Meeting Rachel Joyce – Her Take on Writing for Radio


Me getting her next book signed

This is a little shout out to people embarking on writing for Radio.

In the middle of October (2014 – yes I am that behind the time in posting this), in Chepstow Library in Wales, a crowd of us dragged a chair up to listen to the loveable Rachel Joyce talk about writing for radio.

It is difficult not to be drawn into Rachel’s world. With her long ruffled skirt and Victorian boots, just looking at her made you feel like you were in another world.

I don’t know if any of you have read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. If you have you will be surprised to hear that she is not someone who described herself as a novelist beforehand. It turns out that she is predominantly a playwright, and has been one of the main writers for Radio 4’s afternoon play, and lots of plays for Woman’s Hour. She has also been involved in a lot of adaptation work, adapting the Bronte sisters’ works for radio, and her own novels.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry tells the story of Harold’s epic walk from one end of the country to another. When he walks out of his front door one day in his usual clothes and shoes, it is clear that he is completely unprepared for his journey. Rachel explains that this was a mirror of her own writing journey. She had no idea how to write the book and likens the writing process to Harold just putting one foot in front of the other and just keeping going every day.

Some of the points she made were relevant to anyone on a Creative Writing course, in particular the A215 Creative Writing Module with The Open University, or indeed any writing course, or journey, so I thought I would write them up and share them with you.

Please note, however, that these are just her thoughts, and not to override any advice from your tutor or coursebook! Just things to think about, I suppose.

When asked about her radio writing she said that you have to remember that the radio can be switched off very quickly and then you have lost your audience.

They are unlikely to turn it back on, or find you on ‘listen again’ once they have made that decision, unlike with a book where the reader may well pick it up again when they have more time or are back in the mood.

Consequently, she feels that radio plays need to have a strong storyline to keep the listener engaged.

Other interesting points Rachel made:

–          In Britain we are one of the only nations left who still have radio drama, so we have to look after it, write it, listen to it, share it, review it etc.

–          Character names are hugely important as they carry a lot of weight

–          Rachel always knows what the end of her play will be, and feels as though the beginning and endings are answers to each other. However, she said that one of her most respected writers (named no names) said that anyone who knew their ending when they started out was dull.

–          Writing every single day is vital to improvement

–          Rachel likes to include a lot of truth in her work. She sees the truth as stepping stones. She will write about/fictionalise something truthful, then see another stepping stone stone of truth ahead of her and have to work out a way to get there.

–          Predominantly a writer for radio, Rachel is not used to writing descriptions at length. She has mainly worked in dialogue, and she found that having prose to write descriptions was like having a load of colours to work with.

–          She said that she often used sound to punctuate action and that certain sounds can be very effective in radio work such as rain and other weather.

–          She said that different writing disciplines flex different writing muscles and that there is merit in trying your hand at all varieties so that you can draw from different ones when needed.

–          In order to adapt prose for radio, especially short plays in episodes, you have to get very used to cutting and being brutal. You have to look for that hook for each episode and allow time to remind the listener of what happened in the previous episode. In her adaptations of one of the Bronte stories she had to cut whole scenes and remove whole characters entirely in order to give the main focus to the main characters.

–          Her next book about Queenie Hennessy is being dramatised on the radio in 5 or 6 episodes so for anyone who has read it you can see how she adapted it for radio.

–          The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was also on the radio and is going to be a film in a year or two so it could be interesting to see how the book, radio play, film differ.




Apriil 2013 Meetup – The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

‘There’s no way I’m going to be able to read this,’ I said as I put the book down and  looked at my partner before realising what an absolute snob that made me sound, so I picked it back up and hoped he hadn’t judged me too much. I found the first page infuriating. Thanks Rachel, thanks so much for telling me that the protagonist just received ‘the letter that would change his life forever’. You know, I never would have worked that out unless you explicitly pointed it out to me.

Before I get loyal fans of this book hunting me down and bashing me with tea cosies, I had best quickly say now that I love this book. I adore this book. I feel warm and fuzzy when I look at this book on my shelf. This book made me get angry when Harold turned away from the door of the care home the first time to the point that I couldn’t go out for Sunday lunch with my partner and his parents until I had read on a bit to see that he did eventually go in. Yes, I am that idiotic. It made me feel intense feelings of ignorance and sympathy for cancer sufferers when I read the description of Queeny in her bed. And, I was no doubt physically gritting my teeth when the other people in Harold’s walking group got all the glory. After an initial unnecessary cock-up over the telling us too much about the letter, Rachel Joyce heads full steam ahead on an incredibly original emotional journey full of suspense,

For those who haven’t read it, this book follows the journey of a man called Harold Fry, as he walks the length of the country to reach someone called Queeny who is terminally ill. The letter that he receives at the beginning of the book is from Queeny telling him that she is ill, and immediately after reading it Harold decides to say goodbye to his wife and set off on foot with no real preparation or suitable walking equipment.  We are left to speculate on the nature of the relationship between Harold and Queeny, and why it is so important for him to reach her in this way.

It is a journey is all senses of the word; it is a journey for his wife, their marriage, his grief, other people in his life, and for us as readers. Harold and his wife, Maureen, share the narrating of this book, allowing us an insight into both minds and allowing us to change our feelings towards Maureen as time goes on. In many ways, Maureen has an equally significant journey of hew own, and neither character resemble the people that they were before Harold set off.

There are so many nicey nicey twee elements to this book, full of loveable characters, interspersed with plenty of good old fashioned British settings of tea rooms and bed and breakfasts, and it is complete with a happy ending, that it is easy to think of it as a cosy read and to overlook many of the darker, more serious elements and philosophical meanderings throughout. Let us not forget the struggles of the immigrant who was unable to find work in her field of expertise, the kind words of the girl who worked at the burger van and how easy it would have been to judge her. Let us remember how the different ways of grieving over the death of a son can test a marriage to its limits. Let us think about the feelings of the lonely neighbour.

Joyce encourages us to think about many things:

  • How not to judge people too soon:

 It must be the same all over England. People were buying milk, or filling their cars with petrol, or even posting letters. And what no one else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The superhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and everyday.

Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.”

  • How life is just about keeping going each day, however small a distance you may travel:

The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simple because the person living it had been doing so for a long time

  • How it is not straightforward to ask for and receive help, and to be receptive to the kindness of strangers:

“The kindness of the woman with the food came back to him, and that of Martina. They had offered him comfort and shelter, even when he was afraid of taking them, and in accepting he had learned something new. It was as much of a gift to receive as it was to give, requiring as it did both courage and humility.”

How we should slow down and be more Zen

“He must have driven this way countless times, and yet he had no memory of the scenery. He must have been so caught up in the day’s agenda, and arriving punctually at their destination, that the land beyond the car had been no more than a wash of one green, and a backdrop of one hill. Life was very different when you walked through it.”

Unfortunately I was not the hugest fan of some of her style of writing, for instance when she labours the point slightly:

“I’ve begun to think we sit far more than we’re supposed to.” He smiled. “Why else would we have feet?”

However, despite a few corny lines, I cannot fault her storytelling, the plot, the way she wouldn’t let me put the book down, and the way I felt a genuine pang of sadness when I realised that Harold wasn’t going to be walking through Usk anytime soon for me to cheer on. And when someone creates something that you know you could never do then are you really able to criticise that much?

Although there can be some pretentious sentences, I have yet to read a less pretentious character as Harold. At  one point he complains about someone who was losing control:

“He wished the man would honor the true meaning of words, instead of using them as ammunition.”

I could not agree more. I cannot abide the use of words merely to hurt when instead people should use the correct word for their feelings and not just harsher ones than necessary.  This endeared me to Harold even more.

We all love you, Harold, and I would like to think that I would have been one of the people who stopped and maybe had a burger with you one day on the side of the road. Sadly, I would probably have joined the masses in judging you and driving on.

Thanks for the education, Harold.

Future Meetups:

May 29th Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold
June 18th Gangsta Granny by David Walliams
July 31st And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
August 31st The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
September 25th The Warden by Anthony Trollope and The Spooks Apprentice by Joseph Delaney
October 30th The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz
November 27th Dovetail by Jeremy Hughes
December 18th A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas
January 29th 2014 Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier 

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