Lots of people don’t realise that although you may see work by a certain author on the bookshelves in your favourite shop, many writers still hold down a day job in addition to penning their next novel. In this series, we talk to writers about how their current – or previous – day jobs have inspired and informed their writing.
Regular readers of the blog will recognise today’s writer and worker as Gill Hoffs, Nutella fiend and all-round top woman. Gill’s going to be telling us how her career has influenced her writing.
I’m shit at small talk, and apparently it’s not alright to say to a stranger, “If you have a look at my twitter feed that tends to reflect what I’m about – rude history, strange nature, art, and junk food. How about yourself?” So I bear in mind that there are several standard topics to discuss, cultural checkpoints that establish you as ‘alright to be around’ and ‘not a threat’, such as weather, the niceness (or otherwise) of wherever we happen to be, and – at a push – occupation.
Depending on the situation, I lead with one of my two jobs: carer or author, though the latter usually leads to tongue-biting. I love both and, since I tend to write about people from the past, they’re kinda linked.
I used to work in children’s homes, where I’d spend part of my week living alongside children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. A key part of the job (as I saw it, anyway) was to find whatever small or large details it took to make a connection with each kid. Much of this was rooted in the mundane. Did they prefer Penguins or Rich Teas with their hot drinks? Movies or soaps? Cereals or toast? And to build on our relationship from there. We built bonds, fragile but precious, from these fragments of personal taste, the human equivalent of “telling details”.
Now I work with older people in a nursing home. Instead of attempting to set our charges on the path to a happy, healthy, and independent adulthood we’re doing our best to make them comfortable, and bring them joy or, at the very least, a measure of peace and contentment. Relationships are just as important but can be trickier to navigate, especially when memory issues are involved, but again, we build bonds over tiny details. Pets or no, custard creams or bourbons, Stones or Beatles, tattoos and hair-dye – there’s always something we can connect through.
This principle, that these tiny yesses and noes, personal preferences, wrinkled noses and dimpled smiles add up to a whole bunch of humanity, lies at the heart of my other work as a writer and researcher. When I create my shipwreck books, I find that many of the records have been boiled down to numbers and percentages, weights and measures, lists of co-ordinates, cargo and casualties. My biggest priority is restoring the humanity to the people involved with these tragedies, and for me the easiest way to do so is to flesh out the names attached to these statistics. What were their nicknames? What did they love?
As someone who is often led by their belly, one of my favourite examples for this is when Hendrick Jans Kas, a survivor of the William & Mary shipwreck, wrote home to Friesland from America ‘I think I will like living here. Americans eat pork three times a day and beef and that is a bright prospect for me.’ Food as a source of joy? I suspect we’d get along great.
To find out more about Hendrick and his fellow shipwreck survivors (and the captain and crew who attempted mass murder in the Bahamas), read ‘The Lost Story of the William & Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson‘ (Pen & Sword, 2016). Gill’s first shipwreck book, ‘The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’ (Pen & Sword, 2014, 2015), is also available from reputable and disreputable outlets.