Rachel Joyce's novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is about a man who very suddenly, with no warning or planning, sets off on a pilgrimage from the very southernmost part of England to the very northernmost part. It's a old-fashioned pilgrimage: He walks all the way, talking to the people he meets, on his way to the bedside of his old friend Queenie, who is dying.
Harold's pilgrimage is unlikely "in that this is a man who's only ever walked to the car," Joyce tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "He decides that in order to try and keep a friend alive, which is of course a very unlikely thing for her to do, he too must do something unlikely and extraordinary."
The unlikely pilgrimage is also utterly spontaneous. Harold originally intends only to mail a letter to his friend, but he walks past the mailbox ... and just keeps walking, north to Berwick-upon-Tweed on the Scottish border.
"And without his mobile phone, and wearing completely inappropriate shoes, and just with a light waterproof jacket," Joyce says. "He sets off with no props. ... I was quite interested in what happens when you don't have the stuff."
Harold's wife, Maureen, is left behind, mystified at first by her husband's quest. Joyce says she was fascinated by the idea that someone could make a great emotional journey, just by staying at home.
"Part of the story just came from watching the way my mother had responded after my father's death and being very moved by people alone," she says, "sort of wanting through story to put things back together again."
Running through the book are allusions to that other famous English story of pilgrimage, The Canterbury Tales. "[Chaucer's tales] were in my mind and I do love The Canterbury Tales," Joyce says. "But I think lots of ideas are sometimes in our heads without us quite, you know, knowing it."
Harold's descriptions of his life are funny, but with overtones of sadness; he refers to being "on the sidelines" of his life, not really able to connect with anyone.
"Partly because of his own upbringing, he's not really equipped to get in there and sort things out," Joyce says. "He is on the sidelines of his life, and what I find moving about him is that he moves into the middle."
Joyce says Harold — recently retired and stuck at home — is ready to make that change. "It's very important for me that Harold and Maureen are ... 65, they're retired, they're at the point in life where some people might think, that's it, really. You're not going to change anything else. You're not going to change a marriage, you're not going to change a life, you're not really going to make new friends, you know, you've made your path," she says. "And Harold throws all that up in the air ... and it surprises him as much as it surprises us."
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" is a novel by Rachel Joyce. It's about a man who very suddenly with no warning or planning, sets off on a pilgrimage from the very southernmost part of England to the very northernmost part, the border with Scotland. It's a very old-fashioned pilgrimage. He walks all the way, talks to people he meets. He's heading for an old friend who's dying. Rachel Joyce is a radio lady. She writes radio plays, adapts books for the radio, and in fact, this book began life as a radio play. She joins us from the BBC studios in Gloucester, England. Welcome to the program.
RACHEL JOYCE: Thank you very much.
WERTHEIMER: Now, maybe you could begin by helping us to understand your title and why it is unlikely that this man, Harold Fry, should decide to walk the length of England.
JOYCE: I really wanted to write a story about a man who is very ordinary, who chooses to do something extraordinary, 'cause those are really the stories that interest me. So, it's unlikely - and this a man who's actually only ever walked to the car, as his wife points out. So, he decides that in order to try and keep a friend alive, which is, of course, a very unlikely thing for her to do, he too must do something unlikely and extraordinary. And walking the length of England sort of drops at his feet, I suppose, as a very spontaneous idea.
WERTHEIMER: Now, he makes this decision on the way to the post office. He's going to mail a letter and he walks past the post box, thinking he'll mail it at the post office. And then he walks past the post office thinking he'll go on to a farther post office. And pretty soon he's on his way to Berwick-on-Tweed.
JOYCE: He is. And without his mobile phone and wearing completely inappropriate shoes and just with a light, waterproof jacket. And so he sets off without no props basically. That's the other thing that interested me really was writing a story about a man who's sort of stripped of all this stuff that we tend to carry around with us. And I was just quite interested in what happens when you don't have the stuff.
WERTHEIMER: Well, now, the story really has two parts. There's Harold and all his adventures, and then there's wife who is left behind, is utterly mystified by his journey. There is her story as well.
JOYCE: Yes. I was in the end very interested both in the idea of the man who walks and makes a journey and the idea that you might make a very big emotional journey as well by staying at home. And, you know, part of the story just came from watching the way my mother had responded after my father's death and being very moved by people alone and, you know, sort of wanting through story to put things back together again. I think that, you know, there's a large element for me when I'm writing of just creating my own version of the world.
WERTHEIMER: There are some "Canterbury Tales" elements here. I notice that the pilgrimage started in April and Harold gets rained on quite a bit.
JOYCE: He does. He does. I think those things were in my mind, and very much so. And I do love the "Canterbury Tales." It's one of those things that, you know, we all have to study.
WERTHEIMER: If we are all English.
JOYCE: Over here we all have to study is what I mean. But I think lots of ideas, sometimes in our heads without us quite, you know, knowing it.
WERTHEIMER: I wonder if you could read to us from page 99. This is one of the occasions where Harold undertakes to explain what he's doing. And this is to a social worker that he's met along the way. I wonder if you could read that paragraph that begins: Harold thought of the people.
JOYCE: (Reading) Harold thought of the people he had already met and passed. Their stories had moved and surprised him and none had left him untouched. Already, the world had more people in it for whom he cared. I'm an ordinary chap passing by. I'm not the sort who stands out in a crowd and I don't trouble anyone. When I tell people what I'm doing, they seem to understand. They look at their own lives and they want me to get there. They want Queenie to live as much as I do. The social worker was listening to so carefully Harold felt a little hot. He reached for his tie and straightened it.
WERTHEIMER: Harold's own descriptions of his life are funny but also very sad. He notes at one point that he seems to be assessing things and he feels that he's been a reasonable success in that he married, he had a child, he supported his family adequately. And then he adds: If from the sidelines, as if he's been an audience for his life...
WERTHEIMER: ...rather than a participant.
JOYCE: I think that's true. And I find that very moving. You know, the idea that sometimes we are on the outsides of our lives and that Harold hasn't, partly because of his own upbringing, is not really equipped to get in there and sort things out. So, that he is on the sidelines of his life. And what I find moving about him is that he, you know, he moves into the middle.
WERTHEIMER: Of the road, so to speak.
JOYCE: Of the road. Well, at least the pavement, yes.
WERTHEIMER: Now, your title is very odd and funny as well - "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry." But, you know, you could also have called it something like Harold Fry Changes his Life by Taking a Very Long Walk.
JOYCE: Well, yes. And in fact, the French translation of the book has just come in and I think that is almost exactly how the French translation of the title is going to work. So there.
WERTHEIMER: And I made that up. But is that the message, that he should change his life or that he can change his life and he just somehow is impaled upon this long walk, and that does it?
JOYCE: There is a part of Harold having recently retired and sat around ever since that is ready to make a journey of a kind. It's very important for me that Harold and Maureen are not in their 50s. They're not even in their, you know, they just turned 60. They're 65, they're retired. They're at the point in life where some people think that's it really. You're not going to change anything else. You're not going to change a marriage. You're not going to change a life. You're not really going to make new friends. You know, you've made your path. And Harold throws all that up in the air. And he's the most unlikely person to throw all that up in the air. And, you know, it surprises him as much as it surprises us.
WERTHEIMER: Rachel Joyce joined us from the BBC studios in Gloucester in England. Her book is called "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry." Rachel Joyce, thank you.
JOYCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.