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A Letter to Readers from Rachel Joyce, author of THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY

Friday, April 5th, 2013

Joyce_Harold Fry Dear Reader,

I have spoken before about how this story began as a radio play that I wrote for my father when he was dying of cancer, but I have had far less opportunity to describe its publication as a novel – and the people I have met since then.

In writing about Harold and Maureen with their terrible unspoken secret, and all those people that Harold meets as he walks to save a friend’s life, I was trying to celebrate the ordinary people. (I think the shiny ones get quite enough attention.) I wanted to write about the small acts of kindness, the conversations where words do not even tip the surface of feeling, the courage and bravery of everyday things. Readers have written to me about their experiences of travel, of friendship, of marriage, of loss, and tragedy too. They have told me about book group discussions and the people with whom they have shared the story – lost friends, parents, children. I met a lovely man who told me he would not read my book because it had no trains in it, and a woman who said nothing, who simply held my hand and cried. I had no idea – as I sat in my shed, surrounded by pieces of paper, with a head full of words – that the book could make such a journey.

So this is what I have discovered – and it has been a gift in itself – that books live over and over again in different people’s minds. That I might mean one thing as I write, but a reader’s experiences will take it somewhere else. That is like a conversation, I think. It is a true connecting up.

I hope you enjoy Harold’s story.

With my best wishes,

Rachel Joyce

For more information about Harold and his journey join Rachel Joyce on Facebook or visit her website.

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Giveaway Opportunity: THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY by Rachel Joyce

Friday, March 29th, 2013

Joyce_Harold Fry Have you met Harold Fry? If not, we’ve got a giveaway opportunity you won’t want to miss. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a debut novel by Rachel Joyce, is now out in paperback! Enter below for your chance to win a copy of the charming novel readers are raving about.

“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

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.

Head over to Rachel’s Facebook page to tell her about the most unlikely pilgrimage or journey you’ve ever taken! Or just share your thoughts about the book. Also, if you are planning your next book club discussion, then Random House Reader’s Circle has the reader’s guide to help you get started.


Thursday, March 7th, 2013

Joyce_Harold FryWe’ve said it once and we’ll say it again: we LOVE Rachel Joyce’s debut novel THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY. If you haven’t read it yet, then you must pick up your copy on March 26th when the trade paperback hits shelves. We have the reader’s guide and discussion questions to get your book club discussions going.

“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

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.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

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?

Want more Harold? Visit Rachel Joyce’s website for more!

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The Best Books of 2010

Monday, November 29th, 2010

Major Pettigrew TP cover smallWith only one month left in 2010, critics have lately been facing the task of choosing the year’s bestThe Imperfectionists TP books. Among Janet Maslin’s picks for the New York Times are two of our very own amazing debut novels: Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (out now in paperback) and Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (coming to paperback January 4th). If you or your book club missed them before, check them out for 2011!

A conversation with Helen Simonson, author of MAJOR PETTIGREW’S LAST STAND

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

Major Pettigrew TP cover smallRandom House Reader’s Circle: You had a successful career in advertising and then raised two children. What motivated you to pursue writing at this point in your life?

Helen Simonson: Being a stay-at-home mom is a 24/7 job with very little time off for good behavior! It’s been at once the most wonderful experience of my life and the most demanding. Between the baby gym classes, wiping up apple juice, and trying to ensure both sons learned Latin and piano by kindergarten (I’m joking!), I was ready for some small intellectual and creative escape. When modern dance and gardening failed to satisfy (I have two left feet and I hate weeding), I turned to a writing class. Beginner Fiction at New York’s 92nd Street Y saved my sanity.

RHRC: You were born in England and raised in a small village in East Sussex, but relocated to the United States twenty years ago. In what ways did your own homesickness, or yearning for home, come into play in the writing of the book?

HS: Perhaps home is more precious to those who leave. Away fromthe everyday annoyances of town and family life, we are free to recollect only the good bits and pine for a landscape that we remember as always bathed in late- summer evening light. I miss the English countryside with the nostalgia of someone who does not have to put up with the rain, the price of petrol, and lukewarm beer. But seriously . . . I feel a longing for England that is very present and immediate in my head. When it came time to write something just for me— without regard to what others might think— it was natural to write myself back into an English village. Writing my novel was a wonderful way to spend time in a landscape I can never forget.

RHRC: In an age of increasing impersonality and brief digital communication, Major Pettigrew is something of a love letter to civility and person- to- person conversation about books and ideas. Was this your intent, or a product of the personalities and locale of the novel?

HS: This is a hard question to answer because the act of writing and the later interpretation of what the writing meant are mostly disconnected. There are ideas and patterns in this book that my husband or writing group had to point out to me. Of course, I always claimed that I meant to write just the thing they admired, but I was usually fibbing. I do love books. I was taken early and often to the library as a child and I filled all those teenage gaps of loneliness and isolation with adventures to distant lands and worlds through the books I read. My mother would still tell you there is no point talking to Helen when “she has her nose in a book.” I do worry that “civility,” or the civilized world (that which includes free education, libraries, and solving our problems through discussion, not violence), is under threat from all directions. While we can’t do much, as individuals, about the threats to nations, I wish we would all do a little more to tone down our own rhetoric and reach out to our neighbors. As someone over thirty, of course I blame the digitalization of the world for some of the disconnection and lack of civility. It seems to me that we communicate much too often but with no depth whatsoever. LOL!

RHRC: A large part of the novel is devoted to exploring the idea of Englishness. The Major, in some ways, personifies its dynamism: He lived in Colonial India as a child, served in the English army, and has a very strong sense of nationalism; but in the end he is able to accept change in a way that others in the village are not. How do you think he fits into the archetype of an Englishman?

simonson_helenHS: My intent (in retrospect) was to present an English stereotype and then peel him apart to show that even we, the English, are individuals. Just because we all wear wellies and we like those waxed cotton jackets doesn’t mean we all live in a BBC drama. The Major’s appreciation for the long and enduring history of England and Great Britain is, I think, what gives him the strength to accept change. I also think the Major has a deep connection to the land where he was born (Lahore, which is now part of Pakistan). It is an unexplored part of being British that, no matter the rhetoric, we maintain an enduring sense of connection to the Indian subcontinent.

RHRC: Edgecombe St. Mary is painted so vividly in the novel. What is your relationship with the village, and with Rose Lodge in particular?

HS: Creating Rose Lodge was one of those small miracles of being a writer. In writing the Major’s home, I got to enjoy the English cottage I have always wanted— and it came free of ants, dry rot, and taxes. I worked very hard at creating the characters and the ideas in my novel, but the descriptions of landscape and homes were pure indulgence for me. It was a wonderful feeling, close to that of being a child with a new box of crayons and a big stack of construction paper. The vivid quality you see is, I think, the result of some very happy and uncensored creativity.

RHRC:What is your writing routine?

HS: I struggle to maintain a proper writing schedule. It has been a shock to discover that now that I am a published writer, I am still a mother and have my full plate of mom obligations, plus the appearances, writing assignments, and office work that comes with promoting a published book. Who knew being a writer was work! I know that to write, I need to start first thing in the morning, with a mind empty of anything else, and to get out of the house. I’m sharing an office space with some other writers, and going to “work” seems to help. I have slowly come to the conclusion that this struggle to find consistency and a good routine, and to pile up creative work, is the challenge of all creative people. It is what separates the writer from the person who has an idea for a novel if they could just find the time.

RHRC: The relationship between the Major and Mrs. Ali beautifully evokes the agelessness of love. What prompted you to write about a romance between mature characters, territory often overlooked in contemporary novels?

HS: I started thinking of them as friends. I later realized that this is my view of passion: It is rooted in genuine friendship. Chemistry may be two strangers exchanging smoldering looks— but passion has to be able to survive at least a twenty- minute conversation! I feel sorry for young people trying to find a true and lasting love in this age of the excruciatingly casual hook-up. I hoped that the Major and Mrs. Ali (and Grace) might be good examples for us all.

RHRC: On that note, what do you think could have possibly kept Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali from finding each other in the end?

HS: I think (and hope) the danger of losing each other was always very close and real. In real life, change is hard, inertia is easy, and it is all too possible to decide that new experiences and opportunities are not worth the trouble. I was always nervous about whether Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali would prevail.

RHRC: You once said in an interview that Mrs. Ali is the kind of woman all Englishwomen should aspire to be. Yet she is rejected and branded an outsider in her home country. What inspired you to explore this idea of otherness?

HS: With her Pakistani heritage, Mrs. Ali is easy to brand as “other,” but I believe many of us have felt like outsiders at one time or another. (Did we not all endure high school?) I am interested in how we define our communities by who does not belong, subjecting each and all of us to the misery of being excluded. At the same time, I hope that perhaps such experiences are the grit that makes a pearl in the oyster.

RHRC: Critics have commented that you use a level of satirical storytelling that creates an almost Austenian comedy of manners. How do you feel about such comparisons?

HS: Jane Austen was able to take the tiniest of villages and the most circumscribed of lives and create satire that reflected the whole world. I am honored by even the slightest comparison.

RHRC: Just as the Major has Kipling and his works, is there a particular author or book that you hold most dear?

HS: I am a huge fan of Edith Wharton, who wrote of the bitter side of social manners in a way that is also timeless. Her The Custom of the Country should be required reading for all those contemplating a career in reality television.

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Win a paperback of MAJOR PETTIGREW’S LAST STAND by Helen Simonson!

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

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“Funny, barbed, delightfully winsome storytelling . . . As with the polished work of Alexander McCall Smith, there is never a dull moment. . . . It’s all about intelligence, heart, dignity and backbone. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand has them all.”—The New York Times

In the small village of Edgecombe St. Mary in the English countryside lives Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired), the unlikely hero of Helen Simonson’s wondrous debut. Wry, courtly, opinionated, and completely endearing, the Major leads a quiet life valuing the proper things that Englishmen have lived by for generations: honor, duty, decorum, and a properly brewed cup of tea. But then his brother’s death sparks an unexpected friendship with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the Pakistani shopkeeper from the village. Drawn together by their shared love of literature and the loss of their spouses, the Major and Mrs. Ali soon find their friendship blossoming into something more. But village society insists on embracing him as the quintessential local and regarding her as the permanent foreigner. Can their relationship survive the risks one takes when pursuing happiness in the face of culture and tradition?

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