Profile: Alice Hoffman
The magical and the everyday collide in beautiful ways in the prodigious fiction penned by this popular American Jewish writer.
In Alice Hoffman’s literary wonderland, past and present collide; magical landscapes brim with angels and humans; blackbirds turn white and pearls turn black; and love, loss and hope intermingle. In real life, Hoffman finds her personal wonderland simply—by writing stories and conjuring up characters that offer her transformative healing and emotional truth. “Books,” she says, “may well be the only true magic.”
After 19 novels, 2 short-story collections and 8 books for children and young adults, Hoffman’s prose continues to enchant readers. Many of her books have been best sellers, translated into more than 20 languages. Here on Earth (Berkley) was an Oprah Book Club selection; Practical Magic (Berkley) and Aquamarine (Scholastic) were made into movies; At Risk (Berkley) is on many high school and college reading lists. Hoffman is also a screenwriter and the author of the screenplay for the film Independence Day. Her newest novel, The Third Angel (Crown), was released in April.
Despite the fact that she wrote her first book, Property Of(Berkley), when she was only 21, it has taken Hoffman years to feel comfortable identifying publicly as a writer. “I used to tell people I was a typist,” she recalls.
Today, readers can visit her Web site (www.alicehoffman.com) and MySpace page, where she gives her age as 99 (she is 56) but otherwise honestly divulges her favorite writers (Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Emily Brontë, Edward Eager); her favorite way to develop a character (list everything about them) and the people she would like to meet (Rod Serling, John Lennon, Jesus, Virginia Woolf, Brontë, Ernest Hemingway, Elvis Presley and Harry Houdini). “Wouldn’t it be a great dinner party?” she comments.
Many readers—and other authors—rank her among their preferred writers. Best-selling novelist Jodi Picoult puts Hoffman at the top of her list of favorite authors and calls The Third Angel “gorgeous” on her Web site.
Hoffman’s New York apartment—she also has a home in Boston—is packed up for a move to another space nearby, leaving it mostly empty but for the furniture and a few works of art still on the walls. All she can offer a visitor, she says, is water and Altoids. She doesn’t flinch when asked some of the questions on her own character-development list. Favorite food? “Pizza,” she whispers guiltily, admitting she is trying to cut carbs. Hobbies? She points to a bag of yarn and knitting needles on the sofa. What’s in her closet? “Mostly black.” In fact, she wears black jeans, a black sweater, black ankle-length Arche boots and black-frame glasses. Dark hair surrounds her face.
“I’d make a terrible character,” she says, “because I’m extremely changeable. I used to change the color of my office according to the color of the book I was writing.” For Here on Earth, which she calls an autumn book, “I painted my office pumpkin with green woodwork and covered the windows with leaves made out of wax paper, so it felt like I was in the book. I kind of become whatever character I’m working on.”
She writes the kind of books she enjoys reading. She cried a lot while writing The Third Angel, the story of three women—Maddy, Frieda and Lucy—who are attracted to the “wrong” men and who finally learn to understand the power of love to mislead and redeem.
The action is set in London in 1999, 1966 and 1952. Frieda’s father, a physician who takes his daughter on visits to patients, “believed there were three angels,” Hoffman writes. “The Angel of Life, who rode along with them most nights. The Angel of Death, who appeared wearing his funeral clothes on those visits where there was no hope. And then there was the Third Angel. The one who walked among us, who sometimes lay sick in bed, begging for human compassion.”
Angels recur in many of her novels and seem to hover over her real life; her Polish sheepdog is even named Angel. There’s a plane of existence, she says, beyond what we see.
The Diary of Anne Frank figures prominently in young Lucy’s life. Hoffman tears up when she talks about Frank’s influence on her own development—“It’s the idea of what could have been,” she says. Because Hoffman’s parents divorced when she was 8, that sense of the other life she could have had weighs heavily in her imagination. Her mother, Sherry, a social worker who died nine years ago, raised Hoffman and her brother, Ross, a meteorologist, as a single parent in Franklin Square, Long Island, at a time when divorce was uncommon; her father was “not in the picture.”
Hoffman’s literary world is not overtly Jewish. Only some of her characters have Jewish names—Naomi Shapiro from Great Neck (Blackbird House; Ballantine) or Lucy Rosen (Turtle Moon; Berkley), for example—and only sporadically does she write an obviously “Jewish” story, such as Incantation (a young-adult novel about the Spanish Inquisition; Little, Brown) or “The Conjurer’s Handbook,” a chapter from Blackbird House, a kind of Holocaust fairy tale. But being Jewish informs everything she does. She came back to Judaism through her two sons—Jake, 24, and Wolfe, 18—who decided on their own to have bar mitzvas as a way to honor the memory of an aunt who was actively Jewish. They have both been to Israel numerous times.
Hoffman is married to Tom Martin, an investor and former teacher and screenwriter with whom she has collaborated on many screenplays and who is not Jewish. She also cowrote a picture book with Wolfe called Moondog (Scholastic) about a “werepup” named Angel whose sweet demeanor turns destructive when the moon is full.
Appalled that her children learned little about the Holocaust in high school and nothing at all about the Inquisition, and frightened by Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, Hoffman crafted Incantationas an answer to her feeling that Jewish history is easily rewritten by others. The book follows the story of Estrella and her family and captures a commitment to Jewish identity amid anti-Semitism. In response to her grandmother, who calls this world “a hole of darkness, of black light and evil and loss,” Estrella counters: “I told my grandmother she was wrong. We had to survive to remember. Otherwise everything we were would disappear. Those people we loved would fade as though we’d never loved them, as if they’d never walked and talked and burned. Forgetting them was the real evil. That was the hole of darkness.”
Much of Hoffman’s Jewish perspective finds its voice in Incantation. “I am very comfortable being Jewish—that’s who I am—but I’m also very paranoid,” she explains. “I have the sense that you always have to be ready to leave, and the things that are important you have to be able to carry with you both emotionally and materially. Politics is an ever-changing situation, and Jews are outsiders.”
Jews and women have both been persecuted as outsiders, she adds. Her mysteriously powerful female characters can be so threatening to society that they are often labeled witches. “Strong women are part of Jewish tradition,” she says. “My grandmother and mother worked to support their families. They made the decisions.”
Her relationship with her Russian-born grandmother, Lillie, had a “huge impact” on her. Though Lillie was not religious, she was “very Jewish” and would tell “personal folktales about villages in a frozen world where men would disappear for the whole winter to go logging. It was such a fairy-tale world compared to suburban Long Island,” says Hoffman, who has replicated the mother-daughter-grandmother triad in many of her books.
Mothers who die, especially of cancer, haunt much of Hoffman’s recent work. It’s no wonder: She, her mother and sister-in-law all had breast cancer at the same time 10 years ago. Her grandmother, who lived to 82, also had breast cancer, and another sister-in-law died of a brain tumor. A Hadassah member, Hoffman’s fight against breast cancer—with its high occurrence rate among Jewish women—has deepened her involvement in Jewish issues. She donated the advance from one of her books to found The Hoffman Breast Cancer Center at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts; helped create the Breast Cancer Hotline at her alma mater, Adelphi University in Garden City, New York; and is a member of the National Honorary Board of The Wellness Community.
The fairy-tale, folktale quality of her writing is in the tradition of Franz Kafka, I.B. Singer and Jewish mystics. As a child, Hoffman loved fairy tales peopled with characters who traveled through deep woods to reach their heart’s desire on “journeys not only of geography but also of the soul,” she says. Hoffman turns those stories on their heads: In Skylight Confessions (Back Bay), an architecturally wondrous house called the Glass Slipper is far from a Cinderella-like dream come true, haunted instead by a fragile and broken family.
Each of her books is part of the same story, she says, and though bits of her show up in all her characters, “they’re so much better than I am,” Hoffman says. “They’re so much more willing to forgive…. In my real life I’m extremely practical and rational.”
Her learning curve is truly a reader’s delight.
“I devour anything Alice gives me instantly,” says Elaine Markson, Hoffman’s literary agent since her first novel was published in 1977. “She’s warm, loving, funny and curious. She writes about people you might know and their relationships.”
Long-time friend, writer and physician Perri Klass says that Hoffman is connected to many writers with whom she is generous and supportive, recalling that “at moments I was feeling low about my writing, she’s been incredibly encouraging.” Hoffman’s voice is so distinct that “if you gave me a paragraph she wrote and didn’t tell me who wrote it, I’d probably recognize it as hers,” says Dr. Klass, noting that Hoffman can “locate what is remarkable and uncanny in the familiar.”
Though she was an avid reader and a “secret writer” growing up, Hoffman had little ambition. She was a Hebrew school dropout, wanted to quit high school, never took the SATs or considered college and thought she might cut hair for a living. Her first job, at age 17, at a Doubleday Books factory lasted one morning. After a series of other jobs, she enrolled in night school at Adelphi and, upon graduation, attended the Stanford University Creative Writing Center in Palo Alto, California, on a Mirrellees Fellowship. Her mentor, professor and writer Albert J. Guerard, and his wife, Maclin Bocock Guerard, helped her publish her first short story in Fictionmagazine. Editor Ted Solotaroff then contacted her to ask if she had a novel; she quickly wrote what was to become Property Of.In thanks to her alma mater, she helped fund the Alice Hoffman Young Writers Program for High School Students and the master of fine arts program at Adelphi.
“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,” says Hoffman. “I had the freedom to do something I could fail at—to be a writer.”
But she never has failed, and it is through her storytelling that Hoffman uses narrative to survive, to heal and to remember.