Hello Fellow Book-a-holics,
I like to read, as you’ll all have worked out by now 😉 and I decided back in 2015 that it would be a nice touch if Flora’s Musings… had some interviews from authors who write within my favourite genres; I’ve enjoyed finding out more about them and I hope you do too.
For those of you who have been following my blog for a while, you may have remembered reading my review of Alice Hoffman’s latest book The Rules of Magic towards the end of last year (read my review here). It’s a prequel novel to the highly successful Practical Magic that focuses on the Owens family over a number of decades and I really enjoyed the magical realism and emotional journey that Ms Hoffman led us on within its pages.
Interview With International Best-selling Author Alice Hoffman
Alice Hoffman seems guided by magic—not only because she often writes about it, but because her literary success is otherworldly. Name a genre, and Hoffman has tackled it in her 40-year career: fiction, non-fiction, short stories, children’s books, screenplays. In 1998, her popular novel Practical Magic—about two sisters from a long line of witches, Sally and Gillian Owens—was made into a movie starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman.
This fall Hoffman returns with The Rules of Magic, a prequel to Practical Magic. Set in New York City in the 1960s, the novel follows an older generation of Owens siblings: Franny, Jet, and Vincent, who are cursed in love but cannot escape it. Hoffman talked to Goodreads contributor Kerry Shaw about how she works her lyrical, literary magic.
Goodreads: What inspired you to write this prequel?
Alice Hoffman: I’ve always wanted the best for this family, and I wanted to know more about their past. Plus, this is just my favorite time period, and I’ve been playing around with it. But it’s not like I just sit down one day and decide I want to do something. My process is more organic: I take notes and write different scenes and characters, and all of a sudden I feel like this might be a book.
Goodreads: Reading The Rules of Magic, I felt like I was transported to another world.
Alice Hoffman: Thank you. That’s exactly what I want you to feel. I don’t want you to feel like it’s a history lesson because I’m not a historian. I want you to feel like you’re in the place.
Alice Hoffman: Oh, I love that book! Her writing is so brilliant and beautiful. It is kind of the same time period and area—she wrote a lot about Chelsea and the Village.
I think it’s nostalgic for that time when people were daring in their art and so political and everything felt new and fashion was insane and people were just much freer. It’s hard to have that kind of freedom in the world right now.
Goodreads: Speaking of freedom, you once said that “the good thing about being a girl in the 1950s and ’60s from a working-class family is that there weren’t as many expectations of me. I had the freedom I could do something I could fail at, to be a writer.”
Alice Hoffman: I just got the chills. I forgot I said that. It is so true. My family had no expectations of me, none. I didn’t have to go to college. I could do whatever I wanted, and so I never felt like I had to succeed. But that was kind of the ’60s mentality, too—you didn’t need to be published, that was mainstream. You just wanted to be an artist and create something.
Goodreads: Did your family have a hippie streak, or was that the generation?
Alice Hoffman: My mother was definitely a Bohemian person—I first went to Greenwich Village with her. But I also think it was the generation. Back then, girls weren’t expected to play soccer or become doctors. In a way that is horrible; so many doors were not open. But for me, it kind of worked. I didn’t have expectations that I would be able to support myself as a writer or to be a published writer. That was freeing, so I could just write what I wanted to write.
Goodreads: So when you moved across the country to study creative writing at Stanford, were you just thinking, “Oh, this will be an interesting intellectual experience?”
Alice Hoffman: Well, I had never heard of Stanford. My brother lived in San Francisco, and he told me there was a school there and I should apply. So I did, mostly because I wanted to go to California.
But I did want to be part of a writing program because I had always worked, and I felt like it was the only time I’d ever have to write. And I am still a big believer in writing programs. Mine was a year long, and now MFA programs can take four years, which I think is way too long. It takes up a lot of time, and it’s very expensive. I’m more of a believer in low-residency MFA programs because you can have a job and still get your MFA.
Goodreads: Your first novel was published in 1977, when you were a student at Stanford. And you’ve been writing about a book a year ever since. That’s a long time to be in the spotlight!
Alice Hoffman: It is. For me—and I think for most writers—you’re a reader first and then it just happens. You so love it that you want to be part of it, and you start writing.
Goodreads: Whose writing do you love to read?
I think Toni Morrison is the greatest living writer. I love her work, she’s a genius. When I was starting out, I loved Brontë. Wuthering Heights is my favorite book. I love Penelope Lively. I grew up reading a lot of fantasy and science fiction and often go back to those books.
Goodreads: Has your writing process gotten more efficient? Are there things you know now that could have saved you time when you were starting out?
Alice Hoffman: No. In fact, every time I start a book, I feel like I have to relearn how to do it all over again. I look at all I’ve written, and I’m like, “Who the hell wrote that? It certainly wasn’t me!”
One thing I’m better at is cutting things. And knowing that sometimes the writing you love the most is something you’ve got to get rid of because it doesn’t serve the novel.
Weirdly enough, I think I was most productive when I had little children. I’ve always said moms with little children can do a whole day’s work in, like, an hour and a half. You just have to focus so intently, and so I was very, very fruitful.
Goodreads: You’ve mentioned the importance of giving yourself deadlines.
Alice Hoffman: Yes, that’s really important because it is so hard to finish things. But it’s not like it’s brain surgery and you have to do this. You don’t have to write a novel, nobody really cares if you do or not.
I was so lucky. At Stanford, in the creative writing master’s program, I had a professor who said he wanted us to write 50 pages a week, and we all freaked out. And that first week, everyone went insane writing. When we came back, we handed in those pages. He looked at us and said, “I just said that to get you to write! I don’t really care.”
But I realized that if you have that kind of deadline, you sit down and you write. So in practice, I might say to myself, I’m going to do ten pages a day. I don’t always make that, but I go, Well, today I only did five, maybe tomorrow I’ll do ten.
Goodreads: I’ve read that you don’t look at your work right away.
Alice Hoffman: It’s so easy for me—and probably other writers—to write something and think, “This is garbage, I’m throwing it out.” But if you give yourself time, you can write your way into the story. So I try not to read it until I have about 50 pages. Then I feel like I have enough distance, and I’m not as highly critical of myself.
Goodreads: Do you ever show your first drafts to friends or family?
Alice Hoffman: Not my first draft because it’s not anything. I’m a big believer in revision, so I might show them an early draft, but never the first.
Goodreads: Who are your first readers?
Alice Hoffman: Someone who loves my work and will be nice. Later on I’ll give it to people who will be crueler and say, “Oh, I didn’t like this” or “This character doesn’t work,” or whatever. If you get too much criticism at the beginning, it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed and like it’s nothing.
Goodreads: Have you noticed a change in the industry toward women writers since you began writing?
Alice Hoffman I don’t think women are treated the same as men in anything, so why would they be treated the same in literature? I think that there’s a different standard, and it’s difficult for women, even though, weirdly, it’s women who read the most fiction. I don’t know what the right word for it is, but I think that some women writers are not looked at with the same kind of respect or seriousness.
Goodreads: I have some Goodreads community questions for you. Holly would like to know what is the best piece of constructive criticism you’ve ever received?
Alice Hoffman: To just sit down and write every day without too much thought. I don’t mean without planning—I believe in making outlines.
Goodreads: MJ‘s question is: Do you ever hide any secrets in your books that only certain people would know about?
Alice Hoffman: Yes. And I’m not telling you what they are.
Goodreads: Oh gosh, now I’m curious. Would your family and editors know?
Alice Hoffman: I don’t know who would know. I think they are more secrets for myself.
Goodreads: Interesting. Robin would like to know: Of all the books you’ve written, which is your favorite and why?
Alice Hoffman: I always feel like it’s going to be the next one, and that gets me to write it, but I have a couple of favorites. One was Seventh Heaven. It was about Long Island in 1959, 1960. The main character was Nora Silk, a single mother who was in some ways modeled after my mother. Also, I wrote a book for teens called Green Angel, about a girl who lost her family in a disaster and writes her way back to life.
I have to say The Rules of Magic feels special to me, too, because I got to return to a world that was really special to me. I loved Practical Magic, loved writing it. One of the things I loved about Practical Magic and The Rules of Magic was this connection between sisters who are friends. As a reader, it’s so rare to read books where women are friends and sisters.
Goodreads: That’s true. There were a few moments where I thought the story might veer off into fights between the females. But it never did.
Alice Hoffman: No, I was really interested to see what friendships were about, what relationships between women were about. I don’t have a sister, I don’t have a daughter. And when I write, I kind of get to experience that.
I feel very lucky to have had strong relationships with my mother and my grandmother. When I was starting out, my grandmother gave me half of her social security so I could work part-time instead of full-time and finish a book.
For people who want to be a writer—and maybe this is true for anything you want to be in life—if one person believes in you, that’s enough. And my grandmother really believed in me.