If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know I adore epistolary novels, and now I have a new one to share with you.
Last Christmas in Paris by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb has just hit bookshelves and it’s a don’t-miss historical novel set during World War I that follows Evie Elliot through her personal experiences and correspondences, mostly with her brother’s best friend, Thomas Harding. I’ll be honest, there were times I forget this was fiction and that I wasn’t just reading old letters someone had discovered in an attic.
It’s a layered story, deftly handled, and when I think it was written by two authors, not one I’m intrigued and impressed.
I think you will be too!
Please welcome Hazel and Heather to WFW!
Author Interview Heather Webb and Hazel Gaynor on LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS
Amy: Heather and Hazel, I’m so excited because this is truly a two-fer! One, I loved Last Christmas in Paris, and two, I get to interview two authors!!
H & H: Thank you for both, Amy! You’re very generous with other authors!
Amy: Let’s start at the very beginning. How did you meet?
H & H: We were first introduced through our mutual agent in 2013. She thought we’d hit it off and could help each other navigate the dangerous publishing waters together as debut authors. She was so right! We’ve become great friends.
Amy: Would you share with us the journey of deciding to write this novel together?
H & H: Sure! We were acquaintances for a couple of years before we collaborated in 2015 on the WWI anthology, Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War. In writing that book, we realized we shared not only a love of history and writing, but a sense of humor, family life, and a love of good food and wine. We also both felt there was more we wanted to write about WWI and a frantic brainstorming session quickly led to the idea of writing a book together. But how? Especially when you factor in the added complication of us living on different continents and working in different time zones. An impossible task? Perhaps on paper. But we were ready to take up the challenge.
Amy:You’re both historical fiction authors — well, I’m dipping in my toes with a historical element in my fourth novel. What about the time period of WWI drew you to it? What draws you to any particular time in history enough to write a novel about it? Is it a person, a place? (Feel free to share examples and name your other books)
Heather: I first became interested in WWI in my Early Twentieth Century French Literature class in college–sounds riveting, I know, but it really was! That interest festered somewhere in the background for me because there were so few books published set during that time and few television shows or films…it sort of faded away. Until Downton Abbey. That amazing show blazed onto center stage and it all flooded back for me. Its popularity spurred a whole new wave of novels set during this incredibly important period of history. An era filled with inventions and women’s rights and the complete dismantling of society’s structured class system. Oh, and the clothes! THE CLOTHES! I wish we still dressed like this. This wave of renewed interest sparked the idea for Fall of Poppies as mentioned above.
In terms of what draws me to a period in general? I have my favorites– French Revolution, and 1850s up through WWI (the Romantic era, followed by the Gilded Age and Edwardian era)—but I can be sold on any era if there’s a great story and a great character at hand. I’m a real sucker for interesting facts that stand out because of their oddity or beauty, or those that surprise modern readers.
Setting and a sense of place, or belonging (or not belonging!) is a huge theme in my novels. In my novel Becoming Josephine, we have a young woman who leaves her poor sugar plantation in the Caribbean for the erudite salons of Paris. Talk about a fish out of water! I really enjoyed depicting her rise to empress of France, and all the detailing that went into constructing the French Revolution on the page. In my second novel, Rodin’s Lover, we have a young sculptress who leaves her country home for Paris to make her way in the male-dominated art world. Paris was the place to be as an artist during the Gilded Age, or as the French call it, the Belle Époque. Again, I show a woman questioning her worth and identity in circles she doesn’t seem to be able to fit into. I guess you could say, I’m inspired both by location/era and also by ordinary people doing extraordinary things in the past that lay the groundwork for our present day. My current work in progress is set in 1900 U.S., and these themes—along with finding trust and love—are prevalent once again.
Hazel: It’s funny because WW1 had never really appealed to me as a writer, mostly because I associated it with military battles and trenches and a very male experience, but in writing my 1920s set novel The Girl From The Savoy, I had to research the war to understand how ordinary young women and men had been affected by it and to give my characters an authentic back story. At the same time, Heather approached me about Fall of Poppies so the two projects soon had me fully immersed in the war and I found it fascinating. So much so that I wanted to write about it in more depth – as did Heather. Cue, Last Christmas In Paris! WW1 was such a life-changing event and it offers a very powerful starting point for a novel.
I partly covered the war again in my other current release, The Cottingley Secret, because while the novel is about a famous hoax concerning photographs of fairies, the events of the novel take place in England during 1917-1921, so again, it was important to acknowledge the impact the war had on my characters.
My novels are mostly set within the past 100 years and it is always a real historic event, or place which first inspires me. For example, I’ve written about the Titanic (The Girl Who Came Home), flower sellers in Victorian London (A Memory of Violets) and the roaring ’20s (The Girl From The Savoy). Historical fiction requires a deep passion for the subject in order to do the necessary research to lend your writing authenticity. I absolutely love it!
Amy: I am a fool for epistolary novels. What was the biggest challenge in writing a novel in letters?
H & H: There were two big challenges. One, it was difficult to explain events happening around the characters in the midst of war without going off on a long jag of information that feels dumped and unnatural in the midst of the story. Two, pacing is crucial in any novel and we had to figure out how to build a climax without properly fleshed out scenes. We’re hoping we managed it well!
Amy: I’m sure you’ve answered this a gazillion times, but what was your process for writing his novel as a team?
H & H: Hazel would wake up in Ireland and pen a letter or two from her character. Several hours later, Heather would wake in the U.S. to find mail in her inbox, and write a reply from her character, and so on. We’ve often described it as waking up to a writing prompt each day. The process felt very organic, and the story flowed. Editing, on the other hand, was a more tricky operation. We used comment bubbles and colored fonts to track our changes, and somehow, with plenty of Skype chats and coffee, it all came together.
Amy: What’s your best advice for aspiring authors, or maybe sometime new to writing historical fiction (self-serving question, for sure).
Heather: My best advice for new writers is to take your time to get it right. We feel all of this pressure to rush and submit our work for validation. That rush short-changes us in the long run. Write, rewrite, work with critique partners. Get as many eyes on your work as possible. Read like crazy and STUDY what you read, Dissect it like a science experiment. Why does it work? How can you replicate this technique? Also, if you become frustrated with your work in progress, put it aside awhile and let it stew. Work on something new. You’ll find you learn best by working on more projects, over longer periods of time. Remember that writing is a skill, just like playing a guitar. Time and practice are key. You can’t rush it or it’ll sound like crap.
Hazel: My advice is to finish what you start. The world is littered with abandoned novels. We all struggle after that first flurry of excitement. You just have to push on through! Also, I encourage aspiring authors to understand that in the first draft you are telling yourself the story, so don’t worry about making it perfect. Subsequent drafts (of which there will be many!) are where you do the real writing, restructuring and polishing. Just get that first draft down so you have something to work with. And enjoy it. A debut novel is the only novel you will write without a deadline or distraction of other books to promote. Throw your heart and soul into it and it will shine through on the page.
Hazel Gaynor is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Girl Who Came Home and A Memory of Violets, and the recipient of the RNA Historical Novel of the Year award 2015. Her latest novel, The Cottingley Secret, released this summer. She lives in Ireland with her husband and two children. For more information, find her at: www.HazelGaynor.com, or @hazelgaynor on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
Heather Webb is the nationally acclaimed author of historical novels Becoming Josephine and Rodin’s Lover. In 2015, Goodreads selected Rodin’s Lover as a Top Pick. To date, her novels have sold in multiple countries, worldwide. In addition to novel writing, Heather enjoys working with aspiring writers as a professional freelance editor. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society and lives in New England with her children and husband, and one feisty rabbit. For more information, find her at: www.HeatherWebb.net, or @msheatherwebb on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.