History and Mystery - by Helen Hollick

Today I'm delighted to turn the blog over to author Helen Hollick, whose new book in her Cosy Murder Mystery series has just been publis...

Friday, 5 June 2020

Interview: Gwen Tuinman, author of The Last Hoffman

I recently had the pleasure of reading The Last Hoffman, a story of ordinary folk living in a mill town in Canada:

"In a floundering 1980s papermill town, awkward widower Floyd Hoffman holds a secret that draws contempt from his teenage son.

As tensions rise, Floyd retreats into the past, reliving his tumultuous marriage to Bonnie, a manically-depressed first love whose passion drew him out of his reclusiveness. When his son dies suddenly from the same environmental cancer that claimed Bonnie, Floyd’s life falls apart. He loses himself in the pursuit of justice against the reckless papermill responsible for his family’s demise.

In the midst of his grief, destitute teenager Tammy King appears on his doorstep along with her baby, the result of a clandestine affair with Floyd’s son. While Floyd dreams of family redemption through his grandson, Tammy forges her own plans for an independent future.

The Last Hoffman is a story about the reverberation of family secrets. It will renew your faith in second chances."

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It is so atmospheric and the characters so believable. I had to know more about it, so I asked Gwen to join me on the blog to talk about it.

Welcome Gwen. How did the book come about: where did the idea come from and is any of the story based on real events?

I’d have to say this story chose me to write it, instead of the other way around. I attended school
 teacher workshop hosted by a local gallery where the instructor spoke about using artworks to inspire student writing. One of the exercises involved watching a video clip he’d produced of a teenage couple shyly holding hands as they walked along a 1970s small-town main street lined with shops and parked cars. He then asked us to write about whatever came to mind. The Note to Self journal entries in The Last Hoffman appear exactly as I wrote them that day. A few weeks after the workshop, ideas began popping into my head about who the couple was and the issues they faced. I’d always been a creative person—but never a writer. I dismissed the story and, because of my background, told myself “fancy people are writers and I’m not fancy people”. The characters nudged me relentlessly, so I finally began writing.
An Anglo-Canadian paper mill in the 1920s
Soon after, my husband and I travelled to Newfoundland on Canada’s east coast, and there I encountered an abandoned papermill. Upon seeing that place, story ideas continued mushrooming until I’d developed a cast of characters and layered their personal turmoil. As their dilemmas, needs and desires unfolded, so too did the story. That being said, The Last Hoffman references a fictional mill and town that I imagined based on impressions collected through primary and secondary research. 

Was there a particular reason for choosing those two time periods?

The early 1980s were interesting to explore as one of the two time periods in the novel. The Canadian public had begun expressing deep concerns about the release of carcinogenic pollutants by papermills. At the time, about 25% of mills were meeting the effluent release guidelines set in 1971. Environmental and community health suffered as a result. In the eighties, teen pregnancy was a media focus and, years later, many stories surfaced about maternity homes forcing adoptions. Sadly, during the time leading up to and including this era, mental health carried heavy shame and stigma. 
I dipped into the 1950s through 1970s to write a second timeline that revealed how the characters developed into who they ultimately became. In life, it’s easier to tolerate people’s poor choices or behaviours once we understand the life events that molded them. I feel the same way about vexing characters. It’s interesting to have our low opinion of them shaken up and challenged by a new revelation. People are complex, whether they exist in real life or between the pages of a book.

I think it added a richness to the book when we saw how characters and relationships had first formed. How did you write the two timelines – was it a continuous process or did you write Floyd’s earlier life as a separate draft?

I wrote the two timelines simultaneously. The process unfolded as if I was watching a movie, so flipping back and forth between eras felt natural. The present fed off the past and visa versa.  

Of course, this is not your first published work. Can you tell us about your other publications?

I’m the creator of a womxn-creative collective called The Wild Nellies. We gather to perform, exhibit, and speak in order to raise awareness and funds for charities that support women fleeing domestic violence. The proceeds of  
We Are Enough: A Story of Vanquishing Self-Doubt tells the story of my battle against profound self-doubt during more than a decade of domestic abuse and in the years following my escape. This account builds a bridge of understanding for our friends and loved ones, so they might gain insight into our experience and our sometimes-fragile hearts. It encourages readers to extinguish self-doubt and rediscover their voices. We each hold the power to shed self-doubt and to reclaim the true self we were on route to becoming before the chaos.

Portrait of an Escape: A Story of Fleeing Domestic Abuse shares the events leading up to my escape from domestic abuse, and challenges the all-too familiar question, How could she stay? The book is an opportunity to vicariously inhabit the experience of one woman’s flight from assault, control, and gaslighting by an abusive partner. It is my hope that messages within these pages may encourage someone suffering the crush of domestic abuse to take the leap of faith to a life she deserves. For her friends and family, I hope to provide some insight that sustains optimism and patience while she finds her way out. 

I am the creator of The Wild Nellies, a womxn’s creative collective that performs, exhibits and speaks in order to raise awareness and funds for charities that support women fleeing domestic abuse. The proceeds of these tiny books support The Wild Nellies Celebration of Women events.

A little bird tells me you are working on a new novel – can you let us have any details yet?

I’ve recently completed my second novel, set against the backdrop of the 1830s timber era in the Ottawa Valley. The story, which follows the struggles of an Irish family, is inspired by my own ancestral research which stretches from Cootehill, County Cavan in Ireland to Bytown, Upper Canada. Currently, I’m embarking on my third novel. A visit to a Nova Scotia lighthouse a few years ago left me with a twinkle of inspiration that’s been growing stronger over the past two years. Ideas are taking shape now and I’m very excited. 

It sounds like another great read. Thanks so much for joining me today.

Here's Gwen's bio, and some links where you can find out more about her and her work:

Gwen was born and raised in rural Ontario, and now resides on an urban homestead in Whitby, near Toronto, Ontario in Canada. She graduated from Trent University with a B.A. in Psychology and from Brock University with a B.A. in Education. Gwen is the creator of The Wild Nellies, a collective of diverse womxn creatives whose events raise awareness and funds for charities that help women escaping domestic abuse. In 2019, The Denise House/Sedna Women’s Shelter and Support Services recognized Gwen as a Woman of Courage. The Last Hoffman is her first novel.


  1. I thoraghly enjoyed reading The Last Hoffman
    and it’s story line .
    Well written
    It’s a true honour to know Gwen personally too

    Looking farward to next book

  2. The Last Hoffman is a thought provoking novel, with characters that grow on you and lead you to new insights into aspects of people's lives. Though Gwen is soft spoken in person, she has a depth of understanding and character that shines through her writing.