Rachel Joyce’s first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, became a bestseller when it was published in 2012, won the National Book Award (in the new writer category) and touched a lot of people’s hearts.
It tells of a 65-year-old man, the Harold of the title, who em
barks on an epic walk from Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed to see a woman, a former colleague, who is dying of cancer in a hospice. It was, suggested the reviewer from The New York Times, “very much a story of present-day courage”.
Now comes novel number four and it offers a different perspective on Harold’s journey – that of the lady in the Berwick hospice, Queenie Hennessy.
For Rachel Joyce, whose new book is being read aloud this week on BBC Radio 4, this companion novel – not a sequel, she insists, because it tells a contemporaneous tale – has resulted in an utterly likely and predictable pilgrimage, taking in the Waterstone’s branches of the nation to meet her public.
She was in Newcastle this week, having arrived on an early flight from Bristol. The city, it turned out, was not wholly unfamiliar to her because, in her former career as an actress, she came here with the Royal Shakespeare Company. She played Emilia to Richard McCabe’s Iago in Othello back in 1999.
She recalled that her husband, fellow actor Paul Venables who has also performed in Newcastle with the RSC, would go off walking in Northumberland and along the North East coast when the timetable allowed.
“I started acting in my twenties and carried on until I started having children, which was about 20 years ago. Acting can work for some people with a young family but I just wanted to be with the children so writing began to crop up. Then it took over.
“I’d always written stories but I didn’t feel confident enough to show them to people until much later and even then I didn’t feel that much more confident. A friend who I hadn’t seen for years sent me an email recently, saying, ‘I remember reading that book you wrote when you were in your twenties’. I didn’t remember showing it to anyone.”
She wrote when the children, three girls and a boy now ranging in age from 12 to 19, were at school but also in the early mornings. Unlike many actors, she is an early riser.
Radio provided the first outlet for her writing. “I would get on the afternoon slot on Radio 4 maybe twice a year. I was doing adaptations of classics for Women’s Hour and writing my own stuff. I feel very passionate about radio drama. It’s such a specific discipline. You go to other countries and you realise that the idea of radio drama is completely alien. We take it for granted.”
Her Harold Fry story was first heard on radio. “I wrote it 10 years ago as an afternoon play at a time when my dad was dying of cancer.
“I knew he was dying and I wrote him a play, not that I ever thought he’d hear it. He didn’t hear it but it was may way of coping with it, to write some sort of story. When it came to writing a book, I went back to it because I thought there was so much more to it.
“It’s a very simple idea. It starts with this man who’s going to post a letter to this woman who’s dying. But he decides to deliver it, thinking as long as he is walking she’ll keep living. It follows his journey.”
Rachel said she chose the Devon village of Kingsbridge as the starting point because that was where her husband grew up. “I wanted his journey to be across the whole country so I chose Berwick in the north. I’d passed through there on the train as a student going to Edinburgh.
“I was intrigued by the fact it is the most northern point you can get to in England. It seemed the right place for him to get to.”
This new book, telling Queenie’s side of the story, is more rooted in the Northumberland town. Rachel and her husband visited the area to find the locations that would lend substance to her story.
“We went to find where Queenie would have lived. I was really keen to do that. Paul said the place we needed to go was Craster. That was when I got really excited about setting a book there.
“Someone in our village comes from just above Newcastle and he got so excited that I was so passionate about Northumberland and started giving me maps and telling me places to go.
“I imagined Queenie would have lived in a beach house she had renovated. While I loved Craster, I couldn’t find a place where I could put her beach house. Then we walked to Embleton Bay and I saw these beach houses and... well, you know when you dream something and then you see it? I found the house with a path leading up to it.”
With four novels to her name – these twin titles and two in between, Perfect and A Faraway Smell of Lemon – Rachel is now an established and successful writer. Film4 have bought the rights to Harold Fry and a director has been assigned. Berwick will surely feature in it.
Rachel didn’t know who she would choose to play Harold. Anton Rodgers, who was “brilliant” in the radio play, died in 2007.
Maybe the Queenie book will also make a film, putting Berwick on the cinema map again.
Despite the whirl of signing sessions, Rachel said she didn’t seek change through success. She told the kind of funny story that keeps feet firmly planted on the ground.
She was on a plane next to a couple who asked what she did. On telling them she was a writer, the man said: “Oh, are you JK Rowling?”
It still makes her laugh. “As if there was only one writer!”
The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is published by Doubleday at £12.99.