We are delighted to welcome Hazel Gaynor, author of The Girl Who Came Home, to the blog today. We’ve chosen Hazel’s wonderful book as the first read for the Write Romantics Book Group (you can read more about that here) and we’re very excited to have Hazel chat to us about what inspired her to write the book and her amazing journey from self-published author to the New York Times bestseller lists. Over to Hazel to tell us more…
The Titanic is often associated with the glitz and glamour of the Edwardian period. What inspired you to tell the story of the Irish steerage passengers?
I’ve always been fascinated by Titanic (I was a teenager when the wreck was discovered) and when I decided to write a novel set around the ship and the tragic events of that April night, I knew I wanted to explore the experience of a third class passenger, rather than that of the wealthy millionaires we know so much about. Living in Ireland, I was also keen to find out more about the Irish passengers who boarded Titanic at her last port of call, in Queenstown, County Cork. History has, in some ways, neglected those of the lower social classes because they were ordinary people. We know plenty about the likes of the Astors and the Strauss’s, but little about the passengers who travelled on third class tickets, many of whom were leaving their homes in England and Ireland in the hope of finding a better life in America. I felt that it was these, ordinary people, who had the most extraordinary stories to tell. I also wanted to explore the aftermath of the disaster and how such an event can have lasting repercussions on a survivor’s life. In the survivor records of Irish passengers, the name Annie Kate Kelly kept coming up. It was that which led me to the story of the Addergoole Fourteen and the inspiration for the novel.
The film ‘Titanic’ is a fabulous love story. Was it nerve-wracking telling a completely different story in your book after the film has been so enduring?
I was obviously very conscious of the movie when I started writing the novel, and of course, comparisons will always be made to some degree (although lots of readers have said how much they would love THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME to be made into a movie – which is lovely to hear!). Writing about such a well-known event was certainly a daunting prospect as a debut novelist! That said, I was very clear about the Titanic story I wanted to tell and with my story being based around steerage passengers, and also focusing on the aftermath, and on the impact on family and friends awaiting news of the disaster, I didn’t feel in any way inhibited by the movie’s plot or premise – or its huge success. I didn’t watch the movie while I was writing the novel though – just to make sure I wasn’t mimicking Mr Cameron’s view of the event!
- What difference has it made having a publisher rather than continuing with self publishing?
Although I had a very positive experience of self-publishing, I always, always wanted a traditional deal and to work with a publisher. Working with the team at William Morrow (an imprint of HarperCollins in the U.S.) has been such an amazing experience – and everything I had hoped it would be. The job of a writer is a very lonely one, and with self-publishing there really is a lot of ‘self’ involved. To have the backing, support, enthusiasm, professionalism and belief of a team of experts behind you really is incredible, and has made a huge difference to my confidence as a writer. I have learnt so much from my editor and from the marketing and publicity team, and obviously as one of the big publishers, they have been able to get my book into the hands of so many more readers than I could ever have hoped for. I’m very excited to meet the team, and my agent, on my trip to New York this November.
- What’s the most exciting thing that’s happened to you since (a) the indie version came out and (b) the published version came out?
I was very fortunate in that THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME was very positively received from the very early days as a self-published Kindle ebook. The morning when I received a Facebook message from an agent in New York saying that she’d read the book on her Kindle and would love to talk to me about representation has to be the highlight of my ‘indie’ publishing life, because it was so out of the blue and came at a time when I’d had a second novel rejected and had just lost my agent. And of course, that initial contact led to my deal with William Morrow. Since the published version of the book came out, the most exciting moment has to be when I received an email from my editor telling me that the book had made the New York Times best seller listings. That was a moment to savour, and even better that it came on the second day of our family holiday!!
What advice would you give to anyone considering going down the indie publishing route?
Don’t approach it lightly. It can offer a great opportunity to get your work out there, but you have to be prepared to put in a lot of hard work. Make sure the work is your absolute best and that it is edited professionally and has a professional cover designed. I cannot emphasise those points enough. Talk to other indie published authors so you know what to expect and be very clear with yourself about your goals and expectations. I honestly did not expect to get a publishing deal from self-publishing. For me, self-publishing THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME was a way of letting go of that book so I could get on with the next one.
There must be a huge amount of historical records and documents about the Titanic. How did you go about researching the historical details about the Titanic, the experience of the survivors and the village in Ireland.
Titanic is an event that fascinates people and because of that, there are a lot of official and unofficial experts out there! For months, I read everything I could about Titanic and her passengers. I read survivor accounts and newspaper reports from the time. I read other Titanic books, such as Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember and I got lost in Titanic websites like http://www.encyclopaedia-titanica.org. While some historical fiction writers struggle to find material about their subject, my problem was that there was so much and I knew I had to get the balance right between fact and fiction.
When I was writing the novel, I was very conscious of the reality of my story. How would the descendants of those who had inspired my book react to my retelling? How could I tell their story in a way that was respectful, yet also engaging to the reader? I wanted to do justice to the memory of the Addergoole Fourteen, and all of Titanic’s passengers, but I also wanted to tell my story in my own words. Of course, when you’ve spent so long researching a subject you are fascinated by, it is very tempting to throw in every tiny fact and detail. My challenge was to know what to leave out, as well as to know what to put in. I could geek out for hours about Titanic but my job in writing this novel was to tell an engaging story and let the characters – not the history – take priority. The painstakingly researched historical facts should, ideally, just become a part of that story; noticeable and enjoyable, but not distracting.
Do you intend to continue to write historical fiction?
Yes! I absolutely love writing in this genre and can’t see myself leaving it for quite some time. My second novel, A MEMORY OF VIOLETS, is about two sets of sisters and is set around a charity for orphaned flower sellers in Victorian London. The story spans several decades across the late 1800s and early 1900s. I love the Victorian and Edwardian eras and the streets of Victorian London were a wonderfully haunting place to explore in my imagination. Again, the novel was inspired by true events and I am very excited about the book’s publication in early 2015. I’m also excited to be in the early stages of ‘book three’ which is also historical fiction.
We see that you’ve interviewed several well-known writers in the course of your career and we wondered if there was a particular writer who inspires your work?
I’d have to say Philippa Gregory. It was amazing to meet her in person in 2012 because I’ve loved her novels. She’s such a fascinating woman and I think she really blazed a trail in making historical fiction popular through her Tudor Court novels. She brings history to life so vividly on the page and although I’m not writing as far back in history as she does, nor and I writing about royalty, I take a lot of inspiration from her approach to writing history in the novel form. She also tells a great story!
Do you have any advice for anyone considering writing historical fiction for the first time?
Ultimately, you need to be very excited about and intrigued by the era, event and/or person you are writing about, because you will inhabit that world for a very long time during the process of research, writing, editing and promoting your novel. I wrote THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME in 2011 and am as excited to talk about it today as I was back then. Research is obviously a critical element of writing historical fiction and a non-writing period to immerse yourself in the era is really important. Other than that, you need to sit down and start writing! Also, remember that you are ultimately writing a novel that will be commercially appealing to publishers and full of engaging characters to captivate the reader. Don’t lose sight of the story among all the fascinating history.
For more information about my books, visit my website or Facebook page at I am also on Twitter @HazelGaynor on Goodreads and have a Pinterest page at http://www.pinterest.com/hazelgaynor/
A huge thank you to Hazel for joining us today. If Hazel’s interview has made you want to read ‘The Girl Who Came Home’ then we’d love it if you’d tell us what you think either on this page or over on the Goodreads group which you can find here.
P.S. We’ve realised since we changed the format of the blog that it’s not entirely easy to see where to leave a comment. We figured this out when we couldn’t find the right place! At the end of the list of tags at the bottom of the page there’s the words ‘leave a comment’ and if you click on that it’ll take you through. Just because it’s a little hard to find please don’t think that means we don’t want to hear from you because we do!