WomensHistoryReads interview: Hazel Gaynor

So many reasons to be excited about today's #WomensHistoryReads interview. Not only do we have an in-depth, eloquent Q&Q&Q&A with Hazel Gaynor, but a fabulous first: a cover sneak peek! Hazel has graciously agreed to share with us a preview of the new cover of her next novel, THE LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER'S DAUGHTER. And it is a beauty.

Read on for Hazel's real-life inspirations, life as a history nerd, and an introduction to the amazing story of Grace Darling.

 Hazel Gaynor

Hazel Gaynor

Greer: Tell us about a woman (or group of women) from the past who has inspired your writing. 

Hazel: My second novel, A MEMORY OF VIOLETS, was inspired by an incredible group of young girls and women who were taken from a life of poverty among London's flower markets and placed in charitable homes at The Watercress and Flower Girls Mission under the supervision of Victorian philanthropist, John Groom. Many of the girls were orphaned, blind or physically disabled in some way, which made life on the streets almost impossible, and incredibly dangerous. With patience and care they were taught to make artificial paper and silk flowers, working in a little factory established in a local chapel. With John Groom’s guidance, and the help of the women who acted as mothers to the girls in the homes, the flower girls were able to lead a dignified, safe and relatively independent life.

I first read about Groom’s Flower Girls after starting to research the lives of Victorian flower sellers, my interest in these women having come from Eliza Doolittle, George Bernard Shaw’s fictional flower seller in Pygmalion. The trail of breadcrumbs led me to a fascinating history of the girls’ work and lives, held in the London Metropolitan Archives in the City of London. Discovering this forgotten piece of London's history formed the basis for my story of Florrie and Rosie -- orphaned sisters who become separated on London's unforgiving streets -- and the young woman who works in Groom's flower homes and sets out to discover what became of them.

The artificial flowers produced by the Flower Girls were mostly sold to the wealthy to decorate their homes, but their work was noticed by the Dowager Queen, Alexandra of Denmark (widow of King Edward VII). In 1912, Queen Alexandra commissioned the Flower Girls to make thousands of pink paper roses to be sold to the public as a fundraiser for London’s hospitals. This was the first occasion of an annual charitable fund raiser in London which became known as Alexandra Rose Day and is still recognised today. I feel very privileged to have told the flower girls’ remarkable story.

Greer: Do you consider yourself a historian?

Hazel: Great question! I think of myself more as a historical dramatist than a historian in the academic sense of the word. I’ve always been fascinated by history and studied British and European history to A’Level before heading off to study Business at University (my thinking being that a very practical degree would lead to me getting an actual job at the end of it)! As a historical novelist I truly believe it is my passion for the past that drives me to research and write my stories. The history nerd within is never happier than when I’m immersed in odd little research books or rummaging through a dusty old archive box in a quiet library reading room, discovering letters and personal effects that have been hidden away for over a century. It is this archaeology of very personal and social histories, and the thrill of bringing these forgotten voices roaring back to life, that gets me to my writing desk every day, even on the really tough days!

As anyone who writes historical fiction will know, we often get asked about the balance of fact versus fiction and are kept awake at night by nagging doubts about historical accuracy. Most historical novelists I know are not historians, but we approach our subject matter very seriously and with absolute historical rigour. Our research is painstaking, obsessing over the smallest little details because authenticity is so important to us. Plus, we love discovering those little gems of historical delight that add colour to our stories.

I personally love reading author’s notes to understand which parts of the story were fact and which came from their imagination. I love discovering a true story, a person from history I wasn’t aware of, or a real event I didn’t know anything about. This is a wonderful time to be writing about the past, especially about women from the past, and historical novels are really having a moment. Here’s to the historical novelists digging around in archive boxes and exploring interesting footnotes of historical texts so they can share all these fabulous stories. More! More!

Greer: Hear hear! What’s your next book about and when will we see it? 

Hazel: My forthcoming novel THE LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER'S DAUGHTER was inspired by the remarkable history of female lighthouse keepers and the true story of Grace Darling, an incredible young woman who became a reluctant heroine when she and her father rescued survivors of a shipwreck off the Farne Islands in 1838. The novel spans 100 years, moving between Grace's story at Longstone Lighthouse in England, to that of a troubled young Irish woman and the light keeper she goes to live with in Newport, Rhode Island in 1938, the year of the great hurricane.

I’ve been fascinated by Grace Darling’s story since learning about her at school but like so many women from history, she has fallen out of favour and out of the school text books which is such a shame as she really deserves to be talked about. I was especially intrigued by Grace’s transition from a very private young woman living a simple existence on a remote island lighthouse, to a very public figure, famed for her daring rescue and admired across the country, including by the young Queen Victoria. It was a transition she struggled with, and one that had a dramatic impact on her life.

I have family who live in Northumberland so it was amazing to make a trip out to Grace’s lighthouse home and a wonderful museum dedicated to her life as part of my research. I was also very excited to visit Newport, Rhode Island to research the part of the novel set there. My inspiration for this part of the narrative, again, came from an incredible woman, Ida Lewis, light keeper at Lime Rock light and who was known as America’s Grace Darling.

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter is a novel about strong women, courage and the unique bonds of female relationships. I'm so excited to share this story with readers when the book is published in the USA/Canada on October 9th. You can read more about it and pre-order (in all formats) at this link.

Greer: And I'm so excited to get a peek at the cover! Thank you for sharing it with us! Readers, feast your eyes:

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Hazel: You’ve written such fascinating historical novels with strong female protagonists, one a female illusionist and one a female private detective. What is the premise for your next novel, Greer? We need to know!

Greer: Thank you, and I'm delighted to share! My next novel, WOMAN NINETY-NINE, is about a young woman from a wealthy family who risks everything to rescue her troubled sister from a women's asylum... by following her inside. It takes place in Northern California in 1888, and it's partly inspired by one of reporter Nellie Bly's most famous stories, her 10 days undercover in a notorious insane asylum. Bly was quoted as saying, "The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat-trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out." So when my narrator Charlotte mimics Bly's techniques, you know she finds more than she bargained for. She discovers that many of her fellow inmates were put away for reasons other than insanity -- and her quest for the truth unearths secrets that those in power would do anything to keep.

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Hazel Gaynor is a New York Times bestselling, award-winning historical novelist, who lives in County Kildare, Ireland with her husband and two children. Her 2014 debut historical novel The Girl Who Came Home—A Novel of the Titanic hit the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists, and went on to win the 2015 Historical Novel of the Year award from the Romantic Novelists’ Association in London. Her second novel A Memory of Violets, was also a New York Times bestseller, and her third, The Girl from The Savoy was an Irish Times and Globe & Mail bestseller, and finalist for the 2016 Irish Book Awards. Her releases in 2017 – The Cottingley Secret  and Last Christmas in Paris (co-written with Heather Webb) both hit the Canadian Globe & Mail bestseller list. In autumn 2018, Hazel will release The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter, a novel inspired by the true events surrounding the life of Victorian lighthouse keeper, Grace Darling. All Hazel’s novels have been received to critical acclaim and have been translated into several foreign languages. She is represented by Michelle Brower at Aevitas Creative, New York.

Contact info:

Web: https://www.hazelgaynor.com/

Twitter: @HazelGaynor

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/hazelgaynorbooks

Instagram: @HazelGaynor

Newsletter sign-up: https://www.hazelgaynor.com/newsletter/