What is it about the tragedy of Titanic that still holds us in such a mesmerizing grip over a century after its collision with destiny in the North Atlantic? A multiplicity of novels and movies – as well as a haunting Broadway musical – have attempted to illustrate what life was truly like above and below decks during that fateful week in April, to reinforce the cavernous social divide between the haves and the have nots, and to capture snapshot instances of selfless courage and self-righteous cowardice during the ship’s final hours.
Perhaps we never tire of these stories because they cause us to examine our own values, to see in every character – both real and fictional – composites of people we actually know, and, as always, to speculate what might have happened to the multitudes who met their deaths that night had there been a tighter focus on safety rather than speed.
For her debut historical fiction novel, The Girl Who Came Home, author Hazel Gaynor was inspired by true events surrounding 14 Irish emigrants who boarded the extraordinary ship on a seemingly ordinary day in Spring.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: When was your interest and curiosity about Titanic first ignited and what inspired you to develop a story in which this tragedy was the central theme?
A: I was in my teens when the wreck of Titanic was discovered and I think that was significant in cementing my interest. I am drawn to so many aspects of the story: the Edwardian era, the 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 said I would 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. It was only in early 2011, after pursuing my writing seriously for several years, that I started doing detailed research, particularly into the Irish connection with Titanic. That was when I discovered the story of The Addergoole Fourteen, who left their small Irish community together to sail to America on Titanic.
Writing The Girl Who Came Home was both 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.
Q: What were some of the primary research tools and resources you used to so beautifully capture the costumes, dialects, social mores and, of course, details about the magnificent ship herself?
A: 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 in detail 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 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.
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. 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, nor the place, to be in any way sensationalist.
Q: What’s your favorite Titanic movie and why?
A: Although many historians and movie buffs have picked fault with it, I have to admit to being a fan of James Cameron’s 1997 epic. I first saw it on New Year’s Day in Sydney, Australia and cried from the moment it started. It was just so visually amazing and despite the typically over-the-top ‘Hollywood’ treatment of the event, I still love it as a movie.
Q: The intersection of fact and fiction is typically easier to orchestrate when one is dealing with a large-scale contingent of passengers and crew such as those on Titanic versus the Lewis and Clark expedition in which there were fewer than 40 people (plus a dog). Tell us about the decisions that went into making plausible your fictional characters’ interactions with real-life individuals such as Harold Bride, the ship’s junior wireless officer.
A: I started by making notes on each real-life individual I intended to feature, to ensure that I had their role in the event correct: where they would have been on the ship, what their level of ranking was, etc. I guess the joy of writing historical fiction is in imagining the conversations and interactions between people which – given what facts we know about them and the event – might credibly have taken place. When referencing real people, I made sure I stuck to the facts about them. For example, it would have been implausible to have Harold Bride talking to my steward, Harry, on the bridge, or in the First Class dining room, but by having their interactions take place in the Marconi radio room, where Bride and Philips were working, it is a more honest and authentic interaction. If it is done well, the intention with blending fictional and real-life characters would be to ensure that the reader isn’t focusing on who is real and who is imagined, but is simply immersed in the story.
Q: Were any of your fictional personalities composites of real individuals?
A: While The Girl Who Came Home was inspired by the true story of the Addergoole Fourteen, I knew it would be too confusing for the reader if I attempted to tell each of the fourteen passenger’s stories equally. That is why I decided to create just one central character, Maggie Murphy, who is actually an amalgamation of two of the youngest girls of the Addergoole group: Annie McGowan and Annie Kate Kelly. The addition of the character of Harry Walsh, the steward, was inspired by accounts of real stewards and also gave me a way in which to show the experience of those working on Titanic. The character Vivienne Walker-Brown is loosely based on the real passenger, actress Dorothy Gibson and provided a way to incorporate the experience of the First Class passengers as a contrast to the Irish group in steerage.
Q: In the aftermath of unspeakable tragedy, those who live often experience “survivor guilt” for the rest of their existence. From whence in her background did your protagonist, Maggie, draw her greatest strength and what lesson can that impart to your readers?
A: It was the story of a survivor and ‘survivor guilt’ that I was particularly interested in exploring in The Girl Who Came Home. Many survivor accounts did, indeed, reference their sense of guilt at the fact that they had been spared when so many others hadn’t. It is something which was also spoken of often after the 9/11 tragedy. I see Maggie as a spirited, resilient young girl who, over time, drew strength from the memory of those she had travelled with on Titanic. I imagined that she would have wanted to live her life in their memory – to ensure that she made the most of the life she had been given. Maggie came from a humble, Irish community where family was everything. In my mind, I believed that she would have learnt to live again through her own family – husband, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. I think we can all draw strength from the things which are closest to us and which we cherish the most – be that family or friends who we see every day, or through the memory of those we have loved and lost.
Q: Did you work from an outline or simply start writing and allow your characters to guide you as you developed the story from one chapter to the next?
A: 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 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 on the rescue ship Carpathia and once they arrived in New York. It was those aspects of the Titanic story which I felt were less 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.
Q: Why does the tragedy of Titanic and its passengers still resonate with us – and with you – a century later?
A: For me, Titanic is a very human story. Even for the casual observer, the sheer scale of the disaster is hard to comprehend: from the 2,207 individuals on board only 712 survived the sinking. From the 107 children and infants on board, 53 died in the tragedy and all of those children were travelling as third class passengers. I think there are many reasons for the enduring appeal of Titanic: the class divisions being played out so starkly, the elegance of the Edwardian era, the many possible reasons which have been given for the sinking, the fact that this happened at a time when radio communication was relatively new which made Titanic the first major news event of the 20th century, and the first to be broadcast around the western world. And, of course, it is also the opulence of the ship itself and the arrogance of those who made such bold claims as stating that the ship was unsinkable which also play a part in our continued fascination with the event.
Titanic also sank at the dawning of the film industry and the story has been told over and over again, Ultimately, Titanic was the most tragic of accidents. We simply cannot believe that this really happened; that such a huge vessel sank with such a devastating loss of life. Perhaps we are fascinated by the notion of what we would have done in those circumstances. Whatever the many and varied reasons for our fascination with her story, Titanic’s tragic allure will, undoubtedly, only grow stronger over time.
Q: What would fans of The Girl Who Came Home be the most surprised to learn about its author?
A: How lovely to think that my little book has fans! People have expressed their surprise that this is my first novel, which gives me great encouragement for writing more novels. Maybe others would be surprised to realise that the book was written at my laptop at the kitchen table in stolen moments between cooking the dinner, making Lego castles and playing football in the back garden! I am often surprised that it was ever written at all!
Q: Upon completion, did you attempt to pitch the book through traditional publishing channels or was self-publishing your objective from the start?
A: I am a traditionalist at heart and I did pursue a traditional deal with The Girl Who Came Home before turning to self-publishing. I was working with an agent in London at the time and when I told her I wanted to write a novel about Titanic she was very supportive, but did warn me that most publishers would have already bought their ‘Titanic’ novels by the time mine was ready to be pitched. I hadn’t realised, at the time, that 2012 would be the centenary year of the Titanic tragedy. In the end, the novel was only pitched to a small number of publishers in Ireland who, although being very complimentary about my writing, didn’t offer me a publication deal.
That was very nearly the end of the story. I had no intention of self-publishing and, as a debut author, felt anxious that if publishers didn’t think the book was ‘good enough’, then it probably wasn’t. For months and months I wondered: could I self-publish? Should I self-publish? With a Titanic novel in my hand and a huge media event of the Titanic centenary staring me in the face, there was really only one answer to my questions: Yes, I could and I should. I had the book edited, did some re-writes, had a wonderful cover designed and published the book though the Amazon KDP programme. It quickly became a No. 1 bestseller in the Kindle historical fiction lists and has gone from strength to strength ever since.
I still adore the physical book and bookshops and it is still my dream to find an agent who really believes in me and my writing and who can help me to secure a traditional publishing deal. For me, it is partly about gaining validity and credibility as an author and partly about gaining the professional experience of working with an experienced editor and a publishing house.
Q: Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, what’s your personal cure for it?
A: I think every writer suffers from writer’s block – or some form of it. For me, it usually happens at around 30,000 words when that first flourish of ‘new book creativity’ has been written down and I look at my work and doubt myself and wonder how on earth I am ever going to write another 70,000 words! My advice – go for a long walk. There is nothing like time away from the screen to clear the mind, to come up with plot solutions or to simply find the determination to keep going. I think at times of frustration and self-doubt, it is important to try not to keep looking at the impossibly distant summit, but to just keep putting one word in front of another.
Q: Rejection is a fact of life and yet it can teach us volumes about how to keep moving forward. To date, what’s the worst rejection you have ever received as a writer and how did you cope with it?
A: I think every rejection is the worst rejection! There is nothing harder than hearing that an agent or editor doesn’t feel that your work – which you have put blood, sweat, tears and several bottles of good wine into – just isn’t right for them, or for the market. With The Girl Who Came Home being my first novel, I did find the rejection very, very hard, especially when I saw lots of other writers around me securing publishing deals. In hindsight, it was the push I needed to find another way to get my work out there.
In a strange way, I have also found that some of the toughest rejections are the ones where an editor has been extremely complimentary about my work and has said that it was a very difficult decision for them to say no. It is so crushing to feel that you came ‘so close’ and are yet so far away! I don’t think I naturally have a thick skin, but I am certainly learning to toughen up and have taken an awful lot of confidence and determination from the success of The Girl Who Came Home.
Q: Who are some of your favorite authors and how has their storytelling style influenced your own writing?
A: I love everything written by Philippa Gregory, Rose Tremain, Tracy Chevalier and Sarah Waters. Their ability to create memorable characters, rich historical settings and incredible storylines is so inspiring. The plot twist in Sarah Water’s ‘Fingersmith’ is one I talk about all the time! Their writing inspires me to write better, to write more honestly, to not be afraid of tackling big historical events and to remember to write what you want to write – not what you think you should write. Someone in the publishing industry once told me that women don’t want to read books written in a male voice. I recently read Rose Tremain’s fabulous Restoration and Merivel – never has a male character been more brilliantly imagined or written – which just goes to show that opinions about what readers want can differ hugely!
Q: Do you write full-time? If so, tell us what a typical day is like for you. If you have a full-time job doing something else, what is it and how do you fit writing into your off-hours schedule?
A: I have two young children, so my writing is now based around their school hours. When I first started writing, and while I was writing The Girl Who Came Home most of my writing was done early in the morning before the children woke up, or late at night after they went to bed. Now I would consider myself a ‘part-time’ writer as my time is very much divided between writing and family life. I am very grateful to be able to work at something I love and still be at home for the children during these early years. I know that in the future I will be able to spend more and more time writing, but for now I have to split myself in two!
Q: What are you currently doing to develop your writing craft and hone your skills?
A: I read and read and read and can think of no better way to inspire myself and stretch myself as a writer. Reading gives me an insight into how other people write and reading brilliant books just makes me want to write better. I also maintain a regular blog of my own and also blog for a writing website. I also like to enter short story competitions when time allows. All of these things are helping me to flex my writing muscles in slightly different ways.
Q: In your opinion, are critique groups and social networking with other writers a valuable pursuit?
A: Absolutely! My whole writing career started by being inspired by two writing workshops I attended. It’s a great way to meet other writers, published authors, agents and publishers. Writing can be a very lonely, isolating existence – so I’d encourage anyone who is serious about writing to go to workshops, talks, book launches, festivals – anything to put them in contact with people in the industry. Social media also keeps me in contact with other writers and has been a great way to meet other writers and readers and to have those ‘water cooler’ moments from your own desk.
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: History has always fascinated me, and having finally found the confidence to tackle a major historical event in The Girl Who Came Home, I am very excited about writing further historical novels and have plenty of ideas. I completed my second novel Daughters of the Flowers at the end of 2012. It is, again, inspired by true events, this time surrounding orphaned flower sellers in Victorian London. Spanning several decades, Daughters of the Flowers tells the story of a young girl who is searching for her lost sister and a young woman who is searching for acceptance. I am literally waiting to hear back from several UK publishers as I type – fingers crossed! I am also making The Girl Who Came Home available in paperback (and hopefully in limited edition hardback) through Amazon Createspace. Details will be on my blog as soon as it is available.
Q: Where can readers learn more about you?
A: At my blog www.whimsandtonic.com or at my Facebook page or by following my tweets @HazelGaynor I also write a regular guest blog for National Irish writing website writing.ie and review books for Hello Magazine at blog.helloonline.com/offtheshelf. I love to hear from readers so please do get in touch!