The Mail on Sunday
28th July 2012
By Emily Hill
Every time she wakes – and again, several times during the day – writer Rachel Joyce reaches for a newspaper or clicks on the internet to check nothing has changed: that her highly acclaimed debut novel is still among the nominations for Britain’s most coveted award for literature, the Man Booker Prize.
This year’s long list of 12 books has been excitedly proclaimed by the literary world as something of a changing of the guard.
Old favourites such as Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Zadie Smith and Rose Tremain have been cast aside in favour of a bold new generation of writers – of whom Rachel, 50, is one.
The judges unashamedly declared they focused on ‘novels, not novelists, texts not reputations’. But Rachel’s deep pride at discovering she is not only on the long list but is being tipped by many to win is tempered by a deep, inner sadness.
Rachel’s first book, The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry, was written in a maelstrom of grief and rage after she learned her beloved father, Martin, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
‘Writing it,’ she says, ‘was my way of singing a hymn to my dad.
‘I had begun writing a radio play when my father told us he had weeks to live. He didn’t want to die and we didn’t want him to die. So I suppose, looking back, writing it was about me trying to keep him alive.’
Rachel’s father was an architect who lived a quiet, unassuming life devoted to his career and his family.
‘He was a big cyclist – his great hero was (the legendary British cyclist) Tommy Simpson and he loved the Tour de France and his holiday home in the village of Roquecor in the South of France,’ Rachel says.
‘He didn’t read much because as a child his mother would always say to him, “What are you reading for, haven’t you got anything proper to do?” But he did love spy novels, especially John le Carré. He also really loved the poem Adelstrop by Edward Thomas.’
Martin was diagnosed with cancer of the neck and head in February 2007. Just five months later he was granted his final wish – to see the South of France, where the family spent so many happy holidays, for one last time.
‘The night before he died, I woke up in the middle of the night feeling toxic,’ Rachel adds. ‘He was in France and I was at home in Britain with my children. I cannot even describe how sick I felt. I just got up and wrote. Wrote through the night.
‘Dad was 69 when he died. But, as it is for anyone who has lost someone, you always think – he should be here. It’s an angry feeling.’
Published in March, The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry rocketed to the top of the Amazon bestseller list – a feat almost unheard of for a debut novel.
Rights to the book were sold in 30 countries and, in April, it was Waterstones’ Book of the Month – again a privilege usually reserved for established authors. It has sold more than 100,000 copies in Europe alone.
The novel has also won numerous high-profile fans, including the author Esther Freud and actress Natascha McElhone, and – in a rather delicious twist – the biographer Claire Tomalin and commentator Deborah Orr, the wives of Rachel’s rivals for the Booker, Michael Frayn and Will Self.
It is easy to see why the book has caused such a storm. Rachel’s prose is simple but deeply affecting.
She tells the story of Harold, recently retired and living with his wife, who receives a letter from an old friend telling him she is dying of cancer.
Unable to express his emotions, Harold writes a brief reply and goes to post it, but finds himself walking past the post box.
Propelled by some inner need, Harold decides he can save his friend’s life if he walks from his home in Devon to her hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Over the course of his journey he reflects on his past and his own relationships.
The novel has been celebrated for its compelling story – but above all for its ability to touch the heart. ‘One lady came up to me at a reading – she didn’t even say what had happened to her, she just said she wanted to hold my hand,’ Rachel recalls.
‘There is a lot of my dad in Harold,’ she admits.
‘He didn’t talk about his feelings much or about dying. Harold and my dad are of that generation where things weren’t said. They have the same working-class background. Harold worked in a brewery, my dad was brought up in pubs as his parents were publicans. And Harold always wearing a shirt and tie is very much my dad.
‘I went to see Dad in hospital after he had gone through one particularly gruelling operation. I walked into the room where he was recovering, and he was sitting up in a chair, wearing his shirt and tie.
‘That was after eight hours of surgery. I found that so moving.
‘My dad was always busy. You would pop round for a cup of tea and within minutes you would see him walking past with a step-ladder. He was always fixing things.
‘He loved wine and food – he really loved spotted dick. He was a war child, and it must have reminded him of his childhood.
‘My mother always said, “I can’t be doing with making that.” So that is what I would do for the family – make the spotted dick.
‘Towards the end, the doctors said he wouldn’t be able to eat again. We were having to feed him through a tube. But he was determined he would eat. It was really painful to watch and really slow.
‘Right until the end, he would insist on doing things like going to buy a stamp – but nobody would be able to understand what he was saying. Still, he would be wearing his jacket and tie. He wouldn’t give in to it.
‘I find that really moving. That was a lot of the feeling for me behind the book – the bravery and courage of ordinary people dealing with really big things.’
One of the most remarkable things about the book is how uplifting and, at times, funny it is.
‘Dad was very witty, much to my embarrassment as a child,’ she says. ‘Even after he died in France we had the funny and ridiculously painful saga of trying to get his body back to the UK.
‘Your French vocabulary at A level or GCSE just doesn’t equip you for the undertaker. So they handed us a book of coffins and linings. It was laminated and looked like a menu from an ice-cream parlour.
‘Then we had to pay for the air fare in cash and the ATM at the bank wouldn’t let any of us take out enough money for it.
‘It was really hot, we were all of us completely floored by his death – and it was ridiculous.’
Rachel, whose mother Myra was an English teacher, says she has been writing since she was a teenager.
‘I went through a stage of writing my cramped hand in tiny books,’ she says. ‘My two sisters and I did have our Bronte period. My mum is from Yorkshire and we would go up to the Moors. It tapped into our romantic visions of ourselves.’
After reading English at Bristol University, Rachel trained as an actress at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) alongside Clive Owen, Rebecca Pidgeon and Liza Tarbuck.
She then worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and won the Time Out Actress of the Year award for her role as Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.
Now a mother to four children – Hope, 16, Kezia, 14, son Jo, 11, and Nell, nine – Rachel had second thoughts about her chosen profession when she had her first child.
‘Before I gave birth to Hope I had a miscarriage,’ she says. ‘The pain was so enormous, I had to write myself out of it. I kept a diary and did not feel entirely complete until Hope was born.
‘While my two youngest were small it was fine fitting acting in with motherhood, as I could take my children with me. But as they get older you can’t do that.
‘The last season I did with the RSC meant I had to go away for Hope’s first week at primary school. I drove home to South London from Stratford-upon-Avon every night so I could take her to school in the morning. But I couldn’t be there at bedtime because of the play and it really broke my heart.
‘Then the RSC played Newcastle for a week and I just wandered around like a displaced person, thinking, “I should be at home.”
It was at that time that Rachel started to write plays for radio and soon became successful.
She gave up acting in 1999 to concentrate, full-time, on writing and motherhood – with her father as a doting, if not ostentatiously sentimental, grandfather.
‘He was a dear grandad,’ she says. ‘He wasn’t hands-on – my mum was the one who grabbed a baby and held it. But left alone with one of the children, with no one else there, he would pick up the baby and chat.’
Rachel now lives in rural Gloucestershire with her husband, actor Paul Venables, her children, two dogs and many chickens.
But two years ago, she enrolled in a course in fiction writing with the Faber Academy in London, hoping it would help her complete a novel she had begun.
It was there that she realised she had to return to her story about Harold, and Martin, which had already aired as a play on BBC Radio 4 – and rewrite it as a novel.
‘I just remember waking up one morning, thinking, “I’ve really got to go back to that story,” ’ says Rachel.
‘Perhaps it was still part of the process of grieving for my dad. But I also wanted to write a story that might connect people.’
The whole family participated in the book’s development. Paul and Rachel’s mother read the drafts. The children scribbled down their mother’s thoughts on the school run, and put up with her writing in the dark when they went to the cinema.
Last September, when Rachel’s agents began selling the worldwide rights, her creation took them all by surprise.
‘I had spent long periods of writing wondering if there was any point carrying on with the novel. It had my whole heart in it but in places it was miserable to write.
‘Then, last year, the night the rights were sold in Italy, Paul and I came into the living room – the only room in our house with a carpet, let alone a white carpet – and were spilling red wine all over the floor.
‘We were getting emails from all over the world. The German editor rang me in tears because she had just finished it. We were like children. We were so excited and just couldn’t take it in.
‘And now, with the Booker nomination, I just can’t believe it. I remind myself of my two eldest children, when they suddenly became teenagers and they couldn’t stop looking at themselves in the mirror to check they were still the same people they were before.’
Probably her greatest rival on the Booker list is Hilary Mantel, who was credited for bringing a new literary lustre to historical fiction with Wolf Hall, which won the Man Booker in 2009.
Her Tudor sequel, Bring Up The Bodies, is nominated this year and Rachel confesses she is a ‘huge fan’.
The Booker short list of six authors will be revealed in September, with the winner of the £50,000 prize announced on October 16.
Now Rachel and her family are off on a book tour to Canada. And she is content that whatever her novel achieves in terms of international sales or literary prizes, its central purpose has already been fulfilled.
‘My mum and my sisters have been so supportive of the book,’ Rachel says.
‘Reading it, my mum said, “Rachel, we have always been looking for a memorial for your father and I think, now, we have found it.” ’