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Rachel Joyce: How she's disengaged with Christmas and why she chose it as her latest subject

Rachel Joyce’s latest novel is set in the festive season. James Kidd finds out why

James Kidd
Friday 20 November 2015 13:49 GMT
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Author, Rachel Joyce
Author, Rachel Joyce (Justin Sutcliffe)

"I hope I am not sounding as if I think I am great. That is just the way my head works. It is quite tiring.” Rachel Joyce doubtless has her faults, but I suspect that self-aggrandisement does not rate high among them. Her tendency towards self-deprecating humour and unadorned sincerity presents her as a direct embodiment of her bestselling novels, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Perfect and The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy. “It still feels odd that I have written books that are in shops,” she says. “Not that I want to encourage people not to buy them.”

Here is the speech, explaining her empathetic imagination, that made the 53-year-old fret about sounding arrogant. “I must feel compassionate for people who are struggling, who are finding it hard,” she had said. “Maybe it’s the helplessness of seeing people who you can’t really help but you can’t walk away from. I think that’s what moves me. Or touches me. Am I using the right verb?”

For a short while, Joyce’s modesty about making any sort of statement threatens to derail our entire conversation. My opening question, about her new book A Snow Garden, receives the sort of reply that strikes fear into any interviewer. “I am not really very good at talking about these things. In order to write the stories, I am inside them. I don’t really have a view of what they are. Which probably makes me useless to interview, but I am trying my best.”

After a break for photographs, Joyce returns to explain herself. “It is much better if I try to be as honest with you as I can. It’s just that sometimes I don’t know the answer straight away.”

The most obvious question concerns A Snow GardeI, and why Joyce chose Christmas as the subject to connect these interlinked stories. The idea first occurred when Joyce was stuck at Stansted airport in late December. Something about the “no man’s land” of the terminal seemed emblematic of the 21st-century Christmas. “They are bizarre places. This mass of people not anywhere except for shops and eateries. I am not really religious, and I wouldn’t want to offend anybody who is, but if the Virgin birth happened again, would we get it? My hunch was that we wouldn’t. It would happen the way it did in the Bible story.”

In A Snow Garden, Joyce seems less interested in exploring theology than dramatic possibilities. “Christmas is a heightened time and an ordinary time. Families get thrown together in a slightly unnatural way, and we are supposed to get on. But it is never that simple.”

So, a mother of two faces the break-down of her relationship, finding solace in superior cleaning products. A divorced father under pressure to connect with his teenage sons makes promises that seem impossible to keep. Two people find a moment of perfect happiness at a Christmas party in 1962, only to have their lives fast forward less fortunately – a little like On Chesil Beach wearing a Santa’s hat.

Like much of Joyce’s work, the stories participate in a tradition linking Charles Pooter and Alan Bennett, working their quietly eccentric magic by finding strange seams of feeling in the commonplace and the underdog. “You write about what moves you. When I’m in Stroud, seeing people who would slip under the radar, who aren’t going to make a load of money, or achieve on the level that we call achievement, I find that moving. Whereas people who are shiny and have it ... I am not so interested.”

Writing might have its social aspects, but it is also a deeply personal process in which Joyce tries to understand periods of her own emotional turmoil. “When my dad died, I didn’t know where to put my grief. The first time I had a miscarriage was the same. I didn’t know how to fit what I was feeling with normal, everyday life. For me to go and write was like a way of shaping something so big that I would otherwise be overwhelmed.” The process is, by turns, comforting and painful, private and somehow communal. “You recognise that you are not on your own with it. Nor are you singled out.”

In this context, writing is not a luxury but an essential way for Joyce to narrate her interior life. Indeed, of the two things that unsettle her fundamental placidity, one is having her work called “sweet”; the other is her conviction that artistic expression is discouraged in contemporary British culture. “This is probably the closest I get to being angry about anything,” she says. “I think it is really important that we are allowed to do something with how we feel, whether it is writing, painting or music. If we stop taking our need to be creative very seriously, that negated energy is very dangerous.”

Joyce herself offers proof of the thesis. Her relatively short career as a novelist has helped her negotiate profound changes in her life. Born near Eltham, in south-east London, she worked as an actress in the capital for many years. She quit the profession after she found working away from home increasingly hard to square with the demands of a young family.

Joyce turned to writing: radio plays at first, including an embryonic version of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Her first serious attempt at fiction coincided with a decision to swap London for rural life in the Cotswolds. Joyce eventually settled in Stroud, along with her husband, the actor Paul Venables, and four children.

These exterior changes encouraged deeper transformations. “I think I have got more and more introverted. I am probably going to disappear into a cupboard in the end.” For the time being, Joyce has settled for her current writing studio: a caravan in a field outsider her house. “I can feel myself straining to get even more into the wild. If I could just have a table and a chair in a field that would be great. I would just get very wet. I just find it really liberating.”

Nor is Christmas exempt from this introspection. “As I am getting older, I feel less engaged with stuff, and more engaged with what I am doing with my life, where I fit and – I don’t want to sound too ‘out there’ – more engaged with nature.” Before Joyce’s children take fright, she says there will be a tree, food and gifts. But she wants to scale back on the pressure and the pageantry. “I would rather we didn’t have all the presents. My husband would be fine with it. I would treat it as another bit of the year rather than some grand performance.”

What she craves instead is the chance to pause. “I do like the fact that things grind to a halt,” she says. “It’s that idea of light in winter. We give ourselves light, food and warmth and then try to get through to March.” She cites the hiatus between Christmas and New Year as her favourite part: “It is like a week of Sundays.” Joyce will read, walk and try to stay away from her car. Then, it’s back to work on a new novel set in an almost magical record shop and another attempt to engage directly with the world. “I don’t want to be cynical,” Joyce says. “For me it is good to stay focused and rooted. To think of yourself as one of the great crowd. It is where I think I am at my best.”

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