Alice Hoffman Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Alice Hoffman
Photo: Deborah Feingold

Alice Hoffman

An interview with Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman talks about four of her books: The World That We Knew (2019), The Marriage of Opposites (2015) and The Dovekeepers (2012), and her 2005 collection, Blackbird House.

The World That We Knew

The World That We Knew is being called another Alice Hoffman masterpiece. What was the evolution of this novel?

Years ago I met a woman in Florida who asked me if I would write her life story. She had been a hidden child in France during the Holocaust, sent to a convent by her parents in an attempt to rescue her. She felt that if the story of the hidden children wasn't told, it would be forgotten. I thought about what she had said for a very long time, and in 2016 I began to write The World That We Knew.

Discuss how you used magic to reach the emotional heart of such a cruel time in history.

So many novels have been written about the Holocaust that I felt I wanted to tell a story from a different point of view. I approached this time of destruction as a dark fairy tale. It was a time when nothing made sense, and although I most often write to make sense of things, doing so was impossible given the circumstances. As a friend who is a historian wrote, "History is luck." Who gets on a train and who doesn't can change everything. We can control our choices and our reactions, but we can't control fate. I was most interested in writing about the emotional lives of the characters, how they dealt with grief and sorrow, and how they continued to find joy in life.

How do you conduct research that results in such a rich and detailed story?

I always do a huge amount of reading, but for this novel I wanted to see the landscape of the novel for myself and met people who had been directly affected by the history I was writing about. I traveled to France and visited the chateaus where Jewish children were sent when they were separated from their parents. (At first only foreign Jews were deported, then Jews over the age of sixteen, so that parents and children were separated. In the end, all Jews including infants were deported.)

I was fortunate to meet several child survivors in France, now in their eighties and nineties, and several in the United States, all of whom were so generous in sharing their stories with me. I was in awe of the survivors I spoke with, and although I am not telling the story of their lives, the emotions they shared with me were very moving and affected me greatly.

Do you see similarities between the time period in The World That We Knew and the world we're currently living in? What can we do to combat hatred?

In France, the political situation began with a hatred and fear of refugees, then of Jewish refugees, then of all Jews. Hatred starts small and grows larger when it's ignored. When people are bystanders it grows even larger, and before long it is out of control.

I think that unfortunately there are many parallels between what happened in Europe in the 1930s and '40s and what is happening in our country now, both at the border and throughout the states. It's so important to speak out and to remember the stories of the past. We have to remember the cost of hatred and the importance of fighting for a world in which everyone has rights.

Was there a character with a past that moved you most?

The mother superior, Sister Marie, who was born Madeleine de Masson into an Algerian Jewish family who changed both their name and their religion so they would fit into French culture. Her story, her deep love for her grandfather, and her conviction that she must do good in the world always moves me and makes me feel grateful that despite the horrors in the world, there will always be people who are compelled to do the right thing.

Did writing a novel set in such a tragic time affect you while you were working on the book? How did you transform sorrow into a work of beauty?

I always start a novel with a question. With The World That We Knew my question was How do survivors of tragedy manage to go on? I found my answer when speaking with survivors in this country and in France. Even those who had suffered enormous loss valued life, wanted to live, and found joy in their families, their work, their memories, and their daily lives.

I do think all artists and writers have a similar goal: to spin straw into gold, to make something beautiful out of dust and ashes.

There are many different types of love in the novel. The power of a mother's love is particularly moving. Can you tell us about your own relationship with you mother?

My relationship with my mother and grandmother are likely at the heart of this book. There isn't a day when I don't think of them. They influenced my life more than anyone. My grandmother told me my first stories and encouraged me when I wanted to be a writer. My first story was about her, and it was the story that made it possible for me to go to the Stanford University [Creative] Writing Program. My mother was an unusual, beautiful, and eccentric person, a lover of books and theater. I do believe that the loss of one's mother changes everything. No matter how old you are when it happens, you are an orphan.

Ava is an intriguing character who makes us question what it means to be human. Did her story surprise you, and did she change during the writing of the novel?

I never know what characters in a novel will do. I think I understand them, but in the process of writing I grow to understand them at a deeper level. Ava changed because of her experiences, and because she knew love. I didn't expect her to wish to be human—if anything I thought she was lucky to be "superhuman." But in loving a child, she became human. It was beyond choice. It was her fate.

You've spoken before about the inspiration you find in fairy tales. Were they an inspiration for this story, and if yes, how so?

My earliest readings were fairy tales, myth, fantasy, and science fiction. I do believe that what you read as a child affects you hugely as a person and as a writer. Fairy tales are so psychologically true, more so than any other literature, and children can sense their emotional depth. These stories are often a guide through sorrow to joy, with instructions on how to navigate the world. For me, they are the original literature, told by grandmothers to grandchildren.

The World That We Know is also about navigating through a tragic time, and I thought of it as a story told by a mother and grandmother to a daughter, a cautionary tale and an instruction on how to survive.

Can you tell us what you're working on now?

I'm working on the third book in my Practical Magic series. The second book is a prequel called The Rules of Magic, which takes place in New York City in the 1960s. The third book is about Maria Owens, the original ancestor of the family, in the 1600s. It's been great fun to be back with the Owens family and to discover their secrets.

The Marriage of Opposites

Though Camille Pissarro is globally known and celebrated, few people know this part of his history. What inspired you to write about Rachel Pizzarro? Where did you first learn about her?

I was at an exhibit of Pissarro's work at the art museum at Williams College. It was there I first realized he was a Jew and had been born in St. Thomas. I'd always assumed he was French, as he was one of the fathers of Impressionism. I then wanted to discover what else I didn't know. When I began reading about the scandal his mother's marriage had caused I knew I had found my story.

Your female protagonists are always formidable. How did you find and develop Rachel's voice?

Luckily, my characters come to me fully formed. After reading about Rachel she was alive in my imagination and she spoke directly to me.

The title of the novel The Marriage of Opposites could apply to almost any marriage—or relationship, for that matter—in the work. How did you select that title?

"The Marriage of Opposites" is an alchemical term—to create any substance or circumstance one has to combine opposite materials, in love and in all things. This term seemed so right for the marriage of Camille Pissarro's parents, but also for many other relationships in the novel, and then in a broader historical sense—that people from all over the world are thrown together on this island and that they create a marriage of their cultures.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things was set in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century, The Dovekeepers was set in biblical Judea, and The Marriage of Opposites is set in the 1800s. How do you create such rich and varied historical settings? What was your research and writing process for The Marriage of Opposites?

I usually read everything I can, then begin to write, then research again. It's a process of layering fact and fiction. I want all the historical references to be correct, but I am also creating characters, both the ones based on historical characters and the ones who are completely imagined.

You've penned several dozen novels for both children and adults, as well as a memoir. Do you have a preference for a particular age group? Does a specific theme seem to weave its way into works for one age versus another? What do you see as the difference between writing in each genre?

I love writing for children and teens, mostly because I always feel that is such an important time in a reader's life. What you read at that point forms who you are as a reader. Each book comes to me as an adult novel or a children's novel or a teen book or nonfiction. Some work comes to me as stories, other as novels. My themes are always the same: Love, loss, and survivorship. But the way I write about these themes differs, depending on the book.

Of your writing, do you have a favorite work? Is there one character whose story you'd like to return to?

I often miss characters when a book is written. I have missed Rachel Pizzarro greatly. I often think she is the sort of woman I wish I could be. I've thought it might be interesting to know more about the world of Practical Magic. And I've just written a children's book called Nightbird, and I very much miss the town of Sidwell, Massachusetts, that I imagined.

Jewish life and history play a major role in your novels. What draws you to exploring Jewish themes?

For me, the Jewish themes very much related to my grandmothers and to their stories and to their struggles. It's part of telling the story that hasn't been told. I've enjoyed learning more about my own history and culture.

To further the above question, your publisher said that you consider The Marriage of Opposites the "story of the ultimate Jewish mother." Both Rachel and Madame Pomié are intense mothers. Are they modeled after anyone in your own life?

Rachel Pizzarro has something of a bad reputation, as being bossy and controlling, which is the stereotype of the "Jewish mother." I wanted to explore this and understand what it is to be a mother in a dangerous world where you are an outsider and your ultimate goal is to protect your children no matter the cost. Again, my grandmothers were the model for women who would do anything for their children.

Could you describe when and where you like to write? What does your desk look like?

I have to say, I don't have a desk. I write wherever I am, whenever I can. Noise doesn't bother me, and I prefer not to have a window, which would distract me. I write the way I read—on a couch, in a bed, on a train.

In a 2013 interview with Writer magazine, you said, "The idea of magic and reality intertwined is really appealing to me. I lived in a working-class suburb in Long Island, right over the border from Queens, so it was very gritty. Every house was the same. There were no trees. It was neither here nor there. It was the least magical place. And yet it felt magical. If you can view that place with magic, any place can be filled with magic." Are there any magical stories, histories, or eras that you haven't yet explored in a novel that you're interested in researching one day?

For me, magic is a part of every story. It is the original story—myth and fairy tale— and I can't imagine writing without some element of magic being a part of my work.

We've read that some your favorite authors include Emily Brontë, Toni Morrison, and Ursula Le Guin, among many others. Of your favorite books, is there one in particular you wish you'd written? Is there one particular book you return to often?

I love those authors. Toni Morrison is the greatest living author and I admire her more than any other writer. I am an Emily Brontë fanatic—for me, Wuthering Heights is the greatest psychological novel ever written. And as a fan of fantasy and science fiction, I have to say Le Guin transcends all genre writing—her worlds are astounding. I also often go back to childhood authors that meant so much to me, especially Ray Bradbury, who taught me so much about what it means to be a writer, and what it means to be human.

Are you working on anything new? Is there anything you can share with us?

My next novel is something completely different—modern, edgy, set in New York, with a character named Shelby who is desperately trying to find her place in the world.

Alice Hoffman discusses the inspirational and deeply personal reasons she wrote The Dovekeepers

In the short video below, Alice Hoffman talks about her personal reasons for writing The Dovekeepers (2012), and in a written interview she talks about her collection Blackbird House (2005), a series of interconnected short stories set in one Cape Cod house over a period of centuries.

Alice Hoffman on Blackbird House

Jennifer Morgan Gray: Why did you decide to construct Blackbird House as interweaving stories in lieu of a more straightforward narrative structure? Was it liberating to write in so many different points of view? What were the challenges of this framework?
Alice Hoffman: The book began after The Boston Globe asked me to write a short story set on the Cape in the summer. Once I wrote the initial story, I was interested in what else might have happened at the old farm I'd written about. It was great fun and very liberating to pick and choose time periods and characters over several centuries. Rather than being a challenge, it was a pleasure to work with the format of linked stories. I love to read them, and I love to write them. It's wonderful to move through time and space.

JMG: The book is titled Blackbird House, and the house itself and the hill on which it sits are the unifying link for the stories. Was there a particular home that served as the model for Blackbird House? If so, how did your relationship with the house change and evolve as you wrote the book?
AH: I have an old farm out on Cape Cod. It was very rundown when we bought it, and there were rumors that it was haunted. On my first visit, I noticed a woman, a ghost in the parlor. Then I looked more closely and discovered it was a mirror and that the woman was me. I knew then it was my house. As we were fixing it up, owners and renters from the past visited. They had all loved the house in their time, and I began to have the sense of how many lives had been lived in the rooms we now lived in.

JMG: Blackbird House stretches over hundreds of years. How did you prepare for writing fiction that spans this large amount of time? Did writing the book necessitate extensive research into the history of the Cape Cod area? How did you thrust yourself into the various time periods of the book while you were writing about them?
AH: I did quite a bit of research into the history of my own house, and the history of the towns of the outer Cape. I knew about the natural world of the Cape, having spent twenty-five years as a part-time resident, and was delighted to use that information. The sense of history in Massachusetts, and on the Cape, is so present, and so much of the landscape is unchanged; and so it was easy to imagine what life was like in the past.

: The blackbird - which turns white - is a recurrent motif in the book. How did you conjure up such a striking image that threads throughout the story? How is it a harbinger of good? Of evil? How do you view the blackbird as a supernatural image, and how is it firmly rooted in reality?
AH: Blackbirds have long been symbols in the myths of many cultures and have symbolized both creation and death. In literature the "black bird" - whether a raven or a falcon or a crow - often appears as a symbol of remembrance, mystery, sorrow. Sometimes blackbirds are seen as evil, sometimes good; always they possess an intelligence that is nearly supernatural.

JMG: Sweet peas and turnips, introduced in the first story, also reappear throughout the book. What caused you to incorporate these two natural elements, both rooted in the earth, each with their own distinct beauty? Did they have a symbolic meaning to you while you were writing?
AH: At my farm, old gardens are everywhere, even deep in the woods. In fact, our place was called "Sweat Pea" at one time, and we have so many, we pull them out as though they were weeds. We have orchards and lilies that someone once planted, and the idea that what once has been still influences the present is at the core of Blackbird House. The outer Cape is famous for its turnips - a funny, lumpy, rather ugly vegetable that can be surprisingly delicious.

JMG: In each of these stories, the main characters experience a turning point that acts as a catalyst for change. What about these watershed moments is so compelling to you? Did any of those moments surprise you in the book as you were crafting the characters? Did you experience a similar turning point while were writing Blackbird House, where the book took a different form or trajectory?
AH: Because I could pick and choose the moments I would write about as the book moved forward in time, I chose the turning points in characters lives - sometimes they were small, and went unnoticed by the character - going off to Harvard, for instance. Sometimes they were huge - a marriage, a murder, a death. How we respond at these difficult, transitional times in our lives reveals who we are as human beings. I was constantly surprised by my characters and their choices - I think I found Violet the most surprising character of all. She was so headstrong, so much herself, and she was still able to change even when she was a very old woman.

JMG: Did you write the stories chronologically, as they are presented in the book? Or was there one character or situation that compelled you to write first, then frame the rest of the stories around that tale? Was there one individual chapter that presented a particular challenge to write? Which one?
AH: The first story I wrote was "The Summer Kitchen" - this was the story I wrote for The Boston Globe. It's the second to last story in the book. The final story, which follows the same family, was the last story I wrote. All of the other stories grew out of my interest in who had come before, who else had lived in Blackbird House. Some of the characters had too much life to be only one story. Violet, for instance, and Emma and Walker, the children who began the book.

JMG: This book is rife with life-altering accidents - from the gale that sweeps Coral's family away from her in "The Edge of the World" to the car crash that causes Lion and his wife to perish in "Lionheart." How do the characters balance what they can control versus that which they have no agency over? What is your personal view about the hand of fate in everyday life?
AH: Out on the Cape, weather is huge. A life at sea means a life battling weather, and the graveyards are full of such people. I think the characters do the best they can, but they are dealing with forces that cannot be controlled, from the weather to war to fate.

JMG: "From every bitter thing, after all, something hardy will surely grow," opens "The Witch of Truro," one of the stories featuring Ruth (p. 23). I was struck by how this sentiment resonates throughout the book. What about adversity enables each of your protagonists to thrive? Conversely, how do adverse circumstances cause them to doubt themselves and bury their feelings within?
AH: Sorrow defines characters in fiction, just as it defines us. I do believe that the worst of times sometimes forms the best of what's inside us. Throughout Blackbird House what anyone tries to bury almost always surfaces in some way.

JMG: "He thought about how love could move you in ways you wouldn't have imagined, one foot in front of the other, even when you thought you had nothing left inside," thinks Vincent early in the book (p. 21), in "The Edge of the World." How does Vincent, and the other characters of Blackbird House, seek out love? What does love make them do that is uncharacteristic? While you were writing, did you view love as the guiding force of these stories?
AH: I see love as the guiding force of most everything. Everything done for the good, at any rate. Fear and love seem to be the two motivating forces within the book. Vincent, for example, is a character who feels he's lost everything, but something remains deep inside. He keeps moving, until he finds his way home and his true self.

JMG: "He looked past anything he didn't want to see, and therefore he often didn't recognize the truth even when it was staring him right in the face," you write of Larkin (p. 52) in "Insulting the Angels." How does his denial of anything distasteful limit his understanding of the world around him? How do others in the book approach unpleasantness and pain?
AH: The characters all approach pain and loss and love in very different ways. In many cases it takes a while for them to understand the truth of their own actions. Isn't that true of us all? I think in the case of Violet, her growth in the way she deals with loss and pain is most interesting.

JMG: Loneliness poses a visceral threat to the characters in every facet of this book. What do you think the characters here fear the most about being alone? Was there one relationship that develops from that search to join with someone that you found the most compelling to write? What character, if any, did you have the most difficult time connecting with?
AH: Blackbird House is about the importance of connecting with another person. There is such a need for that, which is so easily seen in a wild, lonely place such as the Cape. Because each character is a little piece of me, I never have trouble connecting with them! I know them inside out, even though they make some surprising choices sometimes.

JMG: When we spoke about your novel The Probable Future last year, you mentioned that your own illness affected how you rendered that novel's protagonist and her battle with cancer. How did your own experience inform the stories that focus on Emma, the little girl in "The Summer Kitchen," who successfully overcomes cancer but wistfully idealizes her life before cancer?
AH: When I was going through my treatment, my next door neighbor, a little girl, was battling cancer as well. She was my inspiration for "The Summer Kitchen." Although the story is not about her or her family, her courage influenced the story and was inspirational for me as I was going through treatment.

JMG: Do you have any special routines or rituals you adhere to while you're writing that facilitate the process and bring you inspiration and creativity? What are they?
AH: I used to have rituals - painting my office a different color, setting out items that remind me of the book - now I just write. Many of these stories were written on the Cape - "The Wedding of Snow and Ice" was written in a snowstorm. The landscape itself was so inspiring that was enough for me.

JMG: Is there anything in particular that you're working on right now? What can your readers look forward to seeing on the shelves from you next?
AH: I have a new novel, The Ice Queen, about a frozen woman who is hit by lightning and suddenly comes alive. It's an erotic fairy tale about what happens when we freeze our emotions - about all that we bury deep inside. A teen novel, The Foretelling, will be out in the fall; it's set in the Bronze Age, about the daughter of an Amazon queen, and about the ways war can ruin us and love can save us.
(BookBrowse note: The Foretelling: Sept 2005 from Little, Brown & Co)

Jennifer Morgan Gray is a writer and editor who lives in Washington. This interview is reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Ballantine Books. 2005.

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 this Author

Books by Alice Hoffman at BookBrowse
Magic Lessons jacket The World That We Knew jacket The Rules of Magic jacket The Marriage of Opposites jacket
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All the books below are recommended as read-alikes for Alice Hoffman 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.
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    Anita Amirrezvani

    Anita Amirrezvani was born in Tehran, Iran, and raised in San Francisco. For ten years, she was a dance critic for newspapers in the Bay Area. She has received fellowships from the National Arts Journalism Program, the NEA's ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
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  • Elizabeth Berg

    Elizabeth Berg

    Elizabeth Berg is the author of many bestselling novels, including Open House (an Oprah's Book Club selection), Talk Before Sleep, and The Year of Pleasures, as well as the short story collection The Day I Ate Whatever I... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    The Ice Queen

    The Year of Pleasures
    by Elizabeth Berg

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