I spent the evening of World Book Night at Abingdon Library in the company of Rachel Joyce – the bestselling author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. I read this book at the end of March and loved it – my review is here.

After reading from the novel, Rachel then talked in conversation with Alison from Transworld Books before opening up the floor to questions.

Although this is her first novel, Rachel has honed her art on radio, writing plays and adapting novels for Woman’s hour and the afternoon play on BBC Radio 4.  It was fascinating to hear her talk about writing for radio and the differences between that and writing a novel.

Her novel started out as a 45 minute radio play that she wrote for her father who was dying of cancer; sadly he never got to hear it, but it went on to win an award.

Radio plays have around 7000 words in their 45 minutes, compared with say 90,000 in a typical novel.  Each scene has to have an essential plot point to it – otherwise it’s superfluous, and each episode has to end on a hook. She kept this structure in the novel, but of course gained the freedom to expand and describe all the background and landscape that can’t be included in a short play.

The novel has a large cast of supporting characters, and Rachel explained a little about some of them from the Girl in the Garage – the catalyst for Harold’s journey who has faith, but is grounded serving burgers.  Then there are the various people who talk to Harold on his journey – you can confide in someone who’s passing through. Rachel confessed that her children and one of her dogs also appear in the book.  Later in the book, Harold becomes a bit of a cause célèbre, and a band of other pilgrims gather around him, and he has to confront things, whereas before he has been very British and polite about everything.

Then there’s Maureen, Harold’s closed-in wife, who has as hard a journey as Harold – harder even, as she is left at home.  Harold has the physical aspects of his trek as well as the emotional one, and Maureen who starts off as a rather sharp woman has a hard time coming to terms with her life, but she does ultimately soften.

When asked about how she planned the route of Harold’s journey, she chose the starting point of Kingsbridge in South Devon as that’s where her husband was brought up and they knew the area really well. As for the rest of the route up to Berwick-upon-Tweed, some of it is detailed, other sections less so, but Rachel had a roll of paper charting Harold’s daily progress in detail.

It wasn’t all serious though, Rachel recounted some great things her children had said whilst she was writing the book, and how she used them to take notes when she had inspirations while on the school run.

This all made for a delightful evening, and I got my proof copy of the book signed. So that was what I did on World Book Night 2012. How about you?

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