Rachel Joyce is the author of the Sunday Times and international bestseller The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Her second novel, Perfect, was published in July 2013 to great critical acclaim. In her new novel, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, Joyce revisits the characters we first met in Harold Fry. She describes this as a companion book to that first one. Hazel Gaynor spoke to the author while she was in Dublin.
Having read and raved about The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry back in 2012, I was very excited to learn that the author had written a ‘companion novel’ to tell the story of Queenie Hennessy, the dying woman whom Harold Fry walked the length of England for. I was keen to know how the idea for this second book came about.
‘I really thought it was done and didn’t really see there was anything else to be done with the story, but as I began to talk about Harold Fry, the questions readers asked took me on a journey I hadn’t anticipated. People asked a lot about Queenie. They wanted me to explain why I had presented her the way I had.’ Rachel’s reason was based on her own father’s experience of a facially disfiguring cancer – the same cancer Queenie has. ‘Increasingly, I thought about how often I spoke about my father’s cancer. But he wasn’t just a man who had cancer. He’d been so much more than that. When I thought about Queenie in the same way, I felt I’d short changed her in the first book.’
She goes on to explain that she didn’t regret the way she’d written Harold Fry. ‘That book could only be written from Harold’s point of view. The tension in that novel is not knowing who he is walking to. I felt I needed to complete the story to share Queenie’s journey and her destination. Partly because of my dad, I needed to write the piece that completes the picture.’
Rachel was already working on her second novel, Perfect, when Harold Fry was published to huge international success. I asked how that affected her. ‘When Harold Fry was going worldwide and a bit mad, writing Perfect was a haven, my private space. It didn’t change how I write. The writing is where I feel on steady ground. The thing about having success is that there is always a flip side and I was always braced for that. A much better use of your energy is to write rather than worrying about success or otherwise.’
With the success of her novels, Rachel has visited many different countries and has met readers at events and festivals. ‘I really like that,’ she explains. ‘Increasingly I think that is when a book comes alive – when readers catch it. The most stressful bit of the process is waiting for the publication. I don’t feel any pressure when writing because I’m so involved in the writing that I don’t think about it. The opportunity to talk with people who are reading your books really does complete it.’
Having written a second novel after Harold Fry, I wondered what it was like to go back to those characters and write this companion piece. ‘It was really good fun. I’d done the hard work in one sense because I’d set out various immovable things. It was a bit like going into a kitchen cupboard and rummaging through to see what you have in there! I went back through Harold Fry very carefully, checking exactly what I’d given myself. Then I started playing with everything I had. Any little scenes I could find between Harold and Queenie I looked for ways to dig right underneath it. Little ideas kept presenting themselves to me and the more they did the more secrets I discovered Queenie had. The more delicious it became to write.’
Joyce’s writing always captures, beautifully, the scenery and natural world around her characters. In The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, she writes wonderful descriptions of Queenie’s sea garden at her home on the cliffs of Embleton Bay in Northumberland. I asked to what extent this was imagined, or based in fact. ‘I tried to find as much as I could that was real. I really feel I need some hangers in the wardrobe – to know that some of my fiction is truthful. Setting out to write this novel I knew I had to visit hospices – my dad had completely avoided them. When I did visit, I discovered I was completely wrong in my assumptions about them. I also visited Northumberland near Embleton Bay and found a whole cliff top of these beach houses that I’d imagined. I took a blissful walk early one morning, peering at these beach huts and amazing stone gardens. I made notes and imagined them from there.’
As always when I meet an author, I was interested in the way Rachel writes and plans her novels. ‘I don’t plot in terms of this has got to happen and that has got to happen. Because of the dramas I’ve written I have an instinctive sense of the three acts. I’m aware of where I think a story needs to go and where a gear change needs to happen but I don’t always know how I’m going to get there.’
‘I write the beginning over and over again at the start. I also know the ending quite soon. I feel it is important to know where the story is heading and I try to make sure it is as far away from the start as I can possibly put it. The beginning and end are a question and answer. Then I have key structural walls. If there is a bit I feel very excited about writing I jump forward and write that. I often get dialogue like that so I scribble it down to make sure I’ve got it.’
She also has a great tip for checking her work. ‘I write mainly on a laptop but I always print what I have. I always think it looks better on a laptop than it actually is! You have to print it out and read it to really see what you’ve got.’
With a busy family life to balance with her writing success, I asked how she manages this. ‘I do have to move things around family commitments, and it also depends where I am with a book. With Queenie Hennessy I would be woken by it at 3am and there was nothing to do except get up and continue writing. I’m very happy working at that time of the morning – working into the dawn, into the light. I find it a very rejuvenating time of day. Also the house is most peaceful because everyone is asleep. I have teenagers! On a school morning I have to stop at 6.30am and get everyone off to school and focus on the family. Then I come back to it until about 4pm. When I’m in the thick of it, it really is hard to walk away. Beyond about 10pm I shouldn’t write anything at all!’
Rachel admits to being a little embarrassed at the speed with which she wrote The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy. ‘I began it in October, handed in a first draft around March and another draft in May. My son said I should keep quiet about it for a few years and then hand it in and people might think it was better for taking so long to write! I did write it quickly, but I also wrote it obsessively. There was no going out for a coffee – writing the book was all I was doing. I felt I wouldn’t be satisfied until it was done so there was nothing for it but to sit and do it.’
So, what next? ‘I’ll be busy with Queenie for a few more weeks and then I am eager to get back to writing again, back to the book I had started when Queenie came to me and got in the way! While I’m doing a book tour I do take my laptop and tend to chip away a tiny bit and keep with the new book, but I can’t completely transfer to the new one until the current novel is published.’ She goes on to give a little glimpse onto the next book. ‘It’s completely different. It’s about a music shop and the idea is that the owner is so gifted he can heal people and help people by the music he finds for them. One day he falls in love with a woman who doesn’t like music. It is another love story but it’s also another hunt, another journey.’
And finally, what is her advice to writers? ‘Always finish it and never hand it in to an agent or publisher until you are absolutely certain there is nothing more you can do. Don’t hand it in because you need someone to tell you it is good. Give it to friends for that. Only you will know when it is ready. Also, read a lot. I don’t ever want to be somebody who doesn’t read other people’s books. I’m very humble about my own abilities and you can learn so much from how other people do it.’
Thank you to Rachel Joyce for her time and her graciousness. She is not only a very talented author but a wonderfully warm lady and it was an absolute pleasure to meet her.
(c) Hazel Gaynor
About The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy
When Queenie Hennessy discovers that Harold Fry is walking the length of England to save her, and all she has to do is wait, she is shocked. Her note to him had explained she was dying from cancer. How can she wait? A new volunteer at the hospice suggests that Queenie should write a second letter; only this time she must tell Harold the truth. Composing this letter, the volunteer promises, will ensure Queenie hangs on. It will also atone for the secrets of the past. As the volunteer points out, ‘It isn’t Harold who is saving you. It is you, saving Harold Fry.’
This is that letter. A letter that was never sent.
Told in simple, emotionally-honest prose, with a mischievous bite, this is a novella about a woman who falls in love but chooses not to claim it. It is about friendship and kindness as well as the small victories that pass unrecorded. It is about the truth and the significance – the gentle heroism – of a life lived alone.
Queenie thought her first letter would be the end of the story. She was wrong. It was just the beginning…
Rachel Joyce has adapted the book for radio in five short episodes. You can listen to the first, The Letter, here.
The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here.
About Rachel Joyce
Rachel Joyce is the author of the Sunday Times and international bestseller The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Her second novel, Perfect, was published in July 2013 to great critical acclaim. She was awarded the Specsavers National Book Awards ‘New Writer of the Year’ in December 2012. Rachel has also written A Faraway Smell of Lemon, a short story exclusive to ebook.
In addition to writing books, Rachel has also written over 20 original afternoon plays for BBC Radio 4, and major adaptations for the Classic Series, Woman’s Hour and also a TV drama adaptation for BBC2. In 2007 she won the Tinniswood Award for best radio play.
Rachel moved to writing after a twenty-year career in theatre and television, performing leading roles for the RSC, the Royal National Theatre, The Royal Court, and Cheek by Jowl, winning a Time Out Best Actress award and the Sony Silver.