Hazel Gaynor is the internationally bestselling and award-winning author of The Girl Who Came Home and A Memory of Violets. The Girl From The Savoy is her third novel. She lives in Kildare with her husband and two children.
Tell us about your earliest memories of writing?
The first book I wrote was called The Pony Thieves. I was eight years old and it was a masterpiece. If only I could find it …
What is your writing routine? Do you aim for a word count a day or are you a binge writer?
I write (and/or research/work on publicity) every day until 2pm while my children are at school. After that, it’s a total lottery depending on the day. I aim for around 2000 words a day when writing a first draft. Sometimes it’s much more, and sometimes much less. What I’ve learned since first being published is that regardless of what mood you’re in and what else is going on, you just have to keep showing up and getting the words down. No excuses.
Your journey to publication has been well documented – you self-published first and then had something amazing happen. Tell us the story.
I started writing in 2009 after redundancy and wrote my first historical novel The Girl Who Came Home in 2011. After being rejected, I decided to self-publish in 2012. It did exceptionally well, but regardless I couldn’t get an agent to represent me and had over a dozen rejections for my second novel, A Memory Of Violets. In May 2013, I was contacted by an agent in New York who’d read The Girl Who Came Home. After reading the manuscript for Violets she asked to represent me, and six weeks later both books sold at auction to William Morrow in New York (an imprint of HarperCollins). The Girl Who Came Home was republished as a paperback in 2014 and went on to become a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. A year later, A Memory of Violets was published and also made the bestseller lists. In 2015, The Girl Who Came Home won the RNA Historical Novel of the Year award. I can’t tell you how many times I felt utterly dejected. I thought it was never going to happen for me but as my third novel comes out in America and Ireland, with the UK paperback to follow in September, I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to keep writing and keep trying. It doesn’t come down to luck. It comes down to hard work, perseverance and story.
You have been very open about the self-doubts that you yourself went through. What would you say to other writers who are doubting themselves, right now?
Self-doubt is an unavoidable part of writing. I actually think it’s healthy, because it means you are challenging yourself and pushing yourself to write better. You just have to believe in your story and write without thinking about readers and reviews. Write the book, despite the doubts.
Why historical fiction?
I’m inspired by the past. I’m naturally drawn to people and events from history – it all fascinates me. My first two novels were set in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras (one inspired by Titanic and the other by the flower sellers of Covent Garden). The Girl From The Savoy took me into the years of the Great War and the 1920s, which were both new periods for me to research. I love that process of discovery. Often it’s an image from the era, or a person or event I read about that first ignites the creative spark, then I let my imagination take over to tell my fictional interpretation of that event or person or era.
What sort of research do you do – are you in depth?
Research is so important for me and I love that part of the writing process. I really want to evoke an authentic sense of time and place so that my readers are immersed in the era my story is set in. Much of my research never makes it into the book, but gives me a solid foundation to build my story from. In researching The Girl From The Savoy I spent an amazing afternoon with the archivist at The Savoy. Sitting in the stunning foyer, talking about the hotel’s rich history was really special. I also read a ton of books and material about the hotel and theatre and women’s roles during the war and the early 1920s and spent a couple of afternoons at the Victoria & Albert Museum Theatre Archives, reading through scrapbooks of famous actresses and theatrical producers of the 1920s, which was incredibly inspiring. Research never stops. Even up to the final proof read, I’m fact-checking the smallest details. It keeps me awake at night!
Is there anything in particular that inspires your characters?
I suppose there is always a little bit of myself and some of my family members built into my characters – consciously or subconsciously! As most of my characters are set in a historical period, they are mostly inspired by real people I read about during my research. That might be an ordinary domestic maid who I read an account of somewhere, or a famous actress like Tallulah Bankhead.
What is it like breaking into America – is the writing scene very different?
My first publishing deal was with an American publisher, so that was my only experience of working with an editor and the team (marketing, sales, publicity, design) behind every book. I had nothing else to compare it to. The scale of things over there sometimes overwhelms me as I sit on my own at my desk here in Ireland and realise that I’m trying to connect with such a huge audience of readers when there are so many other books on the shelves. Probably best not to think about it too much!Through social media, writing forums and my publisher I’ve met some amazing American writers and readers, many of whom have become great friends and that really helps me to feel connected there.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
All the time. For me, writer’s block isn’t about a lack of ideas or words, it comes back to that self-doubt – reading over your work and being convinced it is nonsense. Structure often blocks me – getting the component parts of the story in the right place.Sometimes, I jump forward in the story to a scene I feel more comfortable with. Writing something is always better than writing nothing.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I have two exciting projects underway at the moment. My fourth novel (as yet untitled) is inspired by the true events surrounding two young cousins who claimed to photograph fairies in the village of Cottingley in Yorkshire in the 1900s. Growing up in Yorkshire, this is a story I have always been aware of and one I cannot wait to share. The book will be published in spring/summer 2017.
My other project is an epistolary novel Last Christmas in Paris which I am co-writing with an American author, Heather Webb. The novel is a love story about a young English woman and a soldier who promise to spend Christmas together in Paris until the Great War sends them on different paths. It’s such a great experience writing this with Heather. We’re having great fun with it.
How long does it take you to write a book?
Roughly a year now I’m under contract, although usually the idea has been percolating for many months before I actually sit down to start writing. Typically, new ideas always appear at the point when I’m really struggling with my current project.
Most writers dream of doing book tours. What are they really like?
My first experience of a book tour was the recent US tour for Fall Of Poppies, a collection of short stories set around WWI. I did three events. Two in Connecticut and one in New Jersey. Working with other authors on that anthology was a fantastic experience and meant that we shared the stage at our tour events, which took the pressure of us all individually. It was a really positive experience, if a little surreal. It’s very rewarding to talk about your book and meet readers.The jet lag was a killer. I landed in JFK at 2pm and was on stage at a library in Connecticut at 7pm (which was midnight my time). Dry shampoo came in very handy!
Do you receive fan mail? What is your interaction with your readers?
Yes, although I don’t think of it as fan mail (my family keep me very grounded and would laugh at such a notion!). I get lots of emails and lots of messages on my Facebook page and via Twitter which I love to receive and always reply to. Reader interaction like this is a very modern thing and is one of those unexpected and lovely parts of the job. Some of the messages have moved me to tears because the books have had such a profound effect on people.
What do you like to read?
Everything and anything. There’s a lot of historical fiction on my shelves (Philippa Gregory, Rose Tremain, Sara Gruen, Kate Kerrigan). I loved Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist and Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites and can’t wait to read their second novels. I always try to read Irish authors too. I read Kate Beaufoy’s Another Heartbeat in the House on holiday recently and loved it. I’ve recently started reading thrillers because lots of my friends are writing them!Catherine Ryan Howard’s, Distress Signals, is excellent.
Where do you write?
In my attic with the cat sleeping beside me and the kids’ toys around my feet. It’s a little chaotic at times, but somehow the words get written!
The Girl From The Savoy launches in June and will be available from Amazon and bookshops.
LadyNicci comment: As a writer of historical fiction myself I love to hear how other authors carry out their research and how they too are inspired by the characters of the past. Hazel has been very open about the long road she had to publication – she self-published because she knew her book had merit and needed to be out in the world. It was some time before she was picked up by her agent, and by that time, she was ready to go with her second book. Even though she had no idea whether she would be picked up by a mainstream publisher, she never stopped writing and no doubt, being able to show that she was a dedicated, serious writer who had stories to tell, helped her with her book deal and agent signing. I love the sound of her upcoming fairy story book – it sounds like it has the right blend of history, magic and intrigue. Right now I’m picturing my own historical fiction novels side by side on the bookshelves with The Girl From The Savoy and A Memory of Violets. Because dreams do come true – just ask Hazel.
How I write is a blog post series published on Sundays on www.ladynicci.com. The posts aim to give a voice to writers, published, unpublished and everywhere in between, to help and encourage other writers. If you would like to take part email firstname.lastname@example.org with How I Write in the subject line.