An interview with Alice Hoffman, Library Jornal
Q. Why did you decide to return to the world of Practical Magic? Did you always plan to further explore the origin of the Owens family?
A: My readers sent me back to the world of Practical Magic. I had so many letters and messages asking for more, and after writing The Rules of Magic, which takes place in the 60s and 70s, I decided to go all the way back, to the original Owens ancestor, Maria Owens. I’m always interested in how the past influences the present, who the “ghosts in the nursery” are, who has influenced us, even if we never knew them.
Q. There are a few characters in the novel who are real historical figures. One of these characters is John Hathorne, who plays a pivotal role in the story, and was one of the leading judges in the Salem Witch Trials. Why did you decide for Maria to have such a significant relationship with a real person? Was Maria in any way inspired by real women during the Salem Witch trials?
A: When I wrote Practical Magic I didn’t intend to continue to write about the family, but when I did I had to pay attention to the fact that the original novel contained a family history, one I had to keep true to in Magic Lessons. In Practical Magic, Maria becomes involved with John Hathorne, who was a judge during the Salem Witch trials, a rather evil one who never apologized for his actions, and who was also the great-great grandfather of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author, who may have added the w to his name to distance himself from his family. That a judge who sent witches to their deaths would become romantically involved with a witch seemed a fascinating set-up. In many ways the situation reminded me of the themes in The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne’s classic novel.
Q. One of the recurring themes in all three of your novels set in the Practical Magic universe is heartbreak. In the beginning of the novel, Maria Owens, swears she will never fall in love, but fails to keep this promise to herself, despite her incredible fortitude in all other aspects of her life. Why do you think this is?
A: These novels are an exploration of the nature of love. The Owens family is cursed in love, but the curse is not so far from what anyone who loves may suffer, including loss, grief and betrayal. Heartbreak is a part of being human, and that’s what the characters in these novels learn.
Q. The witchcraft in Magic Lessons is so specific and feels so established. Did you do any research about the kind of magic that was practiced during this time? If so, did that inspire the magic in this novel?
A: Yes, I do a huge amount of research and have a magic library of reference books. I think the magic in my fiction was inspired by the books I read as a child, especially fairytales. I use mythic magic, ancient magic, and also green magic, the healing magic practiced by women all over the world.
Q. In the novel, Maria’s familiar is a crow she calls Cadin. Typically, crows are associated with death and bad luck, but Cadin is loyal and kind and Maria’s best friend. Why did you choose a crow as Maria’s familiar?
A: Although crows are considered unlucky in some cultures, they’re lucky in others, and there is a good deal of folklore (and fact) about their uncanny intelligence. They’re often thought of as a connection to prophecy and to female warriors. Apollo was the god of prophecy and associated with crows. A connection with birds is often viewed as having magical aspects, and augury is divination by observing the behavior of birds. Many of the Owens women have a connection to birds, and Cadin is Maria’s faithful familiar until the end of his life.
Q. One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the backstory of Abraham and Samuel Dias. The father and son are Jewish pirates who had been forced to flee Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. Did you learn about this during your research for the novel? Or did you know about this history prior to writing and it was always your intention to include it?
A: I wrote about the Inquisition in my novel, Incantation, and about the fate of Jews from Spain and Portugal forced to flee their countries for the new world in The Marriage of Opposites, and so I knew there had been Jewish pirates, as well as navigators and explorers. There were times when no country was safe for Jews, and the sea was the only home they could claim. All the same, Samuel Dias was something of a surprise to me, and I’m so glad Maria found him.
Q. Some of the most important relationships in this novel are the ones between daughters and mothers. Both Maria and her daughter Faith have relationships with their birth mothers and an “adopted” mother, albeit their experiences are completely different. What do you think these relationships say about the nature of motherhood?
A: I’m always interested in relationships between mothers and daughters – it’s such an intense, important relationship. I do think many of us find women in our lives who are not our biological mothers, but who become important mentors and teachers who serve in much the same role, friends who become family.
Q. At one-point, regarding men in power, Maria thinks, “They always want to burn a woman who defies the rules. They want to turn lies into the truth.” Do you think this is still true today? Do you think there is any relevancy of the Salem Witch Trials in 2020?
A: Unfortunately, I do believe that it is still difficult to be a woman who defies rules, who is powerful or successful. There is a reason why little girls still want to dress up as witches, and why women are still interested in the role of the witch, the only mythic female figure who has power, who doesn’t need to be rescued, who has knowledge and a connection to the earth. The witch trials were a way to gain control of an entire society by terrorizing and punishing women, and that is still happening today, in many cultures. What I love about the Owens women is that they are always there for other women—they keep the porch light turned on so that women in need know they have place to go for help during hard times.
Q. The primary rule of magic in the novel is, “Do as you will, but harm no one. What you give will be returned threefold.” Do you think that this rule applies to all of us? Do you think, in some way, what we put out into the world is returned to us?
A: These are the traditional rules of magic throughout time and throughout the world. I think they are important words to live by, and of course I added a third rule. Fall in love whenever you can.
Q. In addition to the first rule, there are so many “lessons” to be learned in this novel, about magic, about love, and about life. Is there one lesson that you want readers to remember most?
A: Know that love is the only answer.
Magic Lessons will be published in hardcover on October 6th.
For more information on Alice Hoffman, please visit her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and at alicehoffman.com.
Alice Hoffman is the author of more than thirty works of fiction, including The World That We Knew, The Rules of Magic, The Marriage of Opposites, Practical Magic, The Red Garden, the Oprah’s Book Club selection Here on Earth, The Museum of Extraordinary Things, and The Dovekeepers. Her most recent novel is The World That We Knew. Her new novel Magic Lessons: The Prequel to Practical Magic will be published this fall. She lives near Boston
Alice Hoffman was born in New York City on March 16, 1952 and grew up on Long Island. After graduating from high school in 1969, she attended Adelphi University, from which she received a BA, and then received a Mirrellees Fellowship to the Stanford University Creative Writing Center, which she attended in 1973 and 74, receiving an MA in creative writing. She currently lives in Boston.
Hoffman’s first novel, Property Of, was written at the age of twenty-one, while she was studying at Stanford, and published shortly thereafter by Farrar Straus and Giroux. She credits her mentor, professor and writer Albert J. Guerard, and his wife, the writer Maclin Bocock Guerard, for helping her to publish her first short story in the magazine Fiction. Editor Ted Solotaroff then contacted her to ask if she had a novel, at which point she quickly began to write what was to become Property Of, a section of which was published in Mr. Solotaroff’s magazine, American Review.
Since that remarkable beginning, Alice Hoffman has become one of our most distinguished novelists. She has published over thirty novels, three books of short fiction, and eight books for children and young adults. Her novel, Here on Earth, an Oprah Book Club choice, was a modern reworking of some of the themes of Emily Bronte’s masterpiece Wuthering Heights. Practical Magic was made into a Warner film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. Her novel, At Risk, which concerns a family dealing with AIDS, can be found on the reading lists of many universities, colleges and secondary schools. Hoffman’s advance from Local Girls, a collection of inter-related fictions about love and loss on Long Island, was donated to help create the Hoffman Breast Center at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, MA. Hoffman has written a number of novels for young adults, including Aquamarine, Green Angel, and Green Witch. In 2007 Little Brown published the teen novel Incantation, a story about hidden Jews during the Spanish Inquisition, which Publishers Weekly chose as one of the best books of the year.
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. She has also worked as a screenwriter and is the author of the original screenplay “Independence Day,” a film starring Kathleen Quinlan and Diane Wiest. Her teen novel Aquamarine was made into a film starring Emma Roberts. Her short fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, Kenyon Review, The Los Angeles Times, Architectural Digest, Harvard Review, Ploughshares and other magazines.
Toni Morrison calls The Dovekeepers “… a major contribution to twenty-first century literature.” The story of the survivors of Masada is considered by many to be Hoffman’s masterpiece. The New York Times bestselling novel was adapted for television in a 2015 miniseries starring Rachel Brosnahan and Cote de Pablo.
Her most recent novels have received many accolades, and are New York Times bestsellers. They include The Museum of Extraordinary Things, The Marriage of Opposites, and Faithful. Her novel, The Rules of Magic, is the prequel to her cult-classic Practical Magic. It was selected as a LibraryReads and IndieNext List Pick for October 2017 and is one of the Most Anticipated Books on iTunes. Reese Witherspoon picked it as her October 2017 Book Club read, remarking that the “story is full of magic, love, family, heartbreak and redemption.” Set in New York City at the cusp of the sixties, The Rules of Magic is a timeless story that reminds us that the only remedy for being human is to be true to yourself. Her new novel, The World That We Knew, is an exploration of humanity set in France during the Holocaust. Magic Lessons, the third book in the Practical Magic series will be published in the fall of 2020.