Hazel Gaynor is the author of a heart-rending, yet ultimately uplifting, novel about the Titanic and the impact of its sinking upon one of the survivors, THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME. She joins me today to discuss her inspirations for the novel.
Are you a daydreamer too?
I’m actually a very practical person, so not a huge daydreamer. That said, I’m always conscious of my inner-writer and often find my thoughts drifting back to the work in progress. An unavoidable part of the job!
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I guess I have, although I didn’t always realise it. I loved reading since I was a young child and have always dabbled in creative writing in some form or another. Even when I lived in Australia for a year, I completed a diploma in children’s’ writing through the Australian College of Journalism. After leaving my corporate career in 2009 to look after my children, I began to tap back into my creative side, initially writing a parenting blog which led to writing freelance for the local and national press. Gradually, my writing began to get noticed and my ambition to write a novel finally felt like something I could achieve. My love of writing was always in me, I just needed to find the book I wanted to write. It took two children, redundancy, a lot of self-belief and a very famous ship to finally embark on writing my first novel. I feel very lucky to have found something I love working at.
Tell me about ‘The Girl Who Came Home'.
THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME tells the story of a young Irish woman, Maggie Murphy, who reluctantly leaves her Irish home and her sweetheart, Séamus, to start a new life in America with her aunt. Along with twelve others from their small parish, they travel together on RMS Titanic. Seventy years later, Maggie confides in her great-granddaughter, Grace, sharing her experience of the traumatic events of April, 1912. Maggie’s revelations have far-reaching repercussions for them both. It was an incredibly emotional book to research, and to write.
I originally self-published the novel as an eBook in April 2012, to coincide with the centenary of the sinking of Titanic. A year later, it was discovered by an agent based in New York, which led to my first publishing contract with HarperCollins. THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME was re-published in April 2014, followed by my second novel A MEMORY OF VIOLETS in February 2015.
How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I’ve been fascinated with Titanic since I was a teenager and the wreckage was first discovered. When I started my research for the novel, I came across the record of a survivor from a small parish in County Mayo, Ireland. From there, I discovered the history of a group of Irish emigrants – now known locally as the Addergoole Fourteen - who travelled together on Titanic. I knew immediately that I’d found the inspiration for my novel. I wanted to explore the experience of a third class passenger on Titanic, the aftermath of the disaster and how such an event can have far-reaching repercussions on a survivor’s life. Through telling Maggie’s story, I hope to share with readers an aspect of the Titanic disaster they might not have previously considered.
How extensively do you plan your novels?
I’m not a huge planner, although I do always have a fairly clear idea of my main characters and the arc of the story. I will usually write sample chapters and a detailed outline for my editor, but much will change from there! I love the creative freedom of seeing where my characters will go and how the story will unfold. I find it too restrictive to write to a pre-determined plan. Life rarely works that way, and neither do my novels!
Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
I don’t use my dreams as such, but I definitely work things out in my subconscious thoughts. Those silent hours are so vital for letting early ideas percolate and for solving plot issues when you are in the depths of re-writes and edits.
Where do you write, and when?
During term time I am at my desk in the attic, Monday to Friday, from 9am-2pm, while the children are at school. I spend this time writing, researching, promoting, updating my website – any number of writing-related tasks. When I’m writing early drafts, I try to spend all my writing time just writing, and use the evenings to focus on admin/interviews etc. In the early stages of first drafts, I might go to a coffee shop or a library for a change of scenery, but when I’m getting deep into the story I really need to be surrounded by all my research notes and books - aka the clutter on my desk. I try not to write at weekends, but when the pressure is on, it happens. When I’m not writing, I’m constantly thinking about my characters and figuring our plot issues. They often unravel themselves when I’m out walking, or in the shower! I do try to maintain some structure to my writing, but during school holidays I just have to grab whatever time I can. Often this is early in the morning or late at night.
What is your favourite part of writing?
I love all the different stages in various ways, but there is something very special about the start of a new book – blank pages, endless possibilities and that first surge of energy that always comes with a new idea. I also love editing and re-shaping my early ideas, and of course it is always a surprise and a joy to hear of people reading your book and connecting with your characters. It can sometimes take around two years from those initial ideas to the book being on the shelf, so reader feedback is always welcome and very much appreciated.
What do you do when you get blocked?
I procrastinate terribly on social media or start making Pinterest boards from all my research images. I’m very good at convincing myself that this is all time well spent until THE FEAR subsides! I also go for walks or meet friends for coffee. I’ve learned that nothing can be gained from sitting there beating myself up. Often stepping away from the book is all that is needed to fall in love with it again.
How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I’m constantly tuning in to possibilities for future books. Something I see, something I read or overhear often leads to those words: ‘there’s a book in that’. I keep a bookmark for inspiring ideas online and a notebook of articles, images etc. I have lots of ideas for books I’d love to write so hopefully the well won’t run dry for a good while yet.
Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
Unfortunately not. I’m really not a great one for rituals and regime apart from showing up at the desk every morning and getting on with it. It’s as simple and as unglamorous as that! As Neil Gaiman famously said: ‘This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it is done. It’s that easy, and that hard.’
Who are ten of your favourite writers?
I try to keep an open mind when it comes to reading and will try any author and any genre, but of course I do have my favourites who I happily return to time and again. These are Philippa Gregory, Rose Tremain, Kate Mosse and Sarah Waters and in terms of classics I love Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. I have enjoyed many recent debuts, particularly by Jessie Burton and Hannah Kent and I’m excited to see what they write next.
What do you consider to be good writing?
Good writing is really re-writing, taking those early ideas and themes and building on them to create something complete and memorable. Good writing is writing that is honest – that comes from the writer’s heart, that they really feel passionate about. That is the writing that will take the reader into another world so that they forget they are reading at all.
What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
My advice would be to write what you really want to write – not what you think you should be writing. Think about what gets you excited, something you will still be passionate about in five, six, twenty years’ time, when (hopefully) people are still discovering your book and want to talk to you about it. Also, finish what you start – don’t abandon projects half way through. And read. Read as much as you possibly can.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just finished my edits on my third novel THE GIRL FROM THE SAVOY, which will be published in summer 2016. This novel is set in London in the 1920s and tells the story of a maid at The Savoy hotel who longs to dance on the West End stage. I’m very excited for everyone to meet my leading ladies, Dolly and Loretta.
I’m also thrilled to be one of nine authors who have contributed to FALL OF POPPIES, an anthology of stories set around Armistice Day in the Great War. The book will be published next March by William Morrow.
And I’m in the early stages of thinking about my fourth book. I have an idea which I am extremely excited about!
Thanks so much, Hazel! I must say your new book looks amazing - I'm adding it to my list of must-reads.