Heather Webb on Co-Writing, Historical Fiction, and Defying Convention

Heather Webb on Co-Writing, Historical Fiction, and Defying Convention

Two is better than one, or so they say. That is certainly the case for Last Christmas in Paris, which was co-written by Heather Webb and Hazel Gaynor. This  novel showcases the strengths of both women, and retains two distinct voices for its characters as a result of its two authors. Earlier this year, Bookish editor Kelly Gallucci caught up with Webb at the Newburyport Literary Festival to talk about the process of co-writing, Webb’s love of historical settings, and what’s next for her.

Bookish: How did you meet Hazel Gaynor and decide that you wanted to work together on a book?

Heather Webb: We shared an agent. My agent asked if I could help Hazel with her social media because I’m kind of a social media hound and she wasn’t, and we had books coming out at the same time. I said yes, and we hit it off!

When I was putting together Fall of Poppies, a World War I anthology, I invited Hazel to write a story for it and she was all about it. After that, she contacted me saying that she’s always wanted to write a Christmas book and would I be interested in a Christmas anthology.

Now, anthologies can be really tricky. Each author has a different agent. The contracts can be a nightmare. So when she called, I was like, “I’m done with anthologies for now. What about a coauthored novel?” I told her I’d do a Christmas book on three conditions: There’s some kind of loss, somebody dies or almost dies, and I get to write the boy. I always write women, and I really wanted to write a male voice. Hazel was like, “Done!” So we brainstormed and it went from there.

Bookish: Can you tell us about the process of plotting and writing the novel with Hazel? How did you divide the work?

HW: Working with Hazel was amazing. It was so fun, and I almost feel like the book wrote itself. We’re five hours apart; Hazel lives in Ireland. She’d write Evie’s letter into a Google Doc, and I’d wake up in the morning hours later and Lieutenant Thomas Harding would have mail! I’d read what she wrote and then respond. It felt very organic. It was almost like we were the characters writing to each other.

Bookish: What advice do you have for any writer considering working with a co-author?

HW: Process and style are really important, as is being flexible. Hazel and I have really different styles. I’m more of a lean writer. I like to place a lot of weight in a short space. You’d call me more of a cool writer and she’s more of a warm writer. She has a lot of charm in her voice and mine has more of a melancholic bite to it. Combining those elements together made this book a winner. It’s good to really examine someone else’s style and talk to them about their process before you jump in.

Bookish: Last Christmas in Paris is an epistolary novel. How do you find the balance between sharing exposition that the readers need to know and keeping the letters realistic?

HB: I’m glad this wasn’t my first book for a lot of reasons and this very hard question is one of them. The answer is not something that’s concrete. A lot of it is very intuitive. It comes through practice. If you’ve written a couple of books before you understand that you have to break up all of that narration with movement of some sort. We did that by changing up the voices when we needed to. We’d throw in a new character with a short letter that would move things along.

We’d also stick as close to speech patterns as possible, which is challenging because the novel is set in the past and the characters are British, and I’m not. Reading the letters out loud helps to point out problems with pacing and clunky language.

And, luckily, Hazel and I work very well together. We’re both really flexible and I think that’s extremely important. I imagine there’d be fighting if you were working with someone rigid.

Bookish: Your novels Becoming Josephine and Rodin’s Lover follow the lives of real women. Were the characters in Last Christmas in Paris at all inspired by real people?

HW: Evie Elliott, the female protagonist, was very loosely inspired by Nellie Bly. Other than that, it was entirely fictional.

The challenge that came with that was trying to avoid copying tropes that are already out there. There are a lot of nurses in this genre, and we didn’t want another nurse. We wanted to get Evie involved in the action in a different capacity.

It’s a fine balance between what sells versus what you want to do, and they’re often not the same thing. As a writer, you sometimes have to find a way to make something more recognizable for readers. If you go off the track too much it’s a smaller niche of readers who are interested in what you’re working on.

Bookish: You come from a military family. Does that background influence the way you write your characters who are experiencing the first World War?

HW: I would say certainly. When Hazel and I did our very last round of edits, we had a seven-hour Google hangout to go over the final changes. I realized during that call how much military knowledge I have because Hazel was confused about some of the titling and military structure, and I was able to lay it all out for her. I am very comfortable with that lingo.

Bookish: How does being a modern woman influence the way that you craft a character like Evie, who is frustrated by the constraints placed on her because of her gender?

HW: We found ways to show her strength within the confines of her society, and to show that she had her own sense of self. With Evie, it wasn’t that difficult because times were changing so drastically. A lot of the social mores of the day were thrown out of the window because with so many of the men away, women were filling in those vacated roles. It resembled the way things are today, with some obvious differences. But when the men came back, the women went back to the home and that’s really when the feminist movement kicked off. One of the reasons I like to explore characters of the past is because they made our lives possible.

I seek out characters who defy convention. Camille Claudel from Rodin’s Lover bucked all tradition in the 1880s. She didn’t follow any rules on anything, which is what I loved about her. At the same time, she had a best friend who was going to give up sculpting to get married, and Camille hated that. I loved showing that Jessie found nothing wrong with wanting to be a wife and mother, and that this change was not giving up who she was, it was adding a new layer. It doesn’t mean weakness, it’s just a different choice.

Bookish: As a writer, you seem drawn to these moments in history where social changes are happening. What inspires you about those moments in time?

HW: I think that’s where growth happens in a person. People do really interesting things during those times, and you can really understand true character in those moments. It’s a great time to dig into a person’s true self. There’s a scene in the book where Thomas mediates on honor and integrity after a woman who saved lives was executed by the Germans. It’s also really interesting to analyze and to read about what is right and what is wrong. There’s a certain amount of justification that happens in these situations too. You can justify a lot when someone hurts your family.

And I am my father’s daughter. He would drag out family to war museums across America and England. I’d grumble about how I hated it, and now I write about it. Our parents influence us more than we think.

Another element that was interesting to explore in this book was propaganda. It shaped the way citizens saw everything. The war office in London shut down newspapers that were antithetical to their message of being brave and victorious. Cameras were confiscated, journalists were put in jail. It was heavy censorship. There were journalists on the front lines who were leaking information back to London. It felt very timely because here we are 100 years later and here we are again; we have certain people shouting, “fake news!”

Bookish: What do you most enjoy about writing historical novels?

HW: The research. I love creating the worlds and descriptions, and so much of that comes from the research. I also love traveling to different locations, taking pictures, and taking in the energy of a new city.

As a reader, I enjoy fiction that transports you. Personally, I’m less interested in mainstream contemporary fiction, not because I want to live in the past, but because I want to be transported. I like books with sci-fi, fantasy, or mystery elements that take me outside of my regular life. As a writer, I really like to take people somewhere.

Bookish: What is a period of history, or figure from history, that you’d like to explore through your writing, but haven’t yet?

HW: I’m not sure if I’ll do another biographical novel. I’m really having a lot of fun creating my own characters in a setting that is established.

For settings, I love New York City. There’s so much history there. When you’re there, you feel the weight of the city. I feel that way about Paris too, which is why I wrote several books set there. I would love to write a few more. I’d love to write a book set in in New Orleans, for similar reasons: There’s a lot of history. There’s that tangible heartbeat of a place. Certain places call to us; they’re like our spiritual homes.

In terms of time periods, I really prefer about 1840 through World War I—that’s kind of my sweet spot. I just really love the turn of the century because so much changes and so much is happening: There are new inventions, there’s the women’s rights movement, the class system collapses.

Bookish: Can you tell us anything about your next book?

HW: I have a novel releasing in February 2018 called The Phantom’s Apprentice. It’s a retelling of The Phantom of the Opera from Christine Daaé’s point of view. I’ve given her a backbone and a whole new dimension. There are illusionists and there’s spiritualism, which involves communicating with the dead. It was very fun to write, and very difficult to write to work within someone else’s canon. It was a risky project, but I learned a ton.

I’m also working on a book set in the U.S. during the 1900s that’s still in its infancy.

Heather Webb is an author, freelance editor, and blogger at award-winning writing sites WriterUnboxed.com and RomanceUniversity.org. Heather is a member of the Historical Novel Society and the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and she may also be found teaching craft-based courses at a local college.


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