The spectacular triumph of Rachel Joyce

  • Rachel Joyce
  • Rachel Joyce
  • Rachel Joyce

Bestselling author Rachel Joyce captivated the hearts of readers with her award-winning 2012 debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which saw her named the National Book Awards’ New Writer of the Year. Since then, she’s continued her winning streak with The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey, Perfect and A Snow Garden and Other Stories. The recently released The Music Shop is Rachel’s fourth novel, and fifth book overall.

Prior to becoming a writer, Rachel enjoyed a twenty-year career as an actor, 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.

She has written over twenty radio plays for Radio 4, and won the Tinniswood Award for Best Radio Play in 2007. She now lives in the Cotswolds with husband Paul Venables and her children. Ahead of Rachel’s appearance at the 2017 Cheltenham Literature Festival, Matt Dicks caught up with her to discuss her runaway success.

Rachel, you’ve been an actor and a writer of radio plays. But was writing novels where you always wanted to end up?

Yes, it was. It always was. Even when I was a child, that’s what I wanted to do. I always wrote, when I was a child - I was always writing stories and terrible, terrible poems. I wrote my autobiography when I was eight. [Laughs]. It was quite short, but it was about my poetry, which I felt had been overlooked.

I heard you sent a book to a publisher when you were fourteen.

I did! And I didn’t even tell anyone I was doing that. Yes, it was a children’s story. I went to the library and I made a list from the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. I only sent it to one publisher - I can’t remember which one - and I did it under a pseudonym as well. I don’t know why - I think I had the Brontës in my head a bit.

Your debut - 2012’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry - was amazingly successful. It won the National Book Awards’ New Writer of the Year Award. It was longlisted for the Booker. And it was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize. What was it like dealing with that smash success?

Well, it was quite strange. It can be a bit overwhelming, at times. But I had another book that I wanted to write. And I always feel that if I’m writing, if I’m being creative, that’s the place where I’m happy, and where I’m grounded. That’s where I feel connected up with things. Thinking about success…seems to me a hiding to nothing, really. I mean, what is it? It’s all so ephemeral.

So for me, it was much, much better to absorb myself in the book that I was writing then, which was my second book. The other stuff came and went really.

Harold Fry was, I’ve heard, around six years in the making. Does it remain the book that was most challenging to write?

No, they’re always equally challenging [laughs]. It didn’t take six years to write - it started as an afternoon play, and then I wrote a lot of other things, then I decided I needed to really commit to writing a book. Harold Fry seemed a very obvious book to write, because I had already explored it in a play - although the play is a very short medium.

But also, because it was very dear to my heart. I’d written it for my dad when he was dying, and there still felt a lot that needed to be said - about losing someone, about grief, about pilgrimage, about faith. About trying to find your place in the bigger picture. Those things all seem very alive for me.

So your latest novel, The Music Shop, has got this nice idea at the centre of it. The character of Frank, who runs the titular music shop, has this gift for alleviating the woes of his customers with music - with specifically chosen records. Where did the seed of this idea come from?

That was quite a complicated one, and again it happened a very long time ago - partly it came about because my husband and I really love music, we play music all the time, and I’m very interested in how music can reach you, sometimes, in a way other things can’t. It can take you to places of safety - or places of adventure. So those are the kinds of things I’m interested in.

But it specifically came about when Paul and I moved to the Cotswolds, which was - gosh - fifteen years ago. My husband couldn’t sleep at night. I don’t know why. We tried all sorts of things, and none of them really worked. In the end, we found a music shop in Cheltenham, as it happened, where Paul told the owner he couldn’t sleep, and he said: ‘I’ve got something that will help you.’

He found Paul this CD. He brought it home, and played it - and it worked. He did sleep! So we were so moved by this idea, that Paul - who wasn’t really into classical music then - went on a bit of a journey into classical music through this record shop. So that was the seed of the idea - a shop where you could go where the owner had a gift for finding people the music they need.

I saw on the Penguin website that there’s a playlist of songs that you’ve curated

There is! There’s a Spotify playlist. Because the book is a story, in essence, about a man who is passionate about vinyl, and wants to save vinyl, in the year that vinyl is being overthrown by CDs. But it’s also about music, and the publishers have made a playlist so that people can listen to the tracks as they read.

It’s also a big love story about two people who can’t quite…Well, everytime they get together, something goes wrong. It’s about how they can overcome themselves.

You mentioned living in London before you moved to the Cotswolds. I wonder what impact that’s had on your creativity? You’ve described yourself in interviews as something of a people-watcher

I think it definitely did open up my creativity. Partly, I think, it was where I was. I found in London that I suddenly has a desperate and visceral need to see the sky. I mean, I’m a Londoner, but [the feeling] really was extraordinary, how potent it was, that I couldn’t see enough sky. It was if I couldn’t breathe properly. I really needed to do it.

Paul was an actor then, and I was writing, so it was possible for us to move out of London and still work. I did tap into something more…reflective, I think, in myself. And in terms of people-watching…Even though we now live on some kind of remote hill, we do live by a public footpath, so I do get to watch people. And I sit in cafes, and on trains, and I endlessly…I’m endlessly moved by people, through watching them.

When I talk about your books with my friends and colleagues, there’s a theme that seems to come up. People are drawn to this sense of positivity, for want of a better word, that seems to be espoused by your stories…Is there a personal philosophy that you’re articulating in your books, do you think?

I find them very difficult to talk about from the outside. I suppose my interest is always in finding my place in a bigger community, and so I write about people who are doing that, or are struggling to do that. But because I believe so much in the power of the community - and also, mystery - I suppose those are the things I keep coming back to.

And with The Music Shop, more than any of the others, I felt that I needed to write a happy book. So it is a happy book, even though the characters go through some dark things - because you can’t just be happy. At the end - it’s a redemptive ending about community, and being part of some bigger thing.

You’re no longer a ‘new author’ - you’ve written a few books now. Is there anything you wish you’d known beforehand about the writing process, or being an author?

No, I don’t think so. The trick for me is not to really think about it - I mean, I do think of myself as a writer, because that’s what I do every day. But I’m also a mother, and a friend, and a person who wanders up and down Stroud, and those things really matter to me. And a wife! [laughs]. I musn’t forget to mention that!

So is there something I’d wish I’d known? No. I went into it knowing remarkable little about the publishing business, and I would rather stay that way. For me, the craft is the important thing. I think about that a lot.

So the Cheltenham Literature Festival’s coming up, and you’ll be speaking again. What’s that like to attend, as an author?

I think of it as an honour, partly because it’s Cheltenham. For years and years I’ve been going to Cheltenham to listen to writers speak. I really enjoy it. There’s something about Cheltenham, perhaps more than any other, that feels a bit magical. I suppose it’s all the marquees. It’s rather like the circus coming to town. Only with writers!

But I think people do consider it an honour to be asked to speak there. It’s so eclectic - it’s such a rich mix. There’s something for everybody.

The Music Shop is published by Penguin, and is available at all good booksellers. Find out more about Rachel and her books at www.penguin.co.uk. You can also enter our competition to WIN a signed hardback copy of The Music Shop here.