The presence felt from reading a good piece of writing stays with you long after you finished reading that last line. It’s a feeling I often experience when reading Gill Hoff’s work. There’s passion and love, commitment and plain old fun in every piece this woman writes. I was curious to talk to Gill about her fiction and nonfiction, her process, and hear what she finds fascinating about writing.
Gill Hoffs lives in Warrington, England with a teetering To Be Read pile and a farting cat. Her work has won several prizes and is widely available online and in print, including her first book Wild: a collection (Pure Slush: June 2012) and The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’ (Pen & Sword: 2014) which was recently reviewed by the Daily Mail (January, 29 2014). Find her on twitter as @GillHoffs or feel free to email her with any questions or tips for sourcing cheap Nutella @ email@example.com.
If you could pick a historical event to witness, what would it be and why? Mine would simply be the first Ramones show at CBGB, for instance.
The answer most people would expect me to give would be the subject of my latest book, The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’, which is about a deadly shipwreck in 1854. I would like to be brave enough to say that, but having lived the past two years with daily examinations of the last words and desperate acts of the approximately 700 people on board her when she sank, I honestly don’t think I could bear it. My book’s the closest I can get to bearing witness to this forgotten tragedy, 160 years later, but the stories of these unfortunate travellers still make me well up so I don’t honestly think I could bear to watch. I will, however, be visiting the wreck sometime this year, diving with her conservator in the shallow waters near Dublin, watching lobsters scuttle and anemones swirl on the rusting remains of what was once the largest ship of her type in the world, and trying not to cry at the blank gravestones on the seabed.
Since it would be something I could only witness, not interact with, that rules out some of the sadder incidents in history that haunt me. And although I want to know whodunit and why, I wouldn’t want to view the death of actor Thelma “Hot Toddy” Todd, for example, though I’m taken with the mystery, or the gruesome demise of Elizabeth Short, the woman better known as the Black Dahlia. To watch Pompeii as Vesuvius erupted would be fascinating but unbearably horrific – when I think of the ruins, it’s the contorted casts of children and dogs that spring to mind. I think I’d probably opt for the last moments the Mary Celeste was occupied before the people on board disappeared in 1872, with the Dyatlov Pass mystery of 1959 as back-up. I know that none of these are happy events, but I’d rather sate my curiosity – what I’d class as a defining trait for writers – than revel in ignorant bliss (though I do draw the line at learning the grim details of cruelty to animals, ugh).
With the Mary Celeste, as with the other events I’ve mentioned here, it’s the mystery that appeals to me. The mystery and the possibilities, the satisfaction of a historic ‘reveal’, the mental scratch to the itch of dissatisfaction that lurks in every human’s mind when confronted with a question mark. I crave this knowledge as I sometimes do chocolate or deep-fried pizza and chips. Why did they leave the ship? What did they think was happening to make them abandon her? Are their bones waiting in a cave on a nearby island or have they long since been consumed by the sea? I doubt we’ll ever know.
In some ways all fiction writing is about the greater mystery of why we do what we do. I have to ask you a process question because I’ve noticed how incredibly dedicated you are to your writing projects. How do you carve out time to write and what’s your editing process like?
I don’t feel like anything’s “carved out”, so to speak. Things I make myself make time for are chores, mundane necessities like putting clean laundry away instead of leaving it in piles for the cat to sleep on or my six-year-old to hide under at bedtime, not writing, which is as much a part of me now as eating and breathing. As a writer, even if I don’t have a pen in my hand or my fingers on the keyboard, I’m experiencing the world and processing it as potential wordage, stockpiling details for backgrounds and locations and character traits, wondering how I would convey a specific smell or combination of colours.
Generally my preferred method of communication is in the assumed silence of words on a page or a screen, but to me when I read my head is full of noise and sensation, and I would hope whoever I’m communicating with feels something similar. My family is hugely supportive of my writing and I’m grateful to them for respecting my need to sometimes run upstairs and scribble something down or type something out because a story is just bursting out of my head, or for the times when we’re walking or driving somewhere and I have to jot something down on a napkin or receipt or the back of my hand (I do carry post-it pads and/or notebooks but they’re often ‘requisitioned’ by my son or forgotten in the heat of the moment). Most of my short pieces of work started out this way, and almost all of that has been published, so I’ve learned to listen to that inner voice when it starts shouting, or whispers persuasively, instead of putting off the actual transcription ’til later, which never works out well.
Before I wrote, when I painted and drew instead, I found I looked at everything in terms of medium, composition, size, and subject matter. I would classify someone as pastels, charcoal, watercolour – try to ‘freeze’ their irises or the intricacy of their ears in my mind’s eye and replicate them later – and soak up the outside world with a view to trapping or making sense of it on the page. I think this was just an earlier incarnation of my writing process, and visual art (and also music) really do feed into writing.
As for my editing process, hmm… For short pieces, the idea of writing out a rough draft then revising, revising, revising, fills me with horror, though I know it works for several of my friends. I try to write it down the way I want it first time round, quickly, then do the absolute minimum of editing. Check for unwanted repetition, two sentences that should be one or vice-versa, an idea that needs seeded with a word or phrase a few paragraphs earlier, that kind of thing. Generally, now, with my short pieces what you see is what I first wrote out with perhaps five words changed (though I get my husband to read over interview answers like this to make sure I’m expressing myself properly and reduce the chances of coming off as more of an arse than I actually am). The exception to this is my work with Matt Potter of Pure Slush, who has been such an influence of clarity on my work. When I write for him, like just now for the 2014 Project (a story a day over this year with 31 writers taking a date each and writing as their character on it – mine’s a sex-worker on the 9th), I know he will push me to clarify my work and I welcome and grow from his input every time. He is the whetstone that abrades the dull and sharpens what’s left on the page and in my mind.
For my shipwreck book, The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’, the process was very different. With it being nonfiction – and I am quite strict with my definition here, I do not appreciate pieces being put forward as nonfiction when there is deliberate or careless invention involved that isn’t made obvious to the reader – the words I used were often not my own but those of survivors or quotes they remembered from the dead. There was an unfamiliar house-style to work within and an excellent editor to get to know, and so I deliberately wrote over-long versions of each chapter so we knew what information and quotes were available/appropriate and could prune back from there for an accessible and pacy read. We worked chapter by chapter, then revisited the book as a whole, incorporating more details (I researched while working on it) and taking advantage of feedback from friends with nautical knowledge or who could advise me on the most appropriate way of wording, say, my brief mentions of the slave trade or American Indians. I learned a lot from this process and enjoyed it hugely, but switching tracks mentally to the flow-writing of fiction from the stop-start-check-double-check method of long nonfiction was challenging, I’ll admit!
Before we talk about your current project, I wanted to ask you about Wild, your collection of fiction and nonfiction published by Pure Slush in 2012. One of my favorite short stories in the collection is “Slut’s Pennies” because it showcases your talent for making a past experience feel fresh and contemporary. “Slut’s pennies” is an 18c term for hard pieces in a bread loaf from imperfect kneading. I learned this after reading the story, so one of the many layers of the story revives an antiquated term to illustrate the etymology of a derogatory term.
The nonfiction part of the collection gives us a glimpse into your writing philosophy. In the opening piece “Creating a Stink,” there’s an interesting line: “The most successful lies are those spun with truths.” For me, as someone who reads and writes mostly fiction, I think the opposite is true when it comes to a successful piece of nonfiction because the truth needs to be enhanced by a few untruths. Perhaps the teacup was pink but the pink was like the skin on the cat’s-paw. Which did you write first, fiction or nonfiction? And do you use the techniques of one to help you with the other?
I first concentrated on writing fiction pieces and sending them off in hopes of publication about four years ago, but because at that point most of my social life and correspondence with family and friends was (and still is) online, I would say my nonfiction writing has been in tandem with the fiction but in a different context and format: communication, support, and discussion. I truly do not understand why the internet isn’t more celebrated by the writing community. Social media hasn’t just brought a wealth of opportunities for myself and other writers in terms of exposure to different and diverse styles, publishing venues, hot potatoes/etiquette, and generous friends with a common passion, personally I’ve also found the habit of writing brief updates on my life and topics I find intriguing or revolting has helped me find my ‘voice’ as a writer and become accustomed to getting to the point as quickly as possible.
As someone who enjoys writing, discussing the process of writing, and really all the gubbins that goes with it (e.g. visiting CPI Printers in Chippenham, England, to watch my book being bound and covered and seeing first-hand the machines and people who actually created it as a physical thing), it feels natural to me to also write nonfiction about what I do and how I do it in pieces like Creating A Stink as well as about other topics that capture my interest or, sometimes, that bother me and niggle. For both fiction and nonfiction I tend to seek out what I believe are known as ‘the telling details’, which to me are the particular phrases or smells or items that key me into a scene or a character so I can let my imagination run wild and think ‘what if?’ with some kind of honesty. The constraints of nonfiction are exciting to work within, just as the freedoms of fiction are delicious to explore – writing in one discipline makes the other all the more alluring, like a balcony bra for going out to dinner then comfy pyjamas at the end of the day.
Nonfiction can easily be fictionalized, so what makes you decide to keep a prose piece as nonfiction? What do you gain or lose when you write nonfiction rather than fiction?
Without sounding too much of a tosser (I hope) I would say pieces and topics usually present themselves to me, mentally, as one or the other without me having to think it over. Some subjects, such as the Tayleur shipwreck, I revisit in different forms as they come to me. Approaching this tragedy as a topic after researching it for short pieces, I was aware of the diversity and complexity of what remained of the stories in the accounts the survivors left behind. There was no need to add to their narrative while writing my book – indeed, to have consciously done so would, I feel, have been a grave insult to the people involved.
As for gains and losses in writing nonfiction, I think from a practical perspective, nonfiction – certainly of the historical sort (as opposed to, say, diet books) – gives the writer the great luxury of having the records to back up what they want to write about to editors and publishers and potential critics. With fiction there is always the danger that your plot or characters, which seem so vivid and true in your head, will be dismissed as unlikely or unbelievable on the page. There may well be pressure from people you respect to change key elements of your novel or short story. With historical nonfiction you can actually prove to some degree that something happened or that there is evidence for a person/character behaving in a certain manner. Your job as a writer is to communicate this to the reader in the most appropriate and believable way, so your method of delivery might well require modification but the core ‘plot’ and ‘characters’ will remain intact.
The only losses I can think of would be that there are sometimes dead-ends in research, frustrating blanks and gaps in the records, which with fiction your imagination would instinctively bridge but with nonfiction you have to work around so your book makes sense for the reader and flows smoothly while also retaining its integrity as a nonfiction piece. I should point out that there is great debate over the precise definition of nonfiction and that some writers feel adding their own untruths into the story – without distinguishing to the reader what is their own supposition or theory or writerly flourish and what is commonly accepted as fact – still counts, whereas I am uncomfortable with adding details such as the colour of the captain’s coat, for example, into the narrative unless I can source it from a witness’s account. It was blue, by the way.
Gill, tell us what’s happening on the publication front and when we here in the US can get our copy of your upcoming book?
Well, apart from forthcoming articles about The Sinking of RMS Tayleur on sites such as the illustrious Literary Orphans (see ‘Pig and potatoes’ in their Irish-themed issue, due out this Easter) and in magazines like UK-based Discover Your History, I’m involved with 30 other writers in Pure Slush’s 2014 – a year in stories which means I’m writing a story from the point of view of a Mancunian sex worker on the 9th of every month.
The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic is out now in the UK and is currently available to pre-order on Amazon and Barnes & Noble’s sites prior to its April release in the USA and other countries outside of the UK. I’ll be giving talks on the people involved in the tragedy, and writing/researching nonfiction, too, but if anyone has any questions or information about family connections to the Tayleur, for example, they are most welcome to contact me on twitter (@GillHoffs) or at firstname.lastname@example.org.