The ‘unlikely’ journey of Rachel Joyce

Harold Fry Fittingly, on the last day of the Ilkley Literature Festival, Rachel Joyce was in town to talk about journeys. And what a journey the festival’s 40th year has been.

The runaway success of Joyce’s debut novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, has taken Joyce on an unbelievable journey herself.

Arriving to unprompted applause, it was clear she was speaking to the already converted. Long-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize and awarded new writer of the year 2012, Joyce’s novel has been translated into 30 languages.

Unlikely, in a way, as Harold Fry is such an English character, but his redemptive journey transcends county boundaries and country borders.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is, Joyce explained, many journeys: a physical journey, a spiritual journey, a journey of a life, and a journey of marriage.

Harold Fry’s pilgrim’s progress is about friendship – often in the unlikeliest of places – and how just a little empathy can help solve so many problems. Harold Fry celebrates the small and the ordinary.

A successful actress and radio playwright, Joyce began to tell Harold Fry’s journey in a radio play, partly as a way of dealing with her father’s death from cancer.

Rachel explained how the journey of her writing mirrored the journey of Harold Fry’s arduous journey on foot from Kingsbridge in South Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed.

On the days when it was hard for Joyce to put pen to paper, Harold might not walk very far; blisters or the weather got the better of him. On the good writing days, Harold puts one foot in front of the other and keeps on going to reach the hospice at Berwick-upon-Tweed to save Queenie Hennessy, who is dying from cancer.

Joyce admits that she wove in places she knew and people she had seen. It was fascinating to hear how she pieced Harold’s journey together with torn out pages from the A-Z.

Rachel revealed some exciting news – Harold Fry is to be made into a film, and she is currently working on a form of sequel to the novel itself: The Love Song of Queenie Hennessy. With any story, there is more than one version, and the next novel will tell hers.

Rachel Joyce also spoke about her latest novel, Perfect and read from the prologue, careful not to spoil the plot for those of us who haven’t had the chance to catch up.

Rachel spoke about how and where her ideas for novels come from – and Perfect came to her, funnily enough, on a pretty mundane journey – the school run.

Perfect, set in 1972, is about the quest to be good at everything, and what happens in the tiny moment in time when you let go. Joyce managed to keep the audience in suspense to the end of her talk – and it was no surprise to see a sea of fans queuing afterwards to get their hands on the latest instalment of her sparkling prose.

Read more here.