Alice Hoffman interview: Story magic

This best-selling author is a master of blending the real and the fantastic.

 

Alice Hoffman
Alice Hoffman. Photo credit: Deborah Feingold

 

In the interviews had with Alice Hoffman, in late June and early July, the author of 30 fictional books told me, “I always feel that fiction is the truth and nonfiction is a lie.”

I’m tempted to link this comment to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous quote on romances – that the truth they reveal is “the truth of the human heart.” Hoffman can be compared to Hawthorne, as her work is informed by magic, mystery, and suspense – where dark secrets are slowly, but inevitably, brought to the light of day, and, like Hawthorne, it isn’t the “light of common day.” Perhaps, like Hawthorne’s romances, Hoffman’s novels are best read at twilight. But for all their comparisons, Hoffman’s work is indisputably more realistic than Hawthorne’s, however much mystical forces inform it – where Hawthorne conjures magic, Hoffman dwells in magical realism.

Hoffman is probably best known for Practical Magic, which was made into a movie in 1998 that starred Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. But her work in fiction is vast, publishing in literary, children’s, and young adult markets. A number of her books are historical, delineating complex family sagas. She is a careful researcher, bringing historical people, places, and events to life – and with an impressive range of periods and places: The Dovekeepers is set 2000 years ago, in Roman times; The Marriage of Opposites, 19th-century St. Thomas and Paris; The Museum of Extraordinary Things, an early 20th-century Coney Island freak show. Her newest novel, The Rules of Magic, is a contemporary novel with roots back to Salem, Massachusetts, in the 1600s, a harrowing period in which many so-called witches were wrongfully accused by Judge John Hathorne, grandfather of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who suffered ancestral guilt over his relative’s ignoble role in these trials. The protagonists of Hoffman’s novel are indeed witches, but they’re the good kind, with definite rules to follow – the first being “do no harm,” or, in Latin, Primum non nocere. But in Hoffman’s work as a whole, spirit worlds can bring about evil just as often as good.

Hoffman’s prose style draws the reader in with her power to capture, with great force, the many sensuous details her characters experience, so that her protagonists come alive in a richly developed setting. One cannot help but savor the language. Hoffman may be best read when one is not in a hurry to move on – and yet her characters and conflicts do move us forward, so we are delighted to see her story proceeding, her plot gathering momentum like a storm. She is, after all, a master of intrigue, and we want to know which secret will be revealed next.

From a cursory look at her canon, one might get the idea that she’s focused on the novel form, but a significant portion of her work is made up of the short form as well, a form she truly appreciates. “I’m a big fan of linked short stories,” she says. “I have three books of linked short stories: Local Girls, Blackbird House, and The Red Garden. These books are the most fun I’ve ever had writing.”

Hoffman also believes in the power and importance of writing for younger audiences. Of her YA books, Hoffman says, “What you read at the age of 12 and 13 and 14 stays with you in a very intense, deep way – that is the literature that makes you the person that you are and the writer that you are.”

Writing is a complex process for Alice Hoffman. Turning out 30 works of fiction over a long career certainly calls for a process, but it doesn’t come in one definite, prescribed approach: “My thinking about a novel always includes writing. I always write my way in. Sometimes 10 years can pass before I go back to it, and sometimes it’s the next thing I write.”

 

The Alice Hoffman File:

  • Received a BA from Adelphi University and MA in creative writing from Stanford University.
  • Her debut novel, Property Of, was published by Farrar Straus and Giroux when Hoffman was 21 years old.
  • Published 30 works of fiction, including literary, children’s, and YA.
  • Her novel Here on Earth was an Oprah Book Club pick.
  • Wrote screenplay for Independence Day (1983).
  • Practical Magic was made into a movie starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman (1998).
  • The Dovekeepers was adapted for TV in a 2015 miniseries.

 

 

Alice Hoffman: Interview

Magic, mystery, and secrets are clearly important in your fiction. Can you say why? Does magic serve a plot function? Do you purposely pursue subjects that involve these elements, or do they just come to you?

I don’t purposely pursue magic – it’s just part of the prose that I write. I grew up reading fairy tales and myths. For me, magic has always been a part of literature as a reader and as a writer. Magic doesn’t have so much to do with plot as it does with voice. For instance, you can tell a story in a realistic way, and if you’re Hemingway, it’s great, and it works. For me, magic is about the way the story is told rather than the story itself. It’s not a hocus-pocus influence in the plot. It’s more the tone of the story, the way the story tries to draw you in and create a fictional world. I’d like to add that I think the most important thing for beginning writers is to find their own voice.

 

Can you say which fairy tales you read as a child and what you drew from them for your fiction? 

For me, it’s not specific fairy tales but the whole tradition of fairy tales. I’m also really interested in women telling stories. Those stories, whether they’re myths or fairy tales, belong to the great tradition of women telling stories to their children and grandchildren. So that whole tradition of how stories are told is really interesting to me as a woman and a writer. I always loved the way that fairy tales are told in a realistic voice, a kind of blending of the real and the fantastic.

 

A number of your novels are historical novels. What kinds of things do you research? 

That’s really hard to say because when I do research, I’m researching every aspect, and it often depends on the book. For instance, when I did research for The Dovekeepers, there was very little, pretty much nothing, as far as research about women in the time period I was writing about, so what I did was write about nomadic people in the Middle East today. After all, the way you take care of the horses or donkeys or whatever is the same now as back then. When I was writing about Rachel in The Marriage of Opposites, I looked at a lot of books of photographs. I did a lot of research on bats and birds. I want to try to create the world. In a historical novel, you’re creating a world for your characters to inhabit. It was really nice to receive a letter from someone who grew up on St. Thomas, who said they felt like they were re-entering their childhood when they read the book – that is exactly what I would want.

 

What is your research process like? Do you do all your research before writing? Or do you write as you research?

I do quite a bit of research before I start a project, then stop for a while because I have to take a step away from history and write a novel. When I’m done with a first draft, I go back again and do a great deal more research. So I think I do kind of a layered research; I keep going back and doing more and more, but I’m still focused on the fact that I’m writing a novel, not a history.

Research can be never-ending. Especially with The Dovekeepers, I realized that. That book took me five years to research and write. There was a point when I realized that I could research it for the rest of my life. I was never going to know everything about the time period. There was a point when I just decided to start writing.

 

How much of the research you do gets used in a novel, how much not used?

I don’t know. I mean, definitely I know more than I put in the book to help create the characters. I don’t use the specific information. It’s probably true that 20 or 30 percent of what I research never has anything to do with the book itself, but it has to do with creating the world.

 

In your current novel, The Rules of Magic, how much research did you do in terms of the history of witchcraft and magic lore?

I’ve always been interested in witchcraft, and I’ve done research my whole life. I did a bit more for The Rules of Magic because I was writing specifically about a particular judge, Judge Hathorne, at the witchcraft trials in Salem. I read whatever I could find about him, and I found him a really interesting character. As to magic, for me it’s always a pleasure to study magic and to find out more and more. Everything in the book about magic lore was something that I researched. For instance, the use of medicinal plants and herbs. Still, while the research is interesting, it’s not what’s important. Really, the most important thing is writing the novel and creating the characters. That’s the big difference between an historical novel and a history. What I’m mostly interested in is the novel part of it. All the research that I do is in service to that.

 

Your characters are sympathetic, interesting, and compelling. Do you discover your characters as you write, or do you pretty much know them beforehand? What about surprises?

I think it’s really important to know your characters. I think it’s really good to make a lot of lists and tell everything about your characters: what books they read, what they’re wearing, what their relationships are like. Write down everything about them. Then you have to kind of write your way into them. My characters grow as I write them and become more themselves as they reveal their innermost spirit. That’s the way it should feel when you’re writing a novel: The characters are alive, making their own choices, and you’re just following them. When that happens, they almost always surprise us. This certainly was true in The Rules of Magic. Moreover, as the writer, I want to be surprised; I want to be drawn in. The reason that I read a novel is the same reason that I write a novel.

 

How do you decide on narrative point of view? What advice do you have for beginning writers on handling omniscient POV, which you sometimes use?

I don’t really decide on the narrative point of view – the book comes with a point of view. For instance, I don’t tell myself this is going to be a first-person book or this is going to be third- person narration. I write a little bit in first person or a little bit in third person. I kind of play around with it, and then something just clicks and feels right. I think it’s always great to experiment with different points of view. For beginning writers, it’s really interesting to write fiction from varying points of view to see how that changes the mood and characters.

As to omniscient point of view, I think it’s much easier to write in first person, and I think it’s also more fun to write in first person, but sometimes you just can’t tell the whole story from the first-person POV. It’s fine if you’re writing The Catcher in the Rye, but in other cases, it can be limiting.

 

In drafting a novel, how do you begin? Can you describe your process of getting into your story? 

I begin by writing various notes, by creating the characters, usually by making lists so that I know everything about them and the material that I’m not going to use. I do a lot of research about place and the physical and natural environment of the setting. And then I make an outline. That outline changes in writing, but it gives me a place to begin. A novel comes into being because you write it. You can do all the planning things, the outlines, and I believe in all that, but basically a book comes from writing your way into it.

 

What about plot and theme? What about using symbols to create meaning?

I think plot is really important – it’s the thing that makes you want to turn the page. I don’t believe in theme. I believe in story but not theme. It can be destructive if you begin with a theme because you’re deciding what the story is about before you even write it. Theme applies to reading fiction, not writing it. A lot of people have a great idea, and then they don’t know why they can’t write their book.

Writers don’t decide what symbols mean. Symbols arise from the text. And then when you use them, you say, “Oh, that’s what it says. That’s what I was thinking.” Because I always feel that with writing, there is an outside story and an inside story. The outside story is what you plot and what you think the book is. As soon as you’re writing it, you discover there’s also an inside story, and it may be one that you never really thought about, and you don’t really understand it till you write it.

 

Beginnings and endings of novels are tough to write. Any recommendations for early-stage writers on creating compelling openings and avoiding tidy endings? 

Beginnings can change, so you just have to start and take a leap of faith. A lot of times you end up cutting the beginning. You can always go back and rewrite it. That certainly happened in The Rules of Magic. I started out with a lot more going in the beginning, and I ended up cutting half of it. It’s about hooking the reader on the first page. If you don’t draw someone in, they probably won’t read further. In your beginning, you need to start with something major or at least set the tone and the language so that the reader wants to turn the page. I think that’s the most important thing. It has to have intensity. It could be drama, it could be language, it could be many different things, but it must have intensity.

As to endings, I begin a book with the ending so that I know where I’m going even though I don’t particularly know the whole journey. Sometimes that changes, and sometimes it remains the same. The thing about endings is you have to feel that it’s over. You could write about these people forever, but there comes a point when you feel like the circle is closed. You’ve told the story. It feels right to you.

 

How much revision do you do? How do you go about revising? How does the final draft compare to the first draft? 

I’m a big believer in revision. You have to rewrite the entire manuscript rather than do it in bits and pieces. Often my first draft and last draft are completely different. Sometimes characters disappear and new characters appear. I make huge changes. Half the characters in the first draft of The Rules of Magic didn’t make it to the final book. In the first draft, I didn’t know what I was writing about. I had to discover this, and then I had to go back and rewrite it. The novel changed radically. I think as a writer you have to be unafraid to cut your own material and to get rid of prose you love if it doesn’t serve the novel.

 

You’ve published a stack of novels. Do you ever work on more than one novel at a time? Perhaps two? Do you see any downsides to this approach?

I only work on one novel at a time, but I have notes about other novels, sometimes outlines, sometimes chapters. They’re like planes on the runway waiting to take off, but they’re not ready yet. As far as working on two novels at a time? Everybody works differently. But for me, I don’t think I could actually work on two novels on an intense level. I think it would really be easy to lose focus. It’s hard enough to focus on one novel – it’s a lot of work. I personally think working on two would kind of dilute whatever you are putting into the novel. I think it would be difficult.

 

What’s a typical work day and work week like for you? What about a particular place to write? 

I don’t really have a typical workday or typical work week. I do set goals, usually in terms of pages and how many pages a week or day I will do. Sometimes I fail, but at least it gives me a goal. I do think it’s important to write every day. I don’t always do it, but when I’m in the thick of writing, I do it. If you’re writing every day, it becomes a habit. It’s a practice, almost. The more you do it, the better you are at it. As to where I write, I don’t want a view. I don’t want to be someplace beautiful – I want to look at a blank wall. I’m interested in creating something, imagining something.

 

Who are your favorite authors? Which authors have had the greatest influence on your writing and in what ways? 

I think the greatest living novelist is Toni Morrison. I’ve been influenced by her beautiful work. I don’t think it’s influence so much as inspiration. I think that’s what happens when you find a great writer, and I think she’s a great writer. It’s inspirational more than anything else. It makes you want to write something beautiful and great yourself. That’s what happens when you fall in love with a great writer.

I’ve also been influenced by the work of writers that I read when I was young, especially Emily Brontë, Grace Paley, and the very wonderful Ray Bradbury. For me, it’s really different with Bradbury. When you read somebody at age 12 or 13, you can be influenced in a psychological way. And that’s what happened to me with Ray Bradbury. His work influenced me as a person.

 

What tips do you have for early-stage writers in terms of getting their work published?

I think the more that you send your work out, the more chance you have to have it published. My advice is to read literary magazines to discover the ones that you like and the ones that you feel would be a good fit for you, and then send out your stories. I think it’s really important to read the magazine before you submit to it, even though the first magazine I ever submitted to I didn’t read.

I’m a big believer in joining groups. Writing classes, graduate programs, writers’ workshops. I think it’s good to be with other writers and to have a reason to write. I’m on the board of Boston’s GrubStreet. They have classes and workshops at every level, including this great thing called Novel Incubator, where you basically write a novel for the class, working with a mentor. It’s important, being with other writers and having a deadline and being forced to write.

Another thing is to go to conferences. There are many conferences all over where there are agents and editors, and sometimes you can show them your work. There are summer programs as well. These are good places to meet people.

I think the most important thing is to think about the fact that writers write. And that you can’t put it off until everything is perfect because nothing ever is perfect.

 

Jack Smith is author of numerous articles, reviews, and interviews, four novels, and a book on writing, entitled Write and Revise for Publication.

 

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