Patrick Gale in Conversation with Novelist Rachel Joyce

By Olivia Cooper

Brought forward by an impressive thunder of applause, Rachel Joyce joins Patrick, her friend and founder of the festival on stage, facing rows of readers and fellow writers eagerly awaiting her. You’ll most likely know Rachel from her bestselling book, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry but today the focus was primarily on her new collection of stories, A Snow Garden. The stories are set on key dates over Christmas including the last day of the school term, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day. As Patrick puts it: ‘all the stressful points of the festive season’. She proceeds to read one of the seasonal stories set in an airport inspired by the time she and her husband were stranded in one around Christmas time, likening the airport to a kind of no man’s land.

While a collection of stories based around a fairly jolly season may seem sweet, much of Rachel’s writing remains far from it, with it being described along the ‘sweeter side of darkness’. Deciding the extent of intensity when writing something that is perhaps sensitive and emotional to some people, is something that I’m sure a lot of fellow writers have grappled with at some point but it is not something to be feared. Rachel seems to handle such topics effectively and you may not describe her a dark novelist, but Patrick points out that this is perhaps because there is still a sense of humanity: ‘not sweet, but humane.’

From the stories that she tells, there is a distinct mix of moving and joyful. And it’s clear when hearing these stories of Rachel’s life that she is a woman of many talents, one of those being acting. I was curious to find out what had brought on the transition and just how difficult or easy that was. Having had a background in theatre, she explains how that aided her when developing characters having, as she words it, ‘an instinctive sense of dialogue and structure’ and being able to fully emphasise with the character to perform the monologue and gain a more holistic understanding of that person. With all the fame and recognition that The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has brought her, Rachel appears to still possess a true love and fulfilment from her time as an actress highlighting the importance of having a creative outlet, especially from a young age: ‘everyone has to have a vessel.’

Towards the end of the talk, there’s a mention of the book she is working on now, titled The Music Shop, about a man who has a gift for finding people the music that they need instead of want, as he discovers how music can heal and meets a woman who has no interest in it. Simply from that hour-long talk, it was evident to me that Rachel Joyce has a certain knack for captivating a whole room and mixing humour in with personal anecdotes. The friendship between her and Patrick is also clear which makes for an incredibly relaxed and open atmosphere. A truly inspiring and fascinating woman, and if you are ever lucky enough to meet her, ask for the story of the man who only likes books with trains in them.

A Snow Garden has been published by Black Swan.

Photo credit: Daniel Hall Photography