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R.J. Hoffmann Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

R.J. Hoffmann
Photo © Amy McConnell

R.J. Hoffmann

An interview with R.J. Hoffmann

R.J. Hoffmann discusses his debut novel, Other People's Children, and what encouraged him to leave his established career as an IT consultant to become a writer

This interview includes spoilers

Congratulations on your debut novel, Other People's Children! Can you share your journey as a writer? Did you always want to be an author?

I blame all of this on my parents. When I was seven, my family's television broke, and they decided not to replace it until my siblings and I all made the honor roll in the same quarter. It took us a few years to piece that together, and in the meantime I became addicted to reading. When I was growing up, becoming a writer was like becoming an astronaut or a professional soccer player—something to fantasize about but not practical enough for serious consideration. So, instead, I became an IT consultant and wrote in the margins of my life. The fantasy persisted, though, and it's fair to say that it's always been something I dreamed of.

As I approached fifty, I realized that "always" has an expiration date, so I decided to quit my job and go back to school for my MFA. I kept quiet about it because it felt a bit foolish. I only told those closest to me, and those who asked how work was going. I probably gave more effort to each semester at Columbia than to my entire undergrad. I approached it as a job and spent fifty hours each week on schoolwork and writing. I was old enough to recognize the value of the opportunity I was given.

What was your inspiration for this story? Do you have personal experience with adoption that influenced the novel? How much research did you need to do while writing?

My wife and I adopted both of our children (internationally). That experience taught me what it means to wait, how to sit with the uncertainty that is essential to the adoption process. I also felt that immediate attachment that Jon and Gail felt for Maya. There was nothing gradual about the way that we fell in love with our children. Gail described it as "like waking from a dream into a bright light."

For me, the book really centers on the expectations with which we all enter adulthood and the way that life sometimes shreds them. My daughter struggles with a variety of challenges, and a year before I began my writing program, those challenges became so volatile that we were forced to send her to a residential treatment center. By the beginning of the pandemic, thankfully, she was ready to come home. Everything about that experience tore me apart. The pain of being separated from my daughter—and adjusting my expectations to that reality—inspired the book and may explain some of the heavy emotions that the story churns up.

For better or worse, I tend to avoid up-front research. I research after I write, to learn whether I've imagined a place or an experience in a way that aligns with reality and to make sure that I've gotten important facts right. For me, research can be an excuse to put off the writing, and although it can enrich the details, it can also confine the imagination with pesky facts. So I get the characters and the story down first, and then later I go find out whether I've invented something that departs too far from reality.

This novel is memorable for its depiction of motherhood. Gail, Carli, and Marla are mothers with intense desires and a deep capacity for love. At the same time, they demonstrate this love in very different ways. What prompted you to focus on motherhood?

I would suggest that the story focuses on parenthood. The story began as Jon and Gail's, but when I wrote that first scene from Carli's point of view—when her water breaks in the classroom—something shifted for me. I found her deeply interesting. Over time, as Carli's character burst onto the pages, she demanded a starring role, and the story re-centered itself upon Carli and Gail, elbowing Jon into a supporting role. I've never been a mother, but parenthood is central to my identity. I sometimes wonder if motherhood and fatherhood feel similar, even if men and women express those emotions very differently.

Early in the novel, Paige remarks that the Durbins don't seem to really "fit." What was the inspiration for Jon and Gail's characters? Do you think they're well suited for each other? How did they and their relationship with each other develop during the writing process?

I think that, in so many ways, Gail and Jon are complementary. Gail organizes their lives while Jon brings the ability to improvise and adjust. Throughout the story, the strengths of one complement the weaknesses of the other.

A funny thing happened between Jon and Gail's characters as I wrote the book. I gave a version to an early reader and was told that Jon's character was strong, but Gail didn't come through clearly. I rewrote Gail's chapters, didn't touch Jon's, and gave the book to another reader. The feedback: Gail was fantastic, but Jon felt weak. This happened over and over. The strengthening of one character washed out the other. I think the competition between those two characters inevitably strengthened the book. They demanded more and better of each other. I'm not sure that I could invent a better metaphor for marriage than that.

Other People's Children explores the class differences between Marla, Carli, Gail, and Jon through the different cities in which they live. Marla and Carli live in Morris, whereas Gail and Jon live in Elmhurst. What did you want readers to take away about class divisions in America?

I want readers to take away the idea that integrity lives on both sides of the tracks. As do dishonesty and work ethic and malevolence and disappointment.

Carli thinks about fundamental attribution errors, "the idea that people blame mistakes on your character rather than your circumstances" (p. 95). The people in her life think she is a "fuckup" because of her pregnancy. By the end of the book, what do you hope readers will take away from Carli's self-perception?

When Carli studies that chapter, she finds herself at the nadir of her self-regard. She goes through a lot in her fight to reclaim her baby, and once Maya comes home to her, she still has much more to fight through. By the end of the book, she's struggling, but she's struggling with dignity and with a developing confidence. I'd like to believe that when Carli retakes that psychology class next semester, she'll digest that chapter differently. I want to believe that as she gains distance from the home she grew up in, and as she finds some success as a parent, that she'll begin to recognize the strength of her character. I hope that she'll discover a bit more compassion for herself.

While writing the book, did you always know what the ending would be?

Absolutely not. I was a hundred pages in before I learned that Gail and Jon were going to run with Maya. I was struggling with what would happen next when a professor suggested to the class that we should consider having our characters do something illegal—and there it was. Once they broke toward Canada, I knew where Maya would land, but that same professor challenged me to keep the reader torn—until the last possible moment—about what they want for Maya. That suggestion served as a compass for the rest of the book, and it reminded me that Carli, Gail, and Jon are all victims, even as none of them are blameless.

Marla is an extremely complex character. She's abusive to Carli and Wendy at times and experiences flashes of uncontrollable anger, yet she works hard to provide for her family and wants to be a good grandmother. What emotions did you hope Marla would evoke in readers?

I want people to feel strongly about Marla. When a friend reads the book, I sometimes get a text when they're halfway through it, and Marla's name usually shows up in that text. I don't expect anyone to side with her. She makes everyone's life difficult. But I hope that the strength of the reaction comes in part from the motivations (relatively pure) that drive Marla's actions (mostly destructive). Above all, I hope that readers examine their reaction for fundamental attribution errors.

Which authors do you admire?

Toni Morrison is a marvel. I've read most of the dozen or so books that Ian McEwan has given us. Cormac McCarthy's The Road took my breath away. I loved both of Celeste Ng's books and enjoyed my time in Mississippi with Jesmyn Ward. Fredrik Backman's novels are never the same and always wonderful. I love a sad ending, and Lauren Groff almost always delivers. John Steinbeck earned his way onto everyone's bookshelf. I try to read The Pearl every few years.

Are you working on anything right now? If so, can you tell us about it?

I'm finishing my second novel. It's about a terrible secret that four boys keep as they graduate high school, the corrosive nature of the lies that secret forces them to tell over the next thirty years, and what they must do to repair the damage.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Books by R.J. Hoffmann at BookBrowse
Other People's Children jacket
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All the books below are recommended as read-alikes for R.J. Hoffmann but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
How we choose readalikes

  • Amanda Bestor-Siegal

    Amanda Bestor-Siegal

    Amanda Bestor-Siegal received her M.F.A. from the Michener Center for Writers, University of Texas, specializing in fiction and screenwriting. Her nonfiction work has been published in The Threepenny Review, River Teeth, and ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    Other People's Children

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    by Amanda Bestor-Siegal

  • Therese Anne Fowler

    Therese Anne Fowler

    Therese Anne Fowler is the third child and only daughter of a couple who raised their children in Milan, Illinois. An avowed tomboy as a child, Therese protested her grandmother's determined attempts to dress her in ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    Other People's Children

    A Good Neighborhood
    by Therese Anne Fowler

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