“Last Christmas In Paris” by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb is one of those unique stories. A word of warning, it is not a “sugar and spice and everything nice” novel. The story is very authentic as it covers the triumphs and tribulations that affected civilian life and those on the battlefield.
Yet, it leaves the reader with a good feeling as the book ends with a sentiment of hope. The love and romantic scenes are a great balance against the horrors of the War. What makes this book stand out is that the story of World War I is told predominantly in letters and telegrams. The primary letter authors are Evie, Alice, Will and Thomas. The latter three tell of the tragedies of war: Alice an ambulance driver, Will and Thomas on the frontlines, while Evie represents the civilian population. It is a heartwarming and heartbreaking story of victory and loss during World War I.
Elise Cooper: How did you get the idea for the story?
Heather Webb: Hazel and I collaborated for an anthology, “Fall Of Poppies.” She sent me a message about writing a Christmas book. Because we both wanted to dig into the WWI period in depth we decided to write a novel together.
Hazel Gaynor: We decided to write it with letters between friends. We wanted to show the opposite sides of the war, between the civilian population and those fighting on the front lines.
EC: So who wrote what characters?
HW: We each had a character we started with, but in the end, it was really a work done together. Hazel wrote Evie, and I wrote Thomas. We wrote together, Alice, Will and some of the other supporting characters. The process was to respond in real time because we wanted to make it very authentic. We absorbed the previous letter, replied to it, and added additional information. It felt really organic.
HG: In the early drafts we wrote the different characters as we found our way. But over time, we became invested in all of them. We edited together and agreed with each other’s suggestions that were put in the margins. We helped each other shape the voices and the emotions. Heather would write something and then I would respond, or vice-versa.
EC: It strikes me that those who have a loved one die have that empty seat during Christmas. What role did you want it to convey?
HW: It came about from the early stages of the war where everyone thought it would be over by Christmas. This was the springboard. These friends who lead a comfortable life planned to meet up in Paris during the holiday. There was the continued sense of believing that it will be over by the next Christmas. But we wanted readers to understand that it was disrupted by this horrific war.
EC: What did you want to get across about the role of women?
HG: It changed dramatically during the course of the war. Women filled the male-dominated professions. We explored how it was done through Evie, who became a postal worker and a journalist, and her friend Alice who became an ambulance driver. We did not want to give our female characters the well-known profession of a nurse.
Today there is a disconnect between those fighting and the civilian population. We wanted to contrast those on the home front versus those actually fighting. What would it be like for a young woman to watch her brother, her best friend, and her childhood friend, leave. Yet, she is left home and can do nothing but knit some caps and socks.
HW: There is a scene in the book where Thomas, Evie’s best friend who she is in love with, writes that she should not come to the frontlines. He says, “I don’t want you here amid the gloom and gore. It isn’t the place for someone like you and won’t be good for you.” Of course, she responds, “Your letter disappoints me. That you believe a woman has no place in this war… Do all men believe that women are incapable? Must I return to the knitting of comforts and bide my time like a good girl?”
We intentionally had her sign it as Evelyn, not Evie. She was furious with Tom with an attitude, “no sweet pet names for you, butthole.” We also wanted to show that when not communicating directly and only in writing there can be misunderstandings. The reason he was so upset and angry with her had nothing to do with her being a woman. But, rather everything to do with her safety.
EC: How would you describe Evie?
HG: Ambitious, spunky, unconventional and strong-willed. She had no intention to just marry someone but wanted to play a pivotal role in the war. This is why we had her write a newspaper column like the famous American journalist Nellie Bly. WWI was the event that changed roles for women. She was trying to find her voice and was talking to the female readers, much like a wartime Dear Abby.
EC: How would you describe Thomas?
HW: Caring, bright, loyal and considerate. He wanted to be a Shakespearean scholar. The war disrupted his dream. He had shell-shock because he was so sensitive.
EC: You explore the issue of shell-shock or what is known today as PTSD?
HW: In the 1880s right through WWI you have all of these philosophers and early psychologists who are developing the early stages of psychology. We wanted to show in a real way how the soldiers were affected by the horrors they saw. WWI and its aftermath had society examine the impact the war had on the veteran.
EC: Can you tell us about your next book?
HG: This past August my book “The Cottingley Secret” came out. It is how people thought fairies really existed through the eyes of two girls who lived in Yorkshire. Fairies were symbolic for that sense of hope, faith and belief during the period after WWI. People latched on to this magical story, were primed to believe there was an afterlife, as they chose to escape the horrors of the Great War.
In the fall of 2018, my stand-alone comes out titled, “The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter.” The plot goes back and forth between female lighthouse keepers from 1838 to 1938 with the different settings of England and Rhode Island.
HW: Coming out in February will be a stand-alone, “The Phantom’s Apprentice,” based on the classic novel “The Phantom Of The Opera” by Gaston Leroux. It is a fresh take concentrating on the point of view of Christine Daae. It is a tale of forbidden love and Gothic suspense.