A Letter from the Author: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

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Dear Reader,

I am one of those people on the sidelines of life. I am often late at the school gates and quiet at a dinner party. (I smile a lot to compensate.) But I don't mind being on the sidelines. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a book about people like me, maybe, who are not the obvious people you expect to stand up and say something to make you notice.

Before I started The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, I had been writing radio plays. But when I reached my 49th year I still had not done the thing I most wanted -- to write a book. I thought, "If I don't try now, maybe I never will." (After all there are so many reasons not to do things.) So I tried various beginnings and then I abandoned all of them and went back to a radio play I had written years before.

The thing that was different about this play was that I began to write it when my father was dying of cancer. He had been battling the illness for several years and had had many operations and treatments. He was a very active man, a vivacious, sparkly character and the news that there was nothing more to be done floored all of us. So I began doing the thing I do when I am lost and bewildered and wild with feeling. I began to write.

Looking back, it seems obvious what I was doing -- I was losing the person I most wanted to keep so I wrote a story about a retired man who sets off to save an old friend. I didn't see that connection at the time. But maybe this is why we tell stories in the first place -- to make sense and order out of wild and complicated emotions and situations that make no sense and have no order. I didn't think I could save my dad. I just wanted to make sense of what I felt. The other thing to confess is that I never told him I was writing this story.

I didn't expect that I would become so comfortable in the company of Harold Fry; a retired man who has done very little with his life, but who makes a sudden decision. I was happy to share his experiences as he meets ordinary people, all of whom have stories just as big and unlikely as his. I was happy too to be with the wife he leaves behind, vacuuming the carpets and incapable of saying much that is nice. I wanted to know why a man might make such a walk for his old friend. I wanted to know what had gone so wrong all those years ago that his wife slept in a separate room. I wanted to know how two people such people might find each other again.

But most of all I wanted to discover what happens when you walk out of your front door and in that moment you make a wild, impetuous, utterly un-thought through decision to put your faith in the unlikely and step out.

I write at night, first thing in the morning, the moment the house is empty. I write in the kitchen, the car, wherever I can. I have four children - (all of them sleeping upstairs as I write this) -- and I fit myself in mad shapes around them in order to sit here and try to make sense of things through words. I write about what I see, what I smell, what I overhear, what I imagine. In describing Harold's journey through England, I wrote about places I know; Kingsbridge, South Devon, is the town where my husband grew up. The barn where Harold spends his first night outside I can just about see from my kitchen window. I walk with the dog through fields every morning to feed ducks, hens, sheep, a neighbour's horse. I watch the sun come up. I notice the light, the leaves. All these things I wove into my story of Harold Fry. I used what I love. Even my children briefly pop up. (They have read the book in so far as they have worked out how many sentences they get and whether this amounts to more than their sisters or brother.)

What has been unexpected and profoundly moving is that a story which began in a very small and private, wounded place, has become one which many people relate to and share.

I don't know what my dad would have said. He would maybe have wiped a tear away before I could see and folded his handkerchief back into his breast pocket.

With my best wishes,

Rachel Joyce


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