Historical Fiction: Hazel Gaynor’s Titanic Novel – The Girl Who Came Home
Hazel Gaynor explains the intricacies of writing historical fiction for her Titanic novel.
Since 2009 Hazel Gaynor has developed a career as a successful freelance journalist and blogger. Her success blogging as Hot Cross Mum has been featured in The Sunday Times and she has also appeared on the “The morning Show” on TV3 and Newstalk radio. She’s now a resident blogger here on writing.ie where she passes on her tips on how to make a career of blogging. She is represented by agent Sheila Crowley of Curtis Brown. “The Girl who came home” is her first novel which she is releasing herself as an ebook.
Hello Hazel, it’s great to talk with you about The Girl who came home – A Titanic novel. In your introduction you say that “Writing a novel about Titanic is a very long held ambition of mine.” Tell us more about that.
I don’t have a grandfather who played in the band, a grandmother who was hoping to start a better life in America and I don’t come from any of the Titanic towns or cities. In fact, there is very little to connect me to the event at all – other than a long held fascination with the story of the unsinkable ship of dreams. I was in my teens when the wreck of Titanic was discovered and I remember being completely fascinated by so many aspects of the story: the Edwardian era, the unimaginable human tragedy, the stark divisions of social class and the remarkable chain of events which contributed to Titanic’s demise. It is simply beyond belief, and that is what makes it so fascinating.
For years I have said I will write a book about Titanic, but whenever it came to putting pen to paper (or fingers to typewriter) it was just far too daunting a prospect to tackle. Where to start? How would I ever do justice to the event? Would I ever be able to capture a sense of life aboard this amazing ship? It was only last year, after pursuing my writing seriously for two years, that I started doing detailed research, particularly into the Irish connection with Titanic.
Writing The Girl Who Came Home was a daunting and incredibly moving experience. For me, this wasn’t simply about writing a book – it was about understanding better a part of history, and doing justice to the memory of all those who lost their lives that night.
It’s obvious from The Girl who came home that a huge amount of research went into it, in particular the descriptions of the ship as well as the Irish and American settings are richly described. Tell us about your research on the Titanic and how you went about it?
Being such a huge event, and being the first real event to be broadcast in mass media, there is an incredible volume of information and detail available on Titanic. I researched and researched online and in press archives, right down to the smallest details of the cabins my characters slept in, the meals they ate aboard the ship and the songs they sang during their evenings. I spoke to members of The Addergoole Society who were extremely helpful. I watched the movie again. I listened to audio recordings of the survivors and watched incredible images of the Titanic setting out from Belfast and other footage of passenger’s relatives and friends massing outside the White Star Line offices on Broadway in New York when news of the disaster arrived. I studied Father Browne’s incredible photographs and read books about the disaster. I read survivor letters and newspaper articles. I was entirely immersed in Titanic’s story and rarely talked about anything else (much to the delight of my family and friends, I’m sure!).
Can you tell us the process you went through to tell a coherent story and not get bogged down in all the research notes and information you had gathered?
From the start, I had a very clear vision for the book; that it would be set in two periods of time: 1912 and 1982, but with the 1912 story taking up the majority of the narrative. Essentially, this was two stories running in parallel. I then mapped out loosely what would happen in each chapter; particularly how I would take Maggie and the group she was travelling with, from their village in Mayo to Cobh, what would happen when they were on Titanic, and what was happening to their relatives in Ireland and New York while they were at sea. I knew I wanted to capture the drama of the sinking, but that I also wanted to focus on the experience of the relatives awaiting news at home, and on what the experience was like for the survivors in the lifeboats and once they arrived in New York.
Once the structure of the chapters was in place, I wrote the story quite quickly, being careful to weave in my research details as I wrote. Although I had a mass of information to hand, and in my head, I would research specific details as I was writing that part of the book. For example, when I was writing about the experience in the lifeboats, I researched as I wrote. Again, when I wrote about the experience of the relatives waiting for survivors to disembark The Carpathia, I researched passenger accounts as I wrote. That way, I took each stage of the experience and each step, in turn – which prevented me from getting bogged down and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the story I was hoping to tell.
Tell us about the wonderful cover.
The cover was always going to be inspired by Titanic itself. For me, it was very important to have Titanic on the cover, but I also wanted to create a sense of ‘The Girl’ in the story. I wanted readers to know that this was a very human story – not just factual information about the ship. In searching for images of Titanic, I discovered that most of the well-known photographs are heavily copyrighted, so I then started to look at paintings of Titanic and found a wonderful Belfast-based artist, Jim McDonald. The style of Jim’s paintings was exactly what I had envisaged for the cover of my book. I contacted him and he very kindly gave me permission to use his painting ‘Maiden Voyage’ for the cover.
I then used the services of Andrew Brown at Design For Writers. Andrew was completely fantastic – he was extremely thorough in asking detailed questions to ensure he’d understood my brief fully, and gained a real sense of what I did – and didn’t – want my cover to look like. He really made me think about it! When he sent the first proof through I was absolutely delighted. He had created exactly the image I’d had in my mind. By adding the image of the girl to Jim’s wonderful painting, and the typeface and worn/aged effect, the cover had the haunting, emotional and personal feel I’d been hoping for.
The Titanic is a familiar story but your interweaving of the true life background of the Addergoole group made it particularly vivid and poignant. Tell us how you came upon the story of the Addergoole group and how you decided to base the novel around the group.
I knew I wanted to tell a very human story about Titanic, and that I was interested in exploring the aftermath for the survivors, and for relatives waiting back home. I was also particularly interested in the Irish passengers. One day, when I was studying the passenger manifests and press reports from the survivors, I came across information relating to Annie McGowan and Annie Kate Kelly. Realising then that they were part of a larger group who had travelled from Mayo, I searched for more information and came across the website for the Addergoole Titanic Society. I read a wonderful book about the group, which was written by Pauline Barrett, a descendant of one of the fourteen. I knew, immediately, that theirs was the story I wanted to tell.
While the main character is seventeen year old Maggie, your portrayal of the extended group, crew members and other passengers added great poignancy, interest and originality to this Titanic novel. What were the challenges writing wise in including such a large group of individuals, each with their own reasons for travelling to America?
I had to make notes on each character – fictional and real – to ensure that I had their role in the event correct. While my story is based around the true story of the Addergoole 14, I accepted that it would be confusing for the reader if I attempted to tell each of the fourteen passenger’s stories equally. That is why I focused on just one of the girls as the central character (my character, Maggie, is actually an amalgamation of two of the youngest girls of the Addergoole group), along with her Aunt and her two friends, who are depicted to a lesser extent. The addition of the character of Harry, the steward, gave me a way in which to show the experience of working on Titanic and the character Vivienne Walker-Brown (loosely based on the real passenger, actress Dorothy Gibson) provided a way to incorporate the experience of the First Class passengers as a contrast to the Ballysheen (Addergoole) group.
What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages for the novelist in basing their work around such a significant and well known event and having to interweave truth and fiction?
I think, from a research point of view, it is fantastic to have such a rich source of primary evidence as that which an event such as Titanic can provide. Such a well-known event also has an existing emotional appeal to potential readers, and they know – at least, in part – what the novel is about, which helps their purchasing decision. This has certainly helped with raising awareness of the book and generating publicity. Of course, there is always the worry that you have your facts straight, as there will – inevitably – always be someone just waiting to pick you up on your smallest of oversights. If James Cameron can admit to getting the odd thing slightly incorrect, then so can I!
Tell us about your writing process, over what period was the book written and what were the highs and lows?
The majority of the book was written in about four months – which I realise is very quick. Once I got started, it just seemed to flow out of me. I then edited and revised some of the structure over the following three months. The highs were when I had several hours of peace and quiet while my husband took the children swimming – the rest of the book was written in short bursts whenever I could grab the odd hour here and there, or early in the morning before anyone else woke up. I also wrote a fair chunk while I was on a flight to New York for my 40th birthday! As they say, take every available opportunity. The low was definitely getting the publisher’s rejection.
Does writing such a book require a particular kind of stamina and emotional resilience?
Writing historical fiction certainly requires commitment, passion and a real interest in the historical event. Researching for this book was an absolute labour of love; I would get lost for hours in the smallest of details and then spend hours telling my poor husband all about it! Of course, being such a tragic story, I often found myself becoming emotional. All the time I was writing, I was very aware of a sense of obligation to do justice to the memory of the people who lost their lives that night – and to those who suffered so much as a result of the trauma of the event. I was also conscious of the need to show sensitivity to the surviving descendants of the Titanic victims – this was neither the time, or the place, to be in any way sensationalist.
What do you hope your novel offers in terms of adding to the cultural record of the great 100 year old tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic?
Gosh – if I could think that my novel would add to the cultural record of Titanic in any way at all, I would be very likely to cry tears of joy! All I can really hope is that I have told one of the lesser known stories of Titanic with integrity, and with absolute respect for the real people upon whom it is based.
Do you think you will work again on a novel with such a central historic event? What are you currently working on?
I am absolutely hooked on history – and if the truth be told, I always was. I think, in the past, I was afraid to tackle historical events; they seem so daunting when a blank piece of paper is staring at you on the screen. But history has always fascinated me, and having finally found the confidence to tackle a major historical event, I am tremendously excited about writing further historical novels. I am already well underway with my next novel, which is based in Victorian/Edwardian London and is the continuation of a story which many of us know and love. That is all I am saying, for now!
Is there any particular advice you would give to new writers of historical fiction?
Go with your heart. If there is a period of history, a character or an event which you truly love, be brave and take the plunge. Having a real passion for your subject is guaranteed to keep you writing – even when you suffer from crushing self-doubt and crawl into bed at night wondering why on earth you ever started! Do your research, get your facts straight and then let your creative spirit weave its magic.
Alison Wells runs the Random Acts of Optimism blog and lives in Bray, Co. Wicklow with her husband and four children. Her short fiction been published in many magazines and online and print anthologies and she has been featured on Sunday Miscellany. Shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award, Bridport and Fish Prize's she has just completed a themed short story collection Random Acts of Optimism and a literary novel The Book of Remembered Possibilities. To read Alison's full blog, visit Head Above Water. Find out in her Random Acts of Optimism how she manages to juggle writing, children and life.