Yesterday evening I made my rather soggy way to the lovely Crook Hall in Durham to attend the launch party for the Durham Book Festival 2012 which runs from 13th to 30th October. The plan had been to have a garden party, but the torrential rain meant that we moved inside and, after indulging in cake and wine, we all settled down in the medieval hall to hear Claire Malcolm, the Chief Executive of New Writing North and the Festival, introduce the programme for this year, before handing over to the poet Linda Francis who outlined her current plant and ecology-inspired project ‘Botanical’ and read a poem. Claire then introduced Rachel Joyce, the author of the Man Booker Longlisted The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (which I reviewed here).
I thought I’d give a summary of the discussion which followed Rachel’s reading. Rachel, who apparently writes in a shed, had a successful career as an actress with the RSC and National Theatre before she began writing radio plays and adaptations for Radio 4 and BBC 2. Harold Fry grew out of a radio play that she began eight years ago for her father who had been told he would lose his battle with cancer. He never knew about it, but it eventually grew from a forty-five minute play into a Booker longlisted novel. That Rachel wrote the radio play for her father, in the hope of somehow keeping him alive, explains a lot about the way the novel turned out. It also shows how personal a writer she is. One of the things which came out of the discussion was the extent to which the experience of landscape and, I think, the Harold’s reticence comes directly from Rachel. Interestingly, despite the many comparisons made (by me amongst others) between Harold Fry and Pilgrims Progress, The Odyssey, The Canterbury Tales, and so on, Rachel explained that she never thought particularly explicitly about the her literary or religious predecessors; rather, this was a story about a fairly ordinary man, doing a pretty extraordinary thing, which, although likely inflected by the many tales floating around most people’s heads, was not conceived of in relation to them.
As Claire Malcolm highlighted, Harold Fry exchanges darkness for humour throughout, often within the space of the page, which led to Rachel’s admission of a fairly intense love for farce and slapstick. More seriously, I think, is the intertwining of darkness and humour that runs through most ordinary lives and, again, it is with the ordinary, fleeting meetings of normal people that Rachel is most concerned: meetings which hint at unseen and deeply-felt cares and stories. This explains quite a lot about the meetings Harold has throughout the book.
One story I particularly liked was that, as a mother of four, Rachel often has to wait for an empty house before she can retreat to her shed (whose walls were adorned with pages of the UK Road Map, much to her husband’s confusion when he discovered that it jumped from Bath to the Lake District). As a result, she has her children trained to take notes in the car in case an idea strikes at a moment when putting pen to paper would be inadvisable. Talking of writing, Rachel’s next book is apparently rather different. All she would tell us is that it is told from the point of view of two male voices, one of whom is a child who believes their mother to have done something awful. Complication ensues.
The Festival has secured a three year funding agreement with Arts Council England which should help the twenty-two year old Festival grow further. I’ve really enjoyed the last few years and I think they have some fairly ambitious plans. The programme is now online and we’ve already booked as many tickets as we can afford (poor students etc.). I thought we had gone for a good spread, but it turns out that it’s mostly poetry. We ummed and aahed over Pat Barker talking about her new novel Toby’s Room (reviewed here), but didn’t book it in the end.