A Q&A with Alice Hoffman

photo credit: Deborah Feingold

Best-selling author Alice Hoffman published her first novel at the age of twenty-one, and has since written over 30 books, several of which have been turned into movies. Her most recent story, The Dovekeepers, has been called a masterpiece. Set in ancient Israel and based on the siege of the Masada, it took her over five years to write. The story, which follows four women’s lives during the time of the siege, is both intensely personal and grand in scope.  It’s the story of four fierce and complicated women whose lives merge during the final days of the siege. Here’s what’s been said about it:

Beautiful, harrowing, a major contribution to twenty-first century literature.” —Toni Morrison, Nobel Laureate in Literature

In her remarkable new novel, Alice Hoffman holds a mirror to our ancient past as she explores the contemporary themes of sexual desire, women’s solidarity in the face of strife, and the magic that’s quietly present in our day-to-day living. Put The Dovekeepers at the pinnacle of Hoffman’s extraordinary body of work. I was blown away.” —Wally Lamb, author of The Hour I First Believed

Hoffman makes ancient history live and breathe in this compelling story… This is both a feminist manifesto and a deeply felt tribute to courageous men and women of faith, told with the cadence and imagery of a biblical passage.” —Booklist

As a reader, I’ve loved Alice Hoffman since my twenties, when a librarian handed me a copy of Illumination Night. Finding everyday magic in a book for adults was a delight for someone who had spent her childhood reading sagas like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Dark is Rising.

As an author, I love how she handles character development and voice. I’ve pored over her novels Practical Magic and Turtle Moon time and time again, trying to learn exactly how to make that seamless transition from one point of view to the next.

So I’m thrilled that Alice took time out of her busy schedule to talk with us here. Enjoy!

Interview with Alice Hoffman

Q: Your stories often contain truly horrific events — murder, terrible freak accidents, abuse — and yet your writing is so lovely that often, when I go to reread one of your novels, it’s not what I recall at all. Your characters and settings have stayed with me but the main event has faded and I’m shocked all over again. Would you talk a bit about how you balance that driving plot event with character development and voice?

AH:  I think all of my work is character-driven, and I am a huge fan of ‘plot’ — in that there is a story to follow, a reason to turn the page. But if I had to say what I think is most important for a writer, I would have to say Voice. My mentor, Albert Guerard, the greatest writing teacher of the 20th century, believed that every writer had a voice that was like a fingerprint — one of a kind — and that in order to become a writer one must find his or her voice.

 Q: I’ve seen your work described as fairytales for grown-ups –an echo of a story we’ve all been told and have forgotten. Yet the magic is so subtle — often just a line or two (toads that crave Snickers Bars, for example). What draws you toward writing these types of stories, and how do you balance the magic with the real world elements, such as the very real settings in Blackbird House and The Dove Keepers?

AH: I love the idea of fairytales for grown-ups!  I never think about the magic in my work  — it just appears. I grew up reading fairytales, and I thought as a child, and still think, they are the most psychologically astute tales — they get to the heart and soul of the matter in a subtle way, disguised the way the truth is disguised in a dream.

Q: When I heard you speak at Grub Street (a Boston-based writing organization), you mentioned that you are a heavy rewriter. Would you talk about your process for rewriting? Any tips you can pass along to the rest of us to make the process easier?

AH: For me, the first draft is best if I can write without “thinking” — even if the story is plotted out and there’s an outline. I rewrite the entire manuscript several times, then go through it in pieces. I always find if you read fiction out loud you know what you have to change by what you stumble over.

Q: Do you write from an outline, or are you a so-called ‘panster?’

AH: Always an outline– and various crazy notes that no one else would understand. And sometimes it all gets thrown away.  But it’s easier for me if I have a blueprint to begin with. Then the characters may start to do as they please.

Q: Talk a little about sisters — there’s often such a strong conflict or relationship between siblings, particularly sisters, in your stories. What draws you toward these relationships?

AH: Some people write what they know, other people write to escape their own lives and experience others. I didn’t have sisters or daughters, and this was a great loss for me, so I write about what I missed out on.

Q: Please talk a little about voice and point of view.  You are a master of switching both — in Practical Magic, for example, you even jump from one person’s head to another on a single page — and yet your writing is so seamless to read the jump is never jarring.  Any tips you can share on how you accomplish this?

AH: Point of view is tricky.  I’m not sure how it’s done — it’s still a mystery to me. I have switched the point of view when writing a book, from first person to third, and I think it simply has to “feel right”. My one regret is that an editor talked me out of writing a section of a book from the POV of a dog — I always regretted not going with it!

Readers, you can read more of Liz’s interview with Alice Hoffman in WU’s newsletter, Writer Inboxed. To sign up, click here.

You can learn more about Alice and The Dovekeepers on her website and by following her on Facebook. Write on!

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About Liz Michalski

Liz Michalski's first novel, Evenfall, was published by Berkley Books (Penguin). Liz has been a reporter, an editor, and a freelance writer. In her previous life, she wrangled with ill-tempered horses and oversized show dogs. These days she's downsized to one husband, two children and a medium-sized mutt.

Comments

  1. says

    I love everything about this interview, but particularly the bit about how fairy tales get to the truth subtly, “disguised the way the truth is disguised in a dream.” And how Alice starts with an outline, but then “the characters may start to do as they please.” Fantastic way to start the day and weekend! Thanks, Liz!

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  2. Lisa Threadgill says

    What a treat to start my morning! I have such respect for Alice Hoffman, and I have enjoyed her books both as entertainment and as learning opportunities. Thank you so much for giving me a glimpse into “how she does that thing she does”.

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  3. Denise Willson says

    Just lovin’ the opportunity to put a call out to Alice Hoffman. I am a sincere fan, Alice, and as a writer I have so much to learn from you. Thank you.

    Now I don’t feel like such a nerd for standing at Costco gushing about The Dovekeepers to complete strangers like a love-struck schoolgirl.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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  4. Sevigne says

    Thank you, Alice Hoffman, for your simple but profound responses. In particular your emphasis on finding one’s voice to be a writer. This is so little talked of, except that everyone says “a writer must have it”; but beyond that…nothing. I loved that you said it’s the writer’s fingerprint. It’s said that an artist’s signature is in every brushstroke; a writer’s voice is in every word.

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  5. says

    *raises hand* Another fairy-tale lover here. I’ve been anticipating this interview for what seems like forever and ever. I, too, like the emphasis on voice.

    Thank you, ladies!

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  6. says

    I remember reading Hoffman’s The River King years ago, and the language was so beautiful I savored that book for weeks. It’s wonderful to get a peek into her writing process. I am a huge fan.

    Great interview, Liz!

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  7. says

    As someone who is often taken for a ride by her characters, I appreciate these words tremendously:

    For me, the first draft is best if I can write without “thinking” — even if the story is plotted out and there’s an outline.

    This was a wonderful interview, Liz and Alice. Thank you!

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  8. says

    I’ve loved Alice Hoffman for years. Thank you for this interview. Oh, I wish I had just a slice of her talent!

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  9. says

    I loved every part of this interview, but especially the discussion of a writer’s voice being as unique as a fingerprint. I was disappointed not to be able to read the full interview as I never sign up for email newsletters due to inbox overload.

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