An Interview with Hazel Gaynor

by Paul Enea

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Bestselling author Hazel Gaynor celebrates her Irishness despite hailing from Yorkshire, England. "I have lived in Ireland for the past fourteen years. My husband is Irish and our two sons were both born here, so I definitely consider myself to be adopted Irish by now!" she said, in a recent interview via email. In addition to writing award-winning historical fiction, Gaynor has maintained a parenting blog and appeared on radio and television. Her novel The Girl Who Came Home was "inspired by a group of Irish emigrants from County Mayo who sailed on the Titanic." 

Gaynor is an inspirational force in her own right. When publishers passed on her first novel, she was steadfast and smart, using savvy marketing skills to her advantage. "I self-published The Girl Who Came Home in 2012 to coincide with the centenary of the sinking of Titanic," she said. "The success of that book eventually led to a publishing contract with William Morrow (HarperCollins) who republished The Girl Who Came Home in 2014. My second novel with them, A Memory of Violets (inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion), was published earlier this year. Both books have been New York Times bestsellers, which is amazing - and proof that you should never give up! I firmly believe that I would never have written the books if I hadn’t moved to Ireland, because it was here that I found the inspiration for them both."

Indeed, the Irish experience is an integral part of Gaynor’s imagination and life. "I love sharing in Irish traditions with my children and reading Irish myths and legends with them as they grow up and learn more about Irish history and culture. Of course, we always mark the traditional Irish celebrations through the year, but in addition to that, it is really the way in which the Irish community comes together for the big, important occasions that constantly surprises me," she says. "The #HometoVote campaign for the recent Marriage Referendum, for example, was so incredibly inspiring and something that I feel only the Irish community would have done. I feel very proud to call Ireland home."

Literary tradition looms large in Ireland, home to a wide range of gifted writers. Who is Gaynor’s favorite Irish author? "I have several! I absolutely love Roddy Doyle, for his sharp social observations and his humour. He writes brilliant children’s books, as well as adult novels. I adore the classics by Oscar Wilde and from a more contemporary perspective I would have to say Maeve Binchy, whose amazing legacy lives on. She really set the bar for all other Irish female writers to follow."

So what is it about Ireland that produces so many innovative storytellers? "From the early myths and legends, to all the wonderful folklore and the classic writers and poets such as Joyce and Wilde and Yeats, it just seems to be within people here to tell stories; part of their fabric," says Gaynor. "The Irish people are very honest, open and warm – great traits for storytelling. Whatever ‘it’ is, it clearly got inside my head and really sparked my desire to write when I moved here."

Like many Irish writers, keen and subtle psychological observation informs Gaynor’s prose. Is this a talent required for good novel writing? How do you nurture such a talent? "I always try to put myself in my characters’ mind – to literally become them when I am writing their scenes," says Gaynor. "I’m very interested in how people behave and what motivates them to act in a certain way. All good fiction has to transport the reader to a different place and has to create a connection between the reader and the character. I’m not sure how I nurture this exactly – I just always try to make my characters as authentic and compelling as I can."

In Gaynor’s novel, A Memory of Violets, the ultra-difficult lives of Victorian-era orphan girls is dramatized with an eye for period detail. While researching the book, did she discover material she desperately wanted to use but had to leave out? "With both my novels – and also with the new one I’m currently working on – there is a lot of research material left out of the finished book," she says. "This is the eternal dilemma of writing historical fiction: knowing what research to leave out (regardless of how much it might fascinate the historical geek in you), as well as knowing what to include." 

Did Gaynor’s view of human kindness or cruelty change while writing the novel? "I found the accounts of street life in Victorian England very harrowing to read," she says. "I hadn’t appreciated how unbearably harsh and unforgiving life was for the very youngest flower and watercress sellers, which made it all the more incredible to discover the true story of John Groom, who took it upon himself to help these young girls and take them off the streets. He made such a difference to their lives and it is wonderful to know that his legacy continues today under the charity, Livability. For all the cruelty in the world, there will always be someone who rises above and takes a different approach. It happened in Victorian London and it still happens today."


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