Alice Hoffman Talks About Her New Book and More

"Fiction transports, heals, and opens the world."

Posted Feb 22, 2011

After writing 29 novels, many of them best sellers and adapted for movies, Alice Hoffman needs no introduction. But I must say that her latest novel, The Red Garden, is as full of magic and characters who ring true, heart-wrenching loss and redemption, and just plain fun reading as Practical Magic, Here on Earth, The River King, and the other novels that have made her a mainstay on our book shelves. Here's more from Alice:

Jennifer Haupt: What would you do if you couldn't write novels?

Alice Hoffman: If I couldn't write novels I would read them --- I always planned to be a librarian, and for me the library was a great escape, always. My school librarian- who had the wonderful and fitting name of Mrs. Inken, changed my life when she allowed me to take out as many books as I wanted. She was a rule-breaker and a book-lover and I wanted to follow in her footsteps.

JH: Where did you find the people who populate Blackwell, Massachusetts in The Red Garden?

AH: I find my inspiration in many different places. For The Red Garden my inspiration came from the landscape and literary history of New England. It's my love song to Massachusetts.

JH: I know your next novel takes place in the Middle East. Tell me about the research involved with that story.

AH: My next novel, The Dovekeepers, is set in 70 AD during the fall of Jerusalem, and takes place at Masada -- the mountain fortress where 900 Jewish rebels took their own lives rather than allowing themselves to become Roman slaves. There were two women and five children who survived that night, and my book tells their story. It is a huge departure in terms of time, but not really in terms of theme. I write about love and loss and about survivors in all of my work. The research, of course, was huge, and the book was five years in the researching and writing.

JH: The intertwined stories in The Red Garden center on a magical garden, and nature seems to play a big role in many of your novels. What role does gardening and nature play in your life?

AH: Nature plays a huge role in The Red Garden -- how the landscape changes us and how we change the landscape. Personally, I'm a terrible gardener, but being out in the country means a great deal to me, and I have a place that's my escape.

JH: Do you have a writing alter or rituals?

AH: I don't have a writing alter or writing rituals. My writing and my life are oddly melded together, so that I'm never really "finished" working. I am always working on a piece of fiction, either researching, writing the first draft, or revising. I do get attached to a particular computer and I get used to certain keyboards. For me, a keyboard is not unlike a piano -- it has to feel right when you play!

JH: I know you were diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998. Tell me about that time and how it changed your writing.

AH: It was right after I returned from Chicago where my book Here On Earth was an Oprah Book Club choice. My sister in law had recently had brain cancer -- during her treatment I was unable to find the time to work on a novel and wrote a book of inter-related stories, Local Girls --- my mother had just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and in a few weeks another sister in law was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had nearly a year of treatment after my surgery, chemo and radiation.

Writing saved me, it was a life raft, a world I could go to when I was getting treatment. At the time I was working on The River King, and I felt I was on a raft in that river. I thought about the plot and the characters while I was undergoing radiation, bone scans, dark nights, and I moved into my office so that I could write whenever I felt strong enough.

I think that my work has been tremendously effected, and that I know much more know than I did before-- and that I am more in awe of how people manage to survive the sorrows of the world than ever before. During my treatment I also returned to being the reader that I'd been as a girl -- I always had a book in my hands. The books that I read during my treatment were life rafts for me as well, and two in particular got me through -- Frankel's Man's Search for Meaning, written by a therapist and concentration camp survivor about the uses of sorrow in our lives was one that helped me through. The other was Bridget Jones' Diary -- and I still love that book for getting me to laugh out loud while sitting in the waiting room of the radiation department. And there it is -- fiction transports, heals, and opens the world.

JH: What role does faith and/or intuition play in your writing?

AH: Faith plays a huge role in my writing. I am much more optimistic and hopeful as a writer than I am as a person, and I find hope in fiction.

JH: Is there one true thing you learned from your characters in The Red Garden?

AH: I learned that what happens in the past resonates for us in the present, and that forgiveness can change everything.

Alice Hoffman's work has been published in more than twenty translations and more than one hundred 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. 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. A number of her novels have been made into films, including Practical Magic and her teen novel Aquamarine. Hoffman is currently a visiting research associate at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.