Congratulations to multi-published novelist and WU contributor Heather Webb on the release of Last Christmas in Paris — a novel written in conjunction with novelist Hazel Gaynor! Last Christmas in Paris will be sold in bookstores nationwide and at Target, and is releasing worldwide in 10 countries. (The book releases on 10/3 in the U.S. and Canada; and on 10/5 in the UK, Ireland, and Australia.)
You know Heather from her time here at WU, but you may not have realized she’s the internationally and nationally acclaimed author of Becoming Josephine and Rodin’s Lover, which was a Goodreads Top Pick in 2015. Heather also works with aspiring authors as a professional freelance editor , and teaches craft courses at a local college.
Hazel Gaynor is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of A Memory of Violets and The Girl Who Came Home, for which she received the 2015 RNA Historical Novel of the Year award. Her third novel The Girl from The Savoy was an Irish Times and Globe & Mail Canada bestseller, and was shortlisted for the 2016 BGE Irish Book Awards Popular Fiction Book of the Year. Her work has been translated into several languages.
Thanks for being with us, Heather! Can you reveal the premise of your new book?
It’s a novel told through a series of letters and telegrams set during the Great War between a female journalist in London, struggling to make sense of the propaganda and her place in the war, and her childhood friend who is a soldier at the front grappling with family matters from afar.
What would you like people to know about the story itself?
It’s a tale of friendship, loss, and love during the war that would ultimately change the face of Western Civilization forever. But it’s more than that. It’s about changing roles for women during a volatile time; how the war furthered women’s quest for equal rights. The story is framed by the five Christmases of WWI, highlighting how quickly our lives can change and all we should be grateful for on a daily basis.
What do your characters have to overcome in this story? What challenge do you set before them?
War, in and of itself, creates instant conflict, so the two protagonists must both survive the war, first and foremost. In addition, letters are lost, messages misunderstood. There is some trouble at home with Thomas’s family-owned newspaper business where Evie writes a column and this causes a lot of friction as well.
We both truly fell in love with these characters. They felt as real as friends in the end, so their trials really touched us.
What unique challenges did this book pose for you, if any?
This book was a collaborative effort, which poses its own set of challenges. It requires a lot of trust and commitment, navigating the pressures of individual writing projects, and the demands of kids and family. Often, one of us would contact the other to explain a delay because the kids were sick, or the heating was broken, or some other crisis got in the way. Skype chats and Google Hangouts became weekly powwows to flesh out plot snags and character arcs.
Writing collaboratively is difficult enough, but we happened to do it across continents and time zones as well. Hazel would wake up in Ireland and pen a letter or two from her character. Several hours later, Heather would wake in the U.S. to find mail in her inbox, and write a reply from her character, and so on. Though the drafting process felt organic, the editing was a trickier operation. We used comment bubbles and colored fonts to track our changes, and somehow, with plenty of Skype chats and coffee, it all came together.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of having written this book?
Two things, really. We both remembered how much we truly loved receiving letters, handwritten, and how special they really are in today’s world. They mean so much more, now that we have email and chat windows and texting. We both agreed that we hope this art form isn’t lost, as it’s really quite beautiful. Something happens with pen and paper that doesn’t happen on a screen.
Also, the collaborative aspect. Writing can often be a lonely process, so it is wonderful to share that process with someone else. We laughed, and cried, a lot along the way! This was an emotional book in so many ways and to experience that emotion with someone else really made it very visceral and quite special. In writing “The End,” we not only completed a book, but we also made an incredible friend along the way. We are so excited to see Last Christmas in Paris hit the bookshelves across different continents. Feels fitting after writing it this way!