2 minutes with… Hazel GaynorPublished 26/10/2023
The Dublin Book Festival is fast approaching and as a part of our History Programme we are very excited to have the chance to have a chat with Hazel Gaynor about all things historical fiction and her brand new novel, The Last Lifeboat.
Hazel is an award-winning, New York Times, USA Today, and Irish Times bestselling author of historical fiction, including her debut The Girl Who Came Home, for which she received the 2015 RNA Historical Novel of the Year award. The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter was shortlisted for the 2019 HWA Gold Crown award and The Bird in the Bamboo Cage was shortlisted for the 2020 Irish Book Awards. The Last Lifeboat has just been shortlisted in the An Post Irish Book Awards, in the National Book Tokens Popular Fiction Book of the Year category. She is published in twenty languages and twenty-seven countries.
In many of your books you explore very particular time periods and tell stories set during real historical events. What is it about historical fiction that draws you to the genre?
Discovering forgotten stories and voices from the past is so fascinating, and it is such a joy and a privilege to reimagine these people and events on the page. Like all fiction, historical fiction aims to entertain, to provoke reaction and discussion, and to consider the world through someone else’s experience. Human emotions are evergreen, so regardless of the time and place, I aim to create characters who are relatable to contemporary readers. While conscious of not being constrained by the history – this is why I write historical fiction rather than factual history – I am always mindful of being respectful of the history and the people who lived through the events I am reimagining. Creating an authentic version of life from that era on the page is really important to me. I hope readers will be entertained and moved, and that they will finish the book feeling emotionally connected to my characters, while having also discovered a part of history they might not have been aware of.
How did you go about researching the novel?
I was interested in the history of WW2 evacuees and Operation Pied Piper, a mass evacuation campaign where children were sent away from Britain’s towns and cities at the outbreak of war in 1939. However, I wasn’t aware of overseas evacuations until I came across the phrase ‘seaevacuees’ in a historical document. Further research led me to an astonishing account of an evacuee ship travelling from Liverpool to Canada that was torpedoed in the Atlantic, and a lifeboat of survivors, lost at sea for eight days. This was the spark of the idea for The Last Lifeboat. I did a lot of broad research initially to help me understand the events surrounding overseas evacuation, and this phase of WW2, and continued researching finer details through every stage of the writing process (in this case over several years), right down to final edits. Much of my research isn’t written into the book but more informs my understanding of the place and time in order 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!
What was the most enjoyable thing about writing this novel? What was the most challenging?
The sense of confinement and claustrophobia in the lifeboat was particularly challenging to capture. To depict a sense of fear and helplessness, and to write every scene in the same confined setting while maintaining emotion and tension wasn’t easy, but I love a challenge! Reading survivor accounts from the actual lifeboat was incredibly helpful, as was reading other survival stories. I’m also terrified of deep water so I pulled on a lot of my own fears while imagining these scenes. I always enjoy discovering something new while I’m researching a book, and with The Last Lifeboat, it was Mass-Observation – a national social observation experiment carried out during WW2 when 500 ordinary men and women kept personal diaries of their experience of war in Britain. The diaries vary considerably in style and content and provide a fascinating insight into the thoughts, fears, emotions – and often dark humour – of the time. Any primary material like this is wonderful for a novelist.
What historical time period/moment would you have liked to live through yourself?
I’ve always thought the post-war eras of the 1920s and 1950s would have been fascinating times to live through, with a return to peace and freedom after so many years of war and restrictions, and the societal changes brought on by war, particularly for women. Also, these are my two favourite periods of fashion!
Can you tell me about another event during the Dublin Book Festival that you are looking forward to?
Naturally, I‘m drawn to the history events! The Lamplighters of the Phoenix Park talk sounds fascinating, and the event Asylum: Inside Grangegorman which looks at the lives of those who lived in the Richmond Lunatic Asylum at Grangegorman in 1814 has also caught my eye. Plenty of inspiration there for any historical novelist.
To hear Hazel discuss her new novel The Last Lifeboat further, along with two other fantastic historical fiction writers, Liz McManus and Mary Morrissy, come along to the Writing History event Saturday 11th November in the beautiful National Library of Ireland! TICKETS HERE