Event Review: Rachel Joyce at Henley Literary Festival


A few days ago, I shared my review of the first event I attended at this year’s Henley Literary Festival: best-selling historical fiction writers, Anne O’Brien and Rory Clements, in conversation with writer and presenter, Hephzibah Anderson.   You can read my review here.

Later that day, I was lucky enough to hear another best-selling author, Rachel Joyce, talk about her writing and her latest book, The Music Shop. Rachel was in conversation with author and journalist, Hannah Beckerman, and the setting was the magnificent Main Hall of Henley Town Hall.

Hannah started by asking Rachel about Frank, the protagonist of her latest book, The Music Shop and his gift for ‘music therapy’. Rachel explained that Frank is able to find the people who visit his shop the music they ‘need’ (not necessarily they ‘want’ or think they ‘want’). It’s the way he responds to people, how he shows empathy. It may be to ‘cure’ insomnia, depression, etc and the people listen in booths Frank has made out of two wardrobes, so there’s a sort of magical element to it.

Asked where she got the idea for musical therapy, Rachel said that’s how music works for her. Sometimes music ‘hits the spot’ much faster and more effectively than books or poetry at a particular moment. It seems to her that a particularly wonderful piece of music reminds you how beautiful human beings can be. Rachel feels we don’t take the time often enough to stop everything and actively listen to music: she recommends lying down on the floor!

In The Music Shop, Frank ‘prescribes’ music of all genres so Rachel felt she needed to know as much as Frank about music which was a tall order – a massive research undertaking.   In the end she had to narrow it down to certain composers and pieces of music, looking for the details that would bring them to life. In the book, Frank’s musical knowledge is handed down from his mother and Rachel read a wonderful passage from the book in which, as a young boy, Frank listens to his mother talking about the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No.5. His mother explains that the silences at the beginning and end of a piece are just as important as the notes themselves.

Hannah asked about silence as a theme of the book, if it’s as much about the things people don’t say as what they do? Rachel felt that dialogue is always most interesting when people don’t say what they really need to say – that’s where the tension lies in the writing. Sometimes people resist the things they need, don’t say the things it would be fantastic if they did say. Frank has a ‘flaw’: he doesn’t think he’s worthy of being loved. The woman he meets, Ilse, says she doesn’t like music. They are both damaged in different ways but restore each other.

In The Music Shop, Frank’s shop is situated in Unity Street, populated by lots of other small shops, and there is sense of a David versus Goliath struggle. Hannah wondered if this was a theme to which Rachel was attracted? She said was always interested in the small people, the ordinary people, the people who are a little bit broken, the underdog. This is what she likes to explore and celebrate. Hannah remarked on the roundedness of the secondary characters in Rachel’s books; they are people you might easily meet on the street. Rachel said her aim was that you should know them as well as the protagonist. The characters seem to haunt her, as if she’s listening to what they’re saying. She admitted she often writes too much and has to pare it back. But she said the fun thing as an author is to take things out; that readers are very clever and they will work it out.

Hannah said Rachel’s books are often described as emotional but that, although there is sadness, there is also hope. She asked about the challenge of conveying emotion without sentimentality; especially, say, in the case of The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey which is set in a hospice. Rachel joked that she needs to write a happy book one day! She felt humour was an important element in avoiding sentimentality and always grounding things in the ordinary details, the bizarre things that reflect how our lives go. In researching The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey, she’d visited a number of hospices and been surprised to find them vibrant places, full of life and laughter.

Hannah asked Rachel if she was a hopeful person? Rachel said she would describe herself as reflective, quiet, introverted, someone who sometimes fears the worst is about to happen. It’s a difficult time and to fear is natural but to feel only fear is a mistake. Perhaps, she said, we all need to sing the beauty of humanity a bit louder.

I found Rachel a fascinating speaker and you could have heard a pin drop while she was reading from her book. I read and enjoyed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry but wasn’t sure whether I would enjoy Rachel’s other books as much. Having listened to her talk about her writing and the themes that interest her, I definitely want to add them to my reading list. And I think The Music Shop might just make an appearance on my Christmas list…

Please note, this review is based on notes I took during the event and my own recollection. Any errors in recording views expressed during the discussion are my own.

RachelJoyceAbout Rachel Joyce

Rachel Joyce has written over 20 original afternoon plays for BBC Radio 4, and major adaptations for both the Classic Series, Woman’s Hour and also a TV drama adaptation for BBC 2. In 2007 she won the Tinniswood Award for best radio play. She moved to writing after a twenty-year career in theatre and television, performing leading roles for the RSC, the Royal National Theatre, The Royal Court, and Cheek by Jowl, winning a Time Out Best Actress award and the Sony Silver.

Her books include The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Perfect, A Snow Garden and Other Stories, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy and The Music Shop.

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HenleyLiteraryFestivalAbout Henley Literary Festival

The Henley Literary Festival was founded in 2007 and has established itself as one of the UK’s most popular literary festivals, bringing people from far and wide in an annual meeting-of-minds set across its stunning riverside hometown. The 2017 Festival takes place from 2nd to 8th October at venues across Henley-on-Thames with over 150 talks, Q&As, workshops and performances for adults and children.

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