Monday 28 August 2023

SPECIAL FEATURE: Q & A with Hazel Gaynor about her new novel THE LAST LIFEBOAT

 "The best historical fiction allows the history and the research to settle quietly onto the page rather than shouting about it."

Photograph by Fran Veale
Hazel Gaynor is an award-winning, international bestselling author of historical fiction. Her debut, The Girl Who Came Home, was a New York Times bestseller, and her most recent book, The Bird in the Bamboo Cage was shortlisted for the 2020 Irish Book Awards Popular Fiction Novel of the Year, and was a national bestseller in the USA, where it is published as When We Were Young and Brave. Her latest novel The Last Lifeboat is out now. Hazel’s work has been translated into seventeen languages and is published in twenty-three countries to date. Originally from Yorkshire, she now lives in Ireland with her family. Here Hazel answers questions from Adèle, Celia and Linda.

Celia: What attracted you to this particular aspect of Second World War history? What came first, wanting to write about the Second World War, or this particular incident?

Hazel: I was interested in the history of WW2 evacuees and Operation Pied Piper, a mass evacuation campaign where children were sent to the countryside from Britain’s towns and cities most at risk of bombing raids, and while researching that I came across the phrase ‘seaevacuees’ and was intrigued. Children being sent overseas was a less well-known evacuee story. But it was an account of an evacuee ship torpedoed in the Atlantic, and a lifeboat of survivors, lost at sea for eight days, that sparked the idea for The Last Lifeboat. I imagined two women connected by the tragedy: one in a lifeboat with other survivors, the other in London, desperately awaiting news of her children. It immediately interested me as it was a little known and very different story of WW2, a story of human courage and endurance more than a story of war.

Linda: You've covered various historical periods in your fiction. How do you balance the demands of research with the need to be a productive novelist?

Hazel: Discovering forgotten stories and voices from the past is so fascinating, and it is such a privilege to reimagine them on the page, but historical fiction is not a history lesson. Like all fiction, it aims to entertain, to provoke reaction and discussion, to consider the world through someone else’s experience. The imagined narrative in my novels comes from months, sometimes years, of detailed research, but much of that research isn’t written into the book but more informs my understanding of the place and time to create an authentic world for my reader. The best historical fiction allows the history and the research to settle quietly onto the page rather than shouting about it. I often fall down research rabbit holes, but the nagging pressure of a deadline is a great motivator to stop researching and start writing!

Celia: The Last Lifeboat is based on an actual incident in the history of the wartime evacuation of British children to Canada. Did the fact that this was a real event constrained your writing in any way?

Hazel: When writing anything based on true events, I am always mindful of the fact that it really happened, and that ordinary people like you and me lived through those moments, even if my characters are fictional. I don’t feel constrained by the history – this is partly why I write historical fiction rather than factual history – but I am always mindful of being very respectful of the history.

Adèle: How much planning do you do before you write? Can you describe your process a little?

Hazel: I’m a definite pantser rather than a plotter, so my stories often take unexpected turns as my characters lead me in interesting directions! I do a lot of research while the initial idea percolates and to help me get a grasp of the event and timeframe I’m planning to write in. I then prepare a 2-3 page outline document to share with my agent and editors to make sure everyone is excited about the concept, and once we’ve all agreed on the direction, I start writing. I continue to research through every stage of the writing process, right down to final edits when I am still double-checking facts and minor details. I’m a terrible first drafter and constantly go back to edit early pages when I should be getting on with writing the rest of the book, but somehow it always gets done!

Adèle: What is the best advice about writing you’ve ever been given? And the worst?

Hazel: Start writing, and finish what you start. It sounds obvious, but this is the only way to find out if you really want to write, if you’re prepared to make sacrifices to find time to write, and if you have a story you want to tell. Give yourself permission to write a messy first draft and don’t give up when it starts to feel too difficult. Every writer, no matter how experienced, goes through a period of doubt. Remind yourself that a first draft doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be written. Worst advice? Visit your local bookshop on publication day to see your book on the shelf. I did this with my debut novel. They didn’t have it in stock!

Linda: How do you think the publishing industry has changed since you were first published?

Hazel: Over the ten years of being a published writer, there has been a very positive growth in books written and published by diverse voices. There have been many discussions about cultural appropriation and whose story a writer should tell and the book I’ve chosen to review (Yellowface, by Rebecca F Kuang) reflects that in the most brilliant and original way. Fortunately, ebooks didn’t see the end of print as everyone feared, and the popularity of beautiful hardback editions and sprayed edges has been amazing to see. I dread to think what my answer to this will be in another ten years with the rise of AI - it terrifies me!

Thanks so much, Hazel, for answering our questions - we hope your novel will reach many appreciative readers! 

The Last Lifeboat is published by Harper Collins.

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