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Hazel playing her new Celtic Harp
  • I loved your tweet about ordering a new harp to celebrate the publication of Ellie and the Harp Maker. I just had to ask what drew you to playing the harp, and the Celtic harp in particular?

Thanks so much, Juliet! Yes, the new harp was a ‘reward’ for my debut novel, although it ended up being two year’s wait before I actually got it! This was because it was hand-made to order … and then of course COVID made everything take even longer. It’s a beautiful instrument though, and I’m delighted with it.

The harp in the workshop

I first started harp-playing when I was at university, many years ago. I’d always loved music but never played an instrument. It was a happy accident that led me to a locker that contained a battered, broken old harp. It belonged to one of the music societies but I instantly loved it, so I kidnapped it that summer and had it mended. I realised then how much I longed to play it. It took me a long time to learn but I’m so glad I did!

Although it was chance rather than choice that paired me up with this particular instrument, it’s the perfect one for me. I’ve always been drawn to anything Celtic (I have some Scottish blood, which could be a reason) and I do prefer Celtic harps to classical harps. To my ears the sound is more organic, more ancient, wilder and wiser. It moves me deeply and somehow, in this complicated world, seems to heal and help put things right again.

A harp begins …
  • What were the origins of ‘Foxwillow Trio’? Have you managed to keep on playing and composing during lockdown?

I joined Foxwillow a few years ago. Martin and Celia, the other members, had already been together as duo for over a decade. We met at an informal gig where I was doing some harping and they were singing with guitar, flute and clarinet accompaniment. They invited me and my harp over to theirs the following week and I busked along to their lovely, nature-themed songs. They seemed to like it… at any rate they still keep inviting me back! They write all the songs for this group but I compose the harp parts.

We had masses of gigs lined up for 2020, all of which were cancelled, along with my solo performances. It’s been a sad time for musicians (and I’m extremely grateful that writing is now my main income.) Whenever regulations eased and weather permitted we met up in gardens to keep practising. 2021 has, at last, given us opportunities to perform again. We’ve recently been on stage at the Mid Devon Show and will be playing again at Watchet Festival in August. But it will be a long time before I’ll be able to return to Care Homes with my harp.

  • Do you find the process of writing music for your harp differs from writing a book, or do you find there are similarities?

They’re pretty different, but they complement each other well. Writing drives me slightly crazy because there’s so much intensive thinking involved, so I do need the less cerebral process of music-making as a break from it. Songs or harp pieces are much quicker to write than novels, too, so you have the satisfaction of actually completing something more often.

The two creative processes do have similarities, though. Both take a lot of energy and experimentation. I’m not a very systematic person and when I start a new project I tend to blindly follow my gut instinct. But once I’ve found something I like I’ll doggedly hone and hone. I delete a large proportion of everything I write and I never perform a huge chunk of my repertoire, so masses of work doesn’t actually get used. Maybe I’m too perfectionist?

  • Can I ask you what inspired you to write the story of Ellie and the Harp Maker?
The beginnings of Hazel’s harp in the workshop

My first inspiration was all the people who came up to me after harp performances and said: “I’ve always wanted to play the harp.” I was amazed at the number of people (both women and men) who have this dream. I thought about how much of life we spend dreaming and how we sometimes follow these dreams but often don’t; about what happens when dreams come true… and how they have a habit of not quite turning out the way we expect.

A harp skeleton…

As I was pondering, I was going on a lot of walks in the Exmoor countryside and that became an integral part of the story too. Dan (the harp maker) emerged as not only somebody who could make Ellie’s dream come true, but also someone living a solitarily life, immersed in the local landscape. Then came Phineas the pheasant, who plays an important role in the drama. He was inspired by Exmoor as well.

  • The character of Dan and the details of harp making in Ellie and the Harp Maker were fascinating. Do you think it takes a special kind of person to create a Celtic harp? And were you able to see your new harp being made?

I’d say it does take a special person to create a harp, yes. Of course a great deal of woodworking experience is required, and masses of patience, precision and passion. I’ve never met anyone quite like Dan in real life, although I’ve met several harp makers.

Most harps are factory-made these days, but there are still quite a few skilled harp makers around. My old harp (which I still love, by the way!) was made by a German harp-maker called Frank Sievert. To research Ellie And The Harp Maker I went down to Cornwall and quizzed Tim Hampson, who patiently explained a lot of harp-making details to me and showed me around his workshop. My new harp was made by Mark Norris, who’s based near Peebles in Scotland. It was too far to visit to see the harp being constructed (and it was lockdown anyway) but he generously sent me lots of photos of my harp-in-the-making.

This is just how I imagine Dan’s workshop!
  • I loved the description of surroundings, do you find nature important for the creative process?

Absolutely! I couldn’t do without my ‘thinking walks’. It’s unhealthy to be stuck behind a computer screen all day anyway, and the act of walking is scientifically proven to help problem-solving. Fresh air, flowing water, blowing breezes, buzzing insects, singing birds, green hills… I’m greedy for them all and my writing would lose so much without them.

  • Can you say what you are working on now, both for books and music?

I’ve just finished proof-reading my third novel, Call Of The Penguins, which will be out in November. I have something up my sleeve for book 4, which I’m very excited about but not quite sure how it will pan out so I’d probably better not say more than that.

Music-wise I’m out and about with Foxwillow Trio again and getting my solo repertoire together, with a few private gigs booked. Normally at Christmas I play a glorious festive selection at Dunster Castle and I’m hoping that will happen again this year. I’ll be appearing at some literary festivals too (e.g. Taunton, Exeter and Yeovil) where I’ll be accompanying readings with my harp and playing my song about penguins, Waddling On. So it’s a good mix, and all good fun!

Thank you so much for having me, Juliet. It’s a real pleasure and honour to be featured on your website.

Thank you, Hazel, it’s been a huge pleasure – and I’ll keep my fingers firmly crossed for live audiences being able to enjoy performances of Waddling On!

You can find out more about Hazel, her harp and her best-selling books Away with the Penguins (currently just 99p on kindle!) and Ellie and the Harp Maker on her website, and there are also details and buying links below. Enjoy!

https://www.hazeltheharpist.co.uk/

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Mousehole 2

Mousehole

If you follow me on Facebook, you will know that I’ve just spent a week in Devon and Cornwall collecting photographs for the launch of my next book with Honno Press, out next year.

Westwood Ho! 2

Inspiration at Westwood Ho!

‘The White Camellia’ is based around a mansion with a tragic past on the North Cornwall coast, near St Ives. So when I was invited to be one of the panel of writers at the Exeter Short Story and Trisha Ashley Awards, it was a chance I couldn’t resist.

 

Landydrock

A riot of colour at Lanhydrock

Of course, I couldn’t go straight from Exeter to St Ives without stopping off at St Austell and visit the Lost Gardens of Heligan and the Eden Project. I’d regretfully decided I would have time for Lanhydrock, but my satnav had other ideas, and I’m so glad she did. The sun came out as I found myself passing by – so of course I had to go in.

The melon house

The melon house at Heligan

I didn’t have time to see the house (next time), but the grounds were a riot of colour, and the views spectacular. I could have gone back the next day, but I had a date with what will always be the highlight of my trips to Cornwall – the Lost Gardens of Heligan, whose flower gardens inspired ‘Eden’s Garden’, and whose greenhouses inspired Elin’s beloved kitchen garden of ‘We That are Left’.

 

Office Lost Gardens

The office at Heligan

PotsI loved every minute of my day in the Lost Gardens. Having lived through the First World War with my characters, it was very moving to see the offices and greenhouses that, with a way of life, were lost due to the ravages of the war.

I’ve been longing for ages to visit the Eden Project – and it definitely didn’t disappoint! I could have stayed much longer, but rain was forecast for the next day, and I wanted to get photographs of Mousehole and Limorna Cove while the sun was still shining. After a day in beautiful St Ives, I made my way up the wild north coast, ending up back in Devon, in Westwood Ho!, where I’ve spent several happy holidays, before making the drive back to Wales.

Wild seas at Perranporth

Perranporth

It was a blast of a week. I drove nearly 1,000 miles in all, and packed so much in, all I could do in the evenings was stagger back to the B&B and just about manage dinner and a bath before collapsing into bed. I had never been to Cornwall so late in the year, so it was a pleasure to see the late flowers and autumn colours. I was very lucky with the weather, with none of the promised rain arriving, and I’ve got all the photographs I could need.

Squash at the lost gardens

I’m still absorbing my week in Cornwall. This blog post has been a whirlwind tour, but there will be many more to come, exploring the sights and the sounds. I’m buzzing with ideas and feel energized and inspired and ready to go. And I shall most definitely be going down again. I saw so much – but I know there’s plenty more to see!

Giant's Head

The Giant’s Head at Heligan

 

 

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