New York Times bestselling author Hazel
Gaynor stops by to discuss her latest work of historical fiction with Fresh
Fiction Features Editor Pasha Carlisle.
Pasha: Welcome, Hazel! Your novel A MEMORY OF
VIOLETS centers around the young orphaned girls who sold flowers on the
streets of early 1900â€™s London. What first inspired you to write about the
plight of the flower sellers?
Hazel: The novel was first inspired by my love of
Pygmalion/My Fair Lady (I played the role of Eliza Doolittle in the
school musical when I was seventeen). I wanted to understand more about the real
Elizas â€“ the young women who sold flowers and watercress on the streets of
Victorian and Edwardian-era London. Iâ€™d also spent many years living in London
and always loved the atmospheric cobbled streets of Covent Garden where the
flower markets were originally based.
During the early phase of my research, I discovered the work of a Victorian
philanthropist, John Groom, who took many of the orphaned, blind and physically
disabled flower sellers (young children and women) off the streets and taught
them how to make artificial flowers in a workroom of his chapel. Their work
became widely known in London and eventually reached the attention of Queen
Alexandra. I was fascinated by this story and knew I had the premise of my novel.
Pasha: The historical details in A MEMORY OF
VIOLETS are breathtaking and poignant. How did you begin and conduct your
research for this project?
Hazel: I love the research phase of writing my novels. It
really is like finding hidden treasure and I become fascinated with the smallest
details: what people ate, how they dressed, the vocabulary they used, how they
travelled etc. The problem is definitely knowing when to stop researching and
start writing! What I am always very conscious of is to not let the novel become
an opportunity for me to highlight all the fascinating things I have discovered.
While it is important to be authentic, I try to remind myself not to be stifled
by the history, but to allow myself the creative freedom to write an intriguing
novel which happens to be in a historical setting.
I usually start with an initial spark of an idea and from there I read lots and
lots of books (both non-fiction and novels) written in that era, or about the
subject matter. I also use the internet to find more detailed information â€“
newspaper reports, old video footage, photographs, places of interest and
relevance â€“ and when I have this broad basis of information I start to write and
create my characters. With A MEMORY OF VIOLETS, I was fortunate to be able to visit the
London Metropolitan Archives, where I gathered a vast amount of information
about John Groomâ€™s Flower Homes in London and his â€˜Flower Villageâ€™ orphanage in
Clacton on the South coast. From detailed newspaper reports, photographs,
business ledgers, personal letters and other fascinating items from the period,
I developed a real sense of the flower sellers â€“ the young girls and women he
had helped - and what it meant to them to have been given this opportunity to
improve their circumstances in life.
Pasha: Flowers represent certain messages based on their colors
and types. Could you tell us a bit about the language of flowers and how this is
used in A
MEMORY OF VIOLETS?
Hazel: Research for the novel also me to the wonderful world of
â€˜floriographyâ€™ â€“ the term given to the Victorian language of flowers, where
specific flowers were used to express peopleâ€™s emotions. Each flower (and herb)
represented a different emotion: violets for faithfulness, white hyacinth for
beauty and rosemary for remembrance, for example. I found it fascinating that
the Victorian ladies and gentlemen would buy a posy or a tussie-mussie (a small
bouquet of flowers, presented in a lace doily, tied with satin) from the
impoverished flower sellers on the street, and use this to express their love.
When my main character, Tilly Harper, discovers a diary written by Florrie Flynn
- a young flower seller who became separated from her little sister forty years
earlier - she finds flowers pressed between the pages of the book. The flowers
that fall from the forgotten diary represent Florrieâ€™s emotions about her
sister, and these are beautifully illustrated at the start of each of the four
parts of the novel. Flowers are a very strong theme throughout the novel and the
scent of violets in Tillyâ€™s bedroom is also used to add to the mystery
surrounding Florrie and her lost sister, Rosie.
Pasha: How did writing A MEMORY OF
VIOLETS compare to writing and researching your last historical novel, THE GIRL WHO
CAME HOME, which is about the Titanic?
Hazel: Having blended fact and fiction in THE GIRL WHO
CAME HOME, I naturally approached A MEMORY OF
VIOLETS in a similar way, retelling the story of Londonâ€™s flower girls
through my fictional interpretation of actual events.
Writing about Titanic was a very daunting prospect because it is such a
well-known, and well-documented event. While this meant there was a huge amount
of information to draw from, it was also overwhelming at times. In contrast, the
true story and the history behind A MEMORY OF
VIOLETS is relatively unknown, so in many ways I felt less inhibited when I
was writing this novel. It has a greater cast of characters and has a more
complex plot, with many threads weaving through the novel, so that was a new
challenge for me as a writer. Doing the research for both novels was so amazing
and rewarding. Itâ€™s such a joy to discover these lost voices and stories from
Pasha: Thank you for joining us today, and we have one last
question. What is on your to-read list for 2015?
Hazel: Gosh â€“ I have so many, as always! Top of the list, at
the moment, are ALMOST FAMOUS WOMEN (Megan Mayhew Bergman), RODINâ€™S LOVER
(Heather Webb), THE NIGHTINGALE (Kristin Hannah), THE HOUSE OF HAWTHORNE (Erika
Robuck), THE MAGICIANâ€™S LIE (Greer MacAllister) and THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (Paula
Hawkins), which Iâ€™m ashamed to admit I havenâ€™t read yet!
Fresh Fiction extends a thank-you to Hazel for being our guest. Readers, A MEMORY OF VIOLETS is available now from William Morrow.
About A MEMORY OF VIOLETS
In 1912, twenty-one-year-old Tilly Harper leaves her sheltered home in the Lake
District for a position as assistant housemother at Mr. Shawâ€™s Home for
Watercress and Flower Girls in London. Orphaned and crippled girls wander the
twisted streets with posies of violets and cress to sell to the passing ladies
and gentleman, and the Flower Homes provide a place for them to improve their
lives of hardship.
When Tilly arrives at Mr. Shawâ€™s safe haven, she discovers a diary that tells
the story of Florrie, a young Irish flower girl who died of a broken heart after
being separated from her sister Rosie. Tilly makes it her mission to find out
what happened to young Rosie, and in the process learns about the workings of
her own heart.
About Hazel Gaynor
Hazel Gaynorâ€™s 2014 debut novel THE GIRL WHO
CAME HOME â€“ A Novel of the Titanic was a New York Times and USA
Today bestseller. A MEMORY OF VIOLETS is her second novel.
Hazel writes a popular guest blog â€˜Carry on Writingâ€™ for national Irish writing
website writing.ie and contributes regular feature articles for the site,
interviewing authors such as Philippa Gregory, Sebastian Faulks, Cheryl Strayed,
Rachel Joyce and Jo Baker, among others.
Hazel was the recipient of the 2012 Cecil Day Lewis award for Emerging Writers
and was selected by Library Journal as one of Ten Big Breakout Authors for 2015.
She appeared as a guest speaker at the Romantic Novelistsâ€™ Association and
Historical Novel Society annual conferences in 2014.
Originally from Yorkshire, England, Hazel now lives in Ireland with her husband
and two children.
For more information, visit Hazelâ€™s website or Facebook
page or follow her on Twitter @HazelGaynor.
1 comment posted.
The very word "violets" is romantic for me. I love them. But I had no idea that those who sold them so often had handicaps or one sort or another. I also mentally pictured older women selling them in London rather than children.
(Gladys Paradowski 12:27pm February 21, 2015)