In conversation with… author Hazel Prior
Author Hazel Prior tells us about her life as a professional harpist and an author and what inspired her to set her novel in Antarctica.
Hazel Prior lives on Exmoor with her husband and a huge ginger cat. As well as writing, she works as a freelance harpist. Her second novel Away with the Penguins was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick and an Amazon bestseller. The charming and heartwarming story follows the cantankerous octogenarian Veronica McCreedy as she travels to Antarctica and meets an Adélie penguin that makes a big impression.
Naturally, we loved the book but we’re not alone. The novel was received so well that Hazel followed it up with a sequel, Call of the Penguins. Hazel also generously donated signed copies of both of her books to our recent charity auction where they sold for over £100!
We caught up with Hazel to ask her a few questions about her work and why she opted for a more mature protagonist in her novels.
You're a professional harpist and an author, how does that work?
With difficulty! But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I have been playing the Celtic harp for longer than I’ve been writing and it’s incredibly important to me, although it’s always been small scale: Care homes, social clubs etc – nice and informal. It’s very creative because I’m not a trained musician, so I make up all my own harp arrangements. As well as playing solo, I’m part of a singer-songwriter trio with guitar, flute/clarinet and vocals. I sing in a choir and a quartet as a hobby, too, so it’s hard to cram everything in.
Hazel a professional harpist (Credit: Hazel Prior)
Doing something physical and sociable like music complements the hours in front of a computer and the cerebral process of writing. I find music extremely emotional, which can also be helpful for writing! It’s always a bit of a juggling act though, trying to meet the writing deadlines whilst also ensuring I’m practising enough for the gigs. There’s never enough time, but that’s the price I pay for getting to do two things I absolutely love.
Where do you find inspiration for your novels?
Anywhere and everywhere. Often it comes from people I meet. For example, the plot of my debut novel (Ellie And The Harp Maker) sprang from all the people who came up to me after gigs and said: “I’ve always, always wanted to play the harp.” It made me think about following dreams and how they can lead you in all sorts of unexpected directions.
Away With The Penguins and its sequel Call Of The Penguins were partly inspired by the fact that my publisher was Penguin, and partly by my friend who is a penguin enthusiast. After her husband died, she went on a sort of mission to cheer herself up, travelling and taking photographs of every species of penguin in the wild. It gave me the idea of healing through penguins.
I also wanted to make my main character an older person. I’d recently met so many people in their 80s who inspired me with their determination to learn new things, from harp-playing to skydiving! I’d been reading a lot of books about people in their 20s, and I thought it was high time we had older heroes and heroines, to give us hope for the future. Now there are quite a few books about just that, but at the time there weren’t many.
Tell us about Away With The Penguins
Away With The Penguins is an uplifting, quirky read. It’s about a feisty octogenarian millionairess called Veronica McCreedy who decides she wants to leave her fortune to an Antarctic penguin research project…but not until she has seen the penguins with her own eyes. As the story unfolds we discover more about her past, and why she is so particularly grumpy. Meanwhile, the penguins work their magic on her soul.
Away With The Penguins was Hazel's second book (Credit: Penguin)
The book was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick and became the number one bestseller in both Kindle and audiobooks. In fact, Veronica became so popular that I decided to send her on another penguin adventure. In Call Of The Penguins, she travels to the other side of the world to co-present a wildlife documentary. nine-year-old Daisy becomes a huge influence in her life, family secrets come to light and we meet several thousand more penguins.
Both the books are easy to read but they have emotional moments and strong underlying messages about environmental issues.
What inspired you to set the novel in Antarctica and have you visited the continent?
As soon as it had occurred to me to write about penguins, I fell in love with the idea of an Antarctic setting. I have never been there myself, but it did make for incredibly interesting research. I was helped a lot by my friend, who has been to Antarctica, and by the blogs written by scientists on the British Antarctic Survey website. I also spent hours enjoying Adélie penguin footage on Youtube and conjuring descriptions in my mind. I decided to set the story in the South Shetlands of Antarctica, but I invented an island, which is called Locket Island and works well with the story.
As I researched, I realised the penguins had plenty to tell me about persistence, endurance and cheerfulness in the face of harsh conditions. They also had a lot to say about climate change!
Unfortunately, I was only able to see actual penguins in captivity at Living Coasts in Torquay, a sea life centre that has unfortunately had to close down since Covid. The staff there gave me lots of information about hand-rearing a penguin chick. It was only after the success of two penguin novels that I could afford to go across the world to see penguins in the wild and grabbed the opportunity of going to the Falklands. After studying them so much, it really was incredible to see penguins in their thousands, and I loved every minute of the trip.
Could you tell us about a stand-out moment from your trip to the Falklands?
There are so many moments that will stay with me forever. One is walking with King penguins on a windswept beach beside a glittering sea on my birthday. Another is seeing the ‘penguin shower’. This is a natural scattering of stream water over a jutting stone where rockhopper penguins congregate.
Hazel in the Falklands (Credit: Hazel Prior)
They stop off on their way from the colony to the sea to stand under the spray and scrub themselves, forming a disorderly queue for their shower. Often they squabble about who’s next or kick slowcoaches out of the way! The place is stunning and full of nesting albatrosses too, so it’s quite surreally wonderful. Another abiding memory is watching penguins porpoising in the waves and plopping onto the shore, lit by a fiery sunset.
What's next for you?
My fourth book, Life And Otter Miracles, is due to be published this September. I took a break from the penguins for that one and returned to Exmoor for some otter craziness. But now that I’ve finally seen penguins in the wild with my own eyes, I’m writing something new related to that. I’m not allowed to say anything more at the moment, but I’m very excited about it. I somehow think I won’t make it across the world again any time soon. I’m just too busy here.
Finally, what’s your favourite species of penguin?
It goes without saying that I love them all! Away With The Penguins features Adélies and I have a particular soft spot for them, but I’ve never actually seen them. Out of the ones I’ve met, the kings are the most beautiful but the southern rockhoppers are my favourite. With their sprouting yellow ear crests and their extreme bounciness, they are just so comical and lovable.
Hazel's favourite penguin species is the Adélie (Credit: Dominic Hall/Shutterstock)
Life and Otter Miracles will be published on 14th September but is available to preorder in your local bookshop, via Amazon or here. Do check out Hazel's website www.hazelprior.co.uk. It even includes a penguin blog!
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