This is a first in a series in which Sarah Hampson interviews prominent British authors at home.
In the warm comfort of her kitchen, Rachel Joyce is telling me that, as a child, she worried about the moon.
It hung there in the sky, an empty playground for men in spacesuits she couldn’t see, playing golf with a ball that would sail off into the darkness and never land. “You started thinking about other planets, and suppose there are things on those?” says the author of Perfect, her much-anticipated second novel.
Her first book, the beloved, bestselling The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, has made Joyce an international star, and the journey to find her, deep in the English countryside in a 17th-century farmhouse, has been quite a journey, too – three hours northwest of London, up and down winding, narrow roads in Gloucestershire. “I’ll talk you in,” she told me on the phone, giving directions down a road only goats could easily navigate.
Now, curled up in a chair in her cozy, cluttered kitchen, she looks as though she could have emerged from the magical, quilted landscape, delicate as a forest sprite. Dressed in a plain knit dress and leggings, she is all almond-shaped green eyes and wild, fuzzy halo of hair.
“The world blew open,” she tells me in a wide-eyed manner about her feelings in the wake of the moon landings of the early seventies. Like her, the 10-year-old protagonist of her new book, Byron Hemming, is a worrier. “I am very close to myself as a child,” says Joyce, 51. When Byron’s best friend tells him that two seconds were added to time in 1972 to balance clocks with the movement of the Earth – a true event – he is unsettled by the change in a measurement that is supposed to be immutable.
The notion of the world shifting from familiar moorings could also be a description of Joyce’s own life in the past few years, how the mystery of her creative process has manifested in global attention she could never have imagined.
For 20 years, she was an actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company, until she gave it up to write dramas for BBC Radio 4 because she couldn’t bear being away for extended periods from her four children, now aged 11 to 18. She learned about pacing and plot by writing for radio but didn’t attempt a novel until she began Harold Fry, a charming story about a recently retired pensioner who unexpectedly sets off on a journey to save a terminally ill friend as a way to deal with her grief over losing her father. Joyce struggled with her confidence while writing it over the course of a year, almost giving up several times. It went on to win several awards and was long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker.
Now, she can’t even hide in the countryside. “There was one time when the garden was filled with journalists from Spain, and I thought: ‘What has happened?’
“Until I started writing [novels], nobody really asked how I thought about things,” she observes quietly, cupping her pretty Emma Bridgewater china cup between her palms, like a delicate bird. “So it’s a strange sort of change,” she says with a small, nervous laugh.
What she thinks comes from watching the world around her and disappearing into the minds of others. “I think that’s part of the acting life as well as the writing one,” she explains. “Actors go inside the heads of other people and are not afraid of the complicated places you can find yourself.” She tells the story of a man she sees on the footpath at the edge of her country garden every day at the same time. He became a model for one of the characters in Perfect.
“He has this brutal sort of haircut, and that troubled me on his behalf,” says Joyce, the perfection of her theatre-trained British accent turning the casual observation into something you might want to serve the Queen. He shouted all the time, this odd man. She thought he might be calling after a large dog. But then she saw the dog. It was tiny. “This man had all this anxiety that was out of proportion. That made him an outsider, and this pulls at me.”
The main characters in Harold Fry and Perfect are idiosyncratic outsiders. “On television, it’s all just shiny, successful people, and so I feel somebody has to wave a flag for the ordinary people who are not quite sure that they are getting it right.”
One minute forthright and determined, the next seemingly vulnerable, Joyce is a landscape of psychological nuances, shifting slightly under the influence of a cloud, a gentle wind, a sudden finger of light. In her youth, her life was circumscribed by the boundaries of her East London neighbourhood and the tight circle of her family: she, the eldest of three girls; her mother, a teacher; her father, an architect. Now, her own family gives her the grounding that tamps down her literary anxieties and allows her to wander free in her imagination.
Her husband, Paul Venables, is an actor and psychotherapist whose office is in one of the farm’s converted barns. Their home is made of ancient stone. The wooden beams are heavy and wide. The thick walls are decorated with delicate gold stencils of vines, hand-painted by Joyce. The furniture is like a collection of faithful friends – rumpled, cozy chairs, a solid, dependable harvest table everyone can sit around, a handsome wooden armoire standing guard by the door. Physics homework is scattered on a bench. Wellies line the wall by the door. While we talk, two dogs scurry through the house, and a child pads in and out of the kitchen.
Such is her attachment to her family that she involves them in her writing. While working on her first novel, she and the children would go “Harold-spotting” on their drives to and from school. Each child figures in Harold Fry somehow. And when the world called her out on tour, she and her husband brought them all when they could. She talked to them about Byron in Perfect, too, but she never forcibly pushes her imaginary life into her domestic one. “It helps to get a handle on your story by telling it to kids, and you can find out very quickly if it doesn’t stand up. But I also think my children need their space.” Maybe they don’t need to know some of the dark things going on in their mother’s mind, I venture. Perfect is about imperfection, really, and a fragile mother as light as air who loses touch with reality after a mistake she makes in the car on the way to school. Joyce looks up at me, and nods.
In the hours between maternal duties, she retreats to her writing shed a few steps across the grass from her back door. Outside, the steep hill on the other side of the Golden Valley, a narrow cleft in a rolling landscape, rises up, holding everything and everyone snugly in a verdant envelope. She watches the land from here. “It’s like people who don’t quite fit,” she offers dreamily. “I just love noticing what happens.”
Every descriptive passage in Perfect comes from something she has witnessed, she says. She can see rain coming in from miles away: the black clouds; and the sun shining through, a sword of silver. She takes note of the “crack of amber at the bottom of the sunset,” spending hours thinking of the perfect words to describe it.
But her favourite time is in the early hours of the morning. The children are asleep. There will be a dawn when she finishes. She will feel the crunchy frost beneath her feet when she returns to the house. Perhaps she will see a moon still hanging solemnly in the sky.