Meet a Member: Jill Hopper

This month, fresh from her leap into astrophysics for our latest project with the Bloomsbury Festival, Jill Hopper invites us into her writing ‘cocoon’ to share insights into her early love of language and a moving memoir.

We’ll be meeting a new 26 member each month. If you’d like to feature, or nominate another member, drop me a line at Don’t be shy.

Tell us a bit about yourself – where are you from and what do you do?

I’m from Essex originally, but these days I live in London with my husband and teenage son. I started out as a reporter on local papers – I took to the newsroom like a second home, and I still miss it sometimes.

In my late twenties I got a job with a Soho-based contract publishing agency and stayed there for over a decade. I went freelance in 2012 and still can’t believe how well it’s worked out. I’ve got some very interesting clients in the corporate and non-profit sectors and I enjoy the ability to shape my own workload.

Where did your love of words come from?

Both my parents were language teachers, and I spent all my childhood summers in France. There were long evenings around the table with French friends, where I soaked up strange new words for familiar things. It alerted me to the idea that language isn’t just a given, it constructs your whole world.

From the age of about seven my favourite thing to do was read. When I was 12 I started keeping a diary, and I never stopped. I’ve somehow written a work in 40 volumes without really meaning to.

What made you join 26? And how long have you been a member?

The one downside to freelancing is that you don’t have colleagues around you. For me, 26 is a kind of virtual workplace, full of interesting people who are as obsessed with writing as I am.

I became a member about five years ago, and since then I’ve done some brilliant workshops, like Neil Baker’s Wordography session where we wandered around the South Bank applying the lessons of street photography to writing, or Elise Valmorbida’s ‘pitch your book idea’ seminar. I went on to do Elise’s writing class at Central St Martin’s, which was instrumental in me finishing my book and finding an agent.

Both Neil and Elise have been important mentors to me, and I wouldn’t have met them without 26.

Have you been involved in any 26 projects?

I’ve done five or six now. On the Armistice 100 Days project last year, I researched my husband’s uncles – two young brothers who died within a month of each other at the Somme. Without the project, they would have remained shadowy figures for me.

Last month I took part in 26 Leaps and found myself writing about an astrophysicist, Dr Ziri Younsi from UCL. We’ve become friends. Again, hard to imagine that happening without 26 opening the door.

What’s your ideal scenario for writing? (A coffee shop? Quiet retreat? With or without music? What do you do to get yourself in the right frame of mind?)

I have a small study at home, which my son persuaded me to paint deep red. I find it very easy to concentrate there, it’s like a cocoon. But I also write when I’m out and about. I like my notebooks to be battle-scarred – I draw in them and stick things in, and the pages get stained with mud, sea water, coffee, wine.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m playing with an idea for a new book. I’m trying not to nail it down too fast, and allow it time to develop. I have a tendency to be impulsive, which can mean starting off on the wrong course.

Natalie Goldberg says you have to be physically strong to be a good writer, and I think that’s true for me. It takes a lot of stamina to write a book, I’ve discovered.

Could you tell us about a piece of writing you’re particularly proud of?

When I was young I had an intense relationship that was cut short when my boyfriend died at the age of 24. I’ve always wanted to write about him, and last year I finally managed to finish a memoir, called The Mahogany Pod. I have a brilliant agent, James Macdonald Lockhart at Antony Harwood, who is submitting it to publishers at the moment.

The book is about the joy and pain of being in love, and about how the experience of loss changes over the years. I have learnt an enormous amount from writing it.

Where do you get your inspiration?

Ideas often seem to come when I’ve turned off my brain – cleaning the house or walking to the station. That said, there are certain things I turn to that never fail: doing research at the National Archives. Reading Sharon Olds’ poetry. And listening to podcasts. To me there’s nothing so riveting as real people talking honestly about their lives.

– Jill Hopper, interviewed by Sophie Gordon

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