There is something quite irresistible about Hollywood in the 1920s: the decadence, the silent movies, the glitz and the impossible glamour exuded by those iconic stars of the silver screen. So, when Daisy Waugh’s latest novel Melting the Snow on Hester Street arrived, resplendent in its sepia-toned jacket sleeve and Art Deco font, I was already hooked.
I knew Daisy Waugh. Not personally, but through reading her Waugh Zone column in the Sunday Times. I was intrigued by the premise of her new novel, which is set around the heady lifestyle of Hollywood’s elite during the last days before the Great Crash of 1929, but which also visits a darker, harsher side to life in 1920s America.
I spoke to Daisy on a rainy Tuesday afternoon when, above the noise of hailstones on the attic window in Ireland and thunderclaps in London, she told me about her love of the silent movie era, her inspiration for the novel and why she really doesn’t like writing first drafts!
‘I prefer to write a story set in the sunshine,’ she laughs. ‘Of course, I love the glamour and elegance of the era and the opportunities it offered. When I was writing Last Dance with Valentino I learnt all about high society during the period of the early 20th century, but it was also while researching that novel that I learned about the devastating Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911, in Manhattan. One hundred and forty-six workers were killed in the fire. I wanted to explore that event and contrast it with the glitz of Hollywood.
In the novel, Waugh deals with many aspects of 1920’s America – the stock market crash, the factory fire, the ambition and bluster of Hollywood studios and the experience of young migrant workers, struggling to make a living in Manhattan. She explains how she carries out her research. ‘As a journalist, I’m obviously interested in newspaper reports. All the newspapers in America covered the factory fire, but Randolph Hearst’s papers wouldn’t let the issue go and campaigned for improvements in law to make workplaces safer. In terms of location, I visited Hearst Castle which was an amazing experience. I was actually writing the first chapter of the book when I visited Hearst Castle. It’s always fascinating to visit a place which you’ve held in your imagination for so long.’
Coming from a busy career, I asked Daisy how she juggles her work commitments, and how her journalism complements her writing. ‘I think the discipline of journalism is a great basis for writing a novel. Journalism teaches you not to waste words, to impress your readers and to keep it entertaining. Of course, fiction opens things out and presents more questions. It is a much more liberating form of writing.’
This is Waugh’s seventh novel. I wanted to know if it gets any easier. ‘I’m definitely not in the same panic when I write a novel now,’ she laughs. ‘I know it will get done – somehow! My first novel was harder – you get more skilled as you write more often. Of course, you hope you get better with each novel you write. It takes a weird amount of drive and ambition to complete a novel and you can always look back and can see places where you can get better; places where you can remove weaknesses. It’s only natural to want to get better – and better.’
Within the opening chapters of the novel, we meet a wonderful array of Hollywood stars: Marion Davies, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Douglas Fairbanks and Greta Garbo, to name a few. I asked Daisy whether she found it difficult to incorporate so many famous people into the story – to give them words and thoughts? ‘We all interact with people and I find it fascinating to wonder what these people would have really thought and meant. I build a character by their actions and I colour the rest of it in with imagination. I read a huge amount about the people I included in the novel and, in just the same way you do with anyone you meet, I developed an impression of them. They are not one-dimensional. Sometimes you might be completely wrong, of course and that is the challenge with writing historical fiction – there is always the vague possibility that you may be doing someone an appalling disservice! But, I hope I’ve made them sound pretty attractive. I enjoy the process of taking superstars and making them that little bit more ordinary.’
With so many strings to her writing bow, I asked Daisy where she does her writing. ‘At the moment, I write a lot in Kensington Library. I’m quite a nomadic writer. I get restless. I don’t like to feel that I’m stuck somewhere, so I move around. Writing is a lonely job. It can be hard to keep forcing yourself to write and that first draft is so painful, but you just have to get on with it. There’ always the temptation to spend ages rewriting the same passage because a blank page is an exhausting thing. In this first draft phase, I go away and sit somewhere in a room on my own and force myself to write all day without any distractions – no children, no internet, nothing. It’s not a great deal of fun, but it just has to be done and the rewriting is much more enjoyable. It’s fun to make your first attempts better. I also do a lot of running, which helps.’
As she says in the back of the book, ‘about twice a year I take my laptop abroad to be alone (like Greta Garbo). It is astonishing how much work you can do when there are no practical distractions.’
It was a pleasure to chat to Daisy. Her love of writing, sense of humour, hard work and passion for the era she is writing about shone through – despite the hail and the thunder!
About Melting the Snow on Hester Street
October 1929: As America helter-skelters through the last days before the Great Crash, the cream of Hollywood parties heedlessly on.
Society couple, Max and Eleanor, let the prohibition champagne flow as the glittering façade of their marriage teeters on the brink. As the stock market tumbles they have nowhere to fall but into the arms of their waiting lovers.
Hope is delivered in an invitation to one of the absurdly glamorous and legendary house parties at Hearst Castle, the epitome of decadence.
With gossip swirling, the time has come for Max and Eleanor to make a decision. Either they sacrifice everything for fame and fortune or they plunge into the past and grasp one last chance to love each other again.
About Daisy Waugh
Daisy Waugh is a novelist, columnist and journalist. She has worked as an agony aunt, a restaurant critic and a general lifestyle columnist for many years – most recently for the Sunday Times. She writes a monthly column for the magazine Standpoint, and has worked for radio and TV.
Her last two novels, Last Dance With Valentino and Melting the Snow on Hester Street, are set in silent era Hollywood, and so is the novel on which she is currently working. She has also written a non-fiction book about the absurdities and indignities of modern motherhood, called I Don’t Know Why She Bothers (Guilt Free Motherhood For Thoroughly Modern Women).
She lives in London.
See more at www.daisywaugh.co.uk, follow Daisy on Twitter @dldwaugh or find her on Facebook.com/daisywaughauthor
(c) Hazel Gaynor
Hazel Gaynor runs writing.ie‘s Carry on Writing blog and is an author and freelance writer. She started writing when she left her corporate career in March 2009; initially focusing on her award-winning parenting and lifestyle blog, Hot Cross Mum. She has since gone on to write regularly for the national press, has appeared on TV and radio and writes a book review blog for Hello Magazine as well as guest blogging and writing regular features for writing.ie.
In March 2012, Hazel self published her debut novel ‘The Girl Who Came Home – A Titanic Novel’ , which quickly went on to become a no.1 bestseller on Kindle and was recently made available in paperback format through Amazon Createspace. The Girl Who Came Home will be republished by William Morrow (HarperCollins) in April 2014, with Hazel’s second novel ‘Daughters of the Flowers’ to follow in early 2015.
Originally from North Yorkshire, Hazel now lives in Kildare with her husband and two children. She was the recipient of the Cecil Day Lewis Literary Bursary for Emerging Writers in October 2012 and appeared at Waterford Writer’s Weekend in 2012 and 2013.
Hazel is represented by Michelle Brower of Folio Literary Management, New York.