There are some authors who can, in the space of few seconds, make you cry hot tears and then make you roar with laughter. Rachel Joyce does this in her books and after seeing her for the first time in person, she can also do it in real life. As she walked into the room (which was packed) at the Isle of Wight Literary Festival, you could feel the warmth radiating towards her. Patrick Gale, the author, was asking the questions and they made a great double act full of laughter and wit, riffing brilliantly off each other.
Although Joyce is on a book tour for The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, you can’t really talk about that book without first talking about The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (a huge international bestseller and shortlisted for the Man Booker prize) It’s the story of a recently retired man – an ordinary man – who goes out one morning to post a letter to a woman he once knew (Queenie) who is in a hospice in Berwick Upon Tweed. He then decides, on impulse, to walk the hundreds and hundreds of miles to see her. It struck a chord with so many people, at all stages of their lives, and we took him to our hearts.
Joyce was writing something else when she kept thinking about Queenie. She felt she had to give her her story, to give her her life – so she stopped what she was working on and began to write about her instead. The book is a companion piece to Harold Fry – not, she stressed, a sequel. She laughed that if she had thought about it more first, she perhaps wouldn’t have done it like that – as she had hemmed herself in by knowing it had to be set in a hospice, that Queenie can’t talk (the cancer has taken her voice) and that the timeframe was going to have to mirror exactly that set out in Harold Fry. And it does – it dovetails beautifully.
I didn’t know that the story for The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry had originally grown out of a radio play she wrote; Joyce has written many radio plays and also had a successful career as an actress before becoming a novelist. The actor Anton Rogers ( who I used to watch on TV in May to December as a child with my Dad) was Harold with Anna Massey and Niamh Cusack. She told some great stories about Rogers and his comic timing, how the noise of Harold walking through grass is made by swishing through brown tape, how he had phoned her up and said he was unable to do the naked swim. But it’s for radio! A film is still being talked about although the whole crowd roared when she said they had suggested John Travolta to be Harold. Jim Broadbent would be her choice although if it goes on much longer, she joked, she and her husband (also an actor) will be old enough to play the parts themselves.
She spoke about how to create tension punctured by comedy and how she was interested in putting ordinary people in situations they don’t know how to deal with, who then don’t say what needs to be said but will instead talk about, for instance, jam. She spoke movingly of her own father who was undergoing horrendous treatment for a tumour but would still, when she visited, be wearing a tie. He hated the water, was frightened of the water and couldn’t swim. but still wore yachting shoes. That set me off, the death of my own father so fresh and I could hear several people stifling sobs. A reading from the book which talked about telling your mother you love her before she dies had more people crying. But then she had everyone laughing again at an Amazon reviewer who had given the book 3* and she had been crushed, but had also, she found out, given 5* to a double bladed potato masher.
Everyone wanted to know when we could expect something new -and she spoke tantaslingly of a collection of short stories which are all set around Christmas leading up to New Year’s Eve – the first one featuring a mother on Christmas Eve not being able to cope with all the preparations (the sound of wry laughter from a lot of women) and then a minor character who was barely mentioned in that one takes centre stage in the next story- she loves the idea of passing the baton. Then there is a new novel which she is writing now.
I could have listened to her for hours – she is one of those people who are so engaging, self deprecating with great comic timing and a huge store of great anecdotes. She already has many loyal fans who can’t wait for her next book and will definitely have made a few more that day.
The Snow Garden is out November 5th