The unlikely pilgrimage of Rachel Joyce


'I don't tend to write about the shiny people. I like writing about people with spots and big ears', the author tells Katie Jarvis

The unlikely pilgrimage of Rachel Joyce

‘I don’t tend to write about the shiny people. I like writing about people with spots and big ears’, the author tells Katie Jarvis

Rachel Joyce’s first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, has taken the world by storm - much to her surprise. For her hero is neither good-looking nor powerful: Harold Fry is a sad pensioner, who believes that walking more than 600 miles will save the life of a dying friend.

When I email Rachel Joyce, asking if she’d be up for an interview, her reply conjures a scene straight from Ronald Searle. “We have just come back from a family holiday, to chaos,” she explains. One daughter is applying for university, another taking an exam. “My son can’t find his trainers, and the fourth has lost her pencil case. I am trying to look like an organised person but I don’t think I am fooling anyone.”

When I finally do get to speak to her, it’s by phone. And even though we live a stone’s throw apart in Gloucestershire, Rachel is in London, meeting her publisher. No wonder she doesn’t have a second.

So how do those four children – aged from 10–17 – view their mum’s stellar success? “It’s a bit inconvenient for them when I’m not at home and they realise things aren’t where they thought they were,” she laughs. “But they’re so involved in their own lives – and quite rightly so – that they don’t really think about it.”

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(This is a family where success doesn’t go to anyone’s head. Writing in the Telegraph, Rachel explained that her own response to sudden fame was to come out in a violent cold.)

It’s clear that her heart eschews glitzy parties and award dinners in favour of her home near Stroud, where she lives with husband Paul and all those children. “There was a point when I was flying to New York, where I’d never been before, and I cried all the way because I didn’t want to leave my family behind. I just thought: ‘What am I doing! This isn’t quite what I had in mind.’ And so we decided from then on that we would do as much of it as we could together. In the summer, I had to go to Toronto for the book coming out there, so we made that our family holiday.”

Rachel changed Harold Fry’s life when she sent him to a post box with a letter to a dying friend. But Harold has changed hers, too. His Unlikely Pilgrimage – now out in paperback – has won her newcomer awards, kept her name giddily high in the bestseller lists, and won praise from luminaries such as Erica Wagner, who labelled it, “Impossible to put down”. Countries worldwide have snapped up the rights and there’s even a film in the offing.

Yet when Rachel took a year off (from her ‘day job’ of writing scripts for radio plays), determined to set down her story of a sad and desolate pensioner embarking on a mad, mad walk, it was a gamble that could have gone horribly wrong.

“It looked as if it was going very horribly wrong at one point,” she agrees. “I was down to not much money in my bank account, but I couldn’t stop.

“Besides that, I realised very early on that my journey writing the book and Harold’s journey through England were sort of the same. All those questions, doubts and fears I had, I was able to weave into Harold’s story. He has moments when he imagines he’s going to get to Berwick-upon-Tweed and everyone’s going to clap him as he arrives. But then he realises that’s not the point. If you go with that expectation, that’s probably not the right the way to progress; he has to work all those things out.”

Ah – a parallel indeed. Except that everyone has applauded the story of Harold, who tries to save the life of a cancer-stricken friend by walking 627 miles from his unhappy home in Kingsbridge to the Berwick hospice where she lies dying. He has no proper shoes, no waterproof clothes, no map; and he’s left his mobile phone at home. The themes are desperate ones – loss, regret, misunderstandings, pain, bullying and blame. Yet somehow – somehow – this manages to be a heart-warming, feel-good tale.

“It sometimes surprises me the way people describe it. Of course, everybody’s free to have their own take on it, but I do think if it as a dark story,” Rachel muses. “Some of the things that Harold has gone through, and that other people in the book go through, are not easy.”

The idea – which she first turned into a radio play – was sparked by a real-life tragedy of her own. Her father, Martin – to whom the book is dedicated alongside her husband, Paul – died in 2005 from cancer of the head and neck. He was 69 and full of emotions – fear, courage, stoicism, sadness – but, as with many of his generation, he simply didn’t know how to articulate them. Perhaps didn’t even want to articulate them. Though he and Rachel were close, she supporting him throughout, she acknowledges that “It wasn’t very easy for us to talk about these emotional things, which was probably why I wrote it. He didn’t even know I was doing it – I’d have been much too embarrassed to tell him.”

Was the book something of a lost conversation with her dad? The talk she never had? “Absolutely, there’s an element of that in there. But, also, my dad was a brilliant artist; he would draw fantastic cartoons for me. I couldn’t do that but I could write something.”

This is a book about many things that seem out of fashion. Walking is one (though Rachel challenges that contention: “I don’t think of walking as out of fashion. Because we’re lucky enough to live by a public footpath, I see a lot of people walking – some of them unlikely walkers, which gives me a lot of pleasure.”)

Faith is another; and, even if not ‘faith’ in the conventional sense, Rachel begins with a quote from Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, now better known as the words of a hymn: “His first avowed intent/To be a pilgrim”.

So why a pilgrimage?

“Somehow we seem to have lost touch with the idea of the journey being the ‘thing’, as opposed to arriving. So I was thinking around the idea of journeys that had some other meaning than a religious one.

“When I wrote the [Harold] play, I called it To Be a Pilgrim, so I was keen to keep that word in some way. It is a story about a spiritual journey, but it’s within an ordinary context. I’m a walker too and, when I’m out of my home, I’m more open to stuff; sometimes, I see things in a different way. And I really love it when I’m actually not thinking anything but I’ve got into a space of just being-in-the-moment.”

Brought up in south-east London, the eldest of three creative girls, Rachel wrote from an early age. They were also passionate theatre-goers, thanks to the influence of her mother, an English teacher. “I don’t know whether it’s something about those big stories, especially watching Shakespeare, but I really responded to watching a play and I just wanted to be part of it. At school, they told my parents I was too shy to go into acting, which is nonsense because introverted people are often actors. Obviously, I ignored that.”

Rachel went on to read English at Bristol, before taking a RADA course and joining the RSC. She spent 16 years in theatre, though she was also writing professionally towards the end. As if that wasn’t enough, she and Paul were balancing a growing family. “I don’t know how I did it!” she admits. “The last job I did was an episode of Doctors, and I had Nell with me, who was breastfeeding!”

The children have always been part of the warp and weft of her life, weaving themselves into every aspect. She recalls taking them to the cinema and scribbling away at ‘Harold’ all the way through the film, in the dark. In the car, she’d call out ideas and they’d write them down for her. “I found one of those notes, written and very misspelt by Nell, which said, ‘What is Harold’s atitud to alcool?’

“They’re also doing that for the new book. Joe, my son, has very sweetly bought me a packet of Post-It notes and a pen for the car. When I think of something, they write it down for me, and then they slam it on the dashboard and hope it’s still there when I get home.”

Ah, yes. The new book. Well, the second novel – entitled Perfect and out in July - is a rather different animal. “It’s all around me so I’m not very good at condensing it,” she says. “It’s set mainly in 1972, when two seconds were added to time, and it’s about two boys, one of whom thinks his mother has committed a hit-and-run. It’s about the times when children try to become adults and adults can become children again. And then there’s a quirky love affair going through the middle.”

What you can be sure of is that the characters will, like Harold, reflect something of us all in them.  “I don’t tend to write about the shiny people. I like writing about people with spots and big ears,” she says. “People who wouldn’t think they were the good-looking ones.

“I’m much more moved by ordinary people going about the business of living. That’s what touches me.”

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce is published in paperback by Black Swan. Her second novel, Perfect, will be published by Doubleday in July.


Rachel will be talking about her work at Chipping Norton Literary Festival on Saturday, April 20, from 11.30am at The Blue Boar Pub - coffee, cake and conversation included. Tickets, at £8 each, are available from 01608 642350 and For more on the festival, which runs from April 18-21, visit 

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