Alice Hoffman still believes.
The New York Times bestselling author of more than 40 works of fiction published her first, “Property Of,” when she was just 21. That novel was swiftly followed by beloved collections of short fiction, works for teens and children, and novels like 1995’s “Practical Magic,” best known for its big-screen adaptation.
“It’s a bad idea to write for the moment because the moment passes so quickly.”
It’s not the only one of her books to be turned into a film. She also wrote “Aquamarine,” “The River King,” and penned the screenplay for the 1993 indie film “Independence Day.” But the 1998 movie adaptation of “Practical Magic,” starring Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman and Stockard Channing, has acquired a massive following over the years.
Hoffman returned to the family of witches introduced in “Practical Magic” with several other books, including 2021’s “The Book of Magic.” And she returns to magic often, with witchy characters, rambling houses lush with flourishing plants (I always keep rosemary by my garden gate because of Hoffman), inherited curses, women telling their own truths — and a strong belief in what we cannot always see.
Her new novel, “The Invisible Hour” twists time. Lonely and ostracized Mia has been raised in the cloistered Community, a cult in western Massachusetts. Though books are outlawed by the Community, she finds secret solace in them. Specifically, one book: “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. And in the second half of Hoffman’s novel, she finds herself going back in time to encounter the writer whose words she feels showed her a way to survive.
Hoffman talked with Salon about Hawthorne, writing during a time of COVID and finding magic in the real world still.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Your first novel was published when you were very young. Did you always know that you wanted to tell stories?
I think I was always a reader. That was what was important to me. I think I wanted to be a writer. I remember sending a short story someplace when I was in high school, so I must have had thoughts about that, but really I was mostly a reader. Then I took a creative writing class, and the professor was shockingly supportive. I just never expected it. I certainly didn’t think you could do it for a living or it would be a profession.
I remember that I didn’t know that until I read “Anne of Green Gables” by L. M. Montgomery. The main character was a writer, and I realized, oh, people actually do this.
I know, it’s kind of a shock. I think nowadays people think about doing this, I don’t know, but I certainly didn’t think about getting published. That wasn’t my thought.
You’ve written in a lot of formats. You’ve written novels for adults, YA novels, middle grade, short stories, a screenplay. Do you have a favorite form that you love to write in?
Honestly, I think I like connecting short stories, a novel-in-stories because you get to move around. There’s so much freedom, and the way things connect can be so interesting.
That seems like a hard format to me.
Really? I think it’s so much fun. And you just can create a whole gigantic world and move around so freely.
Well, that makes sense because you’ve returned to your worlds a few times. You’ve returned to the characters, so it makes sense that you would be drawn to it.
And this new book [“The Invisible Hour”] actually takes place in a town where I wrote a book of connecting stories about called “The Red Garden,” so it’s the same place. It’s just a novel that takes place in that town.
Oh, that’s so interesting. It’s like there’s something left over that you have to return to.
For me, it was very healing to go back to that town. I felt really comfortable there. It made it easier for me in a way to write the novel. It was so weird writing during COVID and so escapist for me. I think some people couldn’t write, but for me I wrote more because where were we going to go? And I think the idea of time travel — I’ve always loved time travel books, but the idea that you could change things or go back, it’s really interesting to me.
It makes sense that you would be thinking about time travel during COVID, too. I was going to ask you about time, and if that was important to your work.
It really is all about time. I thought a lot about time while I was writing this book and before this book because it was such a lousy time. I mean, there were good things that came out of it. I think some friendships became closer, but I just felt so sad for the people who were at certain phases of their life, were young, becoming young adults or were kids. And I just didn’t really want to be in this time. I still don’t want to be in this time, to tell you the truth.
Yeah, I understand that. How do you keep a sense of wonder in your writing, even when you’re writing for adults?
I think it’s because of the books that I read. I’m sure as a fiction writer you feel this too. The books that I read when I was younger are the books that wound up affecting me more than any others. They form who you are as a reader, as a person. And I read a lot of magic and a lot of Ray Bradbury.
I loved books that took place in the here and now, but also included magic so that it wasn’t so far away. Back then, everything was genre-ized . . . Now that’s changed, and [science fiction and fantasy] are more acceptable as literature, but it didn’t used to be. I always feel like you should just write what you want to write no matter what’s current because it doesn’t really matter. It changes.
That’s a good point. And I feel like that changed not too long ago. Even when I was in school, there was a lot of criticism from professors for genre writing. To write genre work was somehow bad. And I feel like that’s been a recent kind of shift, thank goodness.
Really recent, I think. I remember I read Ursula K. Le Guin when I was a kid and loved her books, but they were definitely science fiction and fantasy. And then all of a sudden they became literature. Someone decided. But they were always literature. It’s just they were put into these categories.
“Fiction is more believable than life in a way because when you’re writing a book, you have to have it make sense.”
I think it’s a bad idea to write for the moment because the moment passes so quickly. The other thing about time is that what’s right and what’s good and what’s accepted suddenly becomes not. I thought about that with the way women were treated in “The Scarlet Letter,” the way that the Puritans blamed women, and they believed in original sin and that women were responsible for that because of Eve. It all changed, but then it changes back. And then it changes again. A lot of the things that women are coping with right now are not that different, really. The judgment against women.
That’s very true. Why do you feel called to tell stories that have magic in them? I mean, you talked a little bit about your childhood reading. Is that why, or do you think there’s something else that makes you feel like these are the stories you need to tell?
It’s about my childhood and what I read, but I think it’s also I want to believe. I want to believe that there’s — not magic per se necessarily, but wonder and beauty and goodness and a moral universe and all those sorts of things . . . I feel like fiction is more believable than life in a way because when you’re writing a book, you have to have it make sense. You can’t just have random things happen for no reason, but that’s not like life at all. I almost feel that’s part of the comfort of reading fiction. Even with time travel, it has to make some kind of sense — and life really doesn’t make any sense. I feel like I’m constantly trying to make it make sense.
And there’s no closure in life.
There can be closure in books and you can also return to them, as you have. You can return to the world and get that healing that we really can’t get in life. You have a new book out, “The Invisible Hour.” How would you describe it?
It’s about magic and women and time and loss. Sometimes I think you don’t really know what a book is about until you finish it. I always feel like there’s the inside story; there’s the outside story. You don’t necessarily know the inside story.
For me, I think it was a lot about my relationship with my mother and how difficult mother and daughter relationships are, how important they are, and how they change as people get older, as you more understand who your mother was and what she went through.
I always feel like you can’t really know older people or your mother because you didn’t know her when she was young. And even though I think people basically stay the same unless they’re extremely traumatized, you’re so different when you’re young. So I feel like we can’t really know our mothers.
“Better not to meet your heroes, your living heroes. Better to fall in love with a dead writer.”
Again, there’s so much about time and history in this book. Was Nathaniel Hawthorne an influence on you?
I’ve been thinking about writing about him for a long time. He’s interesting because in some ways some of the things that he wrote were a little bit misogynistic, but “The Scarlet Letter” is such a feminist book. It’s kind of shocking. His wife came from a family that was kind of a feminist family in a way for the time. He had two sisters and a mother that he was very close to.
He also had a lot of issues about writing and life — and hiding from life in writing. I think he was an extremely interesting person and writer. Sometimes, for people now “The Scarlet Letter” can be off-putting because the language is old-fashioned, but the heart of it really is about a woman trying to make decisions about her own life and society not wanting to allow that to happen.
Is there a book that helped you feel less lonely, as “The Scarlet Letter” helps Mia in “The Invisible Hour”?
There were a couple of books. One of those books was “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank when I was young . . . You know, sometimes you read a book and you feel known. I felt like I’m her or she’s me . . . I think that’s why “Catcher in the Rye” was popular and meaningful for a lot of people because there was this sense that the character was talking directly to you. And so I have a couple of books. I think books in general make me feel that.
Is there a writer from history that you believe you could fall in love with, similar to what kind of happens in “The Invisible Hour?”
Well, I think a lot of people fell in love with Nathaniel Hawthorne. He was so incredibly handsome. So, maybe him.
When I interviewed the musician Amanda Shires, I knew that she loved Leonard Cohen, and she said that she sometimes felt she might have been born in the wrong time, that she and Cohen could have been together and made music together.
Yeah, and she would’ve been very miserable. I love Leonard Cohen, but –
She would’ve written some other great songs, but they might’ve been sad songs.
I think sometimes it’s better not to meet your heroes, your living heroes. Better to fall in love with a dead writer.
We talked a bit about the pandemic, and I’m with you: at the start, I definitely found comfort in my fiction writing, but I also found community in it. I could kind of make up my own community when I couldn’t leave the house. That’s something that I see in a lot of your books: a small town or this found family. Is community or the idea of a village important to your writing?
I think I write about a lot of things that I don’t have. I don’t have a sister, I don’t have a daughter. I’m close to one of my aunts and I’m very close to my nephews, but I don’t have that kind of community. I don’t live in a small town. I really long for that, and I think most people do have a need for it. I just think we live in such a fractured society. People move all over the country and you see them maybe once a year.
COVID really pointed that out to me because a lot of people kind of went into retreat with their families. If you didn’t have a family, there were really not that many people to go into retreat with. I think a lot of my books are about longing for community.
Growing up my mother was very bohemian, and we were outcasts in our community. I think that made me long for it even more, and yet distrust it.
How do you create your characters? How do you make engaging people come to life?
That’s a really scary question because I don’t think I have the answers for it. I used to do things with my characters. I’d write down everything about them, where they went to school, what they dressed in and what music they listened to. But I don’t really do that anymore.
Now, it’s like they walk in through the door, and I just let them be. I have to rewrite them a lot, but basically, that definitely happened with “Practical Magic” where I remember writing it in this little shed on a marsh. I just felt like they walked through the door. It happened when I wrote “The Rules of Magic” too and Vincent appeared. I didn’t expect him to be in the book. I didn’t know anything about him, and he just kind of revealed himself. I really didn’t have to do it. It just happened.
I guess the trick is you have to leave that door open. They might just walk in, but you can’t close it.
You can’t shut the door in their face. It’s opening the door.
Are you surprised at how much cultural impact your books have had, like “Practical Magic?” That has such staying power. It’s in memes; it just shows up all the time. Has that surprised you, that people have loved your story for so long?
I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking like that. I think some of that — maybe a lot of that — has to do with the movie, which was weirdly, extremely unpopular. Nobody went to see it when it came out. And every year it becomes more popular, which is so interesting to me. I almost feel it wasn’t the right time for it. It was one of the first movies that had basically a cast of women. The men are there, but they’re not as important as the relationships between the women.
Now there are more, movies like “Bridesmaids.” But then, it didn’t really exist. There was a very negative critical response to [“Practical Magic”], I think probably because it was very female and very much about sisterhood. And that’s changed, so that’s a good thing.
That goes back to what you were speaking about, how you can’t write for the moment because the moment is going to move on. Maybe the moment will get you in a few years, but not right now.
That’s right. It’s like what are you writing for? Sometimes I’m afraid now: will there even be books? Or, will it be like one of my favorite books, “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury, where books are too dangerous. They’re not just banning books, they’re burning books because books — it goes two ways. The writer opens the door for the characters, but the book opens the door for the reader.
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It’s a scary time in the world right now with book banning and AI.
I don’t feel like: oh, my books will last. Because I don’t know if books are lasting. I just feel like they’re here. But I want them to have this feeling of timelessness because that’s how I felt when I read the books that I loved. Even when they were happening at a certain time, they didn’t seem caught in time.
How does magic show up in your life now?
I am kind of still looking for it. I think I’m constantly looking for it. My connection with magic is about writing. This idea that characters walk through the door and this idea of creating something beautiful out of something terrible sometimes, or out of loss, or out of death. You can put letters on a page, and it becomes a world. And it means something so different to the writer and to the reader. The reader creates that whole world in their mind. For me, that’s magic.
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