A Conversation Between Rachel Joyce and Charlotte Rogan
Charlotte Rogan worked at various jobs, mostly in the fields of architecture and engineering, before teaching herself to write and staying home to bring up triplets. The Lifeboat, her first published novel, was one of the 2012 Waterstones 11, a recognition for debut novels published in the United Kingdom; it was also chosen by the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program and was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award. It is currently being translated into twenty-five languages. After many years in Dallas and a brief stint in Johannesburg, Rogan and her husband now live in Westport, Connecticut.
Charlotte Rogan: When my protagonist Grace Winter came to me, she was defending herself to some unseen authority for things she had done in an overcrowded lifeboat. The story grew from there. Did Harold Fry or the idea of a pilgrimage come to you first, or were the situation and the character inseparable from the start?
Rachel Joyce: The truth is that I don't know where the story came from. Harold and his journey to Queenie turned up in my head and I realized I wanted to write about them. I think I often don't understand what stories are about and why they are with me (and where they have come from) until I have finishedand sometimes only years later. But maybe if we understood from the offset we wouldn't need to write them? If they were clear and complete, they would already be stories as opposed to an idea. Or an inspiration. What I do know is that I began writing this as a radio play when my father told me he was dying. He had spent years battling cancer, and after several brutal operations, surgeons told him there was nothing left to be done. He was very frightened and so was I. I was appalled at the idea of not having my father. I was appalled at the idea of watching him die. But both happened, and while they did I wrote this story about a man who sets off to save someone else. It was my escape. My way of making sense. And somehow also my way of finding the flip side to my complicated, wild grief.
I like what you said about not understanding what your stories are about until much later. I remember the feeling of panic when my publisher first asked me to distill what my novel is about into a couple of sentences. Perhaps most writers think that the book itself is the best and maybe only answer to that question.
Whenever someone asks me what my book is about, it occurs to me that I am the worst person in the world to put it in a nutshell. I remember people talking about an exercise where you supposedly have an elevator ridetwenty seconds, maybein which to sell your story. And my heart sinks when I imagine that. It would take me at least thirty seconds to pluck up the courage to open my mouth, let alone say something about the book.
So, yesbeing a bit of a tongue-tied personthis is the side of becoming a published writer that I didn't anticipate. When you write for radio, no one wants to know anything about you. It is the actors who do all the "shiny" publicity, and I was always, as a writer, very happy with that. So I have found it strange that suddenly people want to know about my life and who I am. The truth is, I am very private and very quiet. If you met me at a dinner party, I'd be completely underwhelming. (I would smile a lot.) But again, this, I think, is why I write. Because I need to say the things that don't get voiced for me in everyday life.
As I think about it, the way Harold's pilgrimage becomes public and attracts media attention makes a nice parallel to the way your novel became public. Just as you wrote the story for very personal reasons, Harold embarks on his journey with no thought of what it might mean to anyone but Queenie, yet people want statements from him. They want not only reasons, but Meaning. Have you been surprised by the public side of becoming a published novelist? (We need to mention your nomination for the Man Booker Prize here!)
I have been bowled over by the worldwide reaction to the book. I thought of it as such a personal story. The part I have loved most is readers getting in touch with me and sharing their own stories. That has been very moving.
The Booker nomination was a complete shock. I didn't see it coming at all. But I am glad I didn't see it coming, because I saw it as an honorand that was enough.
I wrote for twenty-five years without any sort of audience for my work, so for me, too, it has been both terrifying and enlightening to emerge from the writing closet. One of the many things I have learned from readers in recent months is that they complete a novel in a way that reminds me of the question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?
I wholeheartedly agree about readers completing a book. The story cannot come alive without a willingness on the part of the reader to make an imaginative leap. Without that leap (and you could call it a leap of faith), Harold and Maureen are simply in my head. I once told someone about a book I had read and how much I wished I'd written it. She said to me, "But in feeling the way you do, you have written it." I had never thought of reading in this way before, but I think about it a lot now. Reading is a creative process. As writers, we must do everything we can to make a world that stands up as if it could be a real one. Not necessarily the real one; not necessarily the world the reader knows. But within its own confines, that world must be plausible. It must add up. After that, the reader meets you halfway. The reader fills out your words with pictures, with breath, with feeling.
Clearly, your story has been heard. The world reaction is a testament to the fact that The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is wonderful on so many levels. For one thing, the language is gorgeous, and I want to get back to that. But the story is also an illustration of how the universal emerges through the particular.
Harold is an ordinary man. I have gone so far as to call him an everyman. By that I mean he doesn't consider himself to be any different from anyone else or in any way unique. He accepts his part in the bigger pictureand I think that gives him both humility and openness, despite his sheltered life and his reserved nature.
To me, the universal is in the small. That is the paradox. And it is also where drama lies. It is the basic human struggle between wanting to amount to something and recognizing our mortality. I happened to give a talk about the book recently at a Quaker meetinghouse. And I was very touched when one of the women who looks after the building told me about the graves there, all of which were unmarked. It made me think. Even in our dying, we generally want people to know who we are. We want recognition. We want to stand out from all the other graves.
So I tend to write about small, ordinary people who find themselves at an extraordinary point in their lives, equipped with only small, everyday words. This moves me. Sometimes our vocabulary can seem so clichéd, so overused, so undersized but we keep on trying. That's the thing. We keep trying to connect up.
You use the word "ordinary" in the second line of the book you are describing the day, but of course it applies to Harold as well.The entire first page is terrific.There is so much in it that not only draws the reader in but also telegraphs what the story is about. You mention a few pedestrian (pardon the pun) details of Harold and Maureen's life together, such as the clean washing and the slice of toast, but other details hint at a deeper, darker layer. The yard is "trapped" by its fence, and the word "vacuum" appears twice. Within this claustrophobic context, you place a "telescopic washing line." When I reread the paragraph, the telescope allusion jumped out at me as a signal that Harold's world- view is about to expand. I also love the understated sentence "He thought he might like to go out..."
Writing is an odd mixture of instinct and intention, of creative impulse and painstaking revision. Did your original radio play open in a similar fashion? If not, was it hard to decide how to start the novel?
The radio play was a completely different beast. I had 7,500 words in which to tell the whole story, not to mention a tight budget that stretched only as far as three actors. So when I began to write this tale as a novel, I knew I was starting from scratch. Besides, with a radio play, you only have the dialogue through which to tell your story. You only have what people (inadvertently) give away as they talk. With the book, I suddenly had so many other tools at my fingertips. There is the setting, there is the physical detail; not to mention the past and the thought processes. It was like having a whole new set of colors to play with.
However, whenever I begin a story, I like to ask myself, What is the situation here? What is the thing that has to change? All the cluesI thinkshould lie in the opening scene. But they mustn't have rings round them, signifying, LOOK AT US! WE ARE CLUES! The story must work on a superficial level, and it must also work on a deeper level for someone like you who cares to look back and re-examine. That is the delight of storytelling for me: that it can be what it is, and that it can also carry reverberations, when you go back and look a second time.
It's like life, I think. Life has clues and sometimes we are so busy living we don't see them.
So I write very carefully. And I keep refining and tweaking. I don't think anything should be in a story for nothing. And likewise, I don't think anything should appear in a story from absolutely nowhere. There is a bit I always remember from Jane Austen where she uses a pop-up character right at the climax of the plot and she adds that actually this woman passed through the story earlier, carrying some washing. That makes me laugh.
Your experience writing radio plays, with their emphasis on dialogue, must account for the subtlety with which you insert information about settings and characters. I tend to dislike long bits of exposition and exhaustive descriptions of people or placesas a reader, I would rather feel as if I am discovering those things through telling details scattered along the way. In fact, we don't learn anything about Harold's looks until chapter 4, when we you tell us only that he is tall and stooped. But because he comes alive through his perceptions and speech, I had a very clear picture of him from the beginning.
Even more than the dying Queenie, David personifies the open wound of the storythe Big Thing that will never be fixed. It was very fitting that the last scene shows Harold and Maureen looking out at the ocean and laughing. The ocean not only confirms the fact that Harold has reached his goal of walking the length of England, it is also the thing that dwarfs all our earthly concerns. And there is hope for anyone who can laugh.
RJ: That is very kind of you. You have actually said it all so succinctly I am not sure what to add. Like you, I enjoy discovering things in a story for myself. I remember, when I was acting, a director talking about how you have to earn silence in a play; if you have all the actors dropping pauses whenever they feel they have said something significant, the play grinds to a halt. For me, it's the same with backstory. These details must come out of the real story. You have to earn them.
I agree, too, that there are things in life that cannot be fixed. Maybe the best we can do is be open to changeand to accepting who we are. And this is what Harold becomes through his walk. There is a tiny suggestion at the end that even though there is hope, there is also the possibility of loss. But that is life, I think. Besides, Harold could not make the journey he has and not know these things. Yes, he and Maureen have rekindledor rediscovered how to speakthe love that David's loss forced to a stand- still. But inevitably there will be other trials ahead. That is why I wanted to finish with those two small figures holding hands at the edge of the ocean. For me, laughter is the key.
Language is the first thing that attracted me to writing how the words can convey character and philosophy and action, but also have a poetry and rhythm of their own. Here are two examples of terrific sentences from the book, although there are so many, I could open to almost any page and find one. But I like these because they do several things at once without being self-consciously showy, the way some contemporary writing can be.
He stopped referring to his guidebooks because the gap between their sense of knowing and his own of not knowing was too unbearable. It was as if Harold had taken off his jacket, followed by his shirt, and then several layers of skin and muscle.
What helps you to get into a literary mindset? I know you mentioned writing very carefully, and refining and tweaking, but are there other techniques or habits that allow you to better hear the music of your work?
It is a wonderful feeling when you get inside a sentence. It is the most frustrating feeling when you are floundering around on the outside of one. I am envious of people who can write pithy, elaborate prose, and it has taken me years to accept that what I do is write things simply.
Of course, I read The Lifeboat and I want to be Charlotte Rogan. I want to use your bold, stark sentences. I want to have a lifeboat full of characters, with wildly different backgrounds and objectives. But I can't be you. I can admire you, but then I have to get back to the business of being me.
Having said this, my first drafts are shocking. I reread them and I want to give up. After that, I go back and I go back and I go back. And every time I look at a sceneor I scrape at the surfaceI see things a little more clearly. As for inspiration, sometimes I read poetry. Sometimes I look at writers I admire. But the thing is, I can only be who I amso I have to keep whittling away. Besides, no one knows the story you are writing as well as you know it. And so you have to keep challenging yourself. You have to keep asking, Is this true, as I know truth?
Being an actor has definitely had an influence on me. I think many actors have a good ear for dialogue and the rhythm of dialogue. We all (and I mean human beings, not actors) talk in verse of the simplest kind. We use names, repetition, assonance, alliteration, exaggeration, metaphorall those things to help us put across our point of view. For me, there is poetry in the simplest things.
Listen to people. That is the best advice I can give myself. And keep hacking away.
Things are stark in a lifeboat, so that affected the way my story was told. In the case of Harold Fry, England is almost a character, and your reverence for her shines through. Once Har- old commits to his journey, he starts to see his surroundings in a new way: There were so many shades of green Harold was humbled. I imagine that writing so closely about the country gave you a new appreciation for it.
I don't know whether it is because I have spent years writing plays, but I am more comfortable taking the objective voice on a story. I like to be able to stand slightly to one side. It doesn't mean you are not inside your characters but it enables you to step away sometimes and place them as passing specks in a bigger landscape.
I relished the setting of The Lifeboatyour descriptions of the sky and sea, and the way they influence the human action. I am very interested in how we relate to the bigger things. How small we are against them.
I think I already loved the English landscape before I began to write about Harold Fry. In fact, I think the story partly came from that love. I am a Londoner, born and bred. We moved out eleven years ago when I was pregnant with my fourth child because I had a sudden and violent reaction against city living. I needed to see sky, not into another houseand I needed to see green, real green, not city green. We live now in a very old farm- house on the edge of a valley. The wind rattles through. We get small puddles inside the hall when it rains. But I step outside and I can see the sky from east to west. And I don't know how to explain this, but I feel contained at last.
So writing about Harold's awakening sense of the English countryside was like eating sweets for me. I wrote about what I see every day when I step out of my door.
Being true to your setting is one of the ways that truth in- forms fiction, and earlier you mentioned your father's illness as part of your inspiration for the book. Are some of the other incidents or vignettes based on things that happened to you, or are they wholly imagined?
As I said before, I draw on what I know and then I fabricate and weave from there. So a lot of the characters in the book are people I have seen, if only briefly. The man in the dress I watched once in Stroud. The arguing couple I overheard in a garden center. I had a summer job when I was a teenager in the craft shop where Harold buys place mats. I take what I see, what I feel, and I imagine from there. I couldn't write, I don't think, without feeling solid ground beneath me.
There is more pillaging too. My husband grew up in Kingsbridge. In fact, Harold and Maureen's house is pretty much where Paul was brought up. I am a terrible magpie. I hear little stories and they tend to stick in my head and reappear. So Paul as a boy did swim out on Bantham Beach, much to the horror of his parents. (He was never allowed to swim in the sea again.) My father's family all worked in pubs. I have a friend who was given a coat for his sixteenth birthday and shown the door. These details, these small pieces of truth, must play in my head, I suppose, and rearrange themselves however many years later into a story.
My children briefly pop up in the book, as does our dog, Leaf, a Border terrier, who was forever fetching stones. The sad ending to that particular story is that we realised Leaf had can- cer this summer, and that the cancer was too far gone to operate. I had to go to to Canada to do some promotion for the book and I asked him to wait for mebut, you see, he couldn't. He died quietly (like Queenie, and like my father too) when my back was turned.
I have a feeling that is how life often goes.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher.
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