Ok… erm… um… Actually I’m just gonna come out and ask it. Why have you written a book about a ship that sank 160 years ago?
Because the book I wanted to read about it hadn’t been written yet. I was haunted by the story when I first came across mention of it in Warrington Museum, and the more I found out about the people involved, the more I had to know. I don’t like writing about something that’s been chronicled a million times over, and the beauty of the Tayleur story for me as an author was that although it’s pretty much unknown these days (though I should point out that there are two excellent books also available, by H.F. Starkey and Edward Bourke, which provide great detail about the technical specifications of the ship), at the time it was MASSIVE news and the survivor accounts were well documented. I have a terrible memory so give me a year and the book will be an exciting new read. I hope.
I am a fiction writer and I do zero research into my stories so I have no idea how you would go about starting something like this. Could you take us through the process briefly?
Google was my friend. I did the vast majority of the research sat on my arse at home – it would have been impossible to do otherwise as my little boy was only at pre-school for a couple of hours a day when I started work on it. A lot of the information was available online, and when the curator at Warrington Museum who first told me about the wreck advised me to look up the survivor accounts, they basically destroyed me: I struggled to sleep and just kept visualising the deaths of the babies on board, over a dozen of them. I refused to read any more about it, but the story kept niggling at me and in the end I just had to immerse myself in it and get googling. I joined Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.co.uk/) and the British Newspaper Archive (http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk) and that was it, I was off.
Having followed your labours on the infernal Facebook over the past eighteen months or so, I’ve noticed that you’ve been able to meet descendants of people who were involved and others that were concerned in various ways. Was there a moment when you got a call or e-mail or letter and you thought “I’ve cracked it here?”
Yes, there were maybe 700 or so people on board (impossible to be accurate this long after) and one family, an ex-convict who made his fortune in the Australian Gold Rush and returned to Stamford to collect his sweetheart and son, were proving impossible to trace. It turned out that the name was wrong – the accounts I was going from had him as ‘Carley’ instead of ‘Carby’. I typed the place name of the Assizes he was tried at (for the crime of sheep-slaughtering) into an Australian search engine to do with convict ships and suddenly all these details popped up – his physical description, court details, the lot – and I was bouncing about the room cheering and swearing with joy! Once I had that and some other details from Ancestry, I started searching individual addresses online in case anything else was associated with them (for example, one chap had grown up next door to the Bronte sisters’ school just a short while after they’d attended class there, which I found pretty cool) and I found an ancient post on an old forum from somebody looking for information about their great-grandfather, who’d lived in one of the houses I’d looked up. I searched them out and it turned out he was the ex-convict’s son – and they’d had NO idea their family had ever been out of England, let alone making fortunes in Australia.
Did researching such an upsetting story affect you in a personal way at all?
Oh totally. I was a snottery, blubbering, stress-eating mess. Spending several years examining and reliving these poor sods’ last moments, their hopes and dreams and reasons for emigrating, made them feel like close friends or family, and sometimes I wouldn’t know for sure whether they lived or died on the wreck until I came across a witness account or traced them in a later census record. The suspense was awful! Some of them went on to live long and hopefully happy lives, but a few died miserable, painful deaths shortly after and that seemed terribly unfair after they’d already been through so much. I was pretty much obsessed with the Tayleur and even when I was doing pleasant things, like watching a film with my family, my mind was with the travellers or the wreck.
What was the saddest thing you found out?
That’s like making me choose my most missed childhood pudding (on a grander, shittier scale, obviously). Every death was horrendous to read about. The accounts of children dying on or shortly after the wreck had me in pieces. I don’t drink but my recycling bin soon clinked with the many Nutella empties I racked up. For example, there was a boy, maybe about ten years old, struggling in the water by the ship after watching his mother drown. A young man from Wakefield, Yorkshire, tried to rescue him while he too was in the water. He attempted to help the boy to the rocks, soothing him when he sobbed and told the man to leave him be as he knew he was done for. The man was battered by wreckage and the action of the waves, injured from guarding the child from items crashing into them, but persevered and they almost made it – I’m welling up typing this – and then a bastard great wooden spar smashed the kid’s head in, just as they reached the rock. The young man was clearly horrified, and no wonder. Then there was the tale about how when the cries of land were heard below decks, the younger children were SOOO excited because – despite being only two days into the voyage – they thought they’d already reached Australia. I can imagine my son thinking the same thing. Minutes later, all but three of the seventy children aboard drowned or were dashed against the rocks. Grim, awful, shattering stuff.
You’ve written for this site a few times and I’m always struck by the natural humour in your articles. Was it a departure for you to write about such a sombre subject?
For me, humour and darkness are fingers on the same hand. The more awful the subject matter, the more likely I am to make a joke of it, and generally a tasteless one at that. It’s not from a lack of respect or humanity, it’s a coping mechanism, I suppose, and a useful one. Humans need to cry sometimes but they also need to laugh. A lot of my short stories are quite sombre or bleak (though the horror pieces tend to be graphic, gruesome, disgusting, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek) and my novel, currently out on submission, is certainly the dark side of a nightmare. This means I’m more likely to take the piss out of myself online and in interviews in order to maintain my equilibrium/sanity. I know from experience that without making time and opportunities for laughter when immersing myself in truly horrific and depressing knowledge, I’ll be ruined mentally, and I have no urge to destroy myself like that. That said, I don’t enjoy or have the appetite for 100% happy endings. I want realistic satisfaction, and that often involves shit happening, and lots of it. But when writing nonfiction, and especially nonfiction about people who suffered horrific trauma, I felt it would be disrespectful to introduce even a sniff of humour within the book’s text. I even agonized over the author photo for the jacket – and trust me, I don’t give a shit about looking pretty – in case I looked light-hearted or smirk-y.
This book I would imagine would appeal to a very select audience. Was that something you had in mind when you wrote it?
I wrote it to appeal to me, to be honest, though I knew from browsing in bookshops nearby that there would be a market for it. It has broader appeal than you might initially think: “The Suspicions of Mr Whicher” by Kate Summerscale made historical nonfiction seem more of an option to readers of other subjects and genres, and “The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’” isn’t just about a shipwreck, it’s about love stories, bravery, tragedy, Victoriana, and a massive cover-up the like of which I hadn’t previously seen. Heroism and villainy is a theme as ancient as humanity yet somehow it never grows old.
Have you been pleased with how it’s been received?
Bloody ecstatic! I’m so pleased with the reviews it’s receiving, the feedback it’s getting, and the awareness it’s raised for the poor sods involved with this wreck and many others. They shouldn’t have been forgotten – indeed, Charles Dickens’ magazine ‘Household Words’ urged the world to remember Dr Robert Hannay Cunningham, the ship’s surgeon, for his bravery and selfless devotion to others forever more. This book attempts to rectify this sad situation and has already led to several descendants getting in touch who had previously known nothing of what their ancestors had been through.
Do you write anything other than non-fiction? And where can we find your other stuff?
Oh, I write pretty much anything and everything, whatever comes into my head, though I’ve been focussing on this shipwreck book and related articles almost exclusively of late. My back catalogue, so to speak, is listed with links where appropriate at http://gillhoffs.wordpress.com/ or if you want to know about something in particular then feel free to email me at email@example.com or contact me (@GillHoffs) on twitter. My first book, “Wild: a collection”, which is a mixture of short fiction and nonfiction including a piece about one of the Tayleur survivors (an anonymous orphan known as the ‘Ocean Child’) is out now from Pure Slush. I work with them a lot and I’m currently writing a story a month about a Mancunian sex worker for Pure Slush’s “2014: a year in stories” (http://pureslush.webs.com/2014.htm). I also have a nonfiction piece about the generosity of the Irish towards the Tayleur survivors up at Literary Orphans (http://www.literaryorphans.org/playdb/) sometime around Easter, which of course I’ll be celebrating with chocolate.
Well, thanks for the interview Hoffs. And… just one more thing… I know it’s probably a stupid question but I’ve got to ask. That surely isn’t your natural hair colour is it?
I wish it was – nope, this is from a bottle of foul-smelling chemicals. I was blonde till my teens then my natural colour started turning more mousey. I think there’s some grey coming in now though I only really know about it from my roots. I’ve dyed it every colour I could get my hands on. Purple, green (earned me shouts of “Grotbags!” from cheeky schoolkids), black … all sorts. I particularly relished turning up at school (it was for ‘Young Ladies’, apparently) with very long blue hair. I was (and perhaps still am) quite an obnoxious little sod.
The Sinking of RMS Tayleur is available from Amazon through the following link http://tinyurl.com/gillhoffsrmstayleur
Gill Hoffs lives with her family and Coraline Cat in a horribly messy house in Warrington. Find her on facebook or as @gillhoffs on twitter, email her a dirty joke at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a clean comment at http://gillhoffs.wordpress.com/ ‘Wild: a collection’, her word-mixture of sea creatures, regret, and murder, is out now from Pure Slush. Get it here.