A conversation with Rachel Joyce

A conversation with Rachel Joyce

December's book club pick, Miss Benson's Beetle, is the latest by the British author Rachel Joyce. Following in the footsteps of her beloved, bestselling novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, the book whisks us away on a life-changing adventure of hope, friendship, and self-discovery.

In 1950, Margery Benson abandons her dead-end teaching job and advertises for an assistant to accompany her on an expedition. She is going to travel to an island on the other side of the world to search for an elusive beetle that may or may not exist.

Enid Pretty, with her unlikely pink travel suit and yellow hair, is the last person Margery would have wanted as an assistant. But together these two British women find themselves drawn into an adventure that delivers something neither expected to find: the transformative power of friendship and the courage to be themselves.

When we hosted Rachel Joyce for an Ask Me Anything, curious readers wanted to learn everything from what her writing space looks like, to how she develops her characters, as well as the setting of this heartwarming, exotic odyssey: New Caledonia.

Here is the unabridged transcript of the AMA:

"I am interested in the journey that an ordinary person must make in order to do something extraordinary. I think we are all capable of this. And I think that how we measure extraordinary and ordinary is something to think about."

— Rachel Joyce

Q: Question by a community member

C: Comment by a community member

Q: What can you tell us about your writing schedule and what does your writing space look like? Did your writing space begin to look like an entomologist’s study (rather than a writer's nook) while you were writing Miss Benson’s Beetle?

Rachel Joyce: My writing schedule is full-on. I work very early in the morning. It's my favourite time of day. But then I keep going, getting slower and slower. I work in a kind of caravan, overlooking a field. It's very beautiful. And I was surrounded by beetle pictures and books as I wrote Miss Bensons' Beetle. I needed to be.

Q: This isn’t really a question but I just wanted to say that Enid made me love and appreciate life and be more grateful for everything. Thanks for writing such a lively and brilliant character! ❤

Rachel Joyce: I don't quite know where Enid came from in my head. But I now think she is the female creative spirit that we all need to tap into occasionally. I am glad you loved her. I love her too.

Q: Both Margery and Harold are constantly doubting themselves on their journey, but still somehow finding ways to believe in themselves and to carry on, to finish what they started. Is that a reflection of you and your struggle as a writer on the pages?

Rachel Joyce: Yes! I do struggle with confidence - or rather, I question and doubt a lot of my writing. But I feel this is part of the creative process. You have to keep challenging yourself as a writer to go deeper. You have to open doors you might prefer to leave closed. And doubt is a part of the energy that drives you there.

Q: Many of your central characters are idiosyncratic outsiders, ordinary people who make for very unlikely heroes. Why do you choose to make such characters your protagonists?

Rachel Joyce: I am very interested and moved by the people who struggle sometimes to do simple things that others might take for granted. And I am interested in the journey that an ordinary person must make in order to do something extraordinary. I think we are all capable of this. And I think that how we measure extraordinary and ordinary is something to think about.

Q: Have you been to New Caledonia or did you research about the place and use your imagination?

Rachel Joyce: I realised early on that I wouldn't be able to go to New Caledonia. But I also knew that, since this was essentially an adventure story for women, I too had to go on an adventure as a writer. I had to take away the things I usually rely on - like landscapes that I know.  So I did a lot of research - travel guides from the 50's, maps, journals etc - and then I challenged myself to use my imagination. I like making that leap.

Q: How do you write from the perspective of difficult and broken characters such as Mr.Mundic and how do you imagine their struggle?

Rachel Joyce: I didn't know that Mr.Mundic was going to be in this book. I set out with the intention of writing a purely female book. And all Mr.Mundic had to do was turn up briefly in his interview for the job as Margery's assistant, and then leave. But I couldn't leave him alone. I kept writing his scene, over and over, and it got longer and longer. Much too long for a 'bit' part.

And then it dawned on me that he couldn't believe the book wasn't about him.. and that seemed interesting to me. So I sat and wrote him as a dream of consciousness exercise, just to see where it might take me. After that, I did a lot of research into POW's. But his chapters were always very different writing experiences. I felt I had to just 'be' him.

Q: How would you say your writing has evolved in the years between Harold Fry and Miss Benson’s Beetle?

Rachel Joyce: I hope it's got better. But I don't know.

Q: I simply loved Juliet Stevenson’s narration of Miss Benson’s Beetle, the way she gave life to every character, shifting from the energetic and chirpy voice when speaking for Enid’s to Margery’s more serious tone. Was she your pick for the voice actor for the audiobook?

Rachel Joyce: I was delighted when I heard she was reading it. Absolutely delighted. And she has such fun with it, I think.

Q: Are any of your novels being turned into movies? Are you going to be involved with the screenwriting? Being an actress yourself, if you were given a chance to play any character in the screen adaptation of any of your novels, which role would you pick and why?

Rachel Joyce: I am currently writing the screenplays for The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and The Music Shop. My background is in radio drama so it's an interesting shift for me. And I have been asked if I would like to play anyone, so I have asked if I can be a non-speaking nun at the hospice. Acting fills me with dread these days!

Q: Were there any alternate titles in consideration for Miss Benson’s Beetle, or was this always the title you wanted the book to have? Also, I noticed Miss Benson’s Beetle has two covers. Is that a US/UK thing? Which one would be your favorite be if you had to pick one?

Miss Benson's Beetle covers

Rachel Joyce: I could NOT find the title for this book and normally the title comes to me very quickly. I still wonder if I could have found something more clever? More enticing? And yes, these covers are the US one and the UK one. Both very different. I'd love to know which one appeals to readers the most? (US is red.)

C: For me, it's definitely the red one. It just reminds me of Enid and how she fills Margery's world with colors

C: The red one, but I've heard the beetles on the other one have a glimmer to them, which is cool 

C: The red, love the attention to detail on the cover and how Enid has the valise in her hand

Q: When the idea of Miss Benson’s Beetle came to you, did you conceive the plot or the characters first. Also, out of Margery and Enid, which character did you imagine and flesh out in your head first?

Rachel Joyce: I always find the characters first. I  write whatever comes into my end. It's like getting to know them - so I feel I just have to watch them carefully and listen to what they say.. most of that doesn't make it into the book. It's just about finding out who they are and where they come from. Margery was probably where I started, but then Enid came along - and I saw they were inextricably linked. It got to the point where I felt I knew what they would say about ANYTHING!

Q: What do you need in your writing space to help you stay focused? Also, if you have pictures on your writing desk, who/what are they of?

Rachel Joyce: I love it when I am alone to write. I love it when I can allow my head to go where it needs to go. But I often don't get that.. I find closing the door is probably the most efficient way of staying focussed! And music. I always listen to music. Sometimes the same thing, over and over again on a loop.

I don't really have pictures on my desk unless they remind me of the characters. While I wrote Miss Benson's Beetle, I had a photo of two women on my desk who traveled together. I loved the way they stood together - one looking at the camera, the other staring into the distance. It was the inspiration for the photograph described at the end of the book. But it was also an inspiration to me - to keep trying to honour and capture that spirit.

Q: How much of a novel do you usually plot, plan, and outline before you actually started writing?

Rachel Joyce: I am a terrible plotter! And yet I feel plot is important. It's one of the things that keep the reader with you and wanting (hopefully) to keep turning the pages. But generally, I only find my plot by writing it. By discovering whether what I THINK should come next actually works. For me, you have to get inside a book in order to find it. You can't plot it from the outside.

Q: What was one challenging aspect of writing your debut novel. Something that you struggled with that became easier after the first novel?

Rachel Joyce: As I have already said, confidence is always the problem. Will I get to the end? Is this story worth writing? Not to mention, Will anyone ever publish it? But early on with my first novel, I saw that Harold was struggling to believe in his walk, just as I was struggling to believe sometimes in my writing, and that this was a useful bond between us. I think that the thing that really makes a successful writer is sheer obstinacy. An absolute refusal to give up. It's one of the themes of Miss Benson's Beetle too. We have to be true to our 'vocation', our creative needs.

Q: Did you ever imagine Harold Fry to receive the kind of success it did? How did that success and attention change things for you as a writer?

Rachel Joyce: I had no idea! It completely took me by surprise. Of course, that kind of success is like the biggest affirmation - and it's wonderful - but it can also be a challenge. I am a pretty quiet person, and suddenly I was being asked to go everywhere. And also success has to come with failure. If you experience the one, you are also going to experience the other. Even though people might have wanted it, I couldn't repeat Harold Fry. He was a one-off.

Q: Both Miss Benson’s Beetle and Harold Fry gave me a sort of comfort and courage that it’s all right to start anew at any stage of life, to set out to find yourself, to go outside your comfort zone, and to make mistakes. Is that a theme you intentionally want your readers to take away from your books?

Rachel Joyce: Yes. I think it is. I think it's part of the need for us to keep trying to understand what we don't know. To keep pushing boundaries. And mistakes are so important. As I meant to say earlier - but failed to (another mistake!) - I make so many mistakes in my writing. It is only by exploring what doesn't work that I find what might.

Q: How long did it take you to write Miss Benson’s Beetle? Has the time it takes you to finish a novel gotten shorter or longer over successive novels you’ve written and published?

Rachel Joyce: It took me years. But they go in different stages. There is a stage where I am not writing the book, but  I am thinking about it and making notes, and trying out little snatches - often while I am supposed to be writing something else. I first thought about the idea of hunting for a beetle about twelve years ago. Then comes a stage where I fully commit. Where I would say that I eat, drink and sleep it. That can last a year or two. It's like being in a storm.

Q: A lot of writing advice says you should know your characters in-depth, right down to their favorite song or favorite color. What’s your take on that and how well do you know your characters, how do you get inside their heads?

Rachel Joyce: I think you do need to know them intimately. You as a writer need to know things that the reader doesn't - but if you don't know them in that way, I think it comes across in the writing as a sort of fuzziness. As I said before, I write a lot about my characters early on that is just me getting to know them. Once I was very stuck, and took my character on a shopping trip. I wanted to think about what exactly she would wear. We had a marvellous afternoon together and it didn't cost me a penny, obviously.

Q: Do you go online and read reviews whenever a new book comes out? How do you process and handle criticism or negative reviews? 

Rachel Joyce: I try really hard not to look but of course it's impossible. The thing for me about a new book is that when it first goes into the world, you still don't know if you have captured the thing you set out to capture. You believe and hope you have, but you don't know for sure. Negative reviews are really tough. People say very damning things. I still haven't honestly found a way of sidestepping that.

Q: Miss Benson’s Beetle made me think Enid and Margery are polar opposites. One is a total extrovert and the other comes across as a self-effacing introvert. I wanted to ask you if you’re more of an introvert or an extrovert? If you’re an introvert, how do you deal with the attention and publicity that comes with being a bestselling author?

Rachel Joyce: I am definitely more of an introvert, though I believe we are all a bit of a blend. I am grateful for the attention I have had; or rather, the readers that I have found. And the good thing about being a writer is that no one ever recognises you.

Q: Have you already started working on your next book? Are you working on anything at the present you would like to share with your readers?

Rachel Joyce: I am working pretty non-stop on the screenplays - but I feel that a new book is beginning to follow me. I know it wants me to write it.

Q: What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given about writing? What would be your own advice for new writers?

Rachel Joyce: Oh it would be this: Take yourself seriously as a writer. We NEED to be creative. We have an imagination. But no one else can really do the taking you seriously on your behalf. You need to commit. Recognise that you have a flame of creativity that you need to look after. And keep in touch with me... I am always happy to reply to readers and writers via Instagram and Facebook. We can all keep one another going.

You can buy Miss Benson's Beetle here

Join the What Should I Read Next Community to be part of future events with authors here

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