8 Great Questions: Rachel Joyce

The author of The Music Shop and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry shares the book she always comes back to, the whimsical one she loves giving to others, and how she’ll always be the plain-spoken person in a room.

Rachel Joyce

Rachel Joyce is one of the most relished contemporary voices in modern fiction, and her new novel, The Music Shop, is an exquisite, perfectly pitched love story and a journey through the redemptive power of music. Recently, Rachel spoke with us about her lively all-woman book club dream, her most beloved childhood storybooks, and the bookshop that makes her absolutely purr upon entering it.


Featured image: Lorenzo Gritti; Author Photo: © Justin Sutcliffe

What’s the book on your bedside table?

I've just read Lives of Girls and Women, which I hadn’t read before. I love Alice Munro, so I bought that last weekend.  I read that in a week. Her way of taking you inside those characters, taking you into a room, and then, at the end of each paragraph, expanding on it. I read with a pen now, I can't help it, because if something's delicious, I feel I've got to mark it, celebrate that it's there with my pen, for what it's worth.

What’s the one book you tell everyone to read?

Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore, I endlessly go back to and try and work out how on earth it's put together. Offshore is one of my favorite novels ever because it’s set in these canal boats in London, on the River Thames. I love the fact that it's about people who don't quite belong on land, and they didn't really belong on water, and they're all a bit broken. But, again, it's about a community where you don't quite expect to find one.

Name three characters from literature or authors (dead or alive) that you’d want in your ideal book club?

I might have a little mix. Even now, being in New York, I’m desperate to know where Elizabeth Strout goes. So, I think I would ask her to come.  I probably wouldn't say anything. That would be the problem because I’d be so excited and impressed. Just to sit next to Elizabeth Strout in my club would be great. I might need some sort of Chekhovian character to come in. Masha, of Three Sisters, I'd like her to be there. This is turning into an all-female event, isn't it? But, never mind. Then, I think Miss Havisham. Let's see what happens there.

What word do you love and why? What word do you hate and why?

There's a little word that I use all the time, that somebody said to me recently, try changing it. The little word I use all the time is "but" in the middle of a sentence. “It was a very nice day but she was feeling really low,” something like that. This friend said, "Why don't you try replacing 'but' with 'and'?" And it's remarkable what a difference it makes, because "but" tends to take everything down, so to speak. And "and" kind of opens up the possibilities. I avoid words that feel to me like something I wouldn't wear, very flamboyant words. I always try to find the simple way of saying a thing. So, probably "dexterous" I wouldn't use. But, I'd find something, you know, much more down to earth and every day.

What’s the one book you love to give as a gift and to whom do you give it?

When we were children, we had this book. And it was called Christmas Comes To...now, I can't remember the name of the street. It was a story about a woman who’s obviously a single mother. I used to read it to my children every Christmas. She's got children of her own and then people keep knocking on her door, asking if they can come and stay. There are some people whose car's broken down, and some aunts who turn up. And in the end, her house is stuffed on Christmas Eve with all these people. She's got aunts lying asleep on the bookcases. She's made a bed in the bath. What’s so glorious is that they bring this motley selection of food, and the next day, they have the most brilliant lunch that's put together from all the things that people have brought. And I would be giving it to my friends. The other thing that I really loved when I was a child was called The Most Perfect Present, it was a storybook set in London, and it was about Christmas Eve. Father Christmas, he goes to park his sled in a bus garage and happens to ask the bus what it would really like for the Christmas. And the bus says, "Well, I'd really like it if everything with wheels could have a go at flying." So, this story, it's got pictures of London with the longest line of buses, then bicycles, then cars, then hospital beds start flying out of windows, and they all land at Heathrow Airport for tea.

What’s the one book you read as a kid that has stuck with you?

I read a lot as a child, partly because I was very shy and quite uncomfortable, I didn't really make friends very easily. I'm not trying to get anyone to feel sorry for me, that's just the kind of child I was. So, books were a proper real escape, and I felt very safe in the world of books. There was one book that my dad gave me. There was a period where I was being really bullied at school, and I didn't dare tell anyone, because they told me not to, that kind of set up. So I pretended I had a tummy ache until the point I was about to have my appendix out, then I thought it was time to come clean. My dad gave me a book called Pyewacket, which is about a cat, a rather mad, naughty cat. I just loved this book. I loved it because my dad had given it to me. I love the smell of the book, the whole world of the book. And none of the stuff that was happening at school felt real when I was reading that book.

What’s the one book that never fails to delight or inspire you?

I'm lucky in that I have a willingness to receive books. Pretty much everything that I read, I'm prepared to go with you. Having said that, I go back to Elizabeth Strout, Anything is Possible. Reading that this year, I thought, “This is sublime.” And Katherine Mansfield's short stories, I remember first reading "Bliss" as a short story about a woman who's preparing a dinner party, and thinking how life is the best it could possibly be, and how carefully she's preparing, and then, during the course of the dinner party, she realizes that her husband is having an affair with another woman at the party. And I think it's a cherry tree that’s there at the beginning. And the cherry tree, which has not changed, as I remember it, looks completely different at the end.

What’s the last book you read on a long flight?

I remember reading Michael Frayn's novel, Skios, and I just howled with laughter. I started reading that in Toronto, and all the way back to London, I was still howling with laughter, and awake at the end. Yesterday, I was on a flight reading a novel that hasn't come out yet. But, I was sitting on the plane, thinking how everybody around me is watching films.  I said I was going to watch a film.  I'll just read another chapter. But then I thought, “This is fine.  I'm very happy with my book.”