Hazel Gaynor has long been fascinated with Grace Darling, the Northumbrian heroine who, in 1828, risked her life to rescue the survivors of a shipwreck. She learned about her in primary school.
“Grace’s story had everything,” says Hazel. “A shipwreck, a lighthouse and a Victorian heroine. There she was in her Victorian skirts, rowing out in a storm. As a young girl I found that fascinating.” There was the connection with the Royal National Lifeboat Association too. “My mum used to collect for them, around our village in East Yorkshire.”
As a historical novelist, Hazel is always looking for ideas; and she thought about writing Grace Darling’s story some years ago, but could never find an angle.
“I didn’t know how to bring her to life and weave a novel around the story.”
In order to get a feel for this, Hazel spent a weekend in the lighthouse on Wicklow Head.
“I took my husband and kids in 2016. There are 190 stairs from the door to the galley kitchen at the top, and I’ve since heard that its haunted by a headless woman who was jilted by her lover.” She shivers. “It’s lucky I didn’t know that then. I’m not a good ghost person.”
She also visited the museum in Bamburgh, and stepped into the Longstone Lighthouse, looking out of the window in Grace Darling’s bedroom to get a feel of her life there. And through all this research, she learned that Grace had enjoyed a romantic dalliance with one of the artists, who, in the wake of the rescue had rowed out to paint her portrait.
“That made her human to me,” says Hazel, as we discuss her latest novel, The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter over coffee. “She was only 22 when she performed the epic rescue, and she died when she was twenty-six, so had a short span in the public eye. That, for me, elevated the story. She had desire, and a conflict of duty to her father and the lighthouse over her heart.
“Her story led me to Ida Lewis, known as the American Grace Darling. Through her I read a history of female lighthouse keepers all around the coast of America. I had never thought it a female job, because it was so physical, with all the hefting of coal and oil.”
That gave the idea for a second strand for her novel. She invented an Irish girl, Matilda, who in 1938, pregnant and unmarried, is sent away to stay with her aunt, a lighthouse keeper in Newport, Rhode Island.
“I wanted Matilda’s story to echo Grace’s a hundred years later.”
It has become a feature in Hazel’s writing to blend a factual story with a fictitious one; and many of the characters she uses in The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter are based on real people. Grace’s family all appear; as does Robert Smeddle – the pushy Chief Agent, who stirred up media interest in Grace Darling, and printed her letters in the newspaper. But how accurate does a novelist need to be?
“I take my research seriously,” she says. “I look at known facts. Obviously, I create imagined conversations and emotions, but I’ll always stay within the setting.
“Sarah Dawson, the only woman Grace rescued was real. She stood out to me. There’s no record of her, so I interpreted her life as it might have been. I imagined how Grace, as a young woman, felt rowing back to the lighthouse with Sarah, but having to leave the dead bodies of Sarah’s children’s behind. And how she comforted that poor, poor, woman. I developed the relationship between them because they were both courageous, strong women.”
Writing is now Hazel’s fulltime job. She writes at home in County Kildare, whilst her sons, Max and Sam are at school.
“There are days, like in any job, that you are not in the mood, and there is other stuff going on, but I love going into the worlds, and the research intrigues me. I love discovering lost voices.”
Hazel has six novels to her name, but it was a long road to publication. Giving up a corporate career to spend more time with her husband, Damian, and her sons, she needed money. After being inspired at a writer’s workshop in Dublin, she started a blog called Hot Cross Mum.
“I wrote about leaving the boardroom and being at home with two young kids, and I wrote articles for the Irish Independent and the Leinster Leader.”
She also wrote a novel – one that now resides under her bed.
“It was my learning book and was contemporary women’s fiction. It was with agent Sheila Crowley, but I remember feeling anxious that a yes would come back. I was naïve, but worried that that novel would start my career. In my head I wanted something more historical.”
When Hazel decided to write a book based on the Titanic, Shelia warned her that the timing was wrong. This was 2011, a year before the centenary of the disaster, and all the books about the Titanic had already been written and sold. Hazel wrote it anyway, and, when Sheila couldn’t sell it, ended up self-publishing.
It sold well on Kindle, but when Sheila Crowley still failed to sell either that, or Hazel’s second book, A Memory of Violets, the two, amicably, parted company. It was an all time low. Hazel was at the point of giving up, and trying to do something else, when she received an email from the American agent Michelle Brower, who had read the Titanic novel, titled, The Girl Who Came Home, on Kindle, and asked if she could represent her.
“She sold both books to William Morrow in New York. That was 2014. I’d left work in 2009, and between times there was a lot of angst and lack of confidence.”
The Girl who Came Home made the New York Times bestseller lists and went on to win the Romantic Novelist’s Association Historical Novel of the Year in 2015. Hazel has now written a book a year for five years, and, as if that wasn’t prolific enough, has teamed up with American writer Heather Webb to collaborate on historical novels. The first, Last Christmas in Paris, came out last year and has won a 2018 Women’s Writer’s Association Star Award.
“Michelle Brower introduced me to Heather, and we immediately hit it off. We have the same mindset.”
The duo have just returned from a few days of high living on the riviera, putting the last pieces of research together for their forthcoming novel, Meet Me in Monaco, based around the wedding of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier. In the process of completing the manuscript, Hazel is looking forwards to penning her next solo project.
“I’m exploring World War Two from a non-European perspective,” she says, but demurs when I ask her to be more specific. “It’s a secret!
“All the time I’m promoting this book, and finishing meet Me in Monaco, the new book is talking and talking. It’s like, ‘I know you’re there. I’m coming!’ This percolation time is important,” she says. “It’s the time to get to know your characters.”
Currently out of contract, Hazel hopes to continue writing historical fiction well into the future.
“I’m now known for writing historical fiction about strong women, with two timelines. That’s where my heart is. There are so many stories I want to write, and I feel I’m getting better, as one should. I’ve an understanding of the craft. I’m challenging myself and hope to be writing for a very long time.
“But first, I want to scoop my family up and go away to hide! Damian, Max, Sam and I are heading to the Aran Islands to go glamping – with huts on a beach. I’ve been all over the place with the promotions and research, and now we’ll get away and just walk. That’s what we do.”
The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter by Hazel Gaynor. Harper Collins: €14.99. Kindle: €4.67.
Published in The Irish Examiner 22nd December, 2018
© Sue Leonard. 2018