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A novelist who makes time for poetry

Rachel Joyce’s fourth novel, “The Music Shop,” was published in January.
Justin Sutcliffe
Rachel Joyce’s fourth novel, “The Music Shop,” was published in January.

British novelist Rachel Joyce’s 2012 debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,” the story of one man’s trek of more than 600 miles to see a dying friend, became an international bestseller and landed on the long list for the Man Booker Prize. Joyce, who spent her early career acting and dramatizing plays, has produced nearly a novel a year since. In January she published her fourth, “The Music Shop,” which follows an unexpected romance in a London record store in 1988.

BOOKS: What books do you keep in your office?

JOYCE: I work in the middle of a field in a caravan, which is like a little iron structure on wheels. I have some books out there that are important, and I might want to dip into. Always something I just read. I only just read Annie Proulx’s “The Shipping News,” which I adored. I don’t know how I missed that before but I did. It’s great when you discover something not in the mad rush of it but all by yourself. You can have a private relationship with the book. The other writer I have with me a lot is Kent Haruf. I like to think he might just sit with me and make me a better writer if he’s in close proximity.

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BOOKS: Are you partial to American authors?

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JOYCE: I’ve become more so. I’ve been thinking about that quality Raymond Carver has or Alice Munro in Canada does, that kind of everyday living in a very big landscape so that the very small takes on a bigger context. For English readers and writers it’s really compelling because we live in such a tiny country. Finding the way to give the small its size is a challenge because small can become cliché and silly. I remember reading Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” and my mind was blown by the size of the setting.

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

JOYCE: I just started Paul Hardy’s “Tinkers.” I adore it. Another writer I want to mention is Penelope Fitzgerald. “Offshore” is brilliant and is about the owners of barges on a London dock. She does something like Elizabeth Strout, writers who kind of do jazz with words, or Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping.”

BOOKS: Do you primarily read novels?

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JOYCE: I like to read poetry too. Mary Oliver does something for me. It’s that sort of taking the natural world and finding a way of strapping words around it. She does that for me. Thomas Hardy does too, and T.S. Eliot always, always. My husband is a therapist so though I don’t read Carl Jung I have a lot of Jung read to me.

BOOKS: Are you attracted to books that feature a journey?

JOYCE: Yes. When I was at school I wanted to do history, but there weren’t enough books to go around so I had to do Latin. It meant that I studied Homer’s “The Odyssey” and Virgil’s “The Aeneid.” That had a very big effect on me, as did Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.”

BOOKS: What other books were pivotal for you growing up?

JOYCE: When I was a very little child, about 3 or 4, my parents came over to the States and lived there for 18 months. I still remember the books we had when we were there. You know that vanilla-y smell pictures books from the ’60s can have? The book based on the Albert Lamorisse film “The Red Balloon” was one.

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BOOKS: What are your reading habits?

JOYCE: When I’m reading a book I like to put bus tickets or notes into it. I try to keep them in there so they become a memory of that particular time when I was reading that book. I also read with a pen, always underlining things. I can’t help it. I think it’s because my mom was an English teacher.

BOOKS: What are you reading next?

JOYCE: I might go back to Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American.” I do have to read Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights.” I’m going to adapt that for radio. I’m lucky because I’ve adapted all the Brontës for radio over here. I think “Wuthering Heights” is going to be a bit like dramatizing poetry.

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