Bas Bleu’s December 2018 Book a Month pick, Last Christmas in Paris, is a heartfelt read any month of the year. But with Christmas only days away, and the multi-year commemoration of the World War I centennial drawing to a close, this historical novel by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb is a timely choice for your end-of-year reading. This week in the Bluestocking Salon, we’re talking with the authors about the technicalities of co-writing a novel (while living in different countries!), the importance of addressing PTSD when discussing WWI, and the unique benefits of old-fashioned letter writing.
Bas Bleu: Hazel, you’re an Englishwoman living in Ireland. Heather, you’re an American living in New England. You’re both accomplished novelists in your own right. How did you meet? And how did you conceive this particular novel and decide to work on it together?
Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb: We were originally introduced through our agent, Michelle Brower. We worked together on an anthology, Fall of Poppies, in 2015 and as that was nearing completion we both felt there was more we wanted to write about World War I, and how a generation was so deeply affected by it. It was one of those eras that felt so utterly important and poignant, yet had been given so little due in fiction. After a frenzied exchange over Facebook Messenger, the concept of co-writing a novel, told from the point of view of a young man at the Front and a young woman-journalist back in England, developed really quickly. The epistolary format felt very authentic to the era as well, and would also make for an interesting writing experience, so we took up the challenge! Plus, we both love epistolary novels.
BB: How exactly do two people co-write a novel, particularly when you’re living on opposite sides of the ocean? Did each of you take a section and work on it individually, then edit the pieces together?
HG & HW: For each of us, this was the first time we’d worked with another author to write a novel, so it was an exciting and daunting prospect. The book was written through a literal exchange of letters between us, writing as our characters. Hazel would wake up in Ireland, pen a letter from one of her characters, and wait for a reply. Several hours later, Heather would wake in the U.S. to find mail in her inbox and respond. The process felt so organic this way—as if we were truly receiving letters!—and the story flowed from there.
The editing process was a little harder to manage, moving a partially edited document between the two of us, but we made it work by using tools like the highlighting function, strikethrough, and colored fonts. We also left comment bubbles to keep track of notes. There’s a huge amount of trust and commitment involved on both sides, but there was something very special about having someone to bounce ideas off and work through plot and character troubles along the way. We derived so much inspiration from each other. Working with an author who becomes a great friend also means you share the successes with each other in a special way. From the moment we first heard the book had sold, right through the news of many foreign rights deals and stellar early reviews, we relished having each other to celebrate and share it with. We made each other laugh and cry a lot along the way, and it has been a truly rewarding experience.
BB: World War I has a different legacy in the United States than it does in Great Britain, due in part to the Americans’ late entry into the war and the devastating casualties suffered by British and Commonwealth troops. Was it difficult to reconcile those national distinctions? As an American, Heather, was your research process and scope different than Hazel’s?
HG & HW: Heather here. What an interesting question! The WWI legacy is quite different in the U.S. from Great Britain and Europe, and even Canada, it’s true. I think there are many factors that contribute to the differences along with those you mentioned, but I don’t believe the research process or scope were all that different for the two of us. I think it helps that Hazel and I are of the same generation, we are both passionate about history and its impact on the world, and we both understand the value of expressing ourselves through writing.
Also, any historical novelist worth her salt is a diligent reader and researcher, and we both spent a lot time reading stacks and stacks of books, as well as visiting the Imperial War Museum in London and the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. We’ve also both traveled in France fairly extensively so we each brought a profound knowledge base to the table. I would also add that, having a retired military colonel as a father, I learned a great deal about the machinations of war, as well as their historical significance, and all things military while growing up. I think I’ve been to just about every war museum in the United States, and many in Europe as well. I can thank (and blame?) my dad for that. Ha! But, essentially, it felt quite natural to work on characters involved in WWI.
HG & HW: There are many challenges with writing an epistolary novel, ranging from building dramatic tension, to incorporating pertinent setting, and world-building information without the dreaded “information dump” that is very unnatural in a letter. The other issue is that letters leave little room for dialogue, which is often used to create dramatic tension between characters. This forced us to build tension in other ways. For example through postal delays, lost letters, unsent letters that all provided an alternative way to develop tension and conflict. In addition, we set up several instances in which one character read subtext in a letter that wasn’t really there. We do see what we want to see, regardless of the truth sometimes, don’t we?
But despite the obvious challenges, there’s a wonderful intimacy and immediacy in an epistolary novel—both in the writing, and the reading. The lost art of letter writing is perhaps what makes epistolary novels so appealing to writers, and readers. There’s something undeniably voyeuristic about reading someone’s private thoughts in their letters, diaries, journals and telegrams, and based on reader reactions to Last Christmas in Paris, that intimate and emotional experience has clearly endeared our characters to them. I think they feel, as we do, that Tom and Evie are our friends!
BB: Did building a novel—and the love story within—around an “old fashioned” mode of communication inspire you to send more handwritten letters? Would you encourage readers to do so? Why?
HG & HW: It certainly did! We both fell in love with letter writing all over again. In fact, we’ve sent out quite a few thank-you cards, letters, and Christmas cards of late. We even exchanged one with each other that we included in the P.S. section in the back of the book. That said, we heartily encourage others to take up the dying art of letter writing.
There’s something very romantic about a handwritten letter. It takes time and thought, care and consideration, which a message from a Smartphone just can’t replicate! It is only because of the permanency of the letters written during the war that we are able to understand so fully its impact on those who lived through it. Imagine what would be lost, had the communications been all electronic.
Shortly after starting work on the book, Hazel was given a packet of letters written from her great-grandmother to her son, Jack, during WWII. The letters were returned, addressed “To Mother” after Jack went missing in action. He was never found and the family still doesn’t know what happened to him. To have this piece of family history is amazing, and to see the outpouring of emotion and the little snippets of daily life at that time is something to be treasured. We encourage readers to send a letter to someone special. There’s no better way to let someone know you are thinking of them.
BB: Presumably combatants have suffered from the psychological wounds of war for centuries, and yet World War I was the first conflict to spur broad public conversation about what we call PTSD today. Without giving too much away about the plot, why did you choose to incorporate that element into Last Christmas in Paris?
HG & HW: We wanted to explore as many aspects of war as we could, and to understand how that affected individuals involved in the fighting at the front, as well as their loved ones back home. But PTSD was particularly important to us. It’s a profoundly difficult disorder to treat and manage, and had been largely misunderstood and dismissed until WWI. This was an incredible breakthrough in modern psychology.
“Shell shock” was the original name for PTSD, and before that, “war neuroses” or “weakness of the mind”. Privates and officers were accused of “lacking moral fiber” or suffering from a nervous disposition and treatments were often bizarre and ineffective. Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen both spent a period of time at Craiglockhart Military Hospital in Scotland, and we wanted to reflect the experience of so many men like them through Tom’s eyes. We hope we shed at least a little light on this complex topic, as it was a very real part of war.
BB: Throughout the novel, Paris—specifically, Paris at Christmas—is an idyll and goal that Evie and Tom return to again and again. How much of that was couched in the history of the time and how much was inspired by your own relationships with the City of Light? Have either of you ever spent Christmas in Paris?
HG & HW: Paris is a city we both love and have visited many times, although not at Christmas. It is on both of our bucket lists! Paris is also widely regarded as one of the most romantic cities in the world, so where better to set our novel? The City of Light also happened to be one of the first cities affected by the war so the location fit for Tom and Evie in many different ways.
We were also inspired by the famous declaration made in August 1914 at the start of the war, in which it was stated that it would all be over by Christmas. But many Christmases would come and go before the armistice in 1918. It was this idea of war at Christmas, and the poignancy of loved ones being separated at that time of year, which also laid the groundwork for some of the themes in the book, as well as the title.
BB: Which book(s) from your childhoods helped to shape the people you are today?
HG & HW: We were both voracious readers as children and can’t remember a time when we didn’t have a book in our hands! Hazel grew up on British classics such as Winnie the Pooh, Paddington Bear, Beatrix Potter, and—of course—Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree stories and Malory Towers series. Heather read those that Hazel read as well, and also loved Louisa May Alcott, the Nancy Drew mysteries, Shel Silverstein, and Agatha Christie, among plenty of others. We believe books never stop shaping who we are, which is the beauty and the gift of reading, so we continue to read as voraciously now as we did then!
BB: Aside from your own title(s), which books are you quick to recommend to other readers? Who are your favorite authors?
HG & HW: We both love historical novels. Hazel’s favourite authors include Rose Tremain, Sarah Waters, Kate Mosse, Tracy Chevalier, Kate Atkinson, and Kristin Hannah. Heather’s go-to authors are Kate Morton, Audrey Niffenegger, John Green, Jennifer Donnelly, and Michelle Moran.
BB: What future projects can our readers look forward to seeing from you?
HG & HW: Hazel is in the early stages of researching and writing her sixth historical novel, which will take her into a new era and location. She is very excited about it! Heather is working on her next novel about which she is very passionate, an immigration story set in 1901 New York City. Our second co-written novel Meet Me in Monaco releases in July 2019. The novel was inspired by the wedding of Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier of Monaco, and we can’t wait to share it with readers! We would love to continue working together and are already discussing ideas for a third Gaynor/Webb novel.
BB: Thank you, Hazel and Heather, for sharing your stories and insight. Happy new year to you both!
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