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 1900’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 – the young women who sold flowers and watercress on the streets of Victorian and Edwardian-era London. I’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 – newspaper reports, old video footage, photographs, places of interest and relevance – 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 Groom’s Flower Homes in London and his ‘Flower Village’ 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 – 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 ‘floriography’ – the term given to the Victorian language of flowers, where specific flowers were used to express people’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 Florrie’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 Tilly’s bedroom is also used to add to the mystery surrounding Florrie and her lost sister, Rosie.
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 London’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. It’s such a joy to discover these lost voices and stories from the past.
Pasha: Thank you for joining us today, and we have one last question. What is on your to-read list for 2015?
Hazel: Gosh – I have so many, as always! Top of the list, at the moment, are ALMOST FAMOUS WOMEN (Megan Mayhew Bergman), RODIN’S LOVER (Heather Webb), THE NIGHTINGALE (Kristin Hannah), THE HOUSE OF HAWTHORNE (Erika Robuck), THE MAGICIAN’S LIE (Greer MacAllister) and THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (Paula Hawkins), which I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read yet!
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. Shaw’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. Shaw’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 writes a popular guest blog ‘Carry on Writing’ 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 Novelists’ Association and Historical Novel Society annual conferences in 2014.