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Author Spotlight: Through the Years with Alice Hoffman

Festival Staff / February 24, 2017

  • Deborah Feingold

    Deborah Feingold

Alice Hoffman has published twenty-three novels, three books of short fiction and eight books for children and young adults, but, despite her success, she faces each new story with a degree of uncertainty.

“No story is ever easy for me to tell,” said Hoffman. “I find every time I go to write a novel it's as if I've never written one before and I have to relearn how to write.”

The trepidation may owe something to Hoffman’s ongoing desire to test her limits as a writer. Some writers find what they’re good at—and stick with it—but Hoffman continues to explore new ways to tell a story.

“As a reader I want to always read something new and as a writer I feel the same way,” she said. “I want to keep experimenting with new themes and new formats. I think for me that's what keeps it interesting that I'm always writing something brand-new and different.”

With such an impressive tally of books, it would take a book to describe the variety of her literary endeavors.

Hoffman published her first book, Property Of, when she was only 21 and still a student at Stanford. Property Of, in which a young woman falls for the icy appeal of a dangerous relationship, was described as “a dark fairy tale” and lauded as the debut of a major writer.

For a while Hoffman was best known for novels rich in magical realism, the most famous of which was Practical Magic, adapted for a film of the same name, starring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock.

Yet, the fantastic elements with which Hoffman crafts some of her novels do not preclude serious subject matter. Even in her most magical adult novels, there’s heartbreak and self-destructive behavior. Hoffman can also tell an urgent story with stark, matter-of-fact simplicity. In At Risk, she personalized the crisis of AIDS by focusing her narrative on a relatable family with a sick child. Her novel Here on Earth, which became an Oprah’s Book Club Choice, examined domestic abuse, while reworking themes of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

Not content to write novels set in the present and near past, Hoffman also wrote a trilogy of historical fiction novels that began with The Dovekeepers. Set in the Judaean desert, circa 73CE, the story of the Roman siege of Masada required considerable research, making it her most difficult book to write.

“It was so huge in scope and there was so much for me to learn and research,” she said.

The Dovekeepers was followed by The Museum of Extraordinary Things, partially set in a Coney Island freak show, and The Marriage of Opposites, based on the life of the artist Camille Pissarro.

“I definitely think of those historical novels as a trio,” she said. “They go together in some deep way, exploring the lives of women in the past who couldn't tell their own stories.”

After her successful engagement with historical fiction, Hoffman wrote Faithful, a contemporary novel about a young woman who must move past crippling guilt.

“In a way Faithful is also about someone who needs to learn to tell her own story. And of course all of those books are about survivorship and women who have to learn how to survive.”

Inspiration for her novels comes from a variety of images, events and locations.

“I can be inspired by a place (Paris), a piece of art (Pissarro), a news article, an image, or travel,” said Hoffman. “The Dovekeepers, for instance, was conceived on a visit to Masada in Israel-- it was a book I never expected to write before I went there.”

While the style and settings of Hoffman’s books might change, there is one constant. Whether her novels are set in London or the Midwest, whether they’re matter-of-fact or whimsical, it’s women’s stories that play a prominent role. Hoffman’s novels embrace female transformation and growth, as well as fostering the value of female friendship and sisterhood. From the magical sisters in Practical Magic to the fantasy world of the Story Sisters, such bonds are portrayed as creating a safe haven.

“I'm especially interested in aspects of women's lives,” she said. “There's so few novels written about friendship and sisterhood and I think it's just very important to explore those very important relationships.”

At 64, Hoffman has been a published writer for more than 40 years and in that time her writing schedule has changed.

“When I began writing I used to get up at 4:45 a.m. and write before I went to work or school or before my children were up. Now writing is so much a part of my life that I don't really have rituals and I just write whenever I can it doesn't matter where or when.”

Several of Hoffman’s books, including The Dovekeepers, The River King, Blue Diary, The Ice Queen,and The Probable Future, were New York Times best sellers, so, she’s not only an accomplished writer but a successful one. The career advice she offers young writers is to engage socially, to meet others doing what they do, to expand their network.

“I think it's really important to have a community of writers,” she said.

Hoffman’s most recent book, Faithful, was published in November of 2016. In the flap copy, author Molly Antopol described the work as “generous and compassionate, elegant and fierce” and “a heartbreaking exploration of family, faith and love.” Faithfulhas been out for less than a year but Hoffman has already finished writing her next novel, The Rules of Magic. It’s a prequel to Practical Magic.

The Rules of Magic is set in New York City in the 60s and 70s and it was great fun to return to some of those characters and to that time period,” she said.

The characters Hoffman created in her novels pay tribute to the power of redemption and transformation. Hoffman sees fiction as an effective medium for change.

“I've always believed that if you want the truth you have to read fiction.”

Alice Hoffman’s books are available via amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and at bookstores everywhere.

See Alice Hoffman at the Festival: An Interview with Alice Hoffman, Saturday, March 11; Jewish Lives and History, Sunday March 12. She will be available after each event for signings and books will be available for sale.

By Joan Vos MacDonald

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