Thursday, April 24, 2008

Interview with Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman is one of the best-loved and respected writers working today. She wrote her first novel, Property Of , when she was twenty-one and she hasn't stopped since. She often writes about strong magical women and places and people you want to know—or people you feel like you already know. Her stories are mythic, filled with tragedy, love, and joy. Publishers Weekly called her latest novel, The Third Angel, "elegant and stunning." I admire Alice's writing so much. Her storytelling ability is stunning. That is a perfect word to describe her work. The word "stun" is an Old French shortening of "astonish." Alice's work is astonishing and exquisitely beautiful. I was nervous when I prepared these questions, so I asked too many of them. And yet Alice graciously answered them all. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did.

Kim Antieau (KA): Have you read anything lately that you really liked?

Alice Hoffman (AH): I don't really like to read when I'm writing—I'm afraid of getting someone else's rhythm in my head—and I just finished a book last week then hopped on a plane—so not much time yet to read. Actually, I took The Witch of Portobello with me. Going to the beach to read it as soon as I can.

KA: I’d like to start at the beginning—the beginnings of your stories. Could you tell us how your stories begin and then evolve? What starts the process: a smell, sound, character, feeling, vision? After this beginning, do you keep going? Or do you let the idea, character (whichever) ferment for a while? Or does it consume you once it has begun, like a new love?

AH: This is a difficult question. I'm not sure of the answer. I think I fear that if I ever figure out how I do it, I'll lose the ability. I think that's why so many academics find they can't write fiction—they are so busy deconstructing they can't just let go. I do everything everyone else does—outlines, notes, notebooks, charts, drafts that don't work—but really I don't know how it happens. That's why I keep doing it I assume. Like love, it makes no sense. And very consuming.

KA: I’m always fascinated by how writers physically write. What time of day or night. At a desk, on the couch, out on the beach. With a cup of coffee, tea, chocolate? With a pen and paper, computer, tape recorder? Do you write every day? Or do you take off weeks or months at a time?

AH: When I had small children I was very scheduled—up at five, etc etc. Every day so many hours or pages. Also when I was beginning and had other jobs. Now, my kids are gone, and my work and life are blended together. I write all the time on and off on a portable computer. No office anymore. I feel trapped in a room.

KA: I love reading your stories, in part, because it feels as though I am reading fairy tales or myths, as though they are all stories that have been around for a long while, and you are just kindly telling them to us again, to remind us of what we already know. Like many fairy tales, your stories often begin with catastrophe. Terrible things happen to your characters and to the people around them. Is it difficult to be a witness to these tragedies, as the writer? Is this emotionally draining for you as you are writing it? Or is it cathartic? Or neither?

AH: It's cathartic to take straw and make it into gold, or as close to gold as you can get it. Also to transfigure reality and expand it. Terrible things happen in all fairy tales -- why not? They are the most honest of all literature.

KA: Do you do a lot of research before you write a novel? (I’m thinking of Incantation, for one.)

AH: I do the research after usually—so I don't get caught up in the "facts"—with Incantation though I had been reading about Marranos (hidden Jews) for some time and had been interested and reading about Kabbalah for some time. I had a historian read the ms, but it's really more of an emotional journey than a historical one.

KA: You were a successful writer quite young, and you’ve continued to publish. Publishing has changed so much, especially in the last ten years. It used to be that authors were allowed time to build an audience. Now books are expected to have big openings like movies and are considered failures when they don’t. Has that trend affected your career at all? Do you have any feelings about this trend?

AH: I feel sad about the trend. First time authors are made too much of, then when their second book doesn't live up to the first, they're crushed and the industry looks for someone new. So many writers with two or three books can't find a publisher if they haven't sold X amount of copies. It's not a good situation, but it's a trend far beyond publishing.

KA: I often write about my struggles with illness, depression, and anxiety. I know that you’ve struggled with some of these issues, too. I read that you were able to write when you were getting treatment for breast cancer. Do you think this helped your healing process? Can you write most of the time or are there times when you can’t? When (or if) you can’t write, do you find reading is healing?

AH: I find reading very healing, but for me writing is more so. I can disappear. That's often what I'm aiming to do.

KA: Your women are most often very connected to place. They know the plant medicines, the stories, the magic of their environment. Are you connected to your place, your environment? Are you able to sniff out the stories and magic of a new place right away?

AH: Place matters to me. Invented place matters more.

KA: I have just read two of your young adult novels, Green Angel and Incantation. They are both so beautiful. When I finished Incantations, I sat on my couch and cried. I have recently started writing YA novels, and I love it. I feel freer, somehow, when writing them. Do you find the process of writing young adult and adult novels different? Do you prefer one over the other?

AH: Thank you! I think I allow myself to me more emotional when writing for teens—getting to the most raw of emotions. I just prefer to write—I think adults read teen books and teens read adult books and there's not much of a difference.

KA: What do you think of Muriel Rukeyser’s often-quoted line, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”

AH: Hah! Good line. I love it.

KA: I saw that Emily Bronte is a writer who has influenced you. Since you didn’t mention Charlotte Bronte, I’m assuming (perhaps incorrectly) that you prefer Wuthering Heights to Jane Eyre. Can you tell us what you like about one or the other?

AH: You can tell a lot about a person by which one she or he prefers. That's all I'll say!!! I am a Wuthering Heights reader all the way.

KA: I won’t ask you which of your novels is your favorite—since that’s almost like asking a parent which of her children is her favorite—but I wonder if there is a novel you love that you wish more people would notice and read?

AH: Seventh Heaven. An homage to my mother set in the suburbs in 1959.

KA: Do you want to tell us anything about your new novel The Third Angel?

AH: My new book is about love and loss—set in London in the 50s, 60s, and 90s. I have a character named Lucy Green and she just stepped in and I followed her. This novel is filled with secrets, some I didn't realize until I was done writing it.

KA: Do you want to talk about your work with the Adelphi Young Writers?

AH: It's a great program for teen writers—there should be more programs like it. There doesn't seem to be time to include writing in the high school curriculum anymore. We'll just have to take to the streets.

KA: Thank you so much for your time, Alice, and good luck with The Third Angel.


Anonymous said...

Kim, I think that was a great interview and great questions too! I love Alice Hoffman's books and I am happy that you gave us a glimpse of what she is thinking and feeling. Thanks!

Stephanie said...

ohmyword!!! Kim! What a great interview! Alice Hoffman enchants me too - I'm so glad you did this (and that she did it). Reading about your new book coming out makes me breathe funny - I mean ... well, it's not a how-to book or a theory of being an author. It's you. A person I see as part of my ordinary life. (There it is again! I can't breathe right!) Thank you for letting us in on the life you've got.

Anonymous said...

Great interview! I read a lot of Alice Hoffman's books. I think my favourite so far is The River King. I like all the others, but that one is my favourite.

Shooting Stars Mag said...

Great questions. I enjoyed the interview a ton. The new book sounds great...I've never read any books by Alice Hoffman. But I guess I need too!

Gypsy said...

i liked the interview. thanks
i love reading items like that

Kim Antieau said...

Thank you, all. I'm glad you enjoyed it! Alice is extraordinary.

Patry Francis said...

Hi Kim, I was thrilled to stumble on this delightful interview. You asked many of the questions I would
have liked to ask.

I'm now reading the final section of The Third Angel, and I've slowed my reading to linger over the story. I hate the idea of finishing it, and leaving this cast of intriguing characters behind.

All work copyright © Kim Antieau 2008-.