Author Rachel Joyce sits on a yellow chair on the Arts Centre stage while responding to questions from the audience.
Rachel Joyce, author of Big Read book The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, in conversation at Edge Hill University’s Arts Centre. © Stuart Rayner

Bestselling author Rachel Joyce has urged Edge Hill University students to be brave and “step out” while speaking at a special event on campus.

The writer of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which was selected as the 2019 Big Read book for new students, made the comments at a frank and moving Q&A in the University’s Arts Centre.

She also confirmed plans for a film and musical adaptation and revealed that one offer, which sadly didn’t come to fruition, had involved John Travolta.

Rachel thanked The Big Read project for selecting her novel and urged students to learn from Harold Fry’s mistakes by having the courage to find out who they are.

“Young people today have to be really brave and need to ruffle things,” she said. “Harold Fry spent his life in a car; he didn’t have the courage to step out and find out who he was. Don’t be afraid, find out who you are, step out.

“I hope Harold Fry speaks to students: he’s going on a journey, he’s not experienced in the world. He learns to connect, he learns we’re all different. That’s a precious lesson, especially now.”

Originally written as a play for BBC Radio 4, Rachel started penning Harold Fry in response to the news that her father had cancer, the same kind as one of the book’s main characters Queenie Hennessy.

“My reaction was to write this play, although I knew he would never hear it. As I was losing my dad I was writing about this man who was walking to save someone with cancer.”

Rachel Joyce looks up at a member of the audience while signing her book.
Author Rachel Joyce signs copies of her book The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry after a Q&A at Edge Hill’s Arts Centre. © Stuart Rayner

Rachel read a passage from the book which included some of Harold’s words: “I will keep walking and she must keep living… as long as I walk, she must live.”

The Unlikely Pilgrimage was selected as the 2019 Big Read book by staff and students at Edge Hill University, Kingston University London and University of Wolverhampton.

The shared reading scheme sends the selected book to all first-year undergraduate students before enrolment in a bid to make students feel welcome and encourage community building.

Rachel said she was “excited” to have been chosen.

“I think it’s an amazing initiative and I want to support it in any way I can. I wish there had been something like this when I was a student, I think it would have been very helpful.”

Responding to questions put forward by students and staff at the Q&A event, Rachel discussed writer’s block, her passion for dialogue and “the glory of the ordinary”.

“I really love dialogue; I love what people choose to say or not say. And I quite like jarring emotions, it’s interesting to have funny followed by painful; that’s real.

“I wrote Harold Fry remarkably quickly, I was always with it. When you’re writing a book, it’s like when you have a baby, it needs your constant care. The characters feel real to me.”

Rachel admitted that people regularly asked her why Harold chose to carry out his 600-mile walk in yachting shoes.

“Harold had to have the shoes. My dad had them and he never went near a yacht and he didn’t like the sea. In order to complete his journey Harold must not lose who he is: he’s a man in daft yachting shoes.

“There are so many reasons not to do what you want to do, like not having the right shoes, but you have to do it anyway.”

Also author of parallel book The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, Rachel added: “A part of me does know there’s a third book.”

Author Rachel Joyce and Edge Hill's Alison Clark stand together behind a copy of the book and some yachting shoes.
Author Rachel Joyce and Edge Hill University’s Alison Clark. © Stuart Rayner

She continued: “The beginning is always the moment when you ask yourself ‘why does this story need to happen’. The ending is the answer to that.

“When writing I try to follow the advice that if you just concentrate on the next walk you will get there. I make lots of mistakes but that’s when the interesting things happen.

“I still can’t quite believe my books are in bookshops,” she added. “It’s such a gift for someone you don’t know to give you, to read your book.”

Alison Clark, Big Read Project Manager at Edge Hill University, was thrilled to welcome the author to the Ormskirk campus.

“It was fantastic to receive a visit from such a wonderful writer and I hope everyone who came along really enjoyed her insight on the book and the art of writing.

“We hope the Big Read scheme offers students a sense of community and belonging so when they come to university they have something in common.

“It’s a conversation starter, a way of helping them settle in, and a means of encouraging reading for pleasure.”

For more information on the Big Read visit https://www.edgehill.ac.uk/bigread/