First-time novelist Rachel Joyce shocked by Booker Prize nod

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First-time novelist Rachel Joyce shocked by Booker Prize nod

TORONTO - Rachel Joyce still seems gobsmacked by the recent news that her debut novel, "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry," is in contention for the prestigious Man Booker Prize.

"It was just completely out of the blue, it completely threw me," the 50-year-old mother of four said this week during an interview.

"I just never thought of myself in that bracket."

Joyce is not the only up-and-comer vying for the Booker, which honours the best works from the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland. The 12-book long list was notable for showcasing a new crop of literary voices, including 27-year-old London resident Ned Beauman for "The Teleportation Accident." There are no Canadians in the hunt this year.

Joyce, who has written about 20 radio plays, says she has always had a "little dream" of writing a book. When her father was in the end stages of throat cancer, she turned to the page for solace and "Harold Fry" emerged.

First produced as a radio play, the novel chronicles the titular character's pilgrimage to visit Queenie Hennessy, a former co-worker who is dying of cancer. Harold initially sets out to mail a letter to his old acquaintance, and then spontaneously keeps walking when he reaches the mailbox.

While Harold's wife Maureen is angered by his decision to march hundreds of miles to Queenie's hospice, the public becomes transfixed when they hear about the journey, with many choosing to join in on the trek.

Harold's conviction that Queenie will not die as long as he keeps walking, was always at the core of the novel for Joyce.

"The idea that stayed with me is just the idea of, 'I'm going to walk for you and you will keep living.' It's that idea of having a very modern faith, which is also a very old faith, but a very ordinary faith," she said.

"It was more this idea of, 'I'm going to do something for you and you're going to keep alive.' It seemed such a basic, fundamental wish."

As he walks, Harold meditates on his past, including his troubled relationship with his son.

Joyce says her father — who died before the book was finished — shares many traits with her protagonist.

"I don't know whether it's a very English thing, but I think it's a generational thing. My dad was a war child and not particularly good at expressing how he felt," she said.

"And I find that very moving ... and I think we all have those moments where we don't know quite how to communicate all the feelings we've got."

The novel — which is in Canadian stores now and was published in the U.K. in March — has already struck a remarkable chord with the public.

Joyce has been approached by readers who are weeping about the novel, and who want to share stories of their lives and their own voyages. The response echoes the one that greeted Robert James Waller's "Bridges of Madison County" when it was released in 1992.

"Exactly the same," Joyce said when the "Madison County" comparison is suggested.

"I've had quite a lot of people crying and sometimes I don't even quite know why, but I know that there's a very big story (there).... I definitely feel I've given something of myself in the book but what's really moving is that people have read it and given something back and I hadn't anticipated that at all."

In addition to her father, other elements of Joyce's life pop up throughout the novel. Each of her four children make appearances, she says, and the terrain Harold travels is similar to the rural English area where she makes her home.

"As I was writing it, I'd drive (the kids) to school everyday they'd say: 'What are you writing about today?'

"And as it was finished ... they started Harold spotting because we often see people alone walking."

The Booker short list will be revealed Sept. 11, while the winner of the £50,000 prize (about C$78,000) is to be announced Oct. 16.

Joyce, meanwhile, is already halfway through her next novel. As for her late-in-life debut as a novelist, she speculates that "the time was right" or "maybe I had to do a bit more living, or learning."

The creation of "Harold Fry," she says, was a "compulsion."

"I really didn't know why I was doing it," she said. "And then it became obvious that my journey and Harold's journey had a sort of link in that we were both doing something that was a bit of a leap of faith."

Geographic location: United Kingdom, TORONTO, Republic of Ireland London Madison County

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