Not High Fidelity: Rachel Joyce says her record-store novel is 'book that comes with a hug'

People keep comparing The Music Shop to Nick Hornby's novel, but it is possible to write a much different novel about a record-store owner, author says.

Rachel Joyce says she struggled to keep the darkness she felt from the Brexit referendum balanced with her feel-good story, The Music Shop.

Courtesy Justin Sutcliffe

Rachel Joyce says she struggled to keep the darkness she felt from the Brexit referendum balanced with her feel-good story, The Music Shop.

When U.K. author Rachel Joyce first visited Toronto on an early publicity tour for her debut novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, she was feeling rather emotional. It was the first time she had travelled so far without her family, and was wrapped up with concern over how people were going to react to her book.

Feeling homesick and vulnerable, Joyce made a stop at the beautiful downtown bookshop, Ben McNally Books. As she entered, McNally — who cuts a formidable figure with his long grey hair tucked back in a ponytail — walked the entire length of the store until he reached Joyce, opened his arms and gave her a hug. “It was exactly what I needed,” says Joyce. “How amazing that he got that. He doesn’t know me. I have never forgotten it.”

And so when Joyce began writing The Music Shop, her new novel about a record-store owner with the gift to intuitively select music to match his customers’ emotional states, she dedicated the book to McNally as a thank you. (McNally, who hasn’t yet read the novel — though his wife and fellow bookseller Lynn Thomson has, and loved it — says he is “a bit overwhelmed” by the dedication.)

Set in 1988 on a rough-and-tumble London neighbourhood with a cast of misfit characters and an unlikely love interest, The Music Shop centres around Frank, a stubborn audiophile who refuses to accept that the kids want CDs, and that vinyl is out of fashion. But what Frank lacks in business acumen he makes up for in empathy, unlike a certain other famous fictional music-store owner: Rob Fleming, the snobbish man-boy protagonist in Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity.

Frank wants to share his encyclopedic knowledge of all music, from punk to opera, not lord it over others. But when Joyce first started talking about her story, she was bombarded with comparisons to Hornby’s novel, to the point where she stopped talking about her manuscript all together. “Hang on a minute, I am slightly different, and maybe there’s room for a shop that is very welcome and there’s a place for everybody,” she says. “I want to explore those places that have only been explored in a very male way.”

Although Joyce had been working on The Music Shop for years, the bulk of her writing was completed during the 2016 Brexit referendum, which divided the U.K. and caused an alarming spike in racially motivated hate crimes. Joyce struggled to keep the darkness she felt balanced with a feel-good story about a group of people fighting to keep their neighbourhood alive as greedy developers and racist vandals encroach on their homes and livelihoods. She felt that to write a bleak book at that moment in history was akin to opening her diary and exposing her emotions. “Sometimes you do lay yourself on the line, like you’re a Pollyanna skipping through, but I felt if ever I needed to write a book with a hug attached to it, it was last year,” she says. “It went counter to a lot of my feelings, but I thought that’s an interesting tension to deal with — to find a joyful, positive way out.”

More on Metronews.ca