Your descriptions of the landscapes Harold slowly moves through are beautifully drawn. Did you walk much of his long route north yourself?
When I began to write the book it troubled me that I had not done all of the walk. And then I realised this isn’t a travel book, it’s fiction; the story was a journey through my imagination. So Harold visits many places that I know. Kingsbridge, for instance, is where my husband was brought up. The barn where Harold spends his first night I can see from our garden. I know how many miles he travels every day, which roads he is on, and where he sleeps. But in the end, I think a book is about creating a world that I, and the reader, can believe in. A lot of the descriptions of the land or the sky come from what I see as I walk in the valleys near Stroud. I used what I knew, and the rest I imagined.
How much did Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales influence the form of your book?
I think we have stories, poetry and myths buried in our minds and our unconscious and they are always flowering away, whether or not we know it. So there is an allusion to Chaucer, just as there is an allusion to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. But I also wanted to write a story that stood up on its own. That didn’t require the reader to know anything else in order to understand. I think that if you want to say big things you have to root them in the small and the commonplace because, for most of us, that is how life works.
This is a very unusual story. What was its inspiration?
The story began as a radio play that I wrote for my dad when he was dying of cancer. My father didn’t know that I was writing it – he died before the play was recorded – but I think it was my way of holding the grief I felt. I don’t mean that my father’s loss has been made acceptable by the book. I think that loss can’t be taken away, just as you don’t stop loving people and places even in their absence. But writing helps me make sense of things. My relationship with the land is another inspiration. I take pleasure in the changes that occur as days and months pass. For me, the book is about looking beyond our own two feet.
Were any of Harold’s encounters with strangers along the way drawn from your own personal experiences, and if so, which ones?
All the people in the book are people I have watched or noticed and therefore cared for, however briefly. The man who passes Harold wearing a dress, for example, with a punched-up eye, was a man I noticed one day when I was shopping. He just sat on the bench, being so completely what he was, and people were stopping to look, and sometimes laughing, and yet he kept sitting there, not pretending he was anything else. This moved me very much. Of course what happens generally, though, is that I see or overhear something that interests me and then I write a whole other life for the characters.