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Author Q & A with Historical Fiction Author Hazel Gaynor

Cindy Burnett
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Hazel Gaynor's newest historical fiction novel, The Last Lifeboat, released this week.

Hazel Gaynor is one of my favorite historical fiction authors, and I am always thrilled when she releases a new book. Her latest novel, The Last Lifeboat, published earlier this week. Set in 1940, the book follows two women. Alice King is not brave or daring – she’s happiest finding adventure through the safe pages of books. But times of war demand courage, and as the threat of German invasion looms, a plane crash near her home awakens a strength in Alice she’d long forgotten. Determined to do her part, she finds a role perfectly suited to her experience as a schoolteacher – to help evacuate Britain’s children overseas. With two lively children and a loving husband, Lily Nichol’s humble home is her world, until war tears everything asunder. With her husband gone, Lily is faced with an impossible keep her son and daughter close or enroll them in a risky evacuation scheme.

When a Nazi U-boat torpedoes the S. S. Carlisle carrying a ship of children to Canada, a single lifeboat is left adrift in the storm-tossed Atlantic. Alice and Lily, strangers to each other – one on land, the other at sea – will quickly become one another’s very best hope as their lives are fatefully entwined.

Author Kristina McMorris raves: “Hazel Gaynor’s latest novel, inspired by a shocking wartime tragedy, captivated me from the very first page. Though propelled by a slew of twists and turns, at its core, The Last Lifeboat is a moving tale of love, hope, and fortitude in the darkest of times. A haunting, memorable read.”

Hazel Gaynor is an award-winning New York Times, USA Today, Globe and Mail and Irish Times bestselling historical novelist. Hazel’s work has been translated into 18 languages and is published in 25 territories to date. She lives in Ireland with her husband and two children.

Hazel answers some questions that I posed to her about The Last Lifeboat:

What inspired you to start writing The Last Lifeboat?

I was interested in the history of WW2 evacuees and Operation Pied Piper, a mass evacuation campaign where children were sent to the countryside from Britain’s towns and cities most at risk of bombing raids, and while researching that I came across the phrase "seavacuees" and was intrigued. Children being sent overseas was a less well-known evacuee story. But it was an account of an evacuee ship torpedoed in the Atlantic, and a lifeboat of survivors, lost at sea for eight days, that sparked the idea for my story. I imagined two women connected by this tragedy: one in a lifeboat with other survivors, the other in London, desperately awaiting news of her children. Inspired by true events, The Last Lifeboat is a very different story of WW2, a story of human courage and endurance, and I’m so excited for readers to turn the first page! 

What do you hope your readers take away from your book?

As with all my books, I hope readers will be entertained and moved, and that they will finish the book feeling emotionally connected with my characters. I also hope they might discover a part of history they weren’t aware of before reading the book, but should never feel that they’ve attended a history lesson! I believe every book has a slightly different message for every reader; that everyone will find within it whatever they were meant to find. I love that.

Do you have any say in what your book cover looks like?

I love my cover so much and have had so many readers message me to say they love it, too! The designer, Colleen Reinhart, and the art department at Berkley did such an amazing job. I was invited to share covers and images I loved, and to express my hopes and dreams and key words I hoped the cover would convey. This was the first concept I was shown and with only a few minor tweaks, the final cover was agreed. I especially love the fact that the photographer captured images of his granddaughter in various poses to represent the children in the lifeboat. 

What is the most difficult part about writing for you?

When writing anything based on true events, I am always mindful of the fact that it really happened, and that ordinary people like you and me lived through those moments, even if my characters are fictional. Remembering that, and imagining myself facing the same situation and decisions, helps to create tension and emotion. The sense of confinement and claustrophobia in the lifeboat was definitely a challenge to capture on the page. To depict the sense of fear and helplessness, and to write every scene in the same confined setting while maintaining a sense of tension, wasn’t easy. Reading survivor accounts was incredibly helpful.

Are you working on anything at the present that you would like to share with me?

Yes! And I am very excited! I can't say too much yet, but I can share that it takes place during the dust bowl era of the 1930s and will be my first novel set entirely in the USA. Driven by an intriguing female character and her estranged niece, the story explores themes of self-discovery, finding hope within adversity, and how far we will go to protect those we love. It was pitched to my editor as “a story you already know; a woman you don't,” and I cannot wait to share more detail in the coming months!

What are you reading now and what have you read recently that you loved?

At the moment I am reading an advance copy of the powerful Weyward by Emilia Hart, and I recently read R.F. Kuang’s Yellowface, which I absolutely loved. It is highly original, clever, thought-provoking, and will have writers pressing it into each other’s hands!

For more book recommendations and bookish thoughts, see Cindy’s monthly Buzz Reads column, her Thoughts from a Page Podcast or follow @ThoughtsFromaPage on Instagram. Find upcoming Conversations from a Page events here.

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