“Life can be generous. It can heal the heart and whisper that it’s always possible to start again, never too late to make a difference. It asserts that there are many, many things worth living for. And one of those things—one of the most unexpectedly joyful things of all—is penguins. ”― Hazel Prior, Away With The Penguins
Our first Book Club pick of 2021 is the charming, heartwarming Away With The Penguins by Hazel Prior. Hazel was kind enough to answer a few questions for us!
What inspired you to write Away With The Penguins?
Firstly, penguins! I had already put my favourite things (harps, Exmoor, dreams coming true and quirky characters) into my first book, Ellie And The Harp Maker, but needed to think of something else because I had a two book deal with Penguin Random House. That was what first put the idea of penguins into my head. I’ve also drawn great inspiration from a friend who is penguin-crazy! When her husband died she found an unusual strategy for dealing with her grief: She decided to travel around the world and take photos of every species of penguin in the wild. She’s gained enormous joy and solace from her penguin trips, and this made me think about nature as a healer. As well as being charming and comical, penguins are used by scientists to monitor ecological changes, which is something I feel very strongly about, so I was able to include a bit of an environmental message too.
Secondly, I’ve become fascinated in wartime Britain, when everyday life and values were so different from today. I thought it would be interesting to have a main character who we see experiencing life both then and now.
Thirdly, I know several brave people who have learned new and challenging things in their eighties and nineties, from sky-diving to harp-playing! I admire their go-for-it attitude so much. I wanted my heroine to be somebody older, who had been through a lot, but who was still open to adventure.
What was the process behind writing the story? How much research was involved?
It was a matter of throwing a lot of ideas together and it was very shambolic for a long time. I remember having particular trouble structuring the story, dividing up Veronica’s past into bite-sized chunks and feeding in the little bits of penguin information. Luckily Veronica’s voice came quite quickly to me and carried me through.
Masses of research had to be done, though. I’ve never travelled to Antarctica myself, but I know people who have, and I quizzed them thoroughly. I read books and blogs written by scientists in Antarctica and spent many hours watching penguin film footage on Youtube. I went to Living Coasts in Torquay (now sadly closed) and met Yoyo the penguin and his friends. The staff there shared lots of information with me about hand-rearing a baby penguin.
Then there was the research for 1940s Britain. I remembered some anecdotes my mother had told me (e.g. the evacuation of her school, travelling in the horse-drawn milk-float and seeing Italian prisoners-of-war out working in the fields). I also read books about the war and visited a local Care Home where the residents kindly shared many of their memories. I even took notes while I was watching Dad’s Army and Foyle’s War on television!
Is there a third novel in the pipeline..?
Yes, but I’m not allowed to tell you anything about it at the moment. Suffice it to say I’m working hard!
As well as being a writer, you’re also a harpist – what have been the highlights of your musical and literary careers?
The harp-playing was a long slow slog, but also a real labour of love, and the same can be said for the writing! The highlight of my musical career was playing harp in the garden with a friend at my own wedding in 2005. It was sunny but windy day, I was in my wedding dress and our 4-year-old bridesmaid was dancing and dancing. It’s a wonderful memory.
The highlight of my literary career in terms of success was having Away With The Penguins picked by Richard and Judy for their Book Club. In terms of joy I think it was a much earlier stage, when I entered my first short story for the ‘Win Your Way To Swanwick’ competition and it won! I was gobsmacked and overjoyed. Swanwick is the oldest writing school in the UK and the prize was a free full week’s writing course there. Winning the competition gave me the first indication that I might actually be quite good at writing, and the course was what inspired me to carry on.
What’s the thing you’re most looking forward to when the world starts to return to some state of normality?!
I have really, really missed making music with friends. I sing in a quartet and play in a trio, and with both groups we normally have such a laugh as well as creating something beautiful together. Reading and writing are fabulous for taking you to other worlds, but music has a different kind of magic. I can’t wait to be bringing it to people again.
What are your top five favourite reads?
Now there’s a difficult question! Ask me on a different day and I’d probably come up with a different list, but here are five that I’ve read over the last few years that have really stood out for me:
Music and Silence by Rose Tremain
About A Boy by Nick Hornby
The Giver Of Stars by Jojo Moyes
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
It’s a real honour to have Away With The Penguins chosen for your amazing Book Club. Thank you so much for having me.
Thank you so much to Hazel for taking the time to answer our questions!