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Rachel Joyce

Rachel Joyce

Rachel Joyce visited GNHQ to answer gransnetters' questions on her bestselling first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which was longlisted for The Man Booker Prize 2012, shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Award 2012 and has been sold in 40 countries worldwide. She talked about the inspirations for her book, writing for radio, staying grounded...and the importance of sheds.

Q: Are the passages inside the hospice are from your research, personal experience or is it fiction? And were you surprised at the success of the book, both critically and in sales terms? DavidH22

A: I wrote this book as a tribute to my father who died of cancer of the head and neck. He spent time in Intensive Care but died at home. By the end of his life his tumour was the size of a ball and growing out of his face. This is why I had to write Queenie's story the way that I have, so the descriptions of the hospice are a combination - as with most things in the book - of what I know and what I imagined. The success of the book has completely floored me, I didn't see it coming at all.

Q: A couple of my book group readers couldn't get past Harold's unsuitable footwear. They thought he couldn't possibly have done the walk wearing them so this made them dislike the whole book. Was there a reason for this? (I thought it meant he came as he was...) Treebee

A: The reason I chose deck shoes was because my father always wore them and it made me laugh because he hated the sea. The point about not wearing walking boots is that Harold's journey is unplanned. He sets off in the clothes you would wear to post a letter. But one of the things his journey teaches him is that we don't need the "stuff" to do things.

Q: Is it very different, writing for radio and writing a novel? Did you carry over anything you'd learnt from writing for radio? Closetgran

A: I've learnt a lot from writing for radio, but one of the most important things for me is the significance of story. In radio, no matter how beautiful a scene, you can only keep it if it advances the plotline. I think that's a very important thing to learn.

Q: I think it would make a good movie. Who could we get to play Harold? Any suggestions? Mrsmopp

A: The film rights have been bought and the script is being written. Have you heard Jim Broadbent reading the audio book? He breaks my heart. Who do you think?

Q: Loved this book. Best one I've read in a long time. I think it was interesting the way he had difficulty in facing difficult emotions, burying them under the carpet and only being able to face up to them when he finds the space and peace of the open road. Do you think he would have gone on his journey if the garage girl had told him that her aunt had, actually, died? j08

A: Yes, I'm very interested in difficult emotion that we bury because it is just too hard or painful to deal with it. The garage girl definitely plays a significant part in Harold's journey. For me it takes a number of things to fall into place and make one thing happen.

Q: Are you a great walker yourself (or is the dedication metaphorical)? Batgran

A: I am a big walker myself. I live in the middle of the countryside and this morning, for instance, I was out at 5.30 feeding ducks and hens and lambs and walking the dog. The light was extraordinary and I feel very lucky that I live like this. The dedication is to my husband who walks with me both metaphorically and literally.

Q: I got cross with all the hangers on. Mads

A: Oh, I agree with you. I hate the hangers on. They get in the way and they don't understand Harold's journey. You're not supposed to like them but I had to include them because I felt that without them both Harold and the reader would stay in a bubble. The truth is, I think, that we come across people in life who don't always understand us and we have to work out how to deal with them.

Q: The questions in the back are interesting. Did you have book clubs in mind when writing this? Milly

A: When I wrote the book I was really only thinking of a story that moved me. I was thinking of my dad too, so it was a very personal thing to write, but since it's been published and I've been doing events and meeting people, book clubs have been discussed. I'm still really moved by the things that people say to me as a result of having read the book. It was unexpected that strangers would open up to me in this way.

Q: Excellent start! A verse of my favourite hymn on the front page! J08

A: It's one of my favourite hymns too! In the radio play Niamh Cusack sang it unaccompanied and it was very moving.

Q: Is it difficult to follow a book that has had such very great success? Extremesport

A: I started writing my second book before Harold Fry had come out so to begin with I didn't really have a sense of expectation. Since the success of Harold Fry I just kept sitting in my shed writing this new story and letting Harold get on with his own thing.

Q: I wanted to ask whether you think people can be taught to write or whether it is something you either have or you don't? doubletrouble

A: I think there's always something to be said for learning but as far as writing goes I think the most important thing is to keep at it. Like Harold's walk, even when you don't believe in what you're writing (and I have lots of bad days) you still keep going.

Q: The book is a lovely mixture of poignant and funny, I think. Did you have to work hard to get that balance and were you worried about it tipping over into sentimentality? (I don't think it does, but it's deceptively simple and I was worried it might!) Firenze

A: I can't get away from the fact that I'm somebody who feels things very deeply. It's something I've had to learn to live with. But I also find slapstick ridiculously funny. For me, drama lies at the point where humour and tragedy collide. It's a very interesting space.

''For me, drama lies at the point where humour and tragedy collide.''

Q: I wonder how you got the idea for the book and if you know anyone who actually gave you the inspiration? They say authors base their stories on things they know as well as their creativity. cazthebookworm

A: The inspiration for the story was actually an emotional response to the news that my dad was dying. He was frightened of dying and I was frightened of losing him, and so I began writing this story in secret. I think it was probably my way of dealing with a very wild and complicated feeling of grief. My dad never knew that I was writing the story for him. I think he'd have been very embarrassed. Like Harold, he found it difficult to talk about his feelings and he always wore a jacket and tie even after four hours of surgery.

Q: I was fascinated by the echoes of Pilgrim's Progress, especially as Harold wasn't religious. Were you saying something there? (about the importance of what we think of as religious symbolism, maybe?) crostini

A: I wanted to write a story that would work as a story but that could also play with ideas about what it means to have faith if you're not a churchgoer. Pilgrim's Progress was in my mind and there are references to it but it's important to me that you don't have to find them.

Q: A lovely, very different book, thoughtful and inspirational. Harold and Maureen's characters are so intimately drawn, and very real. There will be parts of them that many people would recognise in themselves. Lowslung

A: That's a lovely thing to say, thank you. I spend a lot of time watching and listening to other people. I'm not quite sure where Harold and Maureen came from exactly but they were very clear to me right from the beginning. When I was writing the book my children started spotting men walking by the road and calling them Harold.

Q: Ooh, can you tell us more about your shed? I am intrigued by how people manage to write whole books. Would a shed help?! Icabodisitchy

"A shed is a lovely thing to have but I think it would be a mistake to think you can't write a book without one."

A: My shed is in the garden and sometimes it's full of sunlight and at other times it's full of jam, apples and last year, six ducklings under a heat lamp. I love being in my shed but often I'm writing at the kitchen table or stopping the car on the way to school because there's something I need to write down. So a shed is a lovely thing to have but I think it would be a mistake to think you can't write a book without one.

Q: I thought it was interesting that you decided to write about an older person. It is not very fashionable even though older people of course have lived very rich lives. I wondered why you decided to do that and whether you have any thoughts about why the majority of novels throughout history have been about young people? getmehrt

A: I like writing about the people I see around me. I think there are plenty of stories about shiny bright people so they don't need me, but ordinary people I find far more inspiring, and moving too.

In my second book, Perfect, my protagonist is an 11 year-old boy. What is so different is that with Harold there's a huge backstory whereas when you write from the point of view of a child, everything is new and they often think they're the only ones who've ever felt it. I do think you have to fall in love with your protagonists if you're writing about them.

Q: I read somewhere that you went on a writing academy course before settling down to turn Harold Fry into a novel. Did you find this useful even though you'd been writing for years? quibble

A: I did go on a writing course, yes. I didn't tell anyone that I wrote for radio and I found the whole thing very challenging, but as I said earlier I think it's important to keep learning even if you think you know how to do something.

Q: One of the things I liked most about the book was the way you eked out the plot and the revelations about the past. Was that difficult to do (did it take a lot of planning)? hokeypokey

A: I didn't want to write a story and then slam a load of backstory on top of it. I wanted the backstory to come out of the story itself, so yes, I planned really really carefully. I also wrote and rewrote and rewrote because the plans never quite work for me. I think I only really find the story by getting inside it and making mistakes.

Q: What is your favourite part of the book? Clytie

A: I could say it's very difficult for me to answer this question. You may have gathered that I struggle a lot with self-confidence so I don't know that it's my place to say I have a favourite bit, but I do like Maureen and the wardrobe, oh and I like the doctor. And at events, I often read the chapter about the silver haired gentleman. I think that section is very close to me.

Q: Did you know exactly how the book was going to end before you started? If so, how did you keep yourself interested? granIT

A: I did know the ending and I knew the middle and I knew the scene where Maureen comes after Harold and buys him a coffee. The rest I found by writing and rewriting. I had to cut lots and I have this idea that there is a crowd of deleted characters loitering about in my shed and making a nuisance of themselves.

I can't stop writing a story until it's done, even if it's driving me half mad, but I think it's a really good question and I think about it a lot because the trick of writing, especially a first novel, is to keep yourself believing you can do it. I got very interested in maps.

Q: When is your next book out? And can you tell us anything about it? downwithcupcakes

A: It's out on July the 4th. It's called Perfect and it's set in 1972 when two seconds were added to time. In my story there is also an accident and the question that preoccupies 11 year-old Byron is whether the accident would have happened without the extra two seconds.

Q: My only disappointment was the way Harold picked up pace as he passed through Northern England. The descriptions of the Southern towns and countryside on his journey were so detailed and well written, and I was looking forward to seeing what he made of Yorkshire, Durham etc. Well he didn't - he picked up speed and fair dashed through the grim North towards the book's end. I'd like to ask why this was - did you realise you'd spent too long on the journey so far and had to speed it up, or did you think it was grim up North and just not fancy the research trip? Maggiemaybe

A: When I started the book I was so detailed about the journey that I even included references to all the roads he takes. It was my husband who pointed out that it isn't a travel book. By the time Harold arrives North, he's in a different mindset. He's no longer so absorbed in his setting, but in understanding the past. As it happens my mother is from Brighouse, where I spent a lot of my childhood. I still go slightly weak when I hear the accent.

Q: I was reading this while on holiday last week, put it down and my husband picked it up and we both recognised things in our relationship that reflected that of Harold and Maureen. He too thought that deck shoes could not be resoled. We both loved the book and were surprised by the revelation about David near the end...it explained a lot.
We were both a little disappointed at the ending, I would have run away with Rex if I was Maureen! I wonder if you had always intended this ending or if you had any alternatives in mind? Pittcity

Other things you might like

A: Now that I've explained a bit about my dad, you maybe understand why I had to have this ending. Though I did try a couple of others, I always believed this was where it had to stop.

There is a hint that things might get tricky but there is also a hint they might get better. Maybe it depends on what kind of person you are as to what you find.

About the deck shoes, my dad did get his resoled, but he also stuck a false tooth back in his mouth once with Superglue so I don't know how safe he was!

Q: Has writing a successful novel changed your life? topshot

A: No, not really - I have four children. You should have seen the chaos in our house this morning. Nobody could find their school shoes after half term. These things keep you very grounded.

Q: As it is set in Devon, I recognised many of the places in the first part of the journey (only recently I was in Kingsbridge for work, visiting the college.) phoenix

A: As I said earlier, I like to write about what I know and love. Kingsbridge is where my husband was brought up. The barn where Harold first sleeps outside is at the end of my lane. Even our dog made his way into the story.

Q: I loved it, it was subtle and clever, and very moving. Makes you think about love, life and ageing. Read it and weep! hummingbird

A: That's a lovely thing to say, thank you. And it still means a lot to me to hear it. Thank you, Gransnet, for inviting me to take part in your discussion, and for such thought-provoking questions. I've had a really lovely morning.

She's manipulative - 5-year-old GD

Is it discrimination? - obesity

She invited herself - daughter