Magical Alice

an interview by Paula Bolado

ALICE HOFFMAN DOESN"T subscribe to the phrase, “Write what you know,” because she believes that you can write what you imagine. With her new book, The Rules of Magic (to be published in October), which is the prequel to Practical Magic, she shows us that her imagination has garnered a type of cult following of readers who easily get swept up in her magical novels. Those who love the book Practical Magic, and who watch the movie every Halloween, starring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock, have been eagerly awaiting to read more about the Owen’s family in The Rules of Magic. She has such fans because Hoffman has the ability to fuse fantasy with history, magic with realism, and mysticism with religion. She is the author of three books of short fiction, and eight books for children and young adults, and over thirty novels, which include Property of, Here on Earth, Faithful, The Marriage of Opposites, The Dovekeepers, The Museum of Extraordinary Things, and The Ice Queen.

I recently had the opportunity to interview her prior to her appearance as the keynote speaker for the 12th Annual Sanibel Writers Conference at BIG Arts on Sanibel Island, November 2-5, 2017. She was candid with me about the significance and metaphorical aspect of lightning strike-effects in her novels, her ability to write from the perspective of different sexes, and about what compels her to write about those of the Jewish faith and the tragic histories attached to their stories.

Paula: What was an early experience where you learned that storytelling part of you or that language had power?

ALICE: Well, that’s a hard question. I think it was mostly as a child, reading was so important … it was a huge escape for me, and I was a very escapist reader. And I found other worlds that were unavailable to me in my real life, so I think that was when I first realized how powerful reading can be.

What compels you to tell such stories that are wrapped up in love and loss, history, and magic?

I think very often a writer doesn’t know what her theme is until she’s written a book. And it took me a very long time to realize that my books all have a theme and they all have a similar goal — a story within a story. It was always about love and loss and survivorship, no matter whether it was a modern telling of a story or a historical novel, they have the same core, and that I think is what I’m interested in and that is what my question is: How do people survive love and loss both?

Who are writers that you love?

Toni Morrison is my favorite writer. I think she is the greatest living writer. I also think that what you read when you are twelve, thirteen, and fourteen really influences you hugely and for me that was Ray Bradbury. He taught me so much about the world and about writing.

Toni Morrison has called The Dovekeepers “a major contribution to twenty-first century literature.”

That was more meaningful to me than anything anyone has ever said in the entire time of writing about my work. That meant so much to me and it was so kind of her.

Some writers worry about being true to time periods and historical events. Your imagined stories are grounded in scrupulous stories. Can you speak about the research involved to writing such novels?

I’m not exactly sure how I do it. For instance, with The Dovekeepers I didn’t intend to write about that period of time. My son is an archeologist and I went to Israel and we went to Masada together. When I got there, it was a 110 degrees in August, no one was up there, and it was a very haunting, spiritual place. And then as I was walking around, I saw a sign that there were survivors at Masada [900 Jews died within the fortress as the Romans pressed in]. Even though I thought I knew the story of Masada, I never heard before that there were survivors. So, as soon as I saw that, I had a feeling that this could be a novel.

So then, when I went home, I did a ton of research, but I had already been in the place and the museum there and I had this kind of vision. I went back and forth between doing research and writing, and the one thing I try to do in everything is not to be false to anything, so that if there is a real time or a real date, I try to do my best to have it be historically correct, and I’m pretty fanatical about it. Of course, you can always make a mistake, but everything else is imagined. Everything that is not known can be imagined.

You have so much symbolism in these novels; like the lion image in The Dovekeepers that kept coming up. Are these intentional or do they arise in your storytelling?

I think they arise naturally in the writing of it. And then usually when you read over the first or second draft you realize what these things mean and you can refine them.

What makes you feel compelled to tell stories of those from the Jewish faith?

Well, I wanted to give a voice to people and especially to women who I felt like couldn’t tell their own story, or didn’t have a chance to tell their own story. And I think considering that my grandmother was my first storyteller and she was a Russian Jew and told me stories about growing up in Russia that sounded to me like fairy tales, I had that connection with the first stories I ever heard.

Many of your characters are women, but in other books you are able to capture the thoughts and actions of men very well. What is the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?

I don’t find it terribly hard because I really think that people are taught to “write what you know.” But a great writing professor I had said, “Write what you imagine.” So, I think that’s why people want to write fiction in that they can become someone else. It’s kind of like being an actor and you take on the persona of a character who is completely different, but you can imagine what it would be like to be that person. I do think that women have an easier time imagining being men than men do about being women.

In our little Sanibel Island book club, we have been discussing lightening, and this question comes from Lindsay Peelman: “In your books, such as The Ice Queen and Practical Magic, the story centers on people who have survived or have lost loved ones killed by lightning strikes. Where do you get your inspiration to write about strike-effects?

Inspiration is very difficult to pinpoint because I think very often as an artist you don’t really know. But having said that, in my family weather was talked about a lot. Instead of talking about how we felt about things, we talked about the weather. My brother became a meteorologist, and his specialty from MIT is hurricanes, so there is this interest in weather in general. I think when I wrote The Ice Queen, I realized that a lightning strike is such a huge trauma and so mysterious and so hard to explain why it would strike some people and not others, why some people survive and some people don’t and I didn’t realize at the time I was writing about my own battle with cancer, my own survival issues, but writing about it through lighting. Because cancer is similar in that way, you don’t know when it’s going to strike you. Why does some person survive, why another person doesn’t. It’s so mysterious that way.

Your books alternate sometimes from gritty real-life to fantasy. What do you attribute to your love of fantasy, or magical realism?

I grew up reading fairy tales and listened to my grandmother’s stories about Russia that seemed very magical. The things I wanted to read as a kid were about myths and magic and I also felt when I was reading fairy tales as a child that they were very true. Very often as a kid when I read books written for children I felt like they were talking down to me. But fairytales never talked down to a child. And when as a kid you read them you feel like this is how I really feel. I feel that reading Ray Bradbury and other fantasy and science fiction writers. When my parents got divorced, I was about eight years old, and the only thing my father left behind was a box of fantasy and science fiction books. So, for me, it was kind of a connection with him and the way I started reading fantasy and science fiction.

What are some highlights you can share with me that you will talk about at the Sanibel Writers Conference?

I think I’m going to talk about how I became a writer. There are a lot of people interested in publishing and I’m going to talk about that for awhile. I’m going to talk about my experience, which I don’t know if it’s unusual, but I think it is always good to hear how other people went about getting to a place you want to be at as well and how to become a published writer.

Regarding The Rules of Magic [the prequel to Practical Magic, to be published in October] why the prequel?

I had a lot of readers who felt it wasn’t finished and they wanted more of the story. And since Practical Magic I’ve thought a lot about those characters and I really wanted to go back to that world, but I think it’s very interesting to go backward to see what formed the current world.

They were good aunts [in Practical Magic]. They were just maybe a little misunderstood in the beginning, but they turned out for the reader. Yeah, I felt like it would be really fun to see what forms them, what happened before them. I’m very interested in the history, the before, rather than the after.

In a 2006 interview with NPR, you said your favorite sentence would be the last line of Practical Magic: “Fall in love whenever you can.” Do you still believe that?

Yes. That is my favorite line. I kind of think the last line in The Rules of Magic comes close. That was my favorite last line because it really told the entire book’s story in a single line. Actually, I think the last line in The Rules of Magic is my favorite line now.

I guess we will need to read it to find out.

Alice Hoffman will be the Keynote Speaker at Florida Gulf Coast University’s 12th Annual Sanibel Writer’s Conference, November 3 at 6pm. For information about the Sanibel Writers Conference, November 2-5, call 590-7421.

September-October 2017

“I think people are taught to
“write what you know.”
But a great writing
professor I had said,
“Write what you imagine."

“I think that what you read
when you are twelve, thirteen,
and fourteen really influences
you hugely and for me
that was Ray Bradbury.”