Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Rachel Joyce talks about Perfect, children forced to become their parents' parents, jumping in to find the story and how she always wants a cup of tea

Perfect, by Rachel Joyce is a perfect book. About a strange accident that changes the lives of the characters, in particular, a young boy, it's also about time, class, and the glue that can hold lives together. Rachel, the author of the critically acclaimed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, is also the award-winning author of more than 20 plays for BBC Radio 4. I'm honored to have her here. Thank you so much, Rachel.

I always ask, what sparked this novel? Where did the idea come from?

The first nugget of the story came to me about thirteen years ago. My third child had just been born, and I was driving my oldest daughter to school. She was very nervous. My second daughter was cross, the baby was crying, traffic was heavy. I hadn’t slept for days. And I suddenly realised that if I made a mistake, if someone ran into the road, if anything unexpected happened, I didn’t have the energy, or the space, or even the imagination, to deal with it. I was stretched as far as I could go. It was terrifying. I began writing the story as soon as I got home. 

Of course – like most things – the story I began with changed over time. But I came back to it as soon as I had finished ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.’ I think I had to write that story first because I had to learn I could get to the end of a book.  I had to work out how to do it. Perfect is – for me – a much more complex and ambitious piece of story telling. It takes two time strands – 1972 and the present – and asks the reader to make the connections. 

What I loved so much about Perfect was the sense of weirdness skating under the ordinary. How difficult was to achieve that balance? And were you unnerved in the writing of the book?

I suppose the things that I see and the things that interest me are the very small ordinary details which in fact tell huge truths. We all have different ways of seeing the world and being part of it, and that is mine. I am never un-nerved by the writing of a book, or at least not by the turns it takes. I just try very hard to find what feels like the most truthful way through a story. 

The book delves into how children sometimes have to take control of things, and they have to tend their parents, rather than get the tending they so desperately need. Can you talk about that, please?

I think it is a very sad and tough thing when a child feels he or she has to mother or father a parent. But it happens. Byron, the boy at the centre of Perfect, has just reached the point where he is physically bigger than his beautiful and fragile mother. That is such a delicate stage in a child’s growing up. You want your parents to remain bigger than you and suddenly you are looking down on them. 

Of course when a child does as Byron does, and tries to become the parent, they make terrible mistakes. They try to fix an adult world but they still have a child’s understanding. And I think it causes them to miss out a crucial part of their development. They jump from boy to middle aged man. There is often a penalty to pay for that. Byron becomes split from himself and it takes the course of the book for him to heal.

What's your writing life like? Do you outline or do you simply follow your muse?

I do both. For me, an outline is all very well but I don’t really find a story until I jump in there. I have to accept that I will make lots of mistakes and some days I will be very fed up with it. Having said that, the structure of a book is so important. As far as I am concerned, there is the story and then there is the question of how you will tell it. I also write the ending very early on. It helps me to know where I’m heading. 

I write every day. Until I’ve finished a new story, it is always loitering around on the kitchen table, making a nuisance of itself. 

What's obsessing you now and why?

My third book! Oh it is dragging me around by my neck. This is the way it goes. For me a new book is there all the time, trying out sentences in my head, trying out different ways of telling itself. I end up waking at stupid hours in the night when the family is asleep. I end up sitting at the kitchen table and writing in the dark. It is in my head when I drive the children to school or make the tea. There is no getting away from it. And that isn’t always a pleasant thing to go through. I liken it to being at sea. (Not that I am a sailor.) It’s lonely, very lonely, and you hope you are going the right way. You hope you will see land and an end. But you do. In the end you do.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

You could ask me if I would like a cup of tea. (Yes. Always yes.) Or a walk? (I need to get away from my head.) Or you could ask what inspires me? The answer to that would be the landscape where I live. The changing sky. The longing for spring. In England we have spent six months being rained on. It’s not surprising we need stories. 

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