Author Encounter | Rachel Joyce

I have been looking forward to Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry ever since the Random House Canada Blogger event, where the book was compared to Major Pettigrew’s Last StandSo when I received the following invitation from Chatelaine Books, I was so excited I sent in my RSVP right away.

The story of Harold Fry begins when he receives a letter from an old friend who has fallen ill. On his way to post a response, Harold instead makes the decision to walk across England to see his friend in person. I’m not much of a romantic, but the image of an elderly man painstakingly making his way across a nation just to see an old friend struck me as lovely. For some reason, Harold reminded me of Stevens, the butler from The Remains of the Day, and a character I imagined as dignified and honourable caught my interest. I still haven’t read the book, so I have no idea how accurate my impression of Harold’s character is. However accurate I turn out to be, however, this is still a testament to the power of Joyce’s concept that her story has captured my imagination so strongly even before I’ve opened the book.

Then, as if I needed even more reason to be excited, the week before the event, I learned that Harold Fry was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. So, even before I read Harold Fry and post a review, if you’re thinking about checking this book out, know that the Man Booker jury has given it a thumbs up. And yes, I have to admit, the idea of meeting a Man Booker long-listed author in person did have a thrill.

Image courtesy of The Oxley website

Thank you to Chatelaine Book Club for an awesome event. The Oxley Public House is gorgeous! When I heard the event was going to be at a pub, I was expecting a long table by the bar, or perhaps mingling around a few tables. Instead, it turns out Chatelaine booked the second floor bar, which looks like an old English drawing room.

The bartenders were really friendly. I saw one of them flipping through a copy of Harold Fry in the latter part of the event, and talking to his colleague about it. I love that they seem to be excited about the book as well, and I think I saw Chatelaine give them copies as well, which I thought was really sweet.

The food was also delicious — we had lovely fancy hors d’ouevres, but what I really remember is greasy fish and chips in paper cones. It fit in well with the British ambiance, and I at least mastered the art of eating fish and chips from one hand while still holding my martini in the other.

Rachel Joyce is just lovely in person. Laurie, the Books Editor at Chatelaine, said Harold Fry made her and her colleagues sob, literally. When Rachel read an excerpt, I had an uncomfortable feeling I’ll have a similar reaction. In the excerpt Rachel read, Harold calls the hospice where his friend Queenie is:

“Tell her Harold Fry is on his way. All she has to do is wait. Because I am going to save her, you see. I will keep walking and she must keep living. Will you say that?”

[…] “I see,” said the voice slowly, as if she had picked up a pen and was jotting this down. “Walking. I’ll tell her. Should I say anything else?”

“I’m setting off right now. As long as I walk, she must live. Please tell her this time I won’t let her down.” [p. 19]

After her reading, Rachel explained how Harold’s story, originally written for radio, was inspired by her father being diagnosed with cancer. He was told it would be terminal, yet even after his operation, while lying in his hospital bed, her father would be dressed in a suit and tie, as if on his way to work. Harold Fry is Rachel’s way to honour her father’s legacy.

The book, Rachel says, has gone on a pilgrimage of its own. With each new reader, and in so many countries, Harold Fry has travelled far beyond her and her tribute to her father. I love how genuinely overwhelmed she seems at how much her book has touched so many people’s lives.

Rachel’s story about her father, along with the excerpt she read, touched me deeply. I wasn’t with my mother when she passed away, and I remember vividly the desperate plea — to god, to the universe, to whoever, really — to have her hold on at least until I arrived. I knew it was futile, even selfish, yet part of me wished I lived in a book or movie, where the big dramatic build up just makes the happy ending so much sweeter. So from Rachel’s excerpt alone, I’m rooting for Harold all the way. I don’t know if he’ll make it to Queenie in time; I don’t even know how much the race against time will play into the story. But I am rooting for him. This book has just become personal.

Thank you to Chatelaine Books and Random House Canada for the opportunity to meet Rachel, and to get together with fellow bloggers. It was a wonderful experience, and I look forward to reading the book.


Rachel Joyce will be reading at the International Festival of Authors in October. Stay tuned to the IFOA website for updates on her schedule. Trust me: you’ll want to hear her read.

Chatelaine Book Club | Breakfast with Alan Lightman

There aren’t many things that will get me happily bounding out of bed and downtown early morning, but breakfast with an author is definitely one of them. When Laurie Grassi from Chatelaine invited me to breakfast with author Alan Lightman, I was intrigued. Alan Lightman is a theoretical physicist, an astro-physicist to be precise, and he’s written, among other works, the novels Einstein’s Dreams and the recently published Mr g. I found the concept behind Mr g interesting: the novel tells the story of creation from the point of view of God (a.k.a. Mr g). The novel begins: “As I remember, I had just woken from a nap when I decided to create the universe.” That opening hooked me; I wanted to meet this author.

It was great meeting Laurie, with whom I’ve chatted on Twitter (follow her at @ChatelaineBooks), and I was very impressed by how she knew everyone’s names. Every time someone entered the room, she’d introduce her to everyone else, sometimes even citing our Twitter handles and blog names. I was also impressed by the breakfast. We had coffee and tea in beautiful mugs, and trays of fruit, chocolate croissants and other breads and pastries. Seriously, an entire table was filled with food.

Chatelaine was also kind enough to provide each of us with a copy of Mr g. I absolutely love the cover! The original cover, above, is already beautiful, but our copies have the bright pink Chatelaine Book Club label on it, which I think makes the book even more eye-catching. (I took this image with my phone and the lighting is off; it’s much sharper in real life.)

Alan Lightman is charming. Not only is he a physicist, professor and novelist, but he also runs an organization that provides housing for women in Cambodia. He looked around the mostly female room (all female, actually, with the exception of Alan himself and book club member Josh) and admitted he was used to being surrounded by females. He then laughed sheepishly and added that it wasn’t how it sounded; he meant just because of his work with Cambodian women.

Alan read an excerpt from Mr g, then we were all invited to ask questions and discuss the book with him. Mr g wakes up from a nap and decides to create the universe. His aunt begs him not to: “You could mess things up,” but Mr g had made up his mind and thereby, without really meaning to, created Time. The aunt and uncle characters provide comic relief, but there’s also something sad in their sudden realization of the passage of time. “It was nicer when everything happened at once,” the aunt complains. “I can’t stand to think about the future.” Eternity isn’t a long time until you’re aware of time’s passage. The chapter ends with the aunt’s sudden development of vanity and need to fix her hair for the first time. I wondered if it was an echo of the Genesis myth, where eating the fruit of knowledge made Adam and Eve self-conscious and led to the fall of man.

Someone asked Alan if he was afraid of offending people by writing such a novel from God’s point of view. He responded that even with the humour and the casual nature of Mr g’s actions, he has always endeavoured to maintain the character’s dignity. We did find out, however, that someone did find the content offensive, and so wrote a catalogue description that gave the impression that Mr g was a supernatural being, but not God, and that the universe in Mr g was not our universe but in some other dimension. Fortunately, the description was corrected in time.

I was fascinated by how much of Alan’s work as a physicist influences his novel writing. He spoke to us about string theory multiverses. I’ll do my best to repeat his explanation here, and if it doesn’t make sense, or if I got anything wrong, that’s definitely all me. Alan explained it really well, and at the breakfast, I actually understood what he was talking about. Basically, physicists have a theory that there are countless dimensions, different universes, all of which are governed by different laws. This frustrates physicists because it means they cannot apply a single formula to explain everything in existence. As well, no other universe except ours can support life. Laurie asked him to clarify if he meant life as we know it, or all forms of life. Alan replied that no form of life at all can exist outside this universe. His point is that all the elements that came together to form this universe did so by accident. The absence of a single formula to explain everything means there is no grand design or grand scheme; we exist because of accident. I think that concept is very much encapsulated in the opening sentence of Mr g: the universe is created by God on a whim after a nap, literally without rhyme or reason.

I just started reading Mr g, and I am fascinated by Alan’s language. Even in the first few chapters, we move from the humorous quip of the opening sentence to some very scientific language describing the universe as “a tiny ellipsoid […] and it was a mathematical and tautological impossibility for anything within to emerge without.” Then I am surprised by phrases that are just beautiful, even poetic: “Practically everything slept in an infinite torpor of potentiality.” I love that phrase: “infinite torpor of potentiality.” Beautiful.

Thank you to Chatelaine Book Club for the opportunity to meet Alan Lightman. I had a great time, and I enjoyed meeting so many fellow book lovers. Chatelaine even gave each of us a swag bag. I had to laugh when Josh proudly showed me that he was able to fit the bag into his backpack: “I’ll carry pink for a girl, but not for myself.” I also found the cover of the Chatelaine issue timely. “Declutter!” I read, as I glanced around my very cluttered home. I also love that Chatelaine chose Mr g for its book club. When I think of book club picks for women’s magazines, and I admit I obviously need to change my preconceived notions on this, a book with a scientific slant about the creation of the universe wouldn’t have come to mind. I found Mr g an unexpected, interesting choice, and I can’t wait to find out what they choose next.