Fresh Eggs and Dog Beds 2 – Still ‘Living the Dream’ in Rural Ireland

Nick Albert photo

Can complacency with one’s comfort zone and the status quo cause us to miss out on potential adventures that are literally far from “home?” “Yes, I believe so,” says multi-published author Nick Albert. “Certainly it’s easy to get so stuck in the rut of modern life as to miss the opportunity to explore, but it’s important to realize adventure is largely a matter of perspective. Many people would consider taking a flying lesson as a great adventure but, for the instructor, it’s just another day at work.” Nick’s own perspective change helped him as a writer to recognize the adventure that is all around.  “Some people may call it Mindfulness. For me, it’s just a way of looking for the positive story hidden in everyday events. Viewed from the right perspective, life is one big adventure.”

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett


Q: Many an aspiring author has decided to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) following a life-changing experience which caused him/her to rethink perspectives and priorities. Was this the case for you?

A: I suppose the short answer is yes. However, things are seldom that simple. In retrospect I can recognize the succession of events which contributed to our overall feeling of discontentment with our lifestyle in England. Sometimes we get so focused on the task at hand, making a living, paying the bills and trying to save a little money that we completely forsake the pleasure of living. We were so busy playing the game, we forgot to stop and smell the flowers. Like water pressure building behind a dam, events were conspiring, each causing little cracks to widen until the dam crumbled.

Although our life was outwardly wonderful – I had a great job, a lovely home, a desirable car and so on – my wife and I couldn’t get away from the feeling it was all just window dressing, a meaningless sham. Then, within a few short months, I experienced several upsetting events. My father passed away, a close friend was killed in a car crash, another friend was diagnosed with brain cancer and several thousand of my workmates were made redundant. When I had my own health scare, I found my perspective had changed irrevocably. That change in perspective jump-started a sequence of decisions culminating in my wife and I beginning a new life here in rural Ireland.

Did I decide to put pen to paper because of what happened? No. I’ve always been a writer. My first book, “The Adventures of Sticky, The Stick Insect,” was completed when I was eight. Just five pages long and sprinkled with spelling errors, it was not a big hit with the critics. Undaunted, over the next 35 years I continued to write, gradually developing my skills, but not my spelling. What moving to Ireland gave me was space. At last I had the time I needed to write.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of relocating to rural Ireland? And the easiest?

A: In fairness, we weren’t trying to land on the moon, but I suppose the logistics of getting all my ‘ducks’ lined up was the most challenging aspect. There were so many things which needed to happen in the correct order. It was frustrating trying to communicate with banks, lawyers and property inspectors remotely, particularly as the vendor was in South America and only contactable via a weekly fax message. Fortunately, I’m passionate about making lists and keeping track, so when things went awry I was able to react quickly. In the end, I moved over and rented a cottage until we flopped gratefully over the finish line.

The easiest part of the move? One word, commitment. Once we had made the choice to relocate to Ireland, there was never a moment when we doubted the decision. That kind of clarity in our lives was very refreshing. Considering the relocation and then the huge project of renovating the property without any previous experience, I believe I’ve realized that, with patience, tenacity, careful research and a lot of planning, you can pretty much achieve anything. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to do it all over again though. Once is definitely enough – at least for now.

Q: Along with your latest release, you’ve written two comedy memoirs, a twisty thriller, a children’s book and a golf instruction book. Shouldn’t you just pick one horse and ride it?

A: Is that a law? I don’t think so. If you’ve got a story to tell, and you know your stuff, don’t let protocol hold you back.

Q: So how do you cope with writing for such diverse audiences?

A: Wear a different hat perhaps? I guess it’s a bit like method acting. I just listen for the internal dialog I hear when I’m telling a story or a joke. As a qualified golf coach, when I write about that subject, it’s very much as if I’m giving someone a lesson. The same principle applies to my other works. The humorous sections in the Fresh Eggs and Dog Beds series sound very similar to how I tell jokes and the thriller has the same tension and misdirects I would use if I were telling that tale. By the way, there is only one copy of the children’s book. I wrote it for my grandson, he seems to like it.

Q: Plotter or pantser?

A: I’m definitely a plotter. Before I start writing any book, I create voluminous lists and flowcharts. It’s a long and arduous process but essential to create the framework for my story. Once the fingers are flying and the words flowing, I can permit my butterfly mind to occasionally flit off-track, secure in the knowledge I will never lose my way. Having a plan isn’t restrictive, quite the opposite, it encourages creativity. When I was writing Wrecking Crew, there were a couple of times when I was astonished by an event that just popped into my head, particularly as it slotted perfectly into the storyline. About halfway through the book, the protagonist Eric Stone opens the trunk of a car and there was… well, I won’t spoil the surprise. I recall sitting back in astonishment as I really had no idea what was about to happen. Of course, it was just my imagination running along ahead, something that could only happen because it had a clear path to follow.

Q: How does writing a thriller like Wrecking Crew differ from the process you would follow for one of your memoirs?

A: Writing memoirs need strict adherence to a good timeline, particularly for me, otherwise it is all too easy to jump about chronologically and that can become very confusing for the reader. My timelines are usually dozens of pages of A4 covered in scribbled notes and yellow post-it’s. It can take months to get all the events in the correct order. Usually my notes are just single-line memory triggers, meaningless to anyone but me.

For a thriller like Wrecking Crew and the follow up, Stone Façade, which is still under construction, I made a storyboard with detailed notes about each scene including links to important events in the overall plot. When you are trying to slip clues into the narrative to help or sometimes misdirect the reader, it’s crucial to have a clear plan. Thriller writing requires a considerable amount of research,  particularly when the storyline touches on areas that are outside of the author’s experience. Google Earth and the internet is now a great resource for geographical research (and a real money-saver) but sometimes there is no substitute for getting hands-on. As part of my research for Wrecking Crew, I took a course in lock-picking as I knew it was a skill my protagonist would need to demonstrate. In the end, much of that scene ended up on the cutting room floor but it wasn’t for a lack of quality research.

Q: Do you allow anyone to read your work while it’s in progress?

A: I share every chapter and here’s why. I’m very consistent, so if I make an error the chances are I’m just going to keep repeating it. To my mind, it’s far better to have a reliable eye watching over me and picking up any problems before it’s too late. I would hate to get off-track and not find out until I’ve wasted 120,000 words. Trust me, it happens.

In Zoe Marr, I’m very fortunate to have access to a wonderful editor. She’s based in New Zealand and I’m on the other side of the world here in Ireland. That time difference works to our mutual advantage. At the end of my working day I can email her a chapter or two, secure in the knowledge her edits and helpful comments will be waiting for my attention just after breakfast. It’s a great way to work.

Q: How did you go about finding the right publisher for your work?

A: I began looking for a publisher at about the time the industry began this seismic shift away from the traditional publishing model, brought about by the success of Lulu and Amazon as publishing platforms. At first I approached several agents along with those few publishers who were still accepting direct submissions. All I got in return was silence or cold boilerplate rejection letters. As someone who accepts refusal about as well as a child in a sweetshop, I found it all very depressing. However, when I saw J.K.Rowling (writing as Robert Galbraith) had experienced the same issue, I began to feel a bit less discouraged. Eventually I ran out of patience and opted for the self-published approach using the Amazon platform.

Over the next few years, I continued to make submissions, but now I had a better offering – a proven track record of sales, hundreds of great reviews and a solid social media presence. Finally, I received an offer to publish. In fact I had four within just six months. Suddenly, I had a dilemma. As a successful self-published author, what had I to gain from signing a contract to publish?

Most of the publishers were essentially offering to do what I was already doing but charge me a fee for the privilege. They were reticent to talk about marketing strategy, budgets or anticipated revenue, but were expecting me to sign over the artistic rights to my work. I chose to sign with Ant Press precisely because they were different. To begin with, they don’t sign books, they sign authors. Secondly, they have considerable experience publishing memoirs, so they really know their stuff. Thirdly, they asked me to make changes to my manuscripts – a lot of changes.

At that time I had two completed manuscripts, totaling almost 200,000 words. Ant Press asked me to make so many changes, it made my head spin. Even so, I was impressed they had such courage in their convictions. For a month we had robust but amicable discussions about what a new series of books would look like. I even rewrote a couple of chapters to see if I was comfortable with the stylistic changes they were proposing. Finally, we were in agreement and I became an Ant Press author. It was a proud day for me. I have no regrets.

Q: Where do you see the publishing industry moving in the next 10-20 years?

A: I see a lot of similarities between publishing and the film business just now. Since the financial crash, it feels like both industries have ceded editorial control to accountants. Whereas before the occasional blockbuster/bestseller supported the less financially successful, but equally important, remainder of their portfolios, now every book or film has to be a huge moneymaker. The financial pressures must be huge. I think this is why we’re seeing so many film remakes and sequels like, “The new blockbuster movie starring (insert famous name here)”. With both industries, this shift in focus has created some terrific opportunities for someone to come in and fill the void. Suddenly, we have Netflix, Sky and Amazon video producing exclusive content. Some of it is world class. The same thing has happened in publishing.

New technologies like Audible, Kindle and print on demand have created almost unrestricted routes to market for authors and modern cloud-based publishers. But, just like the internet, there’s a downside to this new freedom. The lack of editorial control on these platforms is degrading the market, swamping us with so many new books – many of them of questionable quality or subject matter – that it’s becoming difficult for customers to find what they want. I’ve read that 800-1,000 new books a day are published on the Amazon platform alone, with some genres becoming saturated. If the idea of self-publishing was to make it easier for aspiring authors to be seen, it’s close to failure. But there is some hope.

Much like the film and TV business, I think publishing will move further away from the traditional arrangement, work through this messy transitional phase and settle on a stovepipe model of quality exclusive content. Perhaps in the future we’ll see a Netflix sister company called Netbooks, asserting editorial control and producing top quality books and screenplays, written by their stable of authors and delivered exclusively to your device. Whatever happens, I’m confident the future will be exciting.

Q: If we were to take a peek at the bookshelves of your younger self, what might we have found there?

A: Hundreds of books piled chaotically. I was, and still am, a veracious reader, it’s an absolute must for any aspiring author. As a child, I was introduced to the wonderful world of books by my sister, when she gave me her well-thumbed copy of Winnie-the-Pooh. A short while later, I discovered The Story of Doctor Doolittle, by Hugh Lofting. I believe I read all 13 books in the series in a month. Introducing a child to the joys of reading is the greatest gift anyone can ever give.

When I was a student living in Norwich, England, my first flat was next door to the best secondhand bookshop in the city. What heaven! Back then I read a lot of sci-fi books and thrillers, purely for the escapism. Because I was from a forces family, I collected hundreds of military biographies. Other favorites in my collection were Clive James, David Niven and Spike Mulligan. These books were treasured possessions, I still have most of them now.

Q: And what would your current collection of reading material tell us about you as a person?

A: My collection is somewhat eclectic, I’m not sure what that says about me. I have a library and dozens of stacked boxes bulging with hundreds of golf books, biographies featuring authors from all walks of life, loads of thrillers, some sci-fi and the complete works of Sue Grafton, Lee Child, Tom Holt, Terry Pratchett and William Shakespeare. I’m never without a book. One secret I can reveal, if I’m writing comedy, I’ll only read thrillers – and vice versa.

Q: If you could invite three famous authors (living or dead) to enjoy a bottle of wine and watch an Irish sunset with you, who would it be and why?

A: Only three? Tough choice.

  1. Gene Kranz, author of Failure Is Not an Option. Gene Kranz was present at the creation of America’s manned space program and was a key player in it for three decades. As a flight director in NASA’s Mission Control, Kranz witnessed firsthand the making of history. He participated in the space program from the early days of the Mercury program, through the moon landings to the last Apollo mission, and beyond. It would be fantastic to hear his story firsthand.
  2. Beth Haslam, author of the Fat Dogs and French Estates Beth is a fellow Ant Press memoirist and very much an inspiration to me as an author. She was brought up on a country estate in Wales. Her childhood was spent either on horseback, helping the gamekeepers raise pheasants, or out sailing. After a serious car crash, she set up her own consultancy business. As semi-retirement beckoned, Beth and her husband decided to buy a second home in France. This became a life-changing event where computers and mobile phones swapped places with understanding the foibles of the French, and tackling the language. Somehow, she found the time to write a bestselling series of memoirs. In many ways our journeys are similar. We’ve only chatted online, but I think she’d be great company over a glass of wine.
  3. Terry Pratchett. Because he died too soon and I’d like to have him back writing again.

Q: What’s the oldest, weirdest or most nostalgic item in your closet and what is your particular attachment to it?

A: An old Irish coin. It’s called a Punt and I found it in my father’s desk, when I was clearing it out shortly after his death. To the best of my knowledge my dad had never visited Ireland and he had no earthly reason to have or keep a coin that had no value. At that time my wife and I were planning our move to Ireland, so I felt it was a significant discovery, as if he were saying, “Go ahead, it’ll be grand!” which it was.

Q: What have you learned from your own journey as a writer that you would pass along to someone who came to you for advice about how to break into publication?

A: Before you write, read – a lot. Read what you enjoy. Read the kind of books you would like to write but be sure to observe the authors craft as you read. Take note of how they mix dialog with narration, how they paint their pictures and how they guide your mind. Try to look beyond the words to understand how the story was constructed. Do all this and more, before you put pen to paper.

When you begin writing, remember it is a craft, one that needs developing. No matter how talented you are at the beginning, your writing should always improve over time. You should expect your last book to be much better than your first. Never let anyone tell you that you are unworthy.

Understanding the difference between dreams and goals can make your task considerably less stressful. Dreams are the things we would like to achieve, but have very little control over – like winning the lottery. Goals are the steps we take towards achieving our dream – like buying that lottery ticket. Goals you control, dreams you don’t. That distinction is important. As a writer, you must focus your efforts and evaluate your success based only on the things you can control. Trying to do otherwise is a recipe for disaster.

Many excellent writers have given up because they made getting published their goal and failed.  Trying to get published won’t make you a better writer, but being a better writer, and building a large social media following of people who like your work, will definitely help you to get published. Focus on what you can control.

Q: Any new projects in the works?

A: My ‘ideas folder’ is bulging with interesting storylines, but it would be a mistake to take on too much. Just now I’m writing the third book in the six-part Fresh Eggs and Dog Beds series. It is progressing well and due out in early 2019. In the background I’m researching a book about my father’s fascinating life in the RAF. I’m also working on Stone Façade, the second in my Eric Stone thriller series. I am very excited about the twisty plot, which will bring Stone to Ireland in search of a missing journalist, but not all is as it seems…

Q: Where do you see yourself 30 years from now?

A: I hope I’ll still be writing. Perhaps my spelling will improve. If I can average a book a year until I’m 90, that would be something special to look back on.

Q: Anything else you’d like to share?

A: Writing is the loneliest job in the world. I have only my characters and four dogs to keep me company, but becoming a successful author is a team effort. I have to thank my wife, my publisher, my editor, my cover artist and, most of all, the thousands of authors whose books I have read. I humbly stand on the shoulders of these giants, so I can reach a little higher.


A Conversation with James Lawless


I had the opportunity to interview James Lawless, a poet, literary author, teacher and philosopher. It is fascinating to explore other points of view in this vast literary universe and for those readers who enjoy more textured writing than is commercially available, they may find a kindred spirit in Mr. Lawless.

(I would recommend readers check out his ebooks and read the samples; it’s easy to get a sense of the flavor and rhythms of his work from the first few paragraphs.)

Interviewer: Joanna Celeste


Q: You’ve referred to Finding Penelope as your “wry glance” at the genre of chick lit. Please elaborate.

A: Just as Cervantes’ Don Quixote was a send-up of the proliferation of novels of chivalry of his time, I attempt in Finding Penelope to send up the chick-lit genre and show it for what I believe it is: a fatuous and formulaic comfort read with no claim to art. Part of the development in the character of Penelope is centered on this realisation. She starts off as a romance novelist with her de rigueur happy ending demanded by her readers and her unflappable agent Sheila Flaherty. However, after she endures various vicissitudes, she comes to realise that life is not always happily ever after and she resolves from then on to be true to herself and her writing.

Q: That’s a fascinating approach. As a poet, scholar, short story writer and novelist, you chose to play with form in Finding Penelope, switching tenses frequently. What inspired you to weave your story this way?

A: Virginia Woolf and James Joyce are great influences on me particularly in their steam of consciousness techniques. Nineteenth century narrative styles are no longer adequate to address the multimedia and high-tech world of the twenty first century. The weaving in and out of Penelope’s consciousness of past, present and future hope is in keeping with modern living varying from its frenetic texting and emailing to the deeper revelations of the solitary reverie or epiphany as Joyce called it.

Q: How refreshing that you’re bringing that “flavor” back into our present-day literature. What was your writing process for this project?

A: I tried to be disciplined although it didn’t always work. I showed up like a clerk most mornings in my little office, petit bourgeois as Flaubert would say but dreaming subversively — my dreams are my freedom. I am more productive when I go to my cottage in the mountains of West Cork where I have no Internet to distract me. For Finding Penelope I travelled to Spain to do research on the Costas particularly on the expat way of life and on the drug culture and the criminality associated with it. I also consumed a high octane level of chick-lit.

Q: What a range of research! Share with us your affinity with the Spanish culture. What about it speaks to you?

A: When I was in secondary school, an enlightened Christian Brother introduced some of us to Spanish extracurricular studies and it opened up a new and polysemic universe to me. I delighted in learning of a different culture in an Ireland which at the time was rather insular. Spanish of course stretched beyond Europe to the great South American continent with its powerful potential and also to the huge Hispanic population in the USA. I enjoy the literature not only of Spanish writers like Javier Marías but also Borges, Márquez and Carlos Fuentes. So Spanish has huge significance even from its scale and global representation. Having  a second or a third language equips one with extra keys to unlock different ways of seeing the word. Perhaps what I learned most— and this probably helped my story writing— was to try to see the world from the point of view of the other to get a different angle on things. I think that’s beneficial not only artistically but also for our understanding of world peace.

Q: Thank you; as someone with a multicultural heritage, I agree. In your book Clearing the Tangled Wood: Poetry as a way of seeing the world, you explore how poetry opens up worlds within our present experiences. How do you consider your background as a poet and an author of short stories (which I count as a poetic form) has shaped your life and your writing?

A: I studied Gaelic in university. As an undergraduate, one of the most impactful compliments I received from a lady lecturer was ‘tuigeann sé cad is filíocht ann’— ‘he understands what poetry is’, based on some creative work I had submitted. This encouragement inspired me to delve deeper into poetry. I read poems from anthologies in Irish and Spanish and English and some of the great Russian poets like Pasternak in translation wherever I got a chance: in between meals, stealing moments to read like Francis Copeland did in The Avenue, on a train or a bus, in a bar, in a dentist’s waiting room; when ill or down, poems could pick you up as they opened windows on the world. This poetic affiliation, I would like to feel, sharpens my prose writing.

Q: It certainly invokes a rhythm in your work, from what I’ve read. What do you love the most about poetry?

A: Matthew Arnold claimed that poetry would replace religion in the world. What I like about poetry is that it has no boundaries and the best of it has no agenda; it involves some of the best minds using the best language to attempt to interpret life in an unfettered way in so far as is humanly possible.

Q: Capturing the inexpressible, as many artists endeavor towards. You’re an arts graduate of the University College Dublin and you received your Masters in Communications from Dublin City University. As an author of accessible literary fiction, how has your education assisted you?

A: Some artists and autodidacts believe the university is anathema to creativity. Perhaps there is some truth in this as I remember when starting my first novel Peeling Oranges soon after I had finished my MA thesis (which later with additions became Clearing The Tangled Wood) and found myself with a mass of research information about the old tenements of Dublin and about the Irish and Spanish civil wars—I had all these footnotes and appendices written in jawbreaking, academic jargon. So I soon realised that in order to write fiction I had to unlearn the methodologies which I had employed in academe—that is not to say an academic or non-fiction text is not also creative; it is just that like Clearing the Tangle Wood it has different parameters to a novel or poem. But notwithstanding, the university did help me in at least two ways: it gave me the bottle to finish a project and it taught me how to research, which hopefully I have learned to do now without getting too bogged down now as I attempt to introduce it as seamlessly as possible into fictional narrative.

Q: You’ve also been on the other side, as a teacher; what did you enjoy most as an educator?

A: The act of teaching itself I enjoyed, sharing with people who were open to learning. However, as an artist I felt  hemmed in by the institution. The souls and the institution don’t blend. Teaching is also a great way of articulating and clarifying what you want to say within boundaries of course. The boundaries are the problem, so teaching is not really a free act.

Q: How valuable do you think a university education would be for writers today?

A: East Anglia and other ‘creative writing’ universities are in danger of churning out homogeneous writers and sometimes give the impression rather arrogantly that they are the only ones, the real McCoys of writers. While there are some of these writers I admire such as Ishiguro and McEwen, art is, like dreams by its nature, anarchic and therefore I would be wary of restricting it with rules and regulations.

Q: You touched on this in your blog entry “Creative Writing Schools”. What is your philosophy as a teacher?

A: Similar to my philosophy of life in general which is that life is not what you make it but what you make of it. Opening minds, including one’s own in a mutual process to learn about the world without dogma.

Q: As a fellow reviewer, how do you find your treatment of other stories influences the way you approach your own writing?

A: I grew up believing in the canon of literature and although we have developed interiorly since the time of Dickens and Hardy, we have not improved on their story telling or plot making skills. Indeed I believe the modernists may have discarded that quality and thrown out part of the baby with the bathwater in their attempt sometimes to be ultra-clever. I think writers of today should return to the methodology of Dickens with the benefit of hindsight of course and repair the tear made by the modernists between popular and highbrow fiction. For me the criterion is just good writing illustrating a style and narrative skill with an insight into the human condition. A writer like the undervalued Richard Yates in Revolutionary Road is an example of a modern artist who was able to span both these bridges.

Ironically, I believe the division has done more harm to good novels than to bad, because with the proliferation of mass market popular fiction, the average person (whose ancestors consumed Dickens classlessly) nowadays tends to frown on anything deeper, deeming it snobby writing. So what I look for when I review a book is something to aspire to, something I would have liked to have written myself and maybe to encourage others to consider also. Like the appreciation of good music, the appreciation of good literature is something cultivated.

Q: As someone who has been taught writing in the age of “make it tight” and “massacre all adverbs where possible” it’s interesting to consider that point of view. What are other experiences, places or people who have influenced your work?

A: I think it was Graham Greene who said nothing much happens after twelve. So like many writers, my childhood was my source: my mother reading to me as a child, my aunt’s visits with comics, a long gap in years between me and my siblings, family banter and tales, my father buying me my first diary— these were seminal experiences and later my travels to Europe and America provided many writerly insights. But I suppose the most important experience is a cultivated solitude, a condition and ability I have trained myself to do over the years while simultaneously not turning my back completely on a social life, to maintain a mental balance if such a thing is possible.

Q: I am amazed you could achieve a mental balance while publishing seven books in the space of approximately five years. How did you organize yourself?

A: With discipline, as I say going to the ‘office’ most mornings and the cultivation of solitude and believing most of all that what you are doing has value.

Q: You’ve also published different ways—as an academic, small press, etc. What has been your favorite method of publication?

A: No one in particular. Each publication is a hurdle and sheer hard work to promote.

Q: Marketing is one of the hardest aspects to being a writer nowadays. Your website [] is nicely put together and you are widely available through social media. What do you find is the best marketing strategy?

A: I manage my own website. I’m only learning how to blog and would like to generate comments. I send my blogs to Facebook which seems to elicit more responses. As regards marketing, I’m prepared to give any media a try as a means to an artistic end. It’s all about being known and valued. The great thing about the Internet is its global dimension— people from all over the world reading or downloading your work in seconds and then just as easily being able to communicate with the author. We are living in exciting times with great artistic possibilities.

Q: Yes, for every difficulty we seem to have great opportunity. What advice would you give to writers just starting out on the path to publication?

A: Ask yourself are you serious about your work; are you prepared to bleed for it, or are you just a dilettante? Is your work really good and original or merely imitative of a million others? Are you an artist with all of what that entails? Do you believe passionately in your art? If that is the case, you persevere, you take the inevitable rejections on the chin—editors are human; they can’t always get it right. Believe in yourself.

Q: Thank you. Your fictional work seems to carry a theme of cross-culture (particularly between Ireland and Spain), politics and threaded with a romantic/poetic atmosphere. What would you say is at the heart of all that you write?

A: What I write about is not what I know but what I want to find out, things that impacted on me: in my education for example being taught through the medium of Irish, the place (or absence as in the case of Derek Foley in Peeling Oranges) of religion or ideology in our lives such as the civil wars in Spain and Ireland; the all consuming monolith of capitalism obsessed me in For Love of Anna; what suburbia (being a product of it ) was about was my preoccupation in The Avenue; and what true writing strives to be in Finding Penelope and so on. A reviewer said the romance in some of my novels tends to be more than a mere love interest, but that it is sometimes strewn with history or politics such as with the extreme nationalist Sinéad in Peeling Oranges; and even Anna in For Love of Anna ,which is considered the most romantic of my novels, is also an acronym for Anarchist of the New Age. As regards the poetic element, I think I have alluded to that already.

Q: Yes, I like how you define your work as “accessible literary fiction.” By the way, what is the latest on The Avenue becoming adapted to film?

A: Still ongoing, under consideration.

Q: Your latest novel, Knowing Women, just released this month. Please tell us more about this project.

A: Knowing Women is about a vulnerable man, Laurence J Benbo, who is wrongly tainted sexually. With all the paedophile cases going on at the moment— and there is no doubt most of them are justifiable—I wondered what if opinion and the law were to get it wrong. Benbo is perceived as a weak character particularly sexually, but he is no paedophile and when he stands accused, how will society judge him in the hue and cry of vindictiveness?

Wow, that’s quite a challenge to take on, but I’m sure your treatment will make for a fascinating read. I wish you all the best and thank you for this interview.

The Girl Who Came Home: A Titanic Novel

The Girl Who Came Home cover

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 or at my Facebook page or by following my tweets @HazelGaynor I also write a regular guest blog for National Irish writing website and review books for Hello Magazine at I love to hear from readers so please do get in touch!