Rachel Joyce found Queenie Hennessy's story so compelling that The Love Song of Queenie Hennessy was ready for her editor in an astonishing five months. She tells Sue Leonard about her character's persistance
LAST YEAR Rachel Joyce was writing a book about a music shop. She was 20,000 words in and was enjoying the process enormously. Then Queenie Hennessy, a minor character from her debut novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry popped into her head and refused to budge.
Rachel was also adapting Shirley for Radio Four at the time, and was trying to put everything else aside in order to concentrate on that.
“I was going to my desk each day thinking, ‘I must not write Queenie, I have to do Shirley,’ but I ended up writing the new book anyway,” she says. “I did, eventually get the adaptation done, but I felt Charlotte Bronte was shouting at me some days because I wasn’t doing it fast enough.”
The character Queenie was a former work colleague of Harold Fry, and it was she he was walking across England to save. She was dying from a facial cancer that made it hard to swallow, but the reader learns little about her from that first book.
The author found her story so compelling that The Love Song of Queenie Hennessy was ready for the editor in an astonishing five months.
“I made myself quite ill by the end,” says Rachel, “because I was constantly having to rework the novel, but I felt this compulsion to get it out. I always do these stupid hours, and right at the end I got this terrible lump in my throat and I could not swallow. I thought, Oh great, now I’ve really pushed it too far. But luckily it wasn’t a case of life imitating art.”
Rachel started out life as an actress. A shy child and teenager, she discovered the stage whilst she was studying English at Bristol University. She went from there to RADA, and subsequently had a good career in the theatre.
“I worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Court and at the National Theatre and I had good parts too. I acted for almost 20 years by which time I was married and had started having children. After that it didn’t work for me in the same way.”
Undaunted, she began writing radio plays.
“That suited me a lot better. I wrote a lot of them, as well as adapting classics for serials on the Woman’s Hour slot.”
Five years ago, Rachel’s father was told he had just five weeks left to live.
“He had been having operations and radiotherapy for cancer for five years. He was terrified of hospices and frightened, and a bit embarrassed about dying. He really wanted to be in France when it happened, and we all went there. I believe he came to some kind of acceptance in the end.”
Devastated, Rachel wrote a play for him. It featured a man who walks to save someone dying, and when it was broadcast, there was a strong reaction to it. Rachel felt there was more to the story that she needed to explore. It was time, she decided, to write a novel.
An instant success, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry caused a minor sensation. Long listed for the Man Booker Prize, and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize it was translated into 34 languages.
“It was like a small boat that suddenly got the wind behind it,” says Rachel. “Waterstones chose it as one of their 11 debuts of the year, and the Times named it the debut of the year — I think that launched it really.”
Did the success feel amazing? “It was strange,” she says. “And not overwhelming. I have a strong sense of family and home. We live on a farm near Stroud in Gloucestershire, it’s very rural. I think the combination of having four children and land roots you.
“Also I don’t do praise easily, but I do do doubt. And I worried, always, that there would be a flip side of success. Luckily I was already writing my second book, Perfect, and that felt like a haven; like being with friends. I took it with me everywhere when I was travelling for publicity.”
Sitting opposite me wearing black, Rachel is sipping a healthy cocktail comprised of green tea and fruit juice in the hope that it will give her energy for a reader event she is doing later in the day. When I admire her black nails she laughs, and says she’s been raiding her teenage daughter’s supply of nail polish.
Clearly happy talking of her children, she tells me that her son, who is 14, went to an event with her last week at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
“It was in a book shop and it went on for two hours,” she says. “It was mostly in German. Joe was so mind numbingly bored that he pulled out one of his back teeth.” She barks with laughter. “That is so typical of a boy. He just wiggled it until it came out.”
The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is a fabulous read; engrossing and life affirming, yet the eponymous heroine spends the entire book ensconced in a hospice. She spends her days writing a letter to Harold Fry; telling him the secrets she has held from him since she left the town where he lived.
She writes tenderly of her unrequited love, relishing remembered images of Harold, like the time she watched him as he danced with his shadow. But she’s kept darker secrets from him too, and those have caused her to carry an enormous burden of guilt.
The colourful inmates of the hospice become intrigued by Harold Fry as they follow his progress across England, and soon Twitter picks up the tale. And though there are, inevitably, deaths in the novel, the tone is light and often laugh out loud funny, so the novel is never overly depressing.
“When I started researching, I shared my dad’s fear of hospices, but when I met nurses, and volunteers, and anyone who would talk to me, I realised how wrong I was to fear them, and how wrong my dad had been.
“I very deliberately peopled the hospice with large figures who would be fun to be with, because I needed to take the reader with me. I didn’t want to make everyone have a miserable time there, and I wanted to be true to the hospice movement.”
With Queenie now launched, Rachel has gone back to her book about music. She’s enjoying it, and says she loves writing and has a need to do it.
“Writing takes the same muscles as acting in many ways,” she says. “For both acting and writing you need a good ear for dialogue and for the rhythm of speech. And you use what you know and what you feel, and make an imaginary leap from there. Increasingly I think writing is like rehearsing. You take a story or an idea and keep trying different ways of doing it.”
Will Harold Fry ever surface again? “No. I’ve finished with him now,” she says. “In many ways Queenie was a homage to my father. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was about journeys and destinations. But it left Queenie as just a dying woman. And my father was absolutely not just a dying man. He was so much more than that.”
So was writing the book a way of dealing with her grief. She nods, and is quiet for a while, thinking of him. Then she tells me she’s adapted the book for Radio Four’s Fifteen Minute Drama.
“It starts next week,” she says. “Sophie Thompson plays Queenie. It’s so nice, putting the story back on radio. Because that’s where Harold Fry started.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved