World Book Night in Abingdon with Rachel Joyce


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?

11 thoughts on “World Book Night in Abingdon with Rachel Joyce

  1. LizF says:

    I would imagine that Rachel’s training in writing for radio was a real boon for whoever worked as editor on her book!
    I have her book on request at the library at the moment and look forward to reading it after your review.
    As to what I did on World Book Night – I read Helen Dunmore’s The Greatcoat until I had to stop because I was frightening myself!
    If you are ever looking for a shortish ghost story to creep yourself out with, I can thoroughly recommend it so far!

    • gaskella says:

      Liz, I’ve heard nothing but good about ‘The Greatcoat’ – going to have to invest in a copy I think. (I also like it’s in the new range of Hammer books, from the Hammer Horror Film people).

      • LizF says:

        Just finished The Greatcoat (in the office on my lunchbreak because I was too spooked to read in the evening) and the recommendation definitely still stands. So atmospheric and very tautly written as you would expect from Helen Dunmore.

        If The Greatcoat is the standard of the books that Hammer will be publishing, then I can’t wait to see what comes next.

  2. Leah says:

    Hi there,
    I was in Liverpool giving away The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I read it a few years ago and really enjoyed it. I wanted to give away a book that was intriguing without being daunting, reasonably easy in style and appealing to both men and women. My supply did not last long and most people were excited to receive it.
    I don’t know about you but I thought WBN was quieter in the media this year. We had quite a lead up last year, on TV and in the papers, so that the day carried quite a buzz with most of the public. I also came across lots of fellow givers last year. There were events in Waterstones but it felt much quieter. Did anyone else notice this?
    Glad you enjoyed your day, your title is now on my wishlist.

    • gaskella says:

      Leah – I’m glad you enjoyed being a giver this year. I was one last year, but didn’t get my act together in time to apply for this year. There defo wasn’t quite the same buzz this year was there? Givers only had 24 copies too – last yr I had 48 which went like hotcakes then too. I didn’t encounter a single giver this year – none at our evening event in Abingdon, but then we were all book-lovers already.

    • gaskella says:

      Good luck with the quiz Booketta. I love quiznights – I’ve run a big book quiz for the past three years in our town. One day I hope to be able to take part in a team, rather than being the question setter! 🙂

  3. winstonsdad says:

    sounds like a great night I loved handing my books out ,this book was loved by a friend on twitter and I like quirky titled book ,all the best stu

    • gaskella says:

      You had the best vampire book ever to hand out too Stu. I really recommend Harold Fry – a happy/sad/heart-warming/thought-provoking book.

  4. Juna says:

    My family gave away 20 copies of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot at the entrance to the subway in Manhattan. The offer of a free book was met with mixed reactions — some appreciation, some suspicion/rejection, and in a few cases, reluctant acceptance. We were giving away one of the more difficult books, I think. This very well written true story of an African-American woman whose cancer cells were taken from her without her permission and kept alive long after her death, thereby benefitting millions of people world wide, is both fascinating and depressing.

    Overall I found being a book giver exhilarating. I do think that the giveaway will have made a difference–that people who otherwise wouldn’t have read this important piece of history will now have done so. Hope to do it again next year.

    • gaskella says:

      I have this book in my TBR pile, I hope all the copies you gave away do get read. I loved being a giver last year – hope to do it again too.

Leave a Reply