Alice Hoffman Interview
a copy of The Story Sisters, $15.00
Book Passage Events Director, Karen West, recently had the honor of sitting down to an exclusive phone interview with Alice Hoffman, author of the new novel The Story Sisters. Hoffman’s previous works include Skylight Confessions, The Third Angel, The Ice Queen, Blue Diary, Here on Earth and many more.
Join us at Book Passage in Corte Madera on Wednesday, June 10, 2009 at 7:00 pm as we welcome Alice Hoffman back to the Bay Area! She will be discussing and reading from The Story Sisters. It is a story of sisters who find their curse and their salvation on the street where they live, creating a magical world to escape a tragic encounter. The interwoven worlds of fiction and fact are at the core of this dangerous fairy-tale world where one mistake can follow you forever.
Karen West (Book Passage Events Director): Well we are really excited about having you come to the store. I don’t think you have been to Book Passage before.
Alice Hoffman: I have never been there.
KW: Have you heard of us?
AH: Yes, I have heard of you. You have a few stores, right?
KW: We do, we have two. We have a large store in Marin and we have a picturesque little store overlooking the water at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. But you will be coming to Marin, where you are beloved. We have over 150 book clubs that are registered with us. And many of your books are of course book club favorites.
AH: Oh that’s so nice, thank you.
KW: Did you ever think when you began writing that you would be part of all of these circles of people reading all over the world, coming together in their homes and discussing you?
KW: What do you think of the book club phenomenon?
AH: Oh I think the phenomenon is great! It’s terrific and I think Oprah was kind of an extension of that story happening, of people having book clubs. I think it’s a great way for people to get together.
KW: I know, and I think it is so much more. It is every bit about the book and ideas that get exchanged, and that coming together for the reason of storytelling, to talk about the stories in our lives and the books.
AH: I think it’s about the books, and it has also become very personal. I think it’s a great idea.
KW: I don’t know if you’re aware of the Great Book Program. They run book groups, and they don’t allow you to bring anything of the personal. They have moderators that sit in on these books groups, and if you start to make a comment like “That reminds me of the time my aunt died….,” they cut you off and say you can bring nothing of who you are to it. It just must be a strict discussion of the material.
AH: Well, that’s fine if that’s what that is.
KW: I felt like I was sitting on my hands the entire time. Everything is personal. So, The Story Sisters. It’s very intense. I know you did not lightly name them Story. Well, I have a couple of things I want to ask you about. It seems to me, looking at your body of work, and I have read many of your books, and certainly this latest one, that I feel your characters come right out of the unconscious. That “Jung would have loved you”. Have you heard that before?
AH: I have. You know, it’s funny, because when people say, “I have a great story for you…” or “Where do you get your stories from?” I don’t really take them from other people—from other people’s lives or from incidents. For me it’s more like dreaming, and it is very much from the subconscious. And I’ve always been very interested in Jungian psychology, and the way it kind of melds with mythology, and the whole idea of archetypes and fairy tales, and in life. For me, it comes from a very subconscious place. I’m often extremely surprised at the twist and turns the story takes.
KW: Yes, because you feel like a cipher. I really can’t feel you, the writer, manipulating the characters. I feel like things are bubbling up and emerging. I know that you’re the artist creating it, but it’s so rare to have us, the reader, feel that way.
AH: It’s funny, because I always feel like as a writer—and I think a lot of writers feel this way—if you’re picking up your characters and moving them around, something’s terribly wrong. They should be fluid and they should have a life of their own, and they should do things that surprise you. They should be a path that you can’t really change. They should be on a path that they create because of who they are.
KW: I know you can feel that way. But the challenge is making it feel so seamless and organic as everybody is making choices. It’s really a rare gift.
AH: You couldn’t have paid me a higher compliment in my book, and I really appreciate you saying that. It’s funny, because I just did a reading in New York and afterward, some people there, some poets, came up to me and said, “You seem like a completely different person up there, and it was really interesting.” And I think that it was the work seemed different than the person.
KW: When they made that comment, how did you interpret that? Did it seem like you, when meeting you did not match the work?
AH: I’m not exactly sure, but I think a lot of people think in fiction that people rework their own life stories or other people’s stories, or basing their characters on other people. But that’s kind of not my interest.
KW: And it shows in your work. The beginning fragments at the top of each chapter of The Story Sisters, and this interview will run prior to your event, so I won’t go too much into the plot…
AH: Oh, it’s so upsetting to read a review or something where they give everything away? I mean, it’s very upsetting for the reader to know too much.
KW: No, you don’t want to. You just want to invite them in. So, we won’t give away too much. But I have to tell you…the opening images. You infected my dreams. That something that you put at the top of each chapter is so evocative and gives you so much to think about, that it really stays with you. It went into my dream world, and I’ve been holding it across days, those different fragments.
AH: Well, originally those fragments were in part of the book, and the book became more and more about stories and storytelling. Even though I don’t discuss it in the book, I think of them as a book of Fairy Tales. They are the stories that Elves tells. If you read them all together, and added them all together, they kind of feel like they would be the psychological truth of her life.
KW: You are never one to shy away from really difficult material. I think sometimes when I’m reading your books, “I really can’t carry these people.” Like Here On Earth was so devastating—that spending time with these people that you can barely tolerate. And yet, it is this incredibly enriching thing. You definitely do not shy away from the really dark, horrendous and terrifying stuff.
AH: Well, I have to say I could never write a character that I couldn’t be inside of every day for a year. I could never write a character who I didn’t in some way care about. I could never write something where the main character was a serial character. I could never be there.
KW: Do you recall in the literary world when Michael Chabon got in such trouble because he was saying there are really horrible people, that in their own zeitgeist, they think they are waking up every day and trying to do the right thing, even Hitler or something.
AH: Well, he might want to do that, but I have no desire to do that, get into that kind of a head. But for me, I think a lot of people may feel there’s a lot of tragedy in life. But there’s a lot of tragedy in fairy tales, too. Because that is reality. And if you live long enough, you will lose everyone you love. And that’s a truth. And this is just kind of a way for me to come to terms with that. To see that even though that’s the truth, there is also so much that is so beautiful that it’s all worth it anyway.
KW: I do think that luminosity comes through. There is a thread of hope and reconciliation in everything you write.
AH: I’m glad you feel that way. I feel that way, too. And I always feel like it’s a message to myself, to remember these things even in the darkest of times.
KW: Obviously you spend a lot of time setting people in the context of family, which to me is the essential tribe we all have. It seems like we are forged by our family, no matter what our relationship to it. We are forged by their absence, their presence, the good and bad.
AH: I think that’s true. But you know, what’s interesting in
this book is one of the things I was dealing with is how do you grow up
in the same house as your sisters and brothers, and you’re such a
different person? How do families have two children and their so
different? How are siblings so incredibly different? Yes, we are
forged by our families, but yet certain people react to certain
situations so differently.
KW: Absolutely. That is the great thing of having siblings, dramatic events take place and it’s like Rashomon, and you all see it so differently.
AH: You can have some horrible death occur in a family, and somebody will become the stronger for it, and somebody will collapse completely. Partially, yes, our families forge us. But then I think so how much are we “just who we are”?
KW: I know some people with children will tell you they are born into this world with a certain take on things seemingly from the moment they emerge, and it is so unique and persistent.
AH: I hate to say this, but that’s something I really learned from having dogs. I felt like that, “Well, I have this perfect dog, I must have been a perfect owner.” But that’s how they sometimes come to you.
KW: I wanted to ask you a couple of things about the natural world as there seem to be an intoxicating thread of this running through much of your work. Did you grow up out in nature? Did you grow up with somebody who mentored you, or with a strong connection? How do you think that developed?
AH: Well, it’s completely fictional. I always feel I would rather face a blank white wall in front of me than have a window. I grew up in Long Island in a development where every house was the same. There was nothing growing. I don’t know, within the context of that world, everything seemed sort of miraculous.
KW: Were you reading fairy tales when you were young? Do you have a favorite one?
AH: I don’t have “one”, but I grew up reading fairy tales. I remember feeling as a child reader that they were like one of the few things that didn’t talk down to me. They were very honest and raw and true. I loved them in a way other children’s literature really did not speak to me.
KW: I agree. I spent hours with the big thick books. It really was the beginning of my falling in love with literature. I’m watching parents shy away from those these days because of the violence or the non-PC-ism of them. I just think, oh my gosh, my life would be so lessened and different had I not had those. And I encourage people to read fairy tales, but people are not willing to do that much for their youngsters.
AH: Oh, yes, there’s that whole feeling where people feel kids under the age of 8 shouldn’t read the original fairy tales because they’re too violent or too kind of on the nose. I don’t know. I was certainly reading them, and I think they really enrich your world. But I also think you take from them what you can, so that you take something different when you’re 10 than you do when you’re 6. It’s kind of what stage you’re at is what you take from the literature.
KW: Have you come back to reading them in your adult life?
AH: Yeah, and I’m really sometimes shocked at how violent they are.
KW: But we seem to be able to take it. It’s more horrifying as
you know more, as your world has expanded.
AH: Yes, but I think children have such scary fantasies and fears anyway, that at least they are realized in fairy tales, and you don’t feel so alone when you realize someone else has these same thoughts and feelings.
KW: When you started writing Illumination Night, was writing from the perspective of a young person a difficult transition for you?
AH: No, it wasn’t. I feel like the person that you were is the person that you are - if you’ve been young, then you know what it feels like.
KW: Sometimes we always think that growing up is somehow better, that we have become more enlightened or whatever. And we often aren’t willing to reconnect with the 4-year-old within us.
AH: I remember being really close to my grandmother growing up. She was in many ways a heroine for me, the stories she used to tell me about when she was a girl. She used to say to me sometimes that when she walked past a mirror, she was shocked to see an old woman.
KW: I have that feeling even at my point in life, that I don’t see the aging face. I do hold myself at a different point.
AH: And I think it’s so interesting at which point people hold themselves. I think that’s partially what this novel is about, too. You’re kind of just stuck in time sometimes, particularly when you’ve had a trauma or a loss. And you are that age for a long time.
KW: That is really interesting. That’s a great conversation to have, where are you holding yourself. “So, how old are you?” So, how old are you, Alice? I’ll tell you how old I am.
AH: I can’t tell you how old I am.
KW: You can’t? You don’t have a place that…
AH: (laughing) I do, but I don’t want to share it.
KW: Okay, don’t share it (laughing). But it is an interesting thing to contemplate.
AH: Yes, it can be very personal and at a very deep psychological level. You know, what happened to you at certain times
KW: Yes! I’m glad we’re having this conversation. It’s very illuminating on many levels.
AH: I think it’s a great idea to do this.
KW: I’m so happy you and I have had this chance to talk. Our readership here at Book Passage is such a bright and varied populace. And when people come to your event with us, you will find people who have really devoured your work and know it, and have taken it to their hearts. It’s a very engaged audience. And they are going to have lots of questions. Do you come to the Bay Area often?
AH: I used to. I went to school in Palo Alto and I used to come back every year. My mentor was at Stanford. But I haven’t for a long time. I have really missed it.
KW: Are you teaching at all?
AH: I was the guest artist at Emerson College this fall, and I’m just starting to teach again. I really feel that to teach you have to be really selfless, and I wasn’t willing to take that time away from my work. I just feel like now it’s time for me to do this other thing.
KW: It takes a lot of energy.
AH: It does take a lot of energy!
KW: What are you reading on your bedside table?
AH: This is terrible to admit, but: When I’m writing, I’m not reading. And I’m writing a lot of the time. I don’t read as much as I used to. It’s horrible to admit.
KW: I think that’s fine to admit. I think there are many on this side of the book world that will tell you the exact same thing. Working with books, we are reading a lot of fragments of stuff, and you can’t get nearly any amount of reading done.
AH: Well, I’m reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
KW: Oh, don’t you love that!?
AH: I do! And I did just read a novel called Chez Vous. Do you know it?
KW: I don’t!
AH: It’s this very strange novel that takes place in a restaurant, a first person novel. I like French fiction because it doesn’t have to make sense.
KW: We want the absurd in our French literature! I like the French sensibility, so I will look for that!
You have really given us a lovely amount of time! I know you’re going to love it here and we are so excited to have you.
AH: I’m so glad we did this before hand. I’m very excited to be there!