Q&A with Rachel Joyce
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry began as a radio play and then developed into the novel it is today after many years of writing and revising. But Perfect was written within a shorter space of time. How did your process differ in writing the two novels?
The truth is, I have been thinking about Perfect for even longer than The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. The idea about the cost of perfection and an accident that changes everything, as well as the central characters, have all been loitering in my head for many years. I could always see Byron and Diana and I knew I needed to find out more about who they were and what happened to them. Sometimes I have even tried fitting them into other stories, but it never felt right because this is where they belong.
As with most things, the story has grown over time. New characters have stepped in. Things I couldn’t understand have become clearer. I have played with different versions until I found this one. It was only as I began to write it this time around, for instance, that it dawned on me that it wasn’t a contemporary story and neither was it an urban one. It was only this time, too, that I thought about splitting the story between two tenses and two periods in time.
Otherwise, the writing process was very similar with both books. I sat here every day and I wrote and rewrote and rewrote.
How much of the novel is based on real places and people?
The moor setting is fictitious. But – as with Harold Fry’s story – I stepped out of our house and drew on what I saw. I am lucky enough to live on the brow of a valley. I write about the things I see when I look out of my writing shed or walk through the fields. It’s the same with characters. I write about people I glimpse and then I imagine the rest. I think I tend to find people in my head that I want to explore and maybe all of them have an element or two of me in them. I don’t know. In researching the character of Jim, for instance, I spoke to a number of people about OCD and whilst it is not a condition I’ve experienced, it reminded me of other things I’ve felt that had similar beginnings or resonances. For me, writing is about finding the links between myself and the outside world. It’s a way of better understanding.
You have written that Harold Fry was inspired in part by your father. Was there someone or something specific that compelled you to write Perfect?
It is difficult for me to know why I choose to write certain stories. Often I don’t understand until many years later. But I do remember vividly when the first nugget of this story came to me. It was just over twelve years ago, after the birth of my third child, and I was driving my oldest daughter to school. My second daughter was telling me she was hungry, the baby was crying, and on the passenger seat beside me was the plate of cakes I had got up at dawn to make for the very competitive children’s bake stall. I was driving slowly. Traffic was heavy. I had barely slept for days. And then I had one of those moments when you lift out of yourself, when you see your life from a new perspective, and it occurred to me that if I made a mistake, if someone ran into the road, if anything unexpected happened, I did not have the energy, the space, the wherewithal, the presence of mind even, to deal with it. I was stretched as far as I could go. I began writing the story as soon as I got home.
“Haunting . . . compelling.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“[Joyce] triumphantly returns with Perfect. . . . As Joyce probes the souls of Diana, Byron and Jim, she reveals—slowly and deliberately, as if peeling back a delicate onion skin—the connection between the two stories, creating a poignant, searching tale.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
“Perfect touches on class, mental illness, and the ways a psyche is formed or broken. It has the tenor of a horror film, and yet at the end, in some kind of contortionist trick, the narrative unfolds into an unexpected burst of redemption. [Verdict:] Buy It.”—New York
“Joyce’s dark, quiet follow-up to her successful debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, could easily become a book club favorite. . . . Perfect is the kind of book that blossoms under thoughtful examination, its slow tendencies redeemed by moments of loveliness and insight. However sad, Joyce’s messages—about the limitations of time and control, the failures of adults and the fears of children, and our responsibility for our own imprisonment and freedom—have a gentle ring of truth to them.”—The Washington Post
“There is a poignancy to Joyce’s narrative that makes for her most memorable writing.”—NPR’s All Things Considered
“Beautifully written . . . Joyce showed an incredible sensitivity and understanding when she wrote about the impact of mental illness in Harold Fry, and that talent shines even brighter now that she’s devoting more space to the subject. . . . Joyce is great at building tension, with her prose managing to give huge weight to a menacing comment or a small mistake.”—The A.V. Club
“Perfect is a poignant and powerful book, rich with empathy and charged with beautiful, atmospheric writing.”—Tana French, author of In the Woods and Broken Harbor
“[Rachel] Joyce, showing the same talent for adroit plot development seen in the bestselling The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, brings both narrative strands together in a shocking, redemptive denouement.”—Publishers Weekly
“[Perfect’s] unputdownable factor . . . lies in its exploration of so many multilayered emotions. There is the unbreakable bond between mother and son, the fear of not belonging . . . and how love can offer redemption.”—London Evening Standard