 'not talking' within my own extended family after a bereavement, sadly, which carried on unresolved for many years.

Like Gazzalw, I was with Harold all of the way, feeling the pain of every blister and of all the past wasted years. Both David's suicide and Queenie's sad state of health came as a shock. I would love to hear more of Rex and the nurse and maybe some of the other pilgrims. Any thoughts of a sequel?

Thanks for a fantastic book which I will recommend to anyone who is interested.[

Hello Eirwen,

A few people have asked if there would be a sequel. Someone even suggested I should write Harold and Maureen’s bus journey home.. But actually I have let them go their way – maybe via the Cotswolds, maybe Holt where they spent their honeymoon. I felt I had to let them go. Or maybe they had to let me go. I’m not sure which. I have just finished my second book, though, so my head is full of that too. In fact my daughter said to me the other day, “Mum, who do you love best? Harold Fry? Or Byron?” (The boy-hero of my next book). And I said to her, “Well, Harold has lots of people to look after him now and Byron has only me so I have to say Byron.”

RachelJoyce Tue 29-Jan-13 21:30:24

[quote RSVP]Thanks a lot for the copy!

Hi Rachel,
I am very much enjoying reading the book, but haven't managed to finish it yet. I do have a question though and I hope it makes sense:

'he felt he had already broken an unspoken English rule in asking for help' (p.62, emphasis added)

I think that's absolutely spot on! Why do you think that is? Especially as there is no shortage of offering help, e.g. the woman did help Harold....

I am not English but DH and his parents are. Of all cultural differences this one is bugging me most. Why is it so wrong to admit being in need?

Hello RSVP,

I think it is often to do with generation. But I think too that (in some English people,) there is a sense that you are expected to be able to manage everything and that if you can’t, it is shameful to admit you are out of your depth.

RachelJoyce Tue 29-Jan-13 21:33:46

RSVP

Thanks a lot for the copy!

Hi Rachel,
I am very much enjoying reading the book, but haven't managed to finish it yet. I do have a question though and I hope it makes sense:

'he felt he had already broken an unspoken English rule in asking for help' (p.62, emphasis added)

I think that's absolutely spot on! Why do you think that is? Especially as there is no shortage of offering help, e.g. the woman did help Harold....

I am not English but DH and his parents are. Of all cultural differences this one is bugging me most. Why is it so wrong to admit being in need?

Hello RSVP,

I think it is often to do with generation. But I think too that (in some English people,) there is a sense that you are expected to be able to manage everything and that if you can?t, it is shameful to admit you are out of your depth.

Belo

For only the 2nd time ever I've finished a book in time!

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and agreed with the other posters that it picked up its momentum as it went through.

My questions/comments are... I didn't guess about David. It came as a shock to me in the same way that finding out about the husbands death in We need to talk about Kevin did. Was that book an influence on you Rachel?

I would like to have heard more about Maureen - she seemed to have come on quite a journey herself, but it would have been nicer to have had her turned into a fuller character. And, Rex, it appeared that he was only there to try and pull Maureen out of herself. Was there a reason that you didn't expand these characters, and give them more of a role?

[quote Belo]For only the 2nd time ever I've finished a book in time!

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and agreed with the other posters that it picked up its momentum as it went through.

My questions/comments are... I didn't guess about David. It came as a shock to me in the same way that finding out about the husbands death in We need to talk about Kevin did. Was that book an influence on you Rachel?

I would like to have heard more about Maureen - she seemed to have come on quite a journey herself, but it would have been nicer to have had her turned into a fuller character. And, Rex, it appeared that he was only there to try and pull Maureen out of herself. Was there a reason that you didn't expand these characters, and give them more of a role?

Hello Bello,

I am ashamed to admit I haven?t yet read it. I am very interested, though, in what happens to creativity and intelligence when it doesn?t find the right vent through which to express itself. At its worst, I fear it can swoop back on itself and be very brutal. David is a young man who gets lost. I think I have already answered the other point about expanding characters/ ending stories. I don?t want to tell you what to feel, what to think. I feel it's important to let the reader take the clues and contemplate on how things might have been.

RachelJoyce Tue 29-Jan-13 21:35:10

[quote lilibet]Hi Rachel

Thanks for coming to mumsnet and thanks for writing such a thought provoking book. I was bought it for my birthday in May and have pressed it on several people since then, who have all loved it, including my husband.

What differences did you find in writing for radio and writing a novel, did you picture the characters in the same way? I never really connect with a book or a radio play unless I cast the people in my head, if I can't find a face for a main character, chances are that I won't get along with the book. I cast everyone in Harold Fry! (if you need my services for any movie or tv adaptaion, I can be contacted through mumsnet wink )

Hello lilibet,

The best part for me about moving a story from a radio play into a book was the freedom it gave me to explore. I know not all of you are going to agree with me when I say this, but it gave me the chance to probe the past, memory, why people are the people they are; and also to give Harold these chance encounters along the way. (None of them were in the radio play.) I think things can happen between strangers – conversations, acts of kindness – that might not be so easy when you have to see that person day after day after day.

Having said that, in a radio play you have to watch the plot like a hawk. You can’t have a scene – however much you like it – unless it advances the story. That is a good discipline, I think. (And again I can hear some of you groaning about HOW SLOW the book was for you. So I’m sorry for that.)
All I am saying about casting is this; have you heard Jim Broadbent reading the audio book? He breaks my heart.

lilibet Tue 29-Jan-13 21:37:17

She answered me!! (and beautifully too) grin

RachelJoyce Tue 29-Jan-13 21:37:19

[quote BownhillBaby]Hi Rachel

I wondered if you could say something about your process of putting a book together - whether you get things right first time or go through a series of drafts. I'd also be really interested to know if you had all your plot points clear before you got going or if they were revealed on your own journey.

Thanks!

It takes me so long to feel I have captured a sentence, or a feeling, let alone a whole story. I know my beginning, my middle and the end - often the bits in between take lots of mistakes in order to find the way.

RachelJoyce Tue 29-Jan-13 21:40:39

[quote CuriousMama]Hello Rachel, I adored TUPOHF. Cried buckets and still feel weepy when I think of it. Dp also cried especially when he read their son had died. I did have an inkling to be honest.

I'd like to ask if you have any tips on the structure of writing a novel? I'm tempted to buy a writing kit but not sure if I really need one? I did buy one before but lost it in a house move but hadn't really tried using it. Or maybe I should carry a large notebook around and take notes?

I'd rather be a script writer but would love to attempt a novel.

Good luck in your future and look forward to your next works smile

Thank you!

I think the first draft of a book is terrifying. It is like digging a huge hole and you have no idea what shape it is going to be, or even what it really is. But you learn like that. You make lots of mistakes - and that is how you find the answers, I think.

I have a notebook and my children keep drawing in it.

RachelJoyce Tue 29-Jan-13 21:41:35

michelle1979

Hi Rachel,

I don't have any questions, just wanted to congratulate you on your novel, I found parts of it extremely moving and perceptive. So very sorry about the loss of your Dad.

Thank you, Michelle.

CuriousMama Tue 29-Jan-13 21:43:58

Thanks Rachel I'll keep a notebook. I find myself making up stories all the time. I just need to get my finger out and actually write!

RachelJoyce Tue 29-Jan-13 21:44:21

Rachel, anything you can tell us about your next book? Many of us are waiting in anticipation!

Hello MummyBarrow -

(And yes, OF COURSE I remember meeting you.)

The new book is so big in my head it might take us all night for me to finish this answer. But here is the line on the back cover:

'In 1972, two seconds were added to time. Were they to blame for what happened next?'

MummyBarrow Tue 29-Jan-13 21:46:13

oh my word!! Thank you for your reply, Rachel. Do hope you have enjoyed your chat in Mumsnet tonight.

1972... two seconds? Oh my word. I CANNOT WAIT!!!

PS flat share with Emma Freud at Uni?! Bet there is lots of gossip there!

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