When I first noticed The Girl Who Came Home by Hazel Gaynor listed in Amazon’s historical fiction new books I wasn’t interested. I thought that the sinking of the Titanic was a topic that had just been done too often – books about it were everywhere as the centenary of the event approached. I had read Walter Lord’s account of the event when I was in my teens and I was very moved by it. So I didn’t think a novel could compete with that non-fiction book and I brushed past it in Amazon’s listings.
I don’t know what made me change my mind. Maybe the centenary documentaries on tv stirred my memories of how A Night To Remember had gripped me and re-kindled my interest in the Titanic. Or it may have been because I learned that the novel’s plot centred on Irish passengers aboard the ship and I am always drawn to books with an Irish connection. Whatever the reason I downloaded the novel and started to read – and I didn’t find it a well-worn story at all. The characters and the story ensnared me. The world one hundred years ago came alive and I enjoyed stepping back in time, even though the events unfolding were harrowing. Since I enjoyed the story, I’m pleased to welcome Hazel to Ascroft, eh? to answer a few questions about the novel. So shall we get started?
Tell us about your novel, Hazel.
HG: My novel is called The Girl Who Came Home and was inspired by true events surrounding a group of fourteen friends and relatives from a small, rural Parish in County Mayo, who travelled together on Titanic. The group is known locally as The Addergoole Fourteen. My novel tells the imagined story of one of the survivors and her great-granddaughter. It is, at its core, a story about love and hope in the face of adversity and, I hope, tells a less well known and very human side of the Titanic story.
What prompted you to write about this historical event?
HG: 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 Titanic 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 many 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. 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.
How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?
HG: In terms of the Titanic itself – its layout, journey, experience of passengers on board etc. – I stuck to the facts meticulously. Titanic’s size, opulence and passengers are so well documented and are so much a part of the Titanic story and legend that I obviously couldn’t change any of that. Also, I was terrified that a ‘Titanorak’ would spot a flaw in my description of the ship, the cutlery, the layout of the cabins that I was extremely painstaking in my research from that aspect of the story!
The story of Grace, the great-granddaughter in my novel, is entirely fictional and while I was inspired by the true story of The Addergoole Fourteen, and based my characters loosely on those individuals, including my heroine, Maggie Murphy, I added my own elements to their personalities and to their family lives and relationships.
What I found particularly interesting when researching the events surrounding the sinking of the Titanic was the less well known side of the event – the experience of relatives awaiting the arrival of the Carpathia in New York and the experience of survivors who were on board the Carpathia for several days and then had to spend days and weeks in hospitals in New York before making their onward journeys. I stuck closely to the facts when re-telling those parts of the story.
What research did you do for this book?
HG: 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 Titanic Society who were extremely helpful. I watched the movie again (of course!). 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!).
Do you use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel. If so, which is more difficult to write? Which to you prefer to write and why?
HG: I did use some historic figures – key individuals on Titanic – although my main characters were invented. I think it is perhaps easier to write a character you have imagined entirely as nobody can correct you or disagree with your depiction of them. When writing about an actual person, you are always very conscious of ‘getting them right’; of reflecting them accurately and credibly. I think I enjoy combining both real and imagined characters in my novels and considering how my imagined character may interact with a well-known historical figure. There is always, of course, scope to add your imagined conversations and emotions to a historical character – that is what makes a book historical fiction rather than just history.
When writing the novel, 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 Fourteen, 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 crew members 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.
In an historical novel you must vividly re-create a place and people in a bygone era. How did you bring the place and people you are writing about to life?
HG: 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 Queenstown, 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 this wasn’t the main focus of my story. I 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. It is this aftermath of the event which isn’t so well known.
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.
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!
There often seems to be more scope in historical novels for male characters rather than female characters. Do you prefer to write one sex or the other. And, if so, why?
HG: Actually, I disagree! I think there are some incredible historical women and, in fact, the dramatic change in the role of women over time provides great scope for a novelist. I am completely fascinated by discovering less well-known historical events and by people who may have been an interesting or influential character at the time they lived, but who may not yet be very well known as they haven’t caught the attention of historians.
I think I am naturally drawn to tell women’s stories – writing from the perspective of a woman in the early 19th century, for example, challenges a writer in 2012 to totally change your mind-set as women’s roles and attitudes were so very different. Also, I grew up reading Jane Austen and the Brontes, so I think I am possibly influenced by their incredible heroines and, even though they wrote memorable male characters, it is the women in those novels who really stand out for me. If I could emulate them, even just a little, I would be a very, very happy writer!
Thanks for answering my questions so thoroughly, Hazel. It’s obvious that your subject matter fascinated you and you put a lot of work into writing this book. I think there’s no better way to create an engaging story that readers will remember. The success your novel has already had in the short time since it was released is well deserved.
About Hazel Gaynor: Hazel 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, and has appeared on TV and radio.
Her debut novel The Girl Who Came Home – A Titanic Novel was self-published in March 2012 and went on to become a number one bestseller on the Kindle Historical Fiction and Historical Romance charts. Staying with her passion for historical fiction, Hazel has just completed her second novel, set in Victorian London, for which she hopes to find a publisher very soon!
Hazel now writes a book review blog for Hello Magazine as well as guest blogging and writing regular features for writing.ie and interviewing guest authors, most recently Philippa Gregory and Sebastian Faulks.
Originally from North Yorkshire, Hazel has lived in Kildare, Ireland for the past seven years with her husband and two young children. She was the recipient of the Cecil Day Lewis Literary Bursary for Emerging Writers in October 2012 and is represented by Sheila Crowley of Curtis Brown, London.