Rachel Joyce webchat

Rachel JoyceRachel Joyce joined us in January 2013 to discuss her Booker-nominated novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

During the webchat she spoke candidly about how the book mirrored the tragic death of her father, the catharsis she found in writing and how Harold's story continues to evolve in new mediums.

Rachel has written more than 20 afternoon plays for BBC Radio 4. It was in a radio play called To Be A Pilgrim that Harold Fry was first introduced. In 2007, the piece won the Tinniswood award for Best Radio Play.

Rachel then adapted it into a novel and went on to win the New Writer of the Year award at the National Book Awards in 2012. 

Themes | Characters | Inspiration | Writing | Other



The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold FryQ. Modernbear: I could not put this book down. Thankfully, I have an understanding husband. By the end I was in tears. I lost both parents quite young in relative terms: my mother to cancer. I know I would have walked a million miles to keep her alive.

Did writing this particular work allow you to come to terms with something in your past, in some way mirroring Harold's literal journey?

A. RachelJoyce: I have been very open about the fact I began this story when I found out my father was dying from cancer. I knew I would never tell him and also knew he would not live long enough to find out. I was right about both things.

So yes, the story was my way of dealing with my wild and complicated grief. Even though I didn't quite see it at the time, it makes sense to me now that - as I was losing my dad - I wrote about a man who tries to keep someone else alive.

I am sorry about your parents, but I suppose at least we both understand in some way what the other feels? The book has never replaced my dad, but it helped me to move from a very painful place. I still miss him terribly. I wish he would walk into the room right now.

Q. DuchessofMalfi: 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.

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?

A. RachelJoyce: 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 filmmakers have mentioned that.

Q. Gaelicsheep: What made you decide to suddenly become so graphic in your 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 at all, it simply prolonged someone's agony. This latter aspect left me rather ambivalent about the whole book - I wonder if that is intentional?

Secondly, do you feel, in hindsight, that including the groupies in the book was a mistake?

A. RachelJoyce: Look, I'm going to be really blunt and honest with you. When my dad died he had a tumour 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.

Q. Southlondonlady: 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. Why had they made themselves so isolated? I didn't think was really explained in the book.

A. RachelJoyce: 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."

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.


Q. Hullygully: I found the book an interesting idea, pilgrimage as redemption etc, but the characters were, to me, less than fully realised. Harold is a bit more drawn, but Maureen is a cardboard-cut-out and I have no picture of her at all. She exists solely in relation to Harold's redemption. You may of course disagree!

I wonder if this is because of radio, or because Harold is to stand as an everyman? Or both? Did the idea come before the characters? It feels more idea driven than character.

A. RachelJoyce: I am sad you feel the characters are cardboard and cut out - but of course I'm not going to agree with you! I feel that the big detail is in the smallest things. Personally I don't like books that 'tell' me too much. I want to find out for myself about the character, within the context of his or her interaction with other people, their environment, etc. We can't all like the same thing, though. That's why we must never stop trying to tell stories, I think.

For me the characters were there from the start. I heard, saw, and felt them very clearly. I didn't think of any of them as representations of anything but I suppose it isn't my job to see them in that way.

Q. Whatphididnext: Why did you not expand more on Rex's situation? I felt there was enough there to have his story running parallel with Harold's story.

A. RachelJoyce: As a matter of fact, I wrote a lot more of Rex and in the end it had to go because I felt the story had to keep moving forward. But Rex has one of the key lines in the book - the one about grief, about the fact that it is a hole at our feet and at first we keep falling in, but in time we learn how to walk round it - and for me he is pivotal in helping Maureen to understand Harold and accept the past. He's a good man, is Rex. But it isn't his book. I think he would understand that.

Q. Currybaby: I would love to have known what happened to the woman doctor, and whether Harold helped her move on with her life. Also, did you do any walking as part of your research and if so which bits of the walk did you do?

A. RachelJoyce: I am going to answer your point about the woman doctor quickly, because I grew very fond of her too. 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.

"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 then I imagined from there."

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.

Q. gazzalw: I very much loved Harold's 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.

It almost seemed to me that Queenie was Harold's guardian angel. She saved him from total meltdown after David's death, and then helped save his marriage and woke him up from his inertia and 20-year depression. In a way she seemed to be like the mother he never had. I didn't entirely anticipate that Queenie was going to be at death's door when Harold arrived. Why did you choose to have Queenie so ravaged by cancer that she seemed more monster than human?

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.

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

A. RachelJoyce: 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 clichéd 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.

"At one point there were over 15 [film] 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."

As for films, yes, there was a lot of interest. At one point there were over 15 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.

Q. HellesBelles396: Queenie and Maureen have such contrasting views of Harold at the beginning of the story. Queenie thinks of him as a good, kind man while Maureen sees him as distant and cold. Over the course of the story she comes to see him more as Queenie did. Yet, he is doing something that could be seen as very selfish ie abandoning his responsibilities and embarking on a walk prompted as much by 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, it really moved me while being enjoyable.

A. RachelJoyce: 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.

Q. SunshinePanda: I was struck by the impact of Harold's physical and emotional journey on his wife. How important was Maureen's emotional journey to you when writing?

A. RachelJoyce: 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 may be 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.

Q. Belo: I didn't guess about David. It came as a shock to me in the same way that finding out about the husband's death in We Need To Talk About Kevin Did. Was that book an influence on you?

I would like to have heard more about Maureen. 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?

A. RachelJoyce: 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.


Q. TillyBookClub: Which childhood book most inspired you?

A. RachelJoyce: My favourite childhood book might have to be The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden. I read it again with my youngest daughter recently and she was enthralled. I loved reading as a child. I was unhappy sometimes and very willing to believe in things I didn't know.

Q. TillyBookClub: What are you reading at the moment, and which authors are your particular heroes/heroines?

A. RachelJoyce: I am reading about six books at once. Terrible really. Rilke's Letter To A Young Poet, a biography about Rilke's Letter To A Young Poet, The Yellow Birds... I collect books by the bed.


Q. TillyBookClub: What would be the first piece of advice you would give anyone attempting to write fiction?

A. RachelJoyce: As for writing advice; don't give up. That's my advice. Keep going even when you want to shout or cry, you are so frustrated with it. For me, writing the book was like being Harold. (And I often saw my journey as parallel to his.) It stands to reason that if you keep going, you will get there.

Q. DestinationCalabria: 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 radio and novels?

"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. "

A. RachelJoyce: 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.)

Q. lilibet: What differences did you find between 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 adaptation, I can be contacted through Mumsnet.)

A. RachelJoyce: 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.

Q. BownhillBaby: 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.

A. RachelJoyce: 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.

Q. CuriousMama: Do you have any tips on creating the structure of a novel? I'm tempted to buy a writing kit but not sure if I really need one. Or maybe I should carry a large notebook around and take notes?

A. RachelJoyce: 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.


Q. NuffinlikeaPuffin: My sister works for Waterstones and created a huge window display where she'd hand-drawn an enormous map and 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. I think you met her when you did a signing in her store

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

A. RachelJoyce: 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.

Q. Bisjo: How did you decide Harold's route?

A. RachelJoyce: I made him go through places I know. I started with Kingsbridge - where my Paul grew up - and used a lot of what I know. The barn where he stays the night outside is down the end of my lane. I sat in a lot as I wrote that bit.

Q. CuriousMama: Have you ever been to Darlington? That's my hometown, I was so excited that he went there.

A. RachelJoyce: We had a family meal there once and my grandfather almost set light to the restaurant by lighting a candle with a paper serviette.

Q. hippoCritt: Have 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!

A. RachelJoyce: I love books, this is my problem. I love films too, but you can't read them in bed so easily. (Or at least I can't.) High Fidelity? That made the jump, I think. But I agree that it is tricky.

Q. gaelicsheep: Re casting, I thought Harold was supposed to be very tall. That's why I was thinking Bill Nighy or somebody like that. Interesting that I thought of Jim Broadbent in the context of Rex though - I'd have cast him as Harold apart from the height thing. And I didn't know he read the audio book!

A. RachelJoyce: But Jim Broadbent is very tall. Shall I tell you the most unlikely suggestion? John Travolta. I think he is an amazing actor, but maybe a little too lively for Harold?

Q. Clawdy: Last year I read about the poet Simon Armitage walking the entire Pennine Way, relying on the kindness of strangers for a bed at night, and reading poetry in pubs for donations! I was reminded of this while reading about Harold's journey. Have you heard of anyone doing something similar?

A. RachelJoyce: 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.

Q. Eirwen: 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?

A. RachelJoyce: 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."

Q. RSV: "He felt he had already broken an unspoken English rule in asking for help." (p62) I think that's absolutely spot on! Why do you think that is? I am not English but my husband is. Of all the cultural differences this bugs me the most. Why is it so wrong to admit being in need?

A. RachelJoyce: 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.

Q. MummyBarrow: Anything you can tell us about your next book?

A. RachelJoyce: 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?'


Last updated: about 3 years ago