Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Wild Scotland -- an Interview with Author Gill Hoffs

Gill Hoffs, author of Wild: a collection
Gill Hoffs (pronounced with a soft G), a writer from Scotland, grew up on the Scottish coast, studied psychology, biology and English literature at the University of Glasgow, then worked with children with a variety of needs (ASD and/or EBD, mainly) throughout the UK. She married her best friend and they now live in Ayr, Scotland with their son Angus, having previously lived in the North of England for the 8 years. Hoffs' first book, Wild, has just been published by Pure Slush.


IMBO: Gill, welcome to I Must Be Off! Reading your stories and non-fiction in your new collection Wild, I can smell the sea air and hear the waves. What is your connection to the sea?

Hoffs: I was raised in towns and villages along the west coast of Scotland, and lived in a 17th century cottage with a seaview from about the age of ten. It had walls deeper than my outstretched arms and the roof leaked whenever it rained. On the west coast, it rains a lot. I could smell the salt sea air and the stink of rotting seaweed in summer as I played in the garden (if I wasn't too near the septic tank), and hear the crash of waves when it was stormy, as it frequently was there. I wasn't happy in that old cottage and tended to spend my time either staring out to sea or wandering about the fields and the shore, mucking about in the streams and caves there and exploring some tumbledown huts which had been used to provide 'Borstal boys' from the Kibble School in Paisley with a holiday before I was born. I'd fill my pockets with books and snacks and hope I didn't need the toilet while I was out - that kind of thing's trickier to deal with when you can't pee standing up without soaking your socks.

IMBO: I sometimes soak my socks anyway. What are Borstal Boys?

Greenan Castle
Hoffs:  Ha!  Well, my understanding is or rather was that there were boys in Borstal (the old version of a Young Offenders' Unit) and sometimes they would be brought to the coast for a holiday. There wasn't much left of the huts when I was growing up, just some wooden frames, partition walls, dirty magazines -- in both senses of the word -- and rusting bed springs. No evidence of toilets or plumbing, but those might have been 'recycled' when the huts were first abandoned. Waste not want not!

IMBO: I remember similar ruins in my teenage years. As you were exploring these places as a teen, were you aware that they'd later become part of your fiction? And your non-fiction?

Hoffs: No - I always thought of writing as something other people did. But then, I thought the same of working in children's homes.  I'm very glad things have panned out as they have, and that I can explore the ruins through my writing and commit them to the page. Especially since the huts have gone now so memories are all that are left apart from a cleared area on the shore where they moved the rocks to make a swimming pool. 

"Having English blood and heritage meant being spat on at school -- one boy had parents who smoked, so it was quite a colourful lungful that stuck to my skirt . . ."

IMBO: Your father is from Northern Ireland, your mother from England, but you grew up "Scottish"--do you feel Scottish? And if you do--and even if you don't--could you describe the feeling for us? 

University of Glasgow
Hoffs: Hmm. I don't feel Scottish as such, and I don't understand the concept of national pride, but I think there's a certain roguishness to it. A brazen, cheeky, romantic kinda thing.  Personally, I feel more comfortable in England, but wherever I am, I yearn for the Ayrshire shores I roamed as a teenager. Because I don't feel like I belong anywhere (the theme of not fitting in is, perhaps, apparent in my work) it's a lot easier to live in places where my accent marks me as different. This means that locals accept the differences, write off a lot of my 'quirks' and eccentricities as a cultural variant, and we're all happy. When I live somewhere (as I do now) where my accent and appearance lead locals to believe I'm 'one of them' when I'm really not, but 'a bit of a weirdo' (probably true), I experience a real sense of unease. Having English blood and heritage meant being spat on at school -- one boy had parents who smoked, so it was quite a colourful lungful that stuck to my skirt -- although to the people I respected and gave a toss about, it meant nothing. I found out about my dad when I was 11ish, and have never lived with him (though we talk online several times a week if not more and are VERY alike) so I find it interesting that a lot of people ask whereabouts in Ireland I'm from. Apparently I have a 'lilt' in my voice. It's probably just that I'm trying to stifle the giggles. I get them a lot.

IMBO: I hear that in your writing. You have quite a lot of children in your work, but they don't often giggle. They're more often lost or outsiders.

Hoffs: Well, I really feel for children and animals, and vividly remember as a child being an outsider and feeling terribly lost myself. This is fairly typical for writers of fiction, or so I gather. If you can't escape physically you escape mentally instead, using your imagination or somebody else's. In some people this leads to mental illness, in some it leads to lying or fantasising on the page. Or a combination of both. 

Dunure Shore
The stories that spill out fully formed, surprising me as they take shape on the page, feature characters or situations which include snippets of people and places I was drawn to as a child. "Acceptance" and "Firework Sand" in Wild: a collection are prime examples of this. I suppose it's a kind of lucid dreaming in text. When we were taught the theories behind the purpose of dreaming at Uni, just over a decade ago, there was a school of thought that held dreams are the brain's way of consolidating memories and organising storage (I'm paraphrasing here -- the lectures on abnormal psychology were more my thing). I think the same is true of writing fiction and creative nonfiction.

I knew children who were horribly abused while I was growing up, including a girl who killed herself to escape her brother's 'attentions', and before I had my son I worked in children's homes in Scotland and England. Reading was my salvation, and I tried to pass this coping mechanism onto the kids.

IMBO: I've often commented that reading, especially humor, is curative. In terms of a coping mechanism, does it matter what one reads?

Hoffs: Agreed. I think the act of reading itself is beneficial for a person's mental state: again, I'm paraphrasing (and my memory's dreadful) but studies have shown that the act of moving your eyes from side to side has a beneficial effect on a person's mental state and helps to calm them. I don't know what percentage of the world's readers primarily read horizontally rather than vertically arranged characters or letters, or whether there have been any studies exploring any links with mental health, but I'd be interested to know more if anybody has any information on it. As for subject matter, well, I'd be inclined to suggest that those with depression avoid anything likely to encourage suicidal ideation -- that goes for music, too -- but for me sugar-sweet endings and happy-sappy stories only ever make me feel bored or worse than I did before. Crime thrillers and horror generally include principal characters with mental strength and vigour doing things rather than allowing things to be done to them, fighting their fate, and meeting their adversaries in brave and creative ways. This excited my imagination and spurred me on in my obstinate ways, and these are still my genres of choice for reading material, although I'm drawn to history books which include first person accounts, too. Despite being 33, I'm also a big fan of children's books and I would recommend Michael Rosen's The Sad Book to anybody who is grieving or is likely to be soon. 

IMBO: That makes so much sense: that strong characters who fight fate and adversaries are more important than happy endings. From the non-fiction section of Wild, I can see that you're drawn to history. So many shipwrecks and ship disasters.

Ayr Beach
Hoffs:  I suppose in general it's not what happens to you but what you do with it that counts. Yes, I've always been fascinated by the past -- perhaps because it's 'safe' in that what has happened is done with, and those who were going to die, have, and those who would survive whatever was going on, did. It's interesting, too, to read firsthand accounts and contemporary newspaper reports from periods in history to reinforce the feeling that these people whose fate is long past had no more of a clue of what would happen to them in life than we do now. Intellectually, I know this, but emotionally it's hard to hold onto that fact. As for the shipwrecks, that's all part and parcel of being so keen on the coast, I think. As "Black Fish" shows, you're taking your life in your hands whenever you go out to sea. It's vital to remember and respect the elements wherever you are.

IMBO: Hear, hear, Gill. I have enjoyed this talk so much. Thank you for stopping by. I wish you much success with Wild, which I loved. You've showed me a Scotland that I didn't know.

Hoffs: Thank you! It's been very stimulating, and if you're ever up here, I hope you'll let me show you the Wild side of Scotland in person. But only if you promise to wear clean socks!


Gill Hoff's Wild: a collection is available from Pure Slush HERE.

Christopher Allen is the author of the absurdist satire Conversations with S. Teri O'Type.