Interview by Nicole Melanson ~
Gill Hoffs grew up along the Scottish coast and now lives in Warrington with her family, Coraline Cat, and never quite enough chocolate. After gaining a degree in psychology she worked with children with a variety of needs throughout the UK before having her son in 2007. She is the author of The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’ (Pen & Sword, 2014) and Wild: a Collection (Pure Slush, 2012), as well as over a hundred short stories and articles published online and in print. Gill is currently writing her next novel and another non-fiction shipwreck book so (more) chocolate is extremely welcome.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED AS A WRITER?
Migraines. They’re the “silent” type but personally I think mine should be called “smelly migraines” as they usually announce themselves with hallucinations that stink. Vomit, faeces…you name it, my brain’s faking it. I’m lucky in many ways with them. They don’t often hurt, the odours aren’t delicious like garlic bread or a Snickers so I don’t drool or get extra-hungry, and best of all, compulsive writing is a symptom. They only started after I had my son—apparently it’s common for migraines to change form as you age and your hormone levels alter—and as a result I started writing and sending off stories in the summer of 2010.
WHAT IS YOUR LATEST BOOK OR CURRENT PROJECT?
A sad true story that may well involve a reader’s ancestors: The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’ (Pen & Sword, 2014). The tragedy made headlines around the world almost 60 years before Titanic. Both were run by the White Star Line, both were heralded as the most splendid ships of their time, and both sank in tragic circumstances on their maiden voyages. My book focuses on the stories of the people involved with this unlucky ship, reveals the identity and tragic fate of the unnamed orphan known as “The Ocean Child”, and also explores why only three women survived compared to hundreds of men.
Last year I was taken to the Irish island the ship crashed into and sat at the top of the vertical cliffs the survivors had to scramble up to safety. It’s a beautiful but eerie place and I read the list of travellers aloud, all 700+ names, while a seal slept in the water above the wreck. It took a long time and really brought home to me how many people were directly involved in this tragedy.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK ENVIRONMENT LIKE?
Messy and comfortable. I either work from the sofa with my cat beside or on me and my notes spread over the coffee table, cushions and floor, or in our little box-room where I have an old bureau and rocking chair and LOTS of bookcases. If I have a deadline and there are other humans in the house then this is the best option. My son has drawn on notes and manuscripts more than once so it’s best to remove that temptation from the room he’s in. I like to key into work-mode using sounds and smells so my bureau always smells of incense and I tend to play music in there when I’m settling down to write. It’s cozy and crammed with visual stimulation and one of my favourite places to be.
WHEN DO YOU WORK? WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE?
I work when I can and my family’s very supportive of this, which is great. A lot of my writer friends are actively discouraged and sometimes scorned by their loved ones and it makes me appreciate the cheerleading I receive all the more. When my son’s at school I warm up my fingers on social media and by sending emails, then settle down to whatever’s due next. I like to immerse myself in a chapter for a good few thousand words then have something to eat and go back to it before collecting my son. In the evening I may well write more, depending on how close a deadline is or how migraine-y I am.
When it’s the school holidays, I cram all my writing into the evenings. You shouldn’t wait to be given time. You need to create time for something you consider necessary for yourself.
WHAT IS YOUR WRITING PROCESS?
Think, plot, research, sort the internal logic, research some more, write, read, read aloud, read aloud in a different voice (William Shatner, for example) if unsure of a section, tinker, re-read, send.
When I’m indulging in a longer piece like a book I’ll sort my reference books into piles so they’re to hand, sort a chapter plan using Post-Its, talk it over with my husband and mum-in-law, and assign the project its own A4 notebook for thoughts, To-Do lists, phone call information and so on. I have two books on the go just now, a nonfiction shipwreck book and a thriller, plus two novels on submission with agents, and more planned out in theory for a few years’ time, so there’s a lot of paper lying about the box-room which my cat likes to sleep on.
WHY DO YOU WRITE?
I loved writing stories at school and books have always been my teachers, my comfort, my friends, and my escape. To be able to make my own—to create what I want when I can’t find it out there already—is a buzz like no other.
WHO OR WHAT INSPIRES YOUR WRITING?
Everything inspires me in some way. My husband is a scientist with a love of science fiction so when we talk about things it’s with different knowledge bases and vocabularies, which often sparks something. I follow a lot of weird-history-type accounts on Twitter which throw up a lot of oddities and unusual beauty. PostSecret and Dear Prudie (a problem page on Slate) are useful too.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART OF BEING A WRITER?
Sometimes the migraines mean I struggle to type or hold a pen properly or speak right, which is enormously frustrating. So I suppose the biggest challenge sometimes is being physically able to get the words out of my head and onto a page, but it always passes and I’m certainly motivated to make the most of the “clear” time I have!
WHAT IS YOUR VISION AS A WORD ARTIST OR BOOK INDUSTRY PROFESSIONAL?
Personally, I would really like to click with an agent. The non-fiction industry is open to direct submissions from authors but with the publishing houses I’m aiming for to represent my fiction, an agent would be best. I did have a proper dream-come-true scenario being on TV this year and would be very keen to do more of that. I also love giving talks on writing and history, so I plan on continuing with that as well.
As for the literary world as a whole, I would like to see more diversity in terms of authors, characters, and settings. I was really impressed with Belinda Bauer’s “Rubbernecker”, a standalone murder mystery starring a protagonist with Asperger’s, and would like to see more.
WHICH FEMALE AUTHORS WOULD YOU LOVE TO HEAR MORE FROM?
Belinda Bauer, Muriel Gray, Elizabeth George, Rosie Garland, and Emma Briant. I’m friends with Emma and constantly in awe of the work she puts in to examine and expose how the rich and powerful use media strategies and propaganda. She’s intelligent, conscientious, and brave, and while my work highlights injustice in the past her work helps to prevent it in the future.
WHICH FEMALE AUTHORS WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE INTERVIEWED ON WORDMOTHERS NEXT?
Thank you, Gill Hoffs!
— Nicole Melanson
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