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Casting a Spell: An Interview with Alice Hoffman

Photo: Deborah Feingold

In writing The Dovekeepers (Scribner, 2011), Alice Hoffman has created a novel based on an historical event and into this tale she magically weaves four remarkable, imagined women. We are aware from the outset that events will not bode well for these women. However, in the time we spend following them on their journey, they become our sisters, mothers, grandmothers—our friends and family. About to embark on a new project, she was gracious enough to spend some time with me.

MaryAnne Kolton: It would seem that so many writers have had troubled childhoods and have used reading, movies or other escape methods to cope. It appears logical that the magical aspect of your work also had its roots in your quest to explain your circumstances and those around you. When did you first begin to incorporate it into your thinking and then transfer it to writing?

Alice Hoffman: The magical aspect of my work is rooted in my reading, especially my childhood reading. I do think what you read as a child influences who you become as a writer, and a person. I read and was told fairy tales at an early age, and I think for me literature and magic are and always have been woven together. In fact, I would take it a step further and say that literature and magic always go hand in hand, from the very beginning of myth and folktale—so I think I’m part of a very old tradition.

I do think fairy tales expertly explain the psychological truth about our world, and most children intuit this. These stories “feel” different. They feel true.

My childhood, which was not a happy one, was saved by reading. When I asked an old friend who I hadn’t seen for years what she remembered of me as a child (since I don’t remember much myself) she said, “You were always going to the library.” I’ve written about the fact that it was the library where I experienced “magic” and for that I’ll always be grateful to the librarians at the Malverne Public library on Long Island—I didn’t live in Malverne, but they let me take out books, anyway. That was the start of magic for me.

MAK: Having read and loved all of your books (Blackbird House remains one of my favorites) I have always pictured you as a very whimsical person. And yet it feels true that most of your female characters, though strong, have a penchant for ominous, mendacious men. What’s going on there?

AH: I disagree—I think I often write from a woman’s POV [point of view], but I feel the men in my novels and stories are complex—complicated characters and contain many aspects. Certainly in my latest book, The Dovekeepers, there are “good” men, such as the Man from the North, a slave who works with the Dovekeepers, and the very complicated warrior, The Man from the Valley, who is driven by grief. But I suppose my very first model for the most interesting male character ever written, and the most psychologically complex, is Heathcliff. Need I say more?

MAK: We both have a Russian or two in our family tree. Eudora Welty wrote,

“…Russian folk and fairy tales are rambunctious, full-blooded and temperamental. They are tense with action, magical and human, and move in a kind of cyclone of speed….These tales are gorgeous.”
Do you sense the presence of your Russian heritage in your work?

AH: Most definitely. My grandmothers were Russian and I grew up on stories of Baba Yaga, the witch who lives in a hut on chicken’s legs—Russian tales are very fatalistic, there aren’t many happy endings in Russia. My first stories were about my grandmother, and the story that got me a fellowship to Stanford began “My grandmother sleeps with her mouth open.”

MAK: “I’d heard that demons could attach themselves to a person. Once this was accomplished, it was impossible to leave them behind or dismiss them. At night they closed their hands over yours with a predatory ownership. They whispered a single word in your ear: Mine.”

This from The Dovekeepers. Exquisite prose, even when describing demons. Do you see the ability to write astonishing phrases that make your readers lose themselves in your work as innate or acquired? Are they discovered in rewriting or do they come to you initially?

AH: That’s a difficult question, because I am a major rewriter—some phrases appear in the initial writing, some I labor over, some come in the process of reworking. I hardly ever re-read my work, but when I do I often think, “Who wrote that?”—some of it comes to me in a dream, as a gift.

MAK: You’ve said about your book for teens, Incantation, “though I had been reading about Marranos (hidden Jews) for some time and had been interested and reading about Kabbalah for some time…. it’s really more of an emotional journey than a historical one.” Do you feel the same about The Dovekeepers?

AH: Yes, I do. As I’m not a historian, I want to tell a story about the emotional truth of a people or a situation. My stories are about particular people, and, as it so happens, the time they live in. Of course, these are times I’m interested in, and want to know about.

MAK: The pictures of Masada, that I was able to find, make the story surrounding the four magnificent women, Yael, Revka, Aziza and Shirah, even more manifest. What were your thoughts and feelings when you traveled there?

AH: I was floored by my initial visit to Masada. I wanted to write about Israel and I’m always interested in archeology (my son is an archaeologist and has worked in Israel on several digs) but I didn’t intent to write about Masada until my visit. I did feel that the past and the present were divided by a very thin line in that place. It was a spiritual experience for me. One I didn’t expect.

When I visited the museum there I was again floored—to see the everyday objects that belonged to those who lived, and died, there is very moving indeed.

My own photos of Masada are on my website.

MAK: The Dovekeepers has been called “a major contribution to twenty-first century literature” by Toni Morrison, Nobel Laureate in Literature. Wally Lamb, author of The Hour I First Believed said, “Put The Dovekeepers at the pinnacle of Hoffman’s extraordinary body of work.”

Even though you have written in an historical context previously, I see this book as a distinct departure from your usual ethos. How do you feel this book will impact your body of work now and in the future? How do you think it will be remembered?

AH: Wally Lamb was so kind to have responded to The Dovekeepers, and I am so grateful to Toni Morrison, who I consider our greatest living writer.

For me, this book, “felt” different in that I held nothing back, and put my soul into it. In a way, it’s my most autobiographical book, even though it has nothing to do with the facts of my life. And I felt it was a way for me to honor my grandmothers, and my foremothers in Israel. It was, in some ways, a full circle moment for me when I completed the book. I felt I could give something back to the women who told me stories, and who were storytellers from the beginning of time.

It was different, too, because there was such extensive research, and I was involved with the characters for many, many years; although I’ve certainly researched other novels and books of stories (Incantation, The Foretelling (about an Amazon tribe), The Red Garden and Blackbird House), I think The Dovekeepers was in some ways “bigger” than my other novels in what I tried to achieve, and that I needed to create an entire world which has disappeared in order to make it live again.

Really, had I known how much research would be needed, I most likely would have not gone forward with the book. But I was too invested by the time I realized how little I knew and how much there was to learn.

MAK: Are you willing to share a hint or two about the new project you are undertaking?

AH: I always think it’s a bad idea to talk about an ongoing project until it is almost finished. Why? I think a writer can “talk out” a project and intellectualize it in a way that I don’t think is healthy for an artist. Part of the process is discovering what the book is about. One doesn’t want to approach a project knowing its themes (except in the broadest sense) or symbols. These arise out of the work. I always think the best work surprises the writer or the artist—so that’s what I was going for, feeling, trying to create. Having said that, I can say that the Hudson River figures in my new book, and that my mad passion for New York City drives everything in it.

MAK: Alice, thank you so much for your time and best of luck on your new book.

Alice Hoffman was born in New York City in 1952 and grew up on Long Island. Hoffman’s first novel, Property Of, was written at the age of twenty-one. She has published a total of twenty-eight works of fiction. Her novel, Here on Earth, was an Oprah Book Club choice. Practical Magic was made into a Warner film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. Hoffman’s work has been published in more than twenty translations and more than 100 foreign editions. Her novels have received mention as notable books of the year by The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, Library Journal, and People Magazine. She has also worked as a screenwriter and is the author of the original screenplay “Independence Day” a film starring Kathleen Quinlan and Diane Wiest. Her short fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, Kenyon Review, Redbook, Architectural Digest, Gourmet, Self, and other magazines. Her teen novel Aquamarine was recently made into a film starring Emma Roberts. Hoffman is currently a visiting research scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. She lives in Boston.

The Dovekeepers, published by Scribner, is available now. Buy the book: Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, Amazon.

Also by Alice Hoffman:

Blackbird House (Ballantine Books, 2005): Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, Amazon

Incantation (Little, Brown & Co., 2006): Barnes & Noble, Amazon

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MaryAnne Kolton
MaryAnne Kolton’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous literary publications including the Lost Children Charity Anthology, The Toucan Magazine, Lost In Thought Literary Magazine, Anatomy, Her Circle Ezine, and Connotation Press among others. Her story “A Perfect Family House” was shortlisted for The 2011 Glass Woman Prize. Author Interviews with Leah Hager Cohen, Siobhan Fallon, Charles Baxter, Alice Hoffman, Dan Chaon, Tupelo Hassman, Carol Anshaw, Lyndsay Faye, Kathryn Harrison and Charlotte Rogan have appeared most recently in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Her Circle Ezine, The Literarian/City Center and January Magazine. MaryAnne’s public email is maryannekolton@gmail.com. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter and at her blog site maryannekolton.blogspot.com.
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One Comment
  • James Robison

    Happily surprised to read an author defend her darker characters, even against the charge of mendacity. A lesson there for fiction makers, I think. Wonderful quote from Welty and I appreciated how it struck sparks with Hoffman and Kolton both. Very good stuff here!

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