by Karen West
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?
Alice Hoffman: 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.
Alice Hoffman: 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?
Alice Hoffman: Never.
KW: What do you think of the book club phenomenon?
Alice Hoffman: 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.
Alice Hoffman: 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.
Alice Hoffman: 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?
Alice Hoffman: 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.
Alice Hoffman: 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.
Alice Hoffman: 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?
Alice Hoffman: 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...
Alice Hoffman: 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.
Alice Hoffman: 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.
Alice Hoffman: 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.
Alice Hoffman: 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.
Alice Hoffman: 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.
Alice Hoffman: 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.
Alice Hoffman: 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.
Alice Hoffman: 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?
Continue reading the full interview with Alice Hoffman