Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb are the authors of Last Christmas in Paris, an epistolary novel that takes place during World War I. Hazel Gaynor's other books include The Cottingly Secret and The Girl Who Came Home. Heather Webb's other books include Becoming Josephine and Rodin's Lover. Gaynor lives in Ireland, and Webb lives in New England.
Q: What are some of the differences between writing a novel on your own and writing one with a co-author?
A: For both of us, this was a whole new experience. Of course, writing a novel alone is a very solitary process. Even with the help of crit partners and editors, it feels very much like your own work and you feel the highs and lows alone. Writing solo, you are in charge of the novel entirely.
With a writing partner, there is another opinion to take into account at every step of the way: plot, characters, story structure, and other things as well. The title, the book description on the cover flap, and even the cover. We learned to create plans together for promotion as well. In other words, it’s very different!
Like anything, there are pros and cons to both methods, but we really enjoyed working on this together. In fact, we didn’t realize how much fun it was going to be sharing in true inspiration for a concept we both truly loved, in sharing the hard work, and in seeing it all come to fruition.
Q: Did you plot out the novel before writing it, or was it more spontaneous?
A: We had an overall idea for the narrative arc, and we knew we wanted to tell the story through a series of letters and telegrams that spanned the four years of the war.
We also had some direction for each of our main protagonists’ development, but a lot of the emotional elements, the secondary characters, and also which historical tidbits to include emerged organically as we exchanged letters between us while writing that first draft.
In other words, we did both. We plotted a general outline and explored the basics of our main characters ahead of time, but there were many surprises along the way that we didn’t expect.
Q: What are some of your favorite epistolary novels?
A: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos
Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole
Q: Why did you decide to include World War I journalism as one of the book's topics?
A: We researched newspaper headlines and the printing presses behind them because we knew we wanted Tom Harding to be involved in the newspaper business very early on. It made sense for our story since we wanted to incorporate different mediums of text: letters, telegrams, and newspaper articles.
When we realized Evie was going to be a journalist as well, we dug much deeper into the ways in which the news played a part in the war. Even more fascinating and disturbing was the way in which the public was informed. What happened on the battlefield versus what the people back home were told in both the letters they received and in the papers they read, were starkly different.
The issue of propaganda and fake news is as relevant now as it was then, and it struck us how little progress we have really made in a hundred years.
We decided to give Evie a prominent role that differed from the others most expect to read about in fiction: the nurses at the Front, or the women back home waiting on their beau. To make Evie an aspiring journalist meant we could shine a light on the women in so many other positions during this tumultuous time. We could give them a voice.
Q: Will you write more books together in the future? What are some upcoming projects for you both?
A: Yes! We would love to work together again. Watch this space! *Insert evil laugh*
As for Hazel, she is working on her fifth solo novel, a re-imagining of Victorian lighthouse keeper Grace Darling, and the forgotten lives of female light keepers of the early 20th century. The book will be released in fall 2018.
Heather is gearing up to release a historical suspense novel titled The Phantom’s Apprentice, a re-imagining of Phantom of the Opera told from Christine Daae’s point of view, on February 6, 2018. She’s also working diligently on an immigration story set in 1901 in the U.S.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: For anyone who hasn’t previously read an epistolary novel, we would encourage you to do so! A novel written in letters certainly makes for a different reading experience to a traditionally written novel, and we are so thrilled that reviewers have remarked on how deeply they cared about Tom and Evie and the other characters, and how the letters made for a very intimate reading experience.
We are also delighted to hear that the novel reads seamlessly and although readers are always guessing which of us wrote which characters, they are unable to detect a change in the writing. We love this! And the answer is, we both worked on all of the characters and shaped the entire narrative together over many drafts.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Hazel Gaynor.