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Posts Tagged ‘paula mclain’

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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Reader’s Guide: THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY by Rachel Joyce

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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Your chance to win dinner with THE PARIS WIFE author Paula McLain!

Monday, June 25th, 2012

Paris Wife hcYou could win an exclusive dinner for you and four members of your book club in your hometown with Paula McLain, author of the New York Times bestseller The Paris Wife! Plus, 25 runners-up will receive an autographed copy of the novel to share at their next book club. Enter now through July 13th for your chance to win!

Click here to enter

See Official Rules for more details.

Jane’s Bookshelf: Historical Fiction as a Window to the Past

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

JVMWhat does a publisher at the world’s biggest publishing house read for pleasure? (And how does she find the time?) Jane von Mehren is the Senior Vice President and Publisher of Trade Paperbacks at the Random House Publishing Group. Every now and then, she’ll be featuring her favorite reads in her Reader’s Circle column, Jane’s Bookshelf—books that she thinks you’ll love, whether you read them solo or with your club! And if you’re on Twitter, you can follower her tweets at @janeatrandom.

I’ve been thinking about historical fiction lately. It seems to me that when I was growing up, there were three kinds of historical novels. First were the classics that might have been written contemporaneously to the time they depicted but were historical to a late 20th century reader, whether it was Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE or Sir Walter Scott’s IVANHOE. Then there were the books that explored life in ancient cultures like Mary Renault’s THE KING MUST DIE or Irving Stone’s THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY. And of course, there were portraits of kings and queens of yore in the novels of Jean Plaidy and Margaret George, among others. Today, the classics remain and writers still write these kinds of novels: just this past year saw the publications of THE SONG OF ACHILLES by Madeline Miller, BRING UP THE BODIES by Hilary Mantel, and LIONHEART by Sharon Kay Penman, for example.

ParisWife_hc We’ve also seen the flowering of a different kind of historical fiction. Books like LOVING FRANK by Nancy Horan, THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain, and THE 19TH WIFE by David Ebershoff start with the story of real women who have extraordinary men in their lives, whether it be Frank Lloyd Wright, Ernest Hemingway, or Brigham Young. And yet in the hands of these storytellers, you don’t feel you are reading lives recreated in fiction, but rather that you are meeting women whose stories enlighten our understanding of these men and their lives. That these stories are based on real people’s lives makes the reading experience that much more vivid, and gives us a deep understanding of the human condition, of love and betrayal.

It’s not just women romantically involved with famous men whose lives have made for great historical novels. Melanie Benjamin created an indelible, fresh portrait of Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s novels, in ALICE I HAVE BEEN. Her latest novel THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MRS. TOM THUMB brings to life AutobiographyMrsTomThumbLavinia Warren Bump, who became a worldwide celebrity after marrying General Tom Thumb. Benjamin portrays 19th century America so vividly I often felt I was reading a painting. Sometimes I think that this new era of historical fiction began with two novels that married imaginary characters and real people: GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE by Susan Vreeland and GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRING by Tracy Chevalier. Both have Vermeer as the historical figure at their centers; one created the lives touched by an invented painting while the other imagined the life of his servant. I love both—I tried and failed to acquire Tracy Chevalier, but was lucky enough to become first Susan Vreeland’s paperback editor and now work with her from the start of every book.

I’ve found the way novelists intertwine what actually happened with their own fictional worlds adds nuance to a book club discussion. I’ve always loved history and fiction—so historical fiction is perfect for me. I’d love to hear about some of your favorites, I know I’ll want to add them to my T.B.R. pile! Let me know what they are in the comments section below or on Twitter at @JaneatRandom.

Win a Trip for Two to Paris!

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

The Paris Wife

“I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.” –Ernest Hemingway

A deeply evocative story of ambition and betrayal, Paula McLain’s stunning novel The Paris Wife captures a remarkable period of time and an extraordinary love affair between two unforgettable people: Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley. Set during the same period as Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises, Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife brilliantly captures the voice and heart of Hadley Hemingway as she struggles with her roles as a woman—wife, lover, muse, friend, and mother—and tries to find her place in the intoxicating and tumultuous world of Paris in the twenties.

After you read The Paris Wife you will want nothing more than to experience the streets of Paris yourself. And now you can win a round trip vacation! Enter now for your chance to win the Grand prize: a week long trip for two (2) to Paris including airfare, hotel and transportation to and from the Airport, and a copy of the book The Paris Wife. 10 runner-up winners will receive a copy of book The Paris Wife.  Click here to learn more!

Watch a video interview with Paula McLain!

Read an excerpt from The Paris Wife

Check out the Reader’s Guide, as well as some Hemingway inspired cocktail and food recipes!

Think your book club would be interested in a Hemingway tour? If so click here to learn more.

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