In honour of her TV debut tonight (BBC2 at 8pm), we have Gill Hoffs on the blog talking about her life as a writer.
Tell us a little about yourself…
I have the tastebuds of a four-year-old and the skin of a teenager, a cat that drools on my face while I sleep (thanks, Coraline – no, really), and an interest in the macabre, unusual, and grisly side of history. I spend my writing-time researching forgotten shipwrecks, writing about all sorts, and giving talks and interviews, some of which are available on YouTube. I recently started a new job as a carer in a residential home for women with dementia, which I love, and I grew up on the Scottish coast but now call Warrington home, though my son would prefer it if we travelled the world in a cruise liner/skyscraper combo instead.
Do you usually write in a particular genre?
No, I go with whatever I fancy at that particular moment in time or whatever has a deadline pending. I write fiction and non-fiction, long and short, weird and realistic. A change is as good as a rest, at least in this case, and word arranging is thrilling whatever the subject or occasion.
Tell us how you got interested in writing.
I’ve always loved books – I can’t remember a time without them, my mum always made sure we had plenty to read, no matter what, and I’m the same with my son. Making up my own stories was as natural as sleeping, and I had some excellent English teachers who encouraged me to enter competitions. The high I felt on winning or placing was tremendous, something I got a real kick out of. But I hadn’t a clue about the business of writing and publishing or how to become an author. Then, a decade later, I found that the hormonal changes of a full-term pregnancy after four miscarriages meant I was experiencing weird migraines. One of the more welcome symptoms is a compulsion to write (I avoid anti-migraine medication because I don’t want to lose this easy flow). The internet and publications like “Writers’ Forum” and “Writing Magazine” meant I knew what to write, how to present it, and where to send it – and I did, and then I was OFF!
Are you working on anything at the moment? Can you tell us about it?
Oof, loads. I’m swamped but in a good way – I wouldn’t like to have a dry spell, the pressure of a heavy and diverse workload is stimulating and helluva satisfying. When I researched my first shipwreck book, “The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’” (Pen & Sword, 2014) I read of another emigrant ship which wrecked in mysterious circumstances in the Bahamas in 1853. Another cover-up! So I’m now researching the stories of the people involved and writing my second shipwreck book for Pen & Sword, provisionally titled “The Cowardice of Captain Stinson: The Lost Story of the William and Mary, and How 200 Victorians Came Back from the Dead” despite my seven-year-old’s best efforts to distract me with “Adventure Time” and my cat sleeping on whatever pile of notes I need at that exact moment in time.
I’m also writing some non-fiction pieces on Victorian shipwrecks for other books including an anthology edited by Thomas Pluck for the “Lost Children” series, which raises money for child protection charities and includes the likes of Roxane Gay amongst its alumni. Apart from that, I’m keeping my fiction fingers flexed by writing six interlinked LGBT pieces for Pure Slush’s upcoming “Rainbow Stories” anthologies, with one piece based around each stripe of the rainbow flag.
What do you like most about writing?
Everything. Every aspect of it is a huge kick. Even the inevitable rejections are a welcome sign that I’ve tried something with someone outside of my comfort zone. They show me that I’m pushing myself – and if I don’t push myself, no-one else will.
What do you like least?
That no matter how much I write, or how quickly I type, I will never get ALL my stories out of my head and onto the page. Which is perhaps a good thing, but frustrating.
Do you find time to read? If so, what are you reading at the moment?
As with writing, I don’t find time to read, I make time for it. It’s essential for my health and sanity, and for fuelling creativity. I have a pile of perhaps 15 books to read for research (on emigration, shipwrecks, coffin ships, black sailors, Dutch history, etc.) and with so much information in my head, I can only really unwind with old favourites I’ve read dozens of times before – usually Dick Francis thrillers. No matter what, I read a chapter or two in bed. It’s the best way I can think of to shut my brain off.
Who has been the biggest influence on your writing?
Every book I’ve ever read has left a mark. You know the episode of “Sherlock” where a curator is slopping tea over the sides of an old teapot, and the pot is really ancient, and has been polished by many thousands of brews over the centuries? I think that’s kind of like reading and authors’ brains. Though I gather many writers use actual coffee to polish their brains, I prefer lemon squash.
Authors who have particularly influenced my writing include: Jeremy Scott, Ray Bradbury, Richard Laymon, Dick Francis, Jilly Cooper, Simon Garfield, the Brothers Grimm, William Golding, Graham Masterton, Shaun Tan, Elizabeth George, John Connolly, and Belinda Bauer. Matt Potter of Pure Slush, who has worked with me on short fiction and non-fiction since shortly after I started sending stories out into the world and published my first solo book “Wild: a collection” (2012), has acted as a mentor and friend, as has Jeremy Scott (“Fast & Louche” et al.), and my husband and family have always been very supportive and helpful. My husband is a scientist and I find his perspective really useful for both my novels and my nonfiction.
When you’re a famous author and you write your autobiography, what will be the title?
“FUBAR”? “Here Lies Gill Hoffs”? I don’t know how accurate any autobiography I write should be. There’s a limit to how many fuckups, rude jokes, and odes to chocolate bars a reader can be expected to take. If you want to get to know me it’s best to do it now, on social media or via firstname.lastname@example.org while I’m alive and able to interact with you without the use of a Ouija board or peyote.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Read before you write, especially outside your genre, as well as for pleasure, for research, and to find out what you love and also what you hate. Accept that any criticism you receive of your work is of your work – and that your work is not you, even if it’s non-fiction memoir. But accept the utility of criticism and learn from it. And if you are ever in doubt of your own abilities, or wondering whether to write something raw or dark or weird, or whether to submit it someplace reeeeaaaalllly good, or whether to approach a writer/editor/agent you admire, mutter “Fuck it” and do whatever you’re fretting about as soon as you can. If you don’t try, you’ll never know. Oh, and take any and all advice with a pinch of salt – if it doesn’t gel with your instincts, ignore it.
Do you have an agent?
I recently signed with Jennie Goloboy of the Red Sofa Literary Agency in America for my non-fiction work, and I’m delighted to be working with her on my shipwreck books. I’m currently seeking representation for my novels, which is proving an exciting experience.
What’s been your proudest moment as a writer?
I’m fortunate that there have been many great times so far, and I hope many still to come. When the Daily Mail featured an article (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2548476/The-First-Titanic-An-awesome-ships-maiden-voyage-catalogue-blunders-blood-curdling-disaster-gripping-new-book-tells-forgotten-story-Tayleur-Tragedy.html) on my ‘Victorian Titanic’ book I was over the moon – I would never have guessed this would happen when I started sending out short stories five years ago. This coverage and other articles and reviews led to more descendants of the people on board contacting me with information which I’ve included in the second edition, so it proved extremely useful too. I’ll be talking about my research on BBC’s “Coast” on Thursday 30th July at 8pm which I hope will lead to more descendants getting in touch.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?
Text on the page or screen is the prism through which I view the world, I love everything about it, so I can’t help but picture a terrible void – not just in my life, but in my mind – if my brain rewired again and I lost the writing element. It would be akin to switching from HD colour TV back to fuzzy black and white. No thanks! Realistically, I think I would be involved with publishing in some other way, as an editor (I sometimes take on freelance editing work to give me additional insight into the writing industry), agent, or something similar. Or I might have used my psychology degree in some way, perhaps returning to my previous career working with young people with ASD or EBD in children’s homes.
Where can we find you online?
All over the place! If you want a nosy at my work go to https://gillhoffs.wordpress.com/ which is where I tend to keep links to interviews, articles, and the like, or Twitter (@GillHoffs) is your best bet for regular updates on research, writing, and history.
Make sure you tune into ‘Coast’ tonight on BBC2 at 8pm to catch Gill!