Monday 11 December 2017

The girl who dared... author Hazel Gaynor on journey from rejection to bestseller

Hazel Gaynor has lived every would-be author's dream - from rejection to best-seller

Chapter of success: Hazel Gaynor has gone from getting rejection slips to winning a top award for writers of historical fiction. Photo: Tony Gavin
Chapter of success: Hazel Gaynor has gone from getting rejection slips to winning a top award for writers of historical fiction. Photo: Tony Gavin

Emily Hourican

'Not for a minute did I allow myself to think I'd win! I genuinely was floored when Barbara Taylor Bradford read my name out!" Hazel Gaynor is laughing at the strange and wonderful turn of her life. She is talking about winning the Historical Romantic Novel of the Year award, at the recent Romantic Novelists' Association awards, for her first novel The Girl Who Came Home, after years of rejection.

These awards are a big deal - previous winners include Philippa Gregory and JoJo Moyes -and as such the perfect culmination (for now!) of the remarkable trajectory of Hazel's book - from rejected manuscript to New York Times best-seller, via the very modern phenomenon of self-publishing. The thing that kept her going was simple: "Repeated rejection was heartbreaking, but I found it just made me keep writing."

Hazel was born in Yorkshire and moved to Dublin from London with her Irish husband, Damien in 2001. Here, she worked for A&L Goodbody and had two children, and then, in 2009, was made redundant. "I had reduced to part-time work by then, but still, it was a very hard shock to the system. Our world was completely turned upside down, but in a funny way, it was the best thing that ever happened."

It was, she says, "a massive push to make the decision I would probably have made anyway - to stop working, and be at home more." It was also a massive push to begin doing something she had talked about for years: write. She began with a parenting blog, Hot Cross Mum. "I wanted to write, but I didn't have the confidence to tackle a novel. In hindsight, the blog was a lovely way to come to terms with the change I was going through - from the boardroom to the bathroom."

From there, Hazel wrote a first novel, found a UK agent, and was almost at the point of letting the book be submitted, when another idea, one she had been kicking around in her mind for years, suddenly took firm hold. "I had a moment one day, I knew I wanted to write a novel about the Titanic." So she put the first book on hold, and wrote The Girl Who Came Home instead, in about six months, about an Irish immigrant travelling in steerage. She was highly conscious of being under pressure to make the Titanic Centenary in 2012, and so the book was sent to publishers towards the end of 2010. "My agent had warned me the market might be saturated, and indeed, unfortunately the rejections came in."

Hazel is able to be phlegmatic now, with all that has transpired since, but at the time; "I was fairly despairing," she admits. "I had a few tears. I felt I'd poured myself into that book, so it did feel very personal. Nobody wants to hear 'it's not good enough'."

This of course is the point where grit and determination reveal themselves, making the difference between those who may succeed, and those who won't. "Rejection made me realise this wasn't just a hobby," Hazel says now. "I really seriously wanted to be an author. Hearing somebody saying 'it's not good enough' made me more determined."

And so she decided to self-publish. "It was not the first choice," she says. "My goal was always to sign with a publisher, so yes, self-publishing was a compromise; fortunately it was a compromise that worked out very well."

The Girl Who Came Home was put online as a Kindle e-book, and for the first day it was free to download. Hazel did no pre-publicity at all - "there was no excitement or Champagne, no launch party. I hit 'publish', then I went and hung some washing on the line" - but that first day, it got 20,000 downloads, which sent it shooting up the rankings, and momentum began to gather. The book was a Kindle bestseller on and off for a year, and Hazel earned "a moderate income" from royalties.

A year went by, during which time Hazel wrote her next novel, A Memory of Violets, the poignant story of two young girls, sisters, selling flowers on the streets of Covent Garden and its surrounds in the 1870s. "I imagined what it would be like if all you had was your sister. I have an older sister, and we're very reliant on each other. I lost my mum when I was 23, so my sister and I are incredibly close, because it's just the two of us, and our dad."

Perhaps ironically, it was when A Memory of Violets was finished that Hazel really hit her lowest moment. "The Girl had gone on to do well, and so I naively thought that would help me to get the much longed-for traditional publishing deal." A Memory of Violets went out to publishers in the UK and Ireland, "and the rejections started coming, and coming. Ultimately, that was harder to deal with. I think that was the lowest point. I remember being really crushed, and thinking 'How many knocks can you take? This isn't good for anybody.' Because the disappointment does bleed through into your life and your family, no matter how much you try not to let it."

Hazel and her agent then parted company; "I felt as if I had taken 13 steps back!"

It was then that Hazel got a message, "almost a year to the very day that I published The Girl, right out of the blue" through her Facebook page, from a New York-based agent. "She had read the book on her Kindle and said 'I love your book. Have you written anything else? Are you represented?'"

Within six weeks Hazel had a two-book deal with William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, after an exciting auction. "It was amazing, a really special experience," she says now. The book then became a New York Times and USA Today best-seller.

But there was more to come. "The Girl Who Came Home is the book that keeps on surprising me," she says with a laugh. The book was shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists' Association awards, and indeed won. "It was so great," she says. And meeting Barbara Taylor Bradford, queen of romantic fiction? "She was witty, charming, fearsome. A force to be reckoned with!"

A Memory of Violets, by Hazel Gaynor, is out now, published by William Morrow, €11.95

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