Writer’s Block With Hazel Gaynor

Sophie Grenham speaks to author HAZEL GAYNOR about history, her second career and The Inspiration Project …

Deasy Photographic

Hazel Gaynor is the bestselling author of five critically acclaimed historical novels, including The Girl from The Savoy (2016), The Cottingley Secret (2017) and new title, The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter. She has also collaborated on Last Christmas in Paris (2017) with American writer Heather Webb. She has spent several weeks on the New York Times, USA Today and Irish Times bestseller lists respectively, won the Romantic Novel Association’s Historical Novel of the Year award for The Girl Who Came Home (2015) and was shortlisted for an Irish Book Award in 2016. Her books are available in nine languages and sold in sixteen countries.

Originally from Yorkshire, England, Gaynor worked in professional services prior to becoming an author. In 2001 she relocated to Ireland to live with her future husband, and they found their forever home in Kildare three years later. She was bitten by the writing bug after being made redundant from her role at A&L Goodbody during the recession. The rest is quite literally, history.

To read a Hazel Gaynor novel is akin to wandering into the Victoria & Albert Museum in London; each one is meticulously prepared and presented, with elegance at every turn. Her pages pulse with luxurious language and fine detail, providing wondrous escapism. Any expert can write about the past, but few can collate the information and create an emotive and accessible read. Sinéad Moriarty has called her work, “Beautiful, stunning, page-turning, warm and captivating.”

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter, inspired by the true story of Grace Darling, follows the lives of female lighthouse keepers in 1838 and one century later. It is a celebration of strong women in a male dominated world, as well as an intriguing exploration of what is now a dying vocation.

Hazel recently teamed up with fellow bestsellers Carmel Harrington and Catherine Ryan Howard to form The Inspiration Project, a workshop that guides aspiring writers.

Hazel Gaynor lives in Kilcullen, Co Kildare with her husband Damien and their two sons. She is currently working on her second book with Heather Webb, Meet Me in Monaco.

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter (€14.99) is published by HarperCollins and available nationwide.

On home

I’ve lived in Kilcullen for the past fourteen years. Our children, now eleven and thirteen, were born here and have grown up here. My eldest started first year at the local secondary school in September, and I feel incredibly old! Kilcullen is a vibrant town and thriving community and we love living here. We have an award-winning butchers, Nolan’s, an award-winning independent bookshop, Woodbine Books, and Armelle’s Kitchen is entirely responsible for my addiction to pistachio macarons. In the interests of non-hipster balance, I can also confirm that Bardons pub has the best chicken wings in the county. I pop into town for something or other every day and always see someone I know. It’s really lovely – and perhaps increasingly rare – to be part of a community like this.

On roots

I grew up in a small rural village in East Yorkshire. The closest cities were Hull and York, but we spent a lot of time at the nearby seaside towns and beaches of Bridlington, Flamborough and Fraisthorpe. I have very fond memories of walking down the village with my mum to do the shopping and throw bread to the ducks. The greengrocers, butchers and post office were all individual shops then. My mum worked at the local GP so knew everyone and shopping took a very long time! She died in 1993 when I was twenty-two. I’d been living at university in Manchester since I was eighteen, and going home took on a very different feeling after that. My ninety-nine-year-old grandma still lives in the village and my dad is still in our family home. It doesn’t really get any easier to be in the house without my mum. You just somehow learn to adapt.

On Ireland

I moved to Ireland in 2001 after meeting my now husband in Dublin through a mutual friend. I’d been a nomad for a number of years before that, living in Manchester, Australia and London. Coming to Ireland was a huge decision for me and it took a while to adjust. Getting married, buying a house and starting a family in 2004 changed things significantly, and I’ve never looked back. I wrote the first words of my first novel here, so Ireland is also where my writing career started. I still have a bit of a writing identity crisis and I’m not entirely sure if I’m considered an Irish writer, or an English writer in Ireland. I was once referred to in an interview in an Irish newspaper as “Yorkshire writer, Hazel Gaynor” which was a first! Either way, I’m incredibly proud to be part of the writing community here. I don’t think I could have connected so quickly, with so many amazing writers, anywhere else.

On her second career

My first career was in professional services firms in London, and I had seven great years at Dublin law firm, A&L Goodbody, until the financial crisis of 2009 took life in a very different direction and I found myself at home with two young children. It was hard to adapt at first, but it was really a blessing in disguise and I’ve never looked back. I wrote a very honest and somewhat cathartic blog about that transition, which, in turn, gave me the confidence to write my first novel. I was forty-two when I got my first publishing deal and I’m still so excited that writing has become my second career. Although I wouldn’t always agree on those days when I never seem to have a minute to myself, it really has been amazing to be at home with, and for, the kids. I find it frustrating to see lists, bursaries and awards for writers under the age of thirty. So many writers I know – women especially – came to writing in their forties, or later. I believe we should celebrate talent, regardless of age.

On creating

I started writing at the kitchen table surrounded by breakfast dishes and the kids’ Lego. I moved up (literally) to the attic in 2013 after I got my first publishing deal with HarperCollins. I sat at the kitchen table with a glass of champagne after the deal was confirmed and all the years of failure and frustration I’d experienced there were part of the celebratory moment. It’s funny how quickly the “yes” erased the agony of all the “nos.” The attic is a lovely bright room where I can close the door and (try to) forget about the chaos going on around me! It’s also a storage room, library, spare bedroom and play room so it certainly isn’t the perfect writing space, but what is? My desk is covered with research books and notebooks and I have a corner sofa to collapse on after I’ve delivered a new book. I’m very lucky to have a room of my own.

On her favourite bookshop

Three words: Woodbine Books, Kilcullen. Owners Dawn and Aidan Behan took over an empty building which had previously been a pet shop and I’ll never forget driving past and realising a bookshop had opened. Of course, I pulled over and went in. I launched my last two books at Woodbine and they’ve been such special and memorable events. It’s been wonderful to see the shop grow and bloom over the two years it’s been open. It’s a real labour of love and a huge team effort by the owners and everyone who works there. Woodbine’s award this year for best independent bookshop in Ireland was hugely deserved and I can’t wait to see where they’ll go in the future.

On her “To Be Read” pile

I’m currently reading an advance copy of Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River, a wonderfully intriguing historical tale which I’m enjoying immensely. I also have a copy of Adele Parks’ latest, I Invited Her In, which she signed for me after I met her recently at Wexford Literary Festival. I also have Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, and Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, both recommended to me by my agent. I also have a beautiful hardback copy of A Christmas Carol that I picked up recently in The Winding Stair, and the late Vanessa Lafaye’s Miss Marley. I’m waiting to read them both as soon as we hit December.

On history

I’m a history nerd who is endlessly fascinated by the past! We tend to view history through a lens of black and white photographs, or flickering movie reels and I love re-imagining those moments from history, slowing them down, adding colour and human emotion to that static black and white world – giving these forgotten people a voice again. It’s a real privilege to tell their stories. It’s a fascinating time to be writing historical fiction as history is so accessible now. For example, we’re still discovering incredible personal accounts of both world wars, particularly from women. There’s always a delicate balance to strike between fact and fiction, fascination and respect. I felt this especially when writing about passengers on Titanic in The Girl Who Came Home, and in writing the story of Frances Griffiths in The Cottingley Secret and, most recently, in telling Grace Darling’s story in The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter. I hope to get that balance right and to bring history to life in an engaging and immersive experience for the reader.

On escape

I’m amused by the notion of “escape”. There is no escape – this is it, lads! As I get older I’ve accepted that it’s far better to embrace life than try to escape from it. When I’m not writing, I love us all to get outside and spend time together as a family. Glendalough, Emo Court, Altemont Gardens and Blessington Lakes are all favourite places to walk. We took the boys glamping on Inis Mór during the midterm break. It was a fabulous experience, and about as close to escaping from everything as you can get!

My recent research trip to Monaco was terrible, as you can imagine! It really helps to spend a little time in the place your novel is set (if at all possible). Monaco Cathedral on The Rock above Monte Carlo was especially poignant as it is the final resting place of Princess Grace, whose iconic wedding inspired the book. We lit a candle for her in the cathedral. It was really emotional.

On The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter

I believe the story finds the writer, and this was definitely true of The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter. Writing Grace Darling’s story was a bit of a personal pilgrimage in a way. I was fascinated by her as a child, so it was a very rewarding and satisfying experience to research and write about her. I first learned about Grace Darling in a primary school history lesson. There was something about this young woman’s heroic rescue of survivors of a shipwreck in a storm, her isolated existence on a remote lighthouse, her Victorian clothing – and her name – that absolutely intrigued me. I think she’s always been there in the back of my mind, waiting for the right moment. I’d considered writing her story several times, but ideas often need time to percolate and that was definitely the case with this one. In 2015 I stumbled across an antique book about Grace in a second hand bookshop in Alnwick, Northumberland, and that was when The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter really began to take shape. As with all my books, research always reveals something surprising and the link between Grace and a local artist really changed the feel of the book, as did discovering the history of female light keepers, which opened up the 1938 narrative in Newport, Rhode Island.

I took my husband and kids to stay in Wicklow Head lighthouse for a weekend as a surprise. It’s part of the Irish Landmark Trust and can be rented out for short stays. It was built in the 18th century and is quite an unattractive imposing structure (compared to some lighthouses), but we all absolutely loved the experience. I have since learned that the lighthouse is haunted, so I won’t be going back! I also travelled to the Farne Islands to visit Longstone Lighthouse – Grace Darling’s home. It was very poignant to step into her bedroom and walk along the rocks and beaches where she spent her life. I also spent time in Newport, Rhode Island to get a feel for the geography, history and atmosphere of the town. To say I’ve been obsessed by lighthouses for the past two years would be an understatement.

On The Inspiration Project

The Inspiration Project is our way of offering help and advice to writers which we didn’t have when we were starting out. All three of us came to writing as complete beginners. We didn’t have any contacts in the business, and neither did we know anyone who was a writer. Over the past few years we’ve all been contacted regularly by writers looking for help and advice. We established The Inspiration Project to try and harness everything we’ve learned and to encourage, advise and inspire others who are trying to get published. We’ve been blown away by the enthusiasm and motivation of everyone who has attended one of our events since our very first one in January. Our next one-day event is in Cork city centre on Saturday January 26 2019. Tickets are €99 and all details are available at www.theinspirationproject.ie.

On what’s next

I’m currently writing my second collaborative historical novel with Heather Webb. Our new novel, Meet Me in Monaco, is set around the wedding of Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier of Monaco and will be published in summer 2019. I’m also working on my next solo historical novel which will take me into a new historical event and era, and a new location. I’m already deeply absorbed in the research and hope to be able to share more news soon.

@SophieGrenham

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