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A Novel

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Synopsis

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • LONGLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE WASHINGTON POST
 
“[Rachel] Joyce’s beguiling debut is [a] modest-seeming story of ‘ordinary’ English lives that enthralls and moves you as it unfolds.”—People (four stars)
 
Meet Harold Fry, recently retired. He lives in a small English village with his wife, Maureen, who seems irritated by almost everything he does. Little differentiates one day from the next. Then one morning a letter arrives, addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl, from a woman he hasn’t heard from in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye. But before Harold mails off a quick reply, a chance encounter convinces him that he absolutely must deliver his message to Queenie in person. In his yachting shoes and light coat, Harold Fry embarks on an urgent quest. Determined to walk six hundred miles to the hospice, Harold believes that as long as he walks, Queenie will live. A novel of charm, humor, and profound insight into the thoughts and feelings we all bury deep within our hearts, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry introduces Rachel Joyce as a wise—and utterly irresistible—storyteller.
 
Praise for The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

“[A] gorgeously poignant novel of hope and transformation.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
 
“A cause for celebration . . . [Joyce] has a lovely sense of the possibilities of redemption. In this bravely unpretentious and unsentimental take, she’s cleared space where miracles are still possible.”—Ron Charles, The Washington Post
 
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is not just a book about lost love. It is about all the wonderful everyday things Harold discovers through the mere process of putting one foot in front of the other.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

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Excerpt

1

Harold and the Letter

The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday. It was an ordinary morning in mid-April that smelled of clean washing and grass cuttings. Harold Fry sat at the breakfast table, freshly shaved, in a clean shirt and tie, with a slice of toast that he wasn’t eating. He gazed beyond the kitchen window at the clipped lawn, which was spiked in the middle by Maureen’s telescopic washing line, and trapped on all three sides by the neighbors’ stockade fencing.

“Harold!” called Maureen above the vacuum cleaner. “Post!”

He thought he might like to go out, but the only thing to do was mow the lawn and he had done that yesterday. The vacuum tumbled into silence, and his wife appeared, looking cross, with a letter. She sat opposite Harold.

Maureen was a slight woman with a cap of silver hair and a brisk walk. When they first met, nothing had pleased him more than to make her laugh. To watch her neat frame collapse into unruly happiness. “It’s for you,” she said. He didn’t know what she meant until she slid an envelope across the table, and stopped it just short of Harold’s elbow. They both looked at the letter as if they had never seen one before. It was pink. “The postmark says Berwick-upon-Tweed.”

He didn’t know anyone in Berwick. He didn’t know many people anywhere. “Maybe it’s a mistake.”

“I think not. They don’t get something like a postmark wrong.” She took toast from the rack. She liked it cold and crisp.

Harold studied the mysterious envelope. Its pink was not the color of the bathroom suite, or the matching towels and fluffed cover for the toilet seat. That was a vivid shade that made Harold feel he shouldn’t be there. But this was delicate. A Turkish Delight pink. His name and address were scribbled in ballpoint, the clumsy letters collapsing into one another as if a child had dashed them off in a hurry: Mr. H. Fry, 13 Fossebridge Road, Kingsbridge, South Hams. He didn’t recognize the handwriting.

“Well?” said Maureen, passing a knife. He held it to the corner of the envelope, and tugged it through the fold. “Careful,” she warned.

He could feel her eyes on him as he eased out the letter, and prodded back his reading glasses. The page was typed, and addressed from a place he didn’t know: St. Bernadine’s Hospice. Dear Harold, This may come to you as some surprise. His eyes ran to the bottom of the page.

“Well?” said Maureen again.

“Good lord. It’s from Queenie Hennessy.”

Maureen speared a nugget of butter with her knife and flattened it the length of her toast. “Queenie who?”

“She worked at the brewery. Years ago. Don’t you remember?”

Maureen shrugged. “I don’t see why I should. I don’t know why I’d remember someone from years ago. Could you pass the jam?”

“She was in finances. She was very good.”

“That’s the marmalade, Harold. Jam is red. If you look at things before you pick them up, you’ll find it helps.”

Harold passed her what she needed and returned to his letter. Beautifully set out, of course; nothing like the muddled writing on the envelope. Then he smiled, remembering this was how it always was with Queenie: everything she did so precise you couldn’t fault it. “She remembers you. She sends her regards.”

Maureen’s mouth pinched into a bead. “A chap on the radio was saying the French want our bread. They can’t get it sliced in France. They come over here and they buy it all up. The chap said there might be a shortage by summer.” She paused. “Harold? Is something the matter?”

He said nothing. He drew up tall with his lips parted, his face bleached. His voice, when at last it came, was small and far away. “It’s—cancer. Queenie is writing to say goodbye.” He fumbled for more words but there weren’t any. Tugging a handkerchief from his trouser pocket, Harold blew his nose. “I um. Gosh.” Tears crammed his eyes.

Moments passed; maybe minutes. Maureen gave a swallow that smacked the silence. “I’m sorry,” she said.

He nodded. He ought to look up, but he couldn’t.

“It’s a nice morning,” she began again. “Why don’t you fetch out the patio chairs?” But he sat, not moving, not speaking, until she lifted the dirty plates. Moments later the vacuum cleaner took up from the hall.



Harold felt winded. If he moved so much as a limb, a muscle, he was afraid it would trigger an abundance of feeling he was doing his best to contain. Why had he let twenty years pass without trying to find Queenie Hennessy? A picture came of the small, dark-haired woman with whom he had worked all that time ago, and it seemed inconceivable that she was—what? Sixty? And dying of cancer in Berwick. Of all the places, he thought; he’d never traveled so far north. He glanced out at the garden and saw a ribbon of plastic caught in the laurel hedging, flapping up and down, but never pulling free. He tucked Queenie’s letter into his pocket, patted it twice for safekeeping, and rose to his feet.

Upstairs Maureen shut the door of David’s room quietly and stood a moment, breathing him in. She pulled open his blue curtains that she closed every night, and checked that there was no dust where the hem of the net drapes met the windowsill. She polished the silver frame of his Cambridge portrait, and the black-and-white baby photograph beside it. She kept the room clean because she was waiting for David to come back, and she never knew when that would be. A part of her was always waiting. Men had no idea what it was like to be a mother. The ache of loving a child, even when he had moved on. She thought of Harold downstairs, with his pink letter, and wished she could talk to their son. Maureen left the room as softly as she had entered it, and went to strip the beds.



Harold Fry took several sheets of Basildon Bond from the sideboard drawer and one of Maureen’s rollerball pens. What did you say to a dying woman with cancer? He wanted her to know how sorry he felt, but it was wrong to put In Sympathy because that was what the cards in the shops said after, as it were, the event; and anyway it sounded formal, as if he didn’t really care. He tried Dear Miss Hennessy, I sincerely hope your condition improves, but when he put down the pen to inspect his message, it seemed both stiff and unlikely. He crumpled the paper into a ball and tried again. He had never been good at expressing himself. What he felt was so big it was difficult to find the words, and even if he could, it was hardly appropriate to write them to someone he had not contacted in twenty years. Had the shoe been on the other foot, Queenie would have known what to do.

“Harold?” Maureen’s voice took him by surprise. He thought she was upstairs, polishing something, or speaking to David. She had her rubber gloves on.

“I’m writing Queenie a note.”

“A note?” She often repeated what he said.

“Yes. Would you like to sign?”

“I think not. It would hardly be appropriate to sign a note to someone I don’t know.”

It was time to stop worrying about expressing anything beautifully. He would simply have to set down the words in his head: Dear Queenie, Thank you for your letter. I am very sorry. Yours Best wishes—Harold (Fry). It was limp, but there it was. Sliding the letter into an envelope, he sealed it quickly, and copied the address of St. Bernadine’s Hospice onto the front. “I’ll nip to the postbox.”

It was past eleven o’clock. He lifted his waterproof jacket from the peg where Maureen liked him to hang it. At the door, the smell of warmth and salt air rushed at his nose, but his wife was at his side before his left foot was over the threshold.

“Will you be long?”

“I’m only going to the end of the road.”

She kept on looking up at him, with her moss-green eyes and her fragile chin, and he wished he knew what to say but he didn’t; at least not in a way that would make any difference. He longed to touch her like in the old days, to lower his head on her shoulder and rest there. “Cheerio, Maureen.” He shut the front door between them, taking care not to let it slam.

Built on a hill above Kingsbridge, the houses of Fossebridge Road enjoyed what estate agents called an elevated position, with far-reaching views over the town and countryside. Their front gardens, however, sloped at a precarious angle toward the pavement below, and plants wrapped themselves round bamboo stakes as if hanging on for dear life. Harold strode down the steep concrete path a little faster than he might have wished and noticed five new dandelions. Maybe this afternoon he would get out the Roundup. It would be something.

Spotting Harold, the next-door neighbor waved and steered his way toward the adjoining fence. Rex was a short man with tidy feet at the bottom, a small head at the top, and a very round body in the middle, causing Harold to fear sometimes that if he fell there would be no stopping him. He would roll down the hill like a barrel. Rex had been widowed six months ago, at about the time of Harold’s retirement. Since Elizabeth’s death, he liked to talk about how hard life was. He liked to talk about it at great length. “The least you can do is listen,” Maureen said, although Harold wasn’t sure if she meant “you” in the general sense or the particular.

“Off for a walk?” said Rex.

Harold attempted a jocular tone that would act, he hoped, as an intimation that now was not the time to stop. “Need anything posted, old chap?”

“Nobody writes to me. Since Elizabeth passed away, I only get circulars.”

Rex gazed into the middle distance and Harold recognized at once the direction the conversation was heading. He threw a look upward; puffs of cloud sat on a tissue-paper sky. “Jolly nice day.”

“Jolly nice,” said Rex. There was a pause and Rex poured a sigh into it. “Elizabeth liked the sun.” Another pause.

“Good day for mowing, Rex.”

“Very good, Harold. Do you compost your grass cuttings? Or do you mulch?”

“I find mulching leaves a mess that sticks to my feet. Maureen doesn’t like it when I tread things into the house.” Harold glanced at his yachting shoes and wondered why people wore them when they had no intention of sailing. “Well. Must get on. Catch the midday collection.” Wagging his envelope, Harold turned toward the pavement.

For the first time in his life, it was a disappointment to find that the postbox cropped up sooner than expected. Harold tried to cross the road to avoid it, but there it was, waiting for him on the corner of Fossebridge Road. He lifted his letter for Queenie to the slot, and stopped. He looked back at the short distance his feet had traveled.

The detached houses were stuccoed and washed in shades of yellow, salmon, and blue. Some still had their pointed fifties roofs with decorative beams in the shape of a half sun; others had slate-clad loft extensions; one had been completely rebuilt in the style of a Swiss chalet. Harold and Maureen had moved here forty-five years ago, just after they were married. It took all his savings to pay the deposit; there had been nothing left for curtains or furniture. They had kept themselves apart from others, and over time neighbors had come and gone, while only Harold and Maureen remained. There had once been vegetable beds, and an ornamental pond. She made chutneys every summer, and David kept goldfish. Behind the house there had been a potting shed that smelled of fertilizer, with high hooks for hanging tools, and coils of twine and rope. But these things too were long since gone. Even their son’s school, which had stood a stone’s throw from his bedroom window, was bulldozed now and replaced with fifty affordable homes in bright primary colors and street lighting in the style of Georgian gas lamps.

Harold thought of the words he had written to Queenie, and their inadequacy shamed him. He pictured himself returning home, and Maureen calling David, and life being exactly the same except for Queenie dying in Berwick, and he was overcome. The letter rested on the dark mouth of the postbox. He couldn’t let it go.

“After all,” he said out loud, though nobody was looking, “it’s a nice day.” He hadn’t anything else to do. He might as well walk to the next one. He turned the corner of Fossebridge Road before he could change his mind.

It was not like Harold to make a snap decision. He saw that. Since his retirement, days went by and nothing changed; only his waist thickened, and he lost more hair. He slept poorly at night, and sometimes he did not sleep at all. Yet, arriving more promptly than he anticipated at a postbox, he paused again. He had started something and he didn’t know what it was, but now that he was doing it, he wasn’t ready to finish. Beads of perspiration sprouted over his forehead; his blood throbbed with anticipation. If he took his letter to the post office on Fore Street, it would be guaranteed next day delivery.

The sun pressed warm on the back of his head and shoulders as he strolled down the avenues of new housing. Harold glanced in at people’s windows, and sometimes they were empty, and sometimes people were staring right back at him and he felt obliged to rush on. Sometimes, though, there was an object that he didn’t expect; a porcelain figure, or a vase, and even a tuba. The tender pieces of themselves that people staked as boundaries against the outside world. He tried to visualize what a passerby would learn about himself and Maureen from the windows of 13 Fossebridge Road, before he realized it would be not very much, on account of the net curtains. He headed for the quayside, with the muscles twitching in his thighs.

The tide was out and dinghies lolled in a moonscape of black mud, needing paint. Harold hobbled to an empty bench, inched Queenie’s letter from his pocket, and unfolded it.

She remembered. After all these years. And yet he had lived out his ordinary life as if what she had done meant nothing. He hadn’t tried to stop her. He hadn’t followed. He hadn’t even said goodbye. The sky and pavement blurred into one as fresh tears swelled his eyes. Then through them came the watery outline of a young mother and child. They seemed to be holding ice cream cones, and bore them like torches. She lifted the boy and set him down on the other end of the bench.

“Lovely day,” said Harold, not wanting to sound like an old man who was crying. She didn’t look up, or agree. Bending over her child’s fist, she licked a smooth path to stop the ice cream from running. The boy watched his mother, so still and close it was as if his face was part of hers.

Harold wondered if he had ever sat by the quay eating ice cream with David. He was sure he must have done, although searching in his mind for the memory, he found it wasn’t readily available. He must get on. He must post his letter.

Office workers were laughing with lunchtime pints outside the Old Creek Inn, but Harold barely noticed. As he began the steep climb up Fore Street, he thought about the mother who was so absorbed in her son she saw no one else. It occurred to him it was Maureen who spoke to David and told him their news. It was Maureen who had always written Harold’s name (“Dad”) in the letters and cards. It was even Maureen who had found the nursing home for his father. And it raised the question—as he pushed the button at the pelican crossing—that if she was, in effect, Harold, “then who am I?”

He strode past the post office without even stopping.
Rachel Joyce

About Rachel Joyce

Rachel Joyce - The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Rachel Joyce is the author of the international bestseller The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. She is also the award-winning writer of more than twenty plays for BBC Radio 4. She started writing after a twenty-year acting career, in which she performed leading roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company and won multiple awards. Rachel Joyce lives with her family on a Gloucestershire farm.
Praise

Praise

Praise for The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
 
 
“[A] gorgeously poignant novel of hope and transformation.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
 
“You have to love Harold Fry, a man who set out one morning to mail a letter and then just kept going. . . . Like Christian in John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, Harold becomes Everyman in the eyes of those who encounter him. . . . Harold's journey, which parallels Christian's nicely but not overly neatly, takes him to the edge of death and back again. It will stick with you, this story of faith, fidelity and redemption.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
 
“For all of us perfectly responsible, stoop-shouldered suburbanites wearing a path in the living-room carpet, Harold’s ridiculous journey is a cause for celebration. This is Walter Mitty skydiving. This is J. Alfred Prufrock not just eating that peach, but throwing the pit out the window, rolling up his trousers and whistling to those hot mermaids. Released from the cage of his own passivity, Harold feels transformed, though he keeps his tie on. . . . In this bravely unpretentious and unsentimental tale, she’s cleared space where miracles are still possible.” —Washington Post
 
"[R]emarkable. . . . I can't think of a better recommendation for summer reading. And take your time, just as Harold does.”—USA Today, four out of four stars review

[A] story of present-day courage. . . . .  about how easily a mousy, domesticated man can get lost and how joyously he can be refound.”—Janet Maslin, New York Times


“From its charming beginning to its startling and cathartic denouement, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a comic and tragic joy.”—Cleveland Plain Dealer

“When it seems almost too late, Harold Fry opens his battered heart and lets the world rush in. This funny, poignant story about an ordinary man on an extraordinary journey moved and inspired me.”—Nancy Horan, author of Loving Frank
 
“There’s tremendous heart in this debut novel by Rachel Joyce, as she probes questions that are as simple as they are profound: Can we begin to live again, and live truly, as ourselves, even in middle age, when all seems ruined? Can we believe in hope when hope seems to have abandoned us? I found myself laughing through tears, rooting for Harold at every step of his journey. I’m still rooting for him.”—Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife
 
Marvelous! I held my breath at his every blister and cramp, and felt as if by turning the pages, I might help his impossible quest succeed.”—Helen Simonson, author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
 
“Harold’s journey is ordinary and extraordinary; it is a journey through the self, through modern society, through time and landscape. It is a funny book, a wise book, a charming book—but never cloying. It’s a book with a  savage twist—and yet never seems manipulative. Perhaps because Harold himself is just wonderful. . . . I’m telling you now: I love this book.”—Erica Wagner, The Times (UK)
 
“The odyssey of a simple man . . . original, subtle and touching.”—Claire Tomalin, author of Charles Dickens: A Life
 
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry takes the most ordinary and unassuming of men and turns him into a hero for us all. To go on this journey with Harold will not only break your heart, it might just also heal it.”—Tiffany Baker, author of The Little Giant of Aberdeen County

“A gentle and genteel charmer, brimming with British quirkiness yet quietly haunting in its poignant and wise examination of love and devotion. Sure to become a book-club favorite.”— Booklist
Reader's Guide|Discussion Questions

About the Book

A Conversation Between Rachel Joyce and Charlotte Rogan

Charlotte Rogan
worked at various jobs, mostly in the fields of architecture and engineering, before teaching herself to write and staying home to bring up triplets. The Lifeboat, her first published novel, was one of the 2012 Waterstones 11, a recognition for debut novels published in the United Kingdom; it was also chosen by the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program and was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award. It is currently being translated into twenty-five languages. After many years in Dallas and a brief stint in Johannesburg, Rogan and her husband now live in Westport, Connecticut.

Charlotte Rogan:
When my protagonist Grace Winter came to me, she was defending herself to some unseen authority for things she had done in an overcrowded lifeboat. The story grew from there. Did Harold Fry or the idea of a pilgrimage come to you first, or were the situation and the character inseparable from the start?

Rachel Joyce:
The truth is that I don’t know where the story came from. Harold and his journey to Queenie turned up in my head and I realized I wanted to write about them. I think I often don’t understand what stories are about and why they are with me (and where they have come from) until I have finished—and sometimes only years later. But maybe if we understood from the offset we wouldn’t need to write them? If they were clear and complete, they would already be stories as opposed to an idea. Or an inspiration. What I do know is that I began writing this as a radio play when my father told me he was dying. He had spent years battling cancer, and after several brutal operations, surgeons told him there was nothing left to be done. He was very frightened and so was I. I was appalled at the idea of not having my father. I was appalled at the idea of watching him die. But both happened, and while they did I wrote this story about a man who sets off to save someone else. It was my escape. My way of making sense. And somehow also my way of finding the flip side to my complicated, wild grief.

CR: I like what you said about not understanding what your stories are about until much later. I remember the feeling of panic when my publisher first asked me to distill what my novel is about into a couple of sentences. Perhaps most writers think that the book itself is the best and maybe only answer to that question.

RJ:
Whenever someone asks me what my book is about, it occurs to me that I am the worst person in the world to put it in a nutshell. I remember people talking about an exercise where you supposedly have an elevator ride—twenty seconds, maybe—in which to sell your story. And my heart sinks when I imagine that. It would take me at least thirty seconds to pluck up the courage to open my mouth, let alone say something about the book.

So, yes—being a bit of a tongue-tied person—this is the side of becoming a published writer that I didn’t anticipate. When you write for radio, no one wants to know anything about you. It is the actors who do all the “shiny” publicity, and I was always, as a writer, very happy with that. So I have found it strange that suddenly people want to know about my life and who I am. The truth is, I am very private and very quiet. If you met me at a dinner party, I’d be completely underwhelming. (I would smile a lot.) But again, this, I think, is why I write. Because I need to say the things that don’t get voiced for me in everyday life.

CR:
As I think about it, the way Harold’s pilgrimage becomes public and attracts media attention makes a nice parallel to the way your novel became public. Just as you wrote the story for very personal reasons, Harold embarks on his journey with no thought of what it might mean to anyone but Queenie, yet people want statements from him. They want not only reasons, but Meaning. Have you been surprised by the public side of becoming a published novelist? (We need to mention your nomination for the Man Booker Prize here!)

RJ: I have been bowled over by the worldwide reaction to the book. I thought of it as such a personal story. The part I have loved most is readers getting in touch with me and sharing their own stories. That has been very moving.

The Booker nomination was a complete shock. I didn’t see it coming at all. But I am glad I didn’t see it coming, because I saw it as an honor—and that was enough.

CR: I wrote for twenty-five years without any sort of audience for my work, so for me, too, it has been both terrifying and enlightening to emerge from the writing closet. One of the many things I have learned from readers in recent months is that they complete a novel in a way that reminds me of the question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

RJ: I wholeheartedly agree about readers completing a book. The story cannot come alive without a willingness on the part of the reader to make an imaginative leap. Without that leap (and you could call it a leap of faith), Harold and Maureen are simply in my head. I once told someone about a book I had read and how much I wished I’d written it. She said to me, “But in feeling the way you do, you have written it.” I had never thought of reading in this way before, but I think about it a lot now. Reading is a creative process. As writers, we must do everything we can to make a world that stands up as if it could be a real one. Not necessarily the real one; not necessarily the world the reader knows. But within its own confines, that world must be plausible. It must add up. After that, the reader meets you halfway. The reader fills out your words with pictures, with breath, with feeling.

CR:
Clearly, your story has been heard. The world reaction is a testament to the fact that The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is wonderful on so many levels. For one thing, the language is gorgeous, and I want to get back to that. But the story is also an illustration of how the universal emerges through the particular.

RJ: Harold is an ordinary man. I have gone so far as to call him an everyman. By that I mean he doesn’t consider himself to be any different from anyone else or in any way unique. He accepts his part in the bigger picture—and I think that gives him both humility and openness, despite his sheltered life and his reserved nature.

To me, the universal is in the small. That is the paradox. And it is also where drama lies. It is the basic human struggle between wanting to amount to something and recognizing our mortality. I happened to give a talk about the book recently at a Quaker meetinghouse. And I was very touched when one of the women who looks after the building told me about the graves there, all of which were unmarked. It made me think. Even in our dying, we generally want people to know who we are. We want recognition. We want to stand out from all the other graves.

So I tend to write about small, ordinary people who find themselves at an extraordinary point in their lives, equipped with only small, everyday words. This moves me. Sometimes our vocabulary can seem so clichéd, so overused, so undersized— but we keep on trying. That’s the thing. We keep trying to connect up.

CR:
You use the word “ordinary” in the second line of the book— you are describing the day, but of course it applies to Harold as well.The entire first page is terrific.There is so much in it that not only draws the reader in but also telegraphs what the story is about. You mention a few pedestrian (pardon the pun) details of Harold and Maureen’s life together, such as the clean washing and the slice of toast, but other details hint at a deeper, darker layer. The yard is “trapped” by its fence, and the word “vacuum” appears twice. Within this claustrophobic context, you place a “telescopic washing line.” When I reread the paragraph, the telescope allusion jumped out at me as a signal that Harold’s world- view is about to expand. I also love the understated sentence “He thought he might like to go out . . .”

Writing is an odd mixture of instinct and intention, of creative impulse and painstaking revision. Did your original radio play open in a similar fashion? If not, was it hard to decide how to start the novel?

RJ: The radio play was a completely different beast. I had 7,500 words in which to tell the whole story, not to mention a tight budget that stretched only as far as three actors. So when I began to write this tale as a novel, I knew I was starting from scratch. Besides, with a radio play, you only have the dialogue through which to tell your story. You only have what people (inadvertently) give away as they talk. With the book, I suddenly had so many other tools at my fingertips. There is the setting, there is the physical detail; not to mention the past and the thought processes. It was like having a whole new set of colors to play with.

However, whenever I begin a story, I like to ask myself, What is the situation here? What is the thing that has to change? All the clues—I think—should lie in the opening scene. But they mustn’t have rings round them, signifying, LOOK AT US! WE ARE CLUES! The story must work on a superficial level, and it must also work on a deeper level for someone like you who cares to look back and re-examine. That is the delight of storytelling for me: that it can be what it is, and that it can also carry reverberations, when you go back and look a second time.
It’s like life, I think. Life has clues and sometimes we are so busy living we don’t see them.

So I write very carefully. And I keep refining and tweaking. I don’t think anything should be in a story for nothing. And likewise, I don’t think anything should appear in a story from absolutely nowhere. There is a bit I always remember from Jane Austen where she uses a pop-up character right at the climax of the plot and she adds that actually this woman passed through the story earlier, carrying some washing. That makes me laugh.

CR:
Your experience writing radio plays, with their emphasis on dialogue, must account for the subtlety with which you insert information about settings and characters. I tend to dislike long bits of exposition and exhaustive descriptions of people or places—as a reader, I would rather feel as if I am discovering those things through telling details scattered along the way. In fact, we don’t learn anything about Harold’s looks until chapter 4, when we you tell us only that he is tall and stooped. But because he comes alive through his perceptions and speech, I had a very clear picture of him from the beginning.

Even more than the dying Queenie, David personifies the open wound of the story—the Big Thing that will never be fixed. It was very fitting that the last scene shows Harold and Maureen looking out at the ocean and laughing. The ocean not only confirms the fact that Harold has reached his goal of walking the length of England, it is also the thing that dwarfs all our earthly concerns. And there is hope for anyone who can laugh.

RJ:
That is very kind of you. You have actually said it all so succinctly I am not sure what to add. Like you, I enjoy discovering things in a story for myself. I remember, when I was acting, a director talking about how you have to earn silence in a play; if you have all the actors dropping pauses whenever they feel they have said something significant, the play grinds to a halt. For me, it’s the same with backstory. These details must come out of the real story. You have to earn them.

I agree, too, that there are things in life that cannot be fixed. Maybe the best we can do is be open to change—and to accepting who we are. And this is what Harold becomes through his walk. There is a tiny suggestion at the end that even though there is hope, there is also the possibility of loss. But that is life, I think. Besides, Harold could not make the journey he has and not know these things. Yes, he and Maureen have rekindled—or rediscovered how to speak—the love that David’s loss forced to a stand- still. But inevitably there will be other trials ahead. That is why I wanted to finish with those two small figures holding hands at the edge of the ocean.
For me, laughter is the key.


CR: Language is the first thing that attracted me to writing— how the words can convey character and philosophy and action, but also have a poetry and rhythm of their own. Here are two examples of terrific sentences from the book, although there are so many, I could open to almost any page and find one. But I like these because they do several things at once without being self-consciously showy, the way some contemporary writing can be.

He stopped referring to his guidebooks because the gap between their sense of knowing and his own of not knowing was too unbearable.
It was as if Harold had taken off his jacket, followed by his shirt, and then several layers of skin and muscle.

What helps you to get into a literary mindset? I know you mentioned writing very carefully, and refining and tweaking, but are there other techniques or habits that allow you to better hear the music of your work?

RJ: It is a wonderful feeling when you get inside a sentence. It is the most frustrating feeling when you are floundering around on the outside of one. I am envious of people who can write pithy, elaborate prose, and it has taken me years to accept that what I do is write things simply.

Of course, I read The Lifeboat and I want to be Charlotte Rogan. I want to use your bold, stark sentences. I want to have a lifeboat full of characters, with wildly different backgrounds and objectives. But I can’t be you. I can admire you, but then I have to get back to the business of being me.

Having said this, my first drafts are shocking. I reread them and I want to give up. After that, I go back and I go back and I go back. And every time I look at a scene—or I scrape at the surface—I see things a little more clearly. As for inspiration, sometimes I read poetry. Sometimes I look at writers I admire. But the thing is, I can only be who I am—so I have to keep whittling away. Besides, no one knows the story you are writing as well as you know it. And so you have to keep challenging yourself. You have to keep asking, Is this true, as I know truth?

Being an actor has definitely had an influence on me. I think many actors have a good ear for dialogue and the rhythm of dialogue. We all (and I mean human beings, not actors) talk in verse of the simplest kind. We use names, repetition, assonance, alliteration, exaggeration, metaphor—all those things to help us put across our point of view. For me, there is poetry in the simplest things.
Listen to people. That is the best advice I can give myself. And keep hacking away.

CR: Things are stark in a lifeboat, so that affected the way my story was told. In the case of Harold Fry, England is almost a character, and your reverence for her shines through. Once Har- old commits to his journey, he starts to see his surroundings in a new way: There were so many shades of green Harold was humbled. I imagine that writing so closely about the country gave you a new appreciation for it.

RJ:
I don’t know whether it is because I have spent years writing plays, but I am more comfortable taking the objective voice on a story. I like to be able to stand slightly to one side. It doesn’t mean you are not inside your characters but it enables you to step away sometimes and place them as passing specks in a bigger landscape.


I relished the setting of The Lifeboat—your descriptions of the sky and sea, and the way they influence the human action. I am very interested in how we relate to the bigger things. How small we are against them.

I think I already loved the English landscape before I began to write about Harold Fry. In fact, I think the story partly came from that love. I am a Londoner, born and bred. We moved out eleven years ago when I was pregnant with my fourth child because I had a sudden and violent reaction against city living. I needed to see sky, not into another house—and I needed to see green, real green, not city green. We live now in a very old farm- house on the edge of a valley. The wind rattles through. We get small puddles inside the hall when it rains. But I step outside and I can see the sky from east to west. And I don’t know how to explain this, but I feel contained at last.

So writing about Harold’s awakening sense of the English countryside was like eating sweets for me. I wrote about what I see every day when I step out of my door.

CR:
Being true to your setting is one of the ways that truth in- forms fiction, and earlier you mentioned your father’s illness as part of your inspiration for the book. Are some of the other incidents or vignettes based on things that happened to you, or are they wholly imagined?

RJ: As I said before, I draw on what I know and then I fabricate and weave from there. So a lot of the characters in the book are people I have seen, if only briefly. The man in the dress I watched once in Stroud. The arguing couple I overheard in a garden center. I had a summer job when I was a teenager in the craft shop where Harold buys place mats. I take what I see, what I feel, and I imagine from there. I couldn’t write, I don’t think, without feeling solid ground beneath me.

There is more pillaging too. My husband grew up in Kingsbridge. In fact, Harold and Maureen’s house is pretty much where Paul was brought up. I am a terrible magpie. I hear little stories and they tend to stick in my head and reappear. So Paul as a boy did swim out on Bantham Beach, much to the horror of his parents. (He was never allowed to swim in the sea again.) My father’s family all worked in pubs. I have a friend who was given a coat for his sixteenth birthday and shown the door. These details, these small pieces of truth, must play in my head, I suppose, and rearrange themselves however many years later into a story.

My children briefly pop up in the book, as does our dog, Leaf, a Border terrier, who was forever fetching stones. The sad ending to that particular story is that we realised Leaf had can- cer this summer, and that the cancer was too far gone to operate.  I had to go to to Canada to do some promotion for the book and I asked him to wait for me—but, you see, he couldn’t. He died quietly (like Queenie, and like my father too) when my back was turned. 

I have a feeling that is how life often goes.

Discussion Guides

1. Why does the story that the garage girl tells Harold affect him so deeply? Do you think Harold would have mused on faith and gone on this tremendous journey had the garage girl told Harold that her aunt died of cancer anyway?

2. How does Maureen’s relationship with Rex allow her the perspective to understand Harold’s decision to walk?

3. The publicity that Harold receives on his journey often feels like a curse. What are some benefits that come out of the media coverage?

4. What does Harold’s choice to live off the land and other people’s kindness mean to him?

5. In what ways is the incident at the beach with his son representative of Harold’s fears about himself? In what ways do those fears reflect the reality?

6. “He had not said goodbye to his son. Maureen had; but Harold had not. There would always be this difference.” Do you think anything would have been different for Harold had he had the moment of closure with David’s body at the funeral home? How did this difference manifest over the years?

7. How might things have been different for Harold and Maureen if she had told him about Queenie’s visit to the house in which she explained why she took the blame? Maureen thinks her withholding of this information caused years of irreversible damage. How might Harold have been affected if he’d known any sooner that Queenie didn’t blame him at all?

8. What state did you think Queenie would be in when Harold reached the end of his journey? Were you surprised by their interaction once he got there? How do you think that scene might have been changed if Harold had arrived any sooner?

9. Think about all the people Harold met along the way—the garage girl, the barkeep, the woman with the apples and water, Martina, Wilf. Had Harold not met even one of them, might his journey have diverged, stalled, or even ended before he reached Queenie?

10. Where would Harold be today if he hadn’t made his pilgrimage? What would the state of his relationship with Maureen be? How would news of Queenie’s death have affected him? What would his life look like?

11. Does Harold’s journey feel secularly or religiously spiritual to you? Does it change over time? How does his idea of faith fit with your own beliefs?

12. What would it take to get you to make an extraordinary journey? Is there anyone or anything that could compel you to walk six hundred miles? What would such a journey mean to you?

13. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has become an international bestseller. Readers from Taiwan, Germany, England, Australia, the United States, Italy, South Africa, and many other countries have embraced the novel. What do you think accounts for Harold reaching the hearts of so many people from all over the world?

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A novel of unsentimental charm, humor, and profound insight into the thoughts and feelings we all bury deep within our hearts, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry introduces Rachel Joyce as a wise—and utterly irresistible—storyteller.

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