After 20 years of acting with the Royal Shakespeare Company and writing radio plays for the BBC, Rachel Joyce begins her career as a novelist with The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

Literary accounts of pilgrimages go back to Chaucer. You’ve given this situation a contemporary twist by having an ordinary man attempt a pilgrimage under unlikely circumstances. What inspired you?

Harold believes the act of walking can save his dying friend. It’s a simple act of faith that opens the way for him to meet people and see life in a way he never has before. The story began as a play that I wrote for my father when he was dying of cancer. I knew he would never hear my play, but I had to keep writing it for him. So, like a classical pilgrimage, this is a story about making a journey, not knowing the end, not even sure you can get there, but somehow holding on to your belief.

How did your previous careers as a playwright and actor prepare you to write a novel?

I’m sure that everything you do contributes to the sort of novel that you write. A lot of actors have an understanding of drama and a good ear for dialogue and also the rhythm of speech. Similarly, my 16 years in radio drama has influenced me. You only have 45 minutes, or 7,000 words, to tell a story, so every scene has to have a point.

How did you choose the route that Harold takes and how did you estimate that it would cover 600 miles and take 87 days?

It begins and passes through places I know, love, or have passed myself. As I wrote the book I had endless notes about his journey. I knew which road he was on every day, as well as how many miles he had walked and where he slept. In the end I cut out the pages of our road map and stuck them in a long chain up two walls of our house. My husband rang up one day—lost on the A 46—and said, “The road map has jumped from page 5 to 38. Is this anything to do with you?”

Is it significant that when Harold achieves spiritual insight, it isn’t identified with any specific religion?

Even if we don’t believe in church or God, we still believe in things that are bigger than ourselves. We need to believe in those things because if we can’t be open to what we don’t know there’s no hope for any of us.

At the end of the novel, there’s a shocking revelation. How tricky was it to suggest a situation that will turn out to be different from the reader’s expectations?

I was very, very careful. I hate it when I finish a book and feel cheated. Another thing I learned from acting is that in a play you must earn a pause. It’s the same for me with story writing: you have to earn a secret. So I planned meticulously and kept rewriting.