The Lost Story of the William & Mary: An Inter-Review with Gill Hoffs

A ship is impaled on a rock in a sea swarming with sharks 1200 miles from home. Worse yet, the almost 200 passengers on board the William & Mary have been abandoned by a cowardly captain. Nearly 200 European emigrants, each with their personal stories, fighting disease, corruption and the mercilessness of the sea. All of this Gill Hoffs brings alive in her new book, The Lost Story of the William & Mary: the Cowardice of Captain Stinson. At the hands of a less stalwart writer, this story might have been tamed, sanitized with a bit of fake grime and a couple of Hollywood heartthrobs, but Hoffs never shies away from the filth and horror of reality. We see and smell and feel every moment of tragedy—but also salvation.

As in Hoffs’ first book about a shipwreck, The Sinking of RMS Tayleur, Hoffs brings us a meticulously researched account of a harrowing disaster at sea. This review is also an interview. I’ve asked Gill Hoffs to talk a bit about the process of writing The Lost Story of the William & Mary, available now from Pen & Sword Books

IMBO: Gill, just how much research goes into projects like these, and what was the most difficult aspect of the research?

Hoffs: Thanks for having me here, Chris, and for the review! The short answer is, a lot. Here’s the longer one: after the initial online exploration to see whether there are enough survivor/witness accounts to allow a whole book (and to check another author hasn’t beaten me to it) I’ll spend a couple of months on sites like the British Newspaper Archive, Trove, Ancestry, and FindMyPast, immersing myself in information. I’ll take another few months to look up everyone involved – though if someone’s name is common it’s usually a fruitless endeavor – and to read around the subject, find out about contemporary events and similar shipwrecks, and have a damn good think.

Throughout this, I’ll also be contacting complete strangers via social media, Ancestry accounts, forum message boards, and institutions for further information on related matters. With the William & Mary book, for example, I spent a while discussing oorijzer (a type of head ornament worn by the Frisian women on board) with people in museums and universities around the world. For the Tayleur, I was very grateful to a doctor at Harvard who took the time to discuss TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) with me in relation to this Victorian shipwreck.

Below deck on an emigrant ship
While I’m writing the first draft, which takes up to two months, I’ll still be researching people and places, and the same goes for subsequent drafts when my editor or advance readers may flag something up requiring explanation or elaboration. As for the hardest part, well, it’s probably no surprise to anyone who knows me or follows me on twitter that it’s the emotional toll of the research that’s the most difficult part of the job for me. Even though I obviously know who lives and who dies in these wrecks – and by now that generation is long dead anyway – I can’t help but root for these people and grieve when I have to relate their demise and imagine it in often gory detail. My books are memorials to the long-forgotten dead and it’s important to document what happened and, if possible, why. I get through some amount of Kleenex (and Nutella) though.

IMBO: There are so many individual tragedies: the deaths of children, the separation of wives from their husbands and children, disease and betrayal. One in particular is Trijntje de Haan, a woman who holds on to her prized possessions until one last horrible moment when a crew member snatches it away from her. 

Gill, How do these details persist, and aren’t they so full of cinematic potential?

Hoffs: When I read old newspapers etc. it’s immediately clear which individuals should be focused on to carry the reader through my book and which people, sadly, haven’t left enough details behind in online-available accounts and descriptions to allow me to tell their stories in full. Women and children often appear in contemporary reports of these wrecks as “wife of” or “child of” with no further details given, which is utterly infuriating. Whenever I can restore their identities and redress this imbalance, I do, so when I read of Treen’s awful experience in a way I was pleased because I knew it was something I just had to include, and that it would affect readers – I always hope my books will have some kind of emotional impact, it seems the least I can do for the people on these wrecks: we should feel for them. I haven’t lost children as she did on that long and awful voyage across the Atlantic, but I have had four miscarriages and keep my own ‘memory box’ of half-finished home-made baby blankets and scan pictures, and I know I would be gutted to lose them.

Trijntje (Catherine Tuininga) Albers de Haan, Copyright Christopher Lindstrom

I read fast but retain little, and I trust my brain to let key moments and telling details ‘stick’. The bits I find myself recounting to my Nana over the phone always end up in my books, like Treen losing her treasured bag of mementoes during the rescue, a fellow emigrant describing another member of their party somewhat scathingly as “not exactly the inventor of the steam-engine”, and a survivor writing home to his parents “I think I will like living here. Americans eat pork three times a day and beef and that is a bright prospect for me.” I think journalists from back then had those same instincts and their articles are often crammed with details meant to engage readers who may have never been to sea or even seen a large body of water, which work 160+ years later in involving other people – myself and my own readers – with these tales of strange events in stranger times.

As for cinematic potential, well, my Most Asked Questions from readers are “When is this going to be a film?” and “Why hasn’t this been made into a film already?” – and that goes for both of my shipwreck books. Little would make me happier than seeing these shipwrecks on the big screen, especially if we could get actual descendants in as extras for the crowd scenes on board!

IMBO: One aspect of Hoffs’ writing I love is that she places the shipwreck in historical context. In this case, the milieu is mid-nineteenth-century Europe, a time and place of dire crisis with millions of desperate people on the move to find a better life. Where there are millions of desperate people, there will be corrupt men there to take advantage of their plight. 

Gill, what similarities and differences do you see between the situation almost 200 years ago and today’s immigrant crisis?

Hoffs: I’m glad you picked up on this, Chris. I was writing this book around the time that photo of a washed up toddler hit the headlines and it really rammed home the point that all these generations later, all this progress later, we still have the same problems: with safety at sea, and with each other. No-one can choose the time or place to exit their mother’s womb so it astonishes me to see apparently rational and decent people decide whether to treat someone with respect and compassion on the basis of geography, politics, and nearness – or how much melanin is present in their skin. The only difference between then and now is that we have fewer excuses for misbehavior and ignorance.

IMBO: I see this book as a movie. Nothing would please me more than seeing the rights sold to a major studio. This cinematic vision begins with Shakespeare: “Ships are but boards, sailors but men” and evolves into an epic story of human nature, Good (Captain Sands) balancing/shaming Evil (Captain Stinson). 

Gill, are there plans to approach a studio? Have you thought of turning this into a screenplay?

Port Lucaya Beach
Hoffs: Yes! The cowardly Captain Stinson continues to fascinate me – though I’d rather be at sea with the heroic wrecker Robert “Amphibian” Sands for obvious reasons! I did try sending James Cameron my ‘Victorian Titanic’ book but unfortunately the address I had was no longer in use. I absolutely agree that these shipwreck stories are prime candidates for adaptation, and when I’m writing the books it feels as if I’m describing the footage of the wreck as it plays in my head. If anyone has any suggestions I’m all ears and they are most welcome to contact myself or my nonfiction agent Jennie Goloboy of Red Sofa Literary Agency. As for writing screenplays, I’d rather write the books and act in an advisory role for the film (and as an extra with the descendants!) than cut my teeth on something so important to me.

IMBO: Hoffs’ boundless curiosity drives her work. It’s beyond evident that this is a writer who loves digging for the golden details. I’m also a writer who can’t get enough of the details. After reading Hoffs' book, I can now tell you what costiveness meant to the Victorians (constipation) and what a jolly boat is (a tender). I now know that bacon is good for a fever. Actually bacon is good. Period. But to discover that at least one Victorian doctor in the mid-nineteenth century included bacon as a treatment for fever is priceless. 

Gill, what detail shocked you the most as you were doing your research?

Hoffs: Prescribing bacon for a fever struck me as somewhat absurd and it’s not something I would necessarily recommend myself! I think what shocked me the most was finding out about the hatchet murders. I could well imagine the desperation involved with swimming for the departing longboat despite the threat of sharks, reaching for the side of the boat as their feet thrust through the water, and seeing the hatchet fall in the early morning sunlight. It makes me feel sick at heart. The captain and crew were responsible for their human cargo’s well-being and survival and had lived beside them in close quarters for six weeks. They knew of the emigrants’ hopes for the future, their families and friends, and their turns of phrase. To then not only abandon them to almost-certain death but actually hack at some of their fellow travellers with a hatchet and kill them is, to me, unforgivable.

IMBO: Hoffs’ The Lost Story of the William & Mary: the Cowardice of Captain Stinson is a page-turner full of the voices of the people who were present, the people who were fighting for their lives on this fated voyage. Gill Hoffs’ generous and vivid portrayal of this tragedy provides us with a vital record and testimony to the courage and fate of the migrant.

Brava, Gill!

Hoffs: Thank you, that means a lot to me. In case anyone reading this interview is thinking “I reckon my ancestor had something to do with the Tayleur or the William & Mary…”, my email address is gillhoffs@hotmail.co.uk – I love to hear from descendants, it’s a privilege to be able to answer questions (if I can) and even incorporate information received into future editions of my books.

IMBO: I Must Be Off! readers, be sure and comment below. One lucky person will win a copy of Gill Hoffs' book. A few weeks after this inter-review runs, I'll draw names out of a hat. You'll love this book, so make sure you leave a comment.

I must be off,
Christopher

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Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Juked, Eclectica Magazine's 20th-Anniversary Speculative anthology, Indiana Review, FRiGG, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and over a hundred other great places. Read his book reviews in [PANK], Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, The Lit Pub, and others. His creative non-fiction has appeared in Chicken Soup for the Soul, Bootsnall Travel, and lots of other fine places. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net, the storySouth Million Writers Award, and the Pushcart Prize. He is the 2015 recipient of Ginosko Literary Journal's award for flash fiction and in 2016 took third place in the K. Margaret Grossman fiction award given by Literal Latté. Allen is the managing editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.

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