Showing posts with label World Book Night. Show all posts
Showing posts with label World Book Night. Show all posts

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Rachel Joyce in conversation about The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is one of those special books that only comes along once in a while. Male or female, young or old, I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t love it.

Rachel Joyce’s debut novel has inspired such devotion that on a drizzly Monday night (World Book Night, in fact) scores of us grabbed our umbrellas and dashed off to Abingdon Library in Oxfordshire to hear more about her writing.

Rachel was introduced by Alison Barrow, director of media relations at publishing house Transworld, who confided that during the course of her 25-year publishing career she has never experienced “such love for a book” from readers.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is the touching, uplifting story of a man in his sixties who leaves home one morning to post a letter to Queenie Hennessy, a friend he hasn't seen for 20 years. She's dying, and on the spur of the moment he resolves to walk from one end of the country to the other to see her. He has no walking boots, no map, no compass and no mobile phone, but he’s adamant that he’s going to keep on walking till he gets there.

Rachel, a tiny figure with a mass of dark hair, started her career as an actress. Over the past 16 years she’s written more than 20 original afternoon plays for BBC Radio 4 and, as she told us this week, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry began life as a radio play. She starting writing it for her father when he was dying of cancer - "but I'm not sure he knew." After it was broadcast she realised that there was a lot she hadn’t said in the play “that I wanted to say” and decided to turn the 7,000-word drama into a 100,000-word novel. Best of all, it meant she could write about what was going on in her characters’ heads, which she couldn’t do in a play.

It took her a year to write the book and she had no idea if anyone would ever read it. As she explained: “Just as Harold’s walk was a leap of blind faith, so writing the book was for me.” She'd throw herself into writing the moment her four children left for school each morning and was completely taken over by it. Sometimes, when she got ideas while she was driving, she’d ask her children to jot them down for her. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she said. “It was like having knitting in my head. You know you won’t have any peace till it’s done. I felt I had to write a book with my heart in it – true to what I feel, true to what I see, true to what I love.”

Rachel is ultra-disciplined when she’s writing. She works in a shed (now painted “an aesthetically pleasing pale blue”) in the garden of her Gloucestershire home. “But sometimes I have to be at the kitchen table,” she said. “And I have sometimes been known to write at the cinema while my children are watching a film.”

From Harold Fry’s starting point in Devon to his Berwick-upon-Tweed destination, Rachel writes beautifully about the English countryside.  A Londoner by background, she moved out of the city when, pregnant with her third child, she suddenly found herself pushing a buggy across the South Circular to get to “a tiny green patch.” Now she and her husband live on a farm in a peaceful valley - she’d left her children at home that evening feeding four orphan lambs. “When I was writing the book I was writing about my feelings about the land and the sky,” she said. “I increasingly don’t want to be inside.”

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Doubleday, £12.99)

PS. A huge thank you to the lovely staff at Abingdon Library for saving me a ticket.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

World Book Night 2012 - one of my favourite novels is on the list

Realising that one of my favourite books is one of this year’s 25 World Book Night titles has made me rush to read it all over again.

World Book Night takes place in the UK and Ireland on April 23 (the same day as Unesco’s International Day of the Book and Shakespeare’s birthday) and will see one million books being handed out across the country in a bid to boost reading. The organisers are looking for 20,000 volunteers to give out 24 copies each of the 25 books (the additional books will be given to libraries and schools) but you must apply before February 1.

The 2012 list includes classics like Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities and Rebecca, as well as more recent titles like The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell, Small Island by Andrea Levy and (hooray!) How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff.

It’s seven years since my daughter suggested I read How I Live Now. Knowing how much I adore I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (another World Book Night title) she kept telling me to read Rosoff’s modern-day “coming of age” novel. I cheated and bought the audiobook and on a long drive back from a holiday in Cornwall we listened to it together. The journey took five hours and for most of that time we were so mesmerised neither of us uttered a word. The moment we got home I borrowed it to read for real.

Rosoff’s debut novel (published in 2004) can be read, and appreciated, by teenagers and adults alike. Not only that, but like all my favourite books, it’s a novel you can read countless times and always discover something you hadn’t spotted the first time round.

From the novel’s arresting first sentence – “My name is Elizabeth but no one’s ever called me that” – I was gripped. The style is raw, edgy and quite unlike anything I’d ever read before. Writing in the first person, often in the present tense and with scant punctuation, Rosoff gets inside the head of 15-year-old Daisy (as Elizabeth is always called) so convincingly that it’s hard to believe Rosoff once admitted her experience of that age group was “zero.”

The novel is set during wartime in a future England. Rich, spoiled, anorexic New Yorker Daisy arrives to stay with her four beguiling cousins at their dilapidated country farmhouse and inadvertently gets caught up in a terrifying war that changes all their lives. 

One moment I was marvelling at the eccentricities of Daisy’s cousins – 14-year-old Edmond, with a  cigarette hanging out of his mouth and a haircut that looks “like he cut it himself with a hatchet in the dead of the night,” drives her home from the airport by himself in a battered old jeep - and enjoying the bitter-sweet account of the burgeoning love affair between Daisy and Edmond. The next, the reverie ends as the country is suddenly plunged into a shocking and depraved war. 

Rosoff’s writing flows with such assurance that it’s easy to rush through this short novel without stopping to admire its skill. But each time I put this book down I can still hear Daisy’s sharp voice in my head. I can still feel her agony at her separation from Edmond and I still want to know if the cousins can ever put the damage inflicted by the war behind them. To me, that shows what a fine book it is.

PS. You can find out more about World Book Night in the UK and Ireland here. There’s a World Book Night in the US on April 23 too. The books are different but you can find more information here.
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