Alice Hoffman, MAGIC LESSONS

Alice Hoffman, MAGIC LESSONS

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Alice. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I feel like I should call you Mrs. Hoffman. I have so much respect for you. I feel bad just calling you Alice.

Alice Hoffman: Please call me Alice.

Zibby: I’m delighted to have you on my podcast. I was actually secretly thrilled when you followed me on Instagram. I was like, oh, my gosh, Alice Hoffman’s following me. It’s a thrill. Welcome.

Alice: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Congratulations on your latest book, Magic Lessons. At this point in your career, do you even get excited when a new book comes out? What’s it like when a book comes out when you’ve already written so many books?

Alice: I more get anxious than I get excited. You’re with the book by yourself for so long. Then it goes out into the world. It’s kind of like sending your kid to school or something like that. You lose control. You don’t know how people are going to like that kid of yours. Then once it’s out, then it’s fine. It’s just more like the week before, the week of its first being out there, it’s anxiety-provoking.

Zibby: Do you feel any better at this point? Are you calming?

Alice: Yeah.

Zibby: I’m glad I caught you on the down. Would you mind just telling listeners a little more about Magic Lessons and why you chose to write a prequel to Practical Magic at this point?

Alice: I wrote Practical Magic, the original book, twenty-five years ago. I never intended to write any more about that family, but I kept getting notes and letters from readers that they really felt like it wasn’t enough. They wanted to know more. Instead of going forward in time, I’m more interested in going back in time. The first thing I did was write a book called Rules of Magic which took place in the 1960s because that’s my era. It was a pleasure to write about it. Then when I thought about writing another book because I kept getting letters, I thought I really wanted to see how the family originated. I’m always interested in, there’s a theory of ghosts in the nursery, those relatives that you’ve never even met that influence everything about you and your life. I wanted to go backward in time and see who the first Owens woman was.

Zibby: Wow. By the way, my husband and I listened to this. We started listening to it in the car together. Our last name is Owens. It started the narration, and we were looking at each other like, .

Alice: I don’t know, maybe you’re related.

Zibby: Maybe.

Alice: I have to say, the recording is great. It’s Sutton Foster. I’m a big fan of hers. She was in Younger. She’s a great theater actress. It’s a wonderful recording.

Zibby: I just had Pamela Redmond on my podcast who wrote Younger. It’s all coming full circle.

Alice: Really?

Zibby: Yes. It was an amazing recording and very captivating. The drive flew by. Why write it now? Why at this point? You could write any book. What’s it like when you sit down and you’re like, what’s my next project going to be? How come you arrived at this today?

Alice: I don’t know if I think about it that way because I have a list of projects, things that I’m interested in doing, books that I think I’m going to write. It was sitting here. I just thought, I had a lot of fun writing Rules of Magic, so I wanted to get back to that. I kind of wanted to escape. I felt like this book could be an escape for me as a writer. I think it is in some ways for readers. This is such a difficult time. I felt like I wanted to go back to this other time and escape into magic and escape into this family. As it turned out, a lot of things that had happened in the seventeenth century had a correlation to what is happening right now in terms of how women are treated and the idea of strong, independent women being feared. Also, I didn’t realize it took place during and after the plague in England. As I was writing it, it was just very strange that the world seemed not that different.

Zibby: I was helping my daughter study for an American history test last night. I was reading through the things. I was like, “Actually, this is very similar to the Black Lives Matter movement that’s going on right now. You know how there are protests across the street? This is what they did then.” It’s funny how things sort of ebb and flow in cycles.

Alice: They really do. It was really interesting to me. Also, the whole idea of the puritan mentality — puritans were the ones that started the witchcraft trials here. Although, there were witchcraft trials all over Europe. The idea that women were kind of at the root of all evil, it’s the idea of Eve bringing evil into the world. It was really shocking, their whole philosophy, and a little bit scary because there’s a little some of that happening right now.

Zibby: I was going to say, that’s not completely gone, I would think, from some people’s imaginations or whatever you want to call it. Why do you think witchcraft? I understand what you’re saying about women in general, but what is it about the sorcery, the witchcraft-y-ness of it? You have lists of ingredients and what all of these things do, which you must have researched, I’m assuming.

Alice: Oh, yeah.

Zibby: What is your fascination with it?

Alice: I have always been fascinated with witches. I was a fairy tale fanatic as a kid. At that point when I was a kid, I felt like it was the literature that spoke the truth in a very deep way, an emotional truth that other children’s literature didn’t at that time. I still think it’s the deepest psychological literature, especially when you’re a child. I feel like witches, they are the only female mythic creature. They’re the only mythic creature with power. I think that’s why as a little girl I always wanted to dress up as a witch. I always wanted to read about witches. I just felt like they had power.

Zibby: There you go. It’s funny because I never really thought of witches in such a positive way until this whole experience with you.

Alice: Good. The idea of midwives and healers, I think that’s all kind of under the same label as witch, women who do things they’re not supposed to do. I thought it was so interesting that during the plague that women who did herbal remedies had a bigger success rate than doctors, mostly because they washed their hands. That was so interesting to me.

Zibby: That is interesting. That’s the thing I try over and over to teach the kids. This is of the moment, the most important thing. What about mediums today? Do you feel like they’re in the same family as the witch, or you think it’s witch-adjacent?

Alice: I think witch is more mythic, more nature. It has more to do with green magic, nature, herbs, healing. That’s how I perceive it. I have to say, in fairy tales, I can’t remember the exact statistic, but over ninety percent of fairy tales have girl heroes, which is very unusual in folk tales or in any story, really. In fairy tales, the girls are the ones that figure things out. The girls are the ones who are at risk. I always feel like they’re cautionary tales, the stories your grandmother would tell you to beware of certain things and to know certain things.

Zibby: Speaking of at risk, let’s go back in time to your career trajectory here. First of all, can you tell me a little more about how you got started? I know I’ve read about it, but if you could just tell me the story of how your passion for writing translated in such a unique way into becoming a writer.

Alice: I never thought I’d be a writer. I was a reader. I was a fanatical reader. I was a secret writer, as I think many people are, especially girls. I had stories and notebooks that I never showed anyone. Then when I was about sixteen, for some reason I wrote a story and I sent it to Esquire magazine. I had never seen Esquire magazine. I’d just heard of it. I’d never read it. I sent them a terrible story about the end of the world. I didn’t use any capital letters. I got back a handwritten note from somebody who said to me, “You should use capital letters and grammar. Also, if you have another story sometime and you’re not kidding around, send it to us.” I was in shock. It was this thing where suddenly I was in touch with the outside world, and somewhere, someone at this mythical magazine thought I was a writer. That stayed with me. I kept writing. I never intended to go to college. I lived in a very working-class world. I started going to college. I went to night school. My brother lived in California and said there was a really good school out there, I should apply, and then I could move to California. I had never heard of this school, but I applied.

It was Stanford. They gave me a fellowship. I had a great mentor. It just totally changed my life. I feel like sometimes you have this one teacher that just changes everything. My teacher was Albert Guerard. He sent my first story to City College, to a magazine that they had called Fiction. A friend of his was the editor. It was published, which was a shock. There’s no money involved. I don’t think people became writers to make money or anything back then. After the story was published, I got a letter from a very famous editor named Ted Solotaroff. He said, “Do you have a novel?” I wrote back. I said, “I do.” I started writing it that day really fast. I think that’s why I’m a fast writer. I just felt, I don’t know if this guy’s going to keep his job or what’s going to happen. I better write this novel fast because no one’s ever going to ask me this again.

Zibby: Wow. How long did that book take you?

Alice: Six months, but it was terrible. It was terrible. He helped me with it. In the end, he didn’t take it, but he sent it to my agent. I feel like it was luck. Also, every time somebody opened the door, I walked through. I didn’t say, I don’t know, I don’t have a novel, or it might take me two years. I just felt like, this is my chance and I’m taking it.

Zibby: That’s great. You don’t have the same agent, do you?

Alice: She was my agent until she passed away.

Zibby: I’m sorry.

Alice: She was my agent for, I think, forty years.

Zibby: I’m so sorry.

Alice: I was lucky. I was really lucky. She was great. Her name was Elaine Markson. She was an amazing agent.

Zibby: I also noticed you started the Hoffman Center for Breast Cancer Research. Is that right?

Alice: Yeah.

Zibby: I wanted to find out more about why you started that and what that whole initiative is about.

Alice: I’m a breast cancer survivor of twenty-five years. When I was being treated at Mount Auburn Hospital, which is a Harvard teaching hospital, this small hospital, they didn’t have a breast center. While you were waiting for radiation, you’d be sitting next to someone who had broken his arm. Once I sat next to Gina, my wonderful dog groomer. There was no privacy. I think when you’re going through treatment for that, you need something special. When I finished my treatment, I asked some of the doctors over there, what could I do? They said, “Let’s start a center here. That’s what you can do.” For twenty-five years almost, maybe it’s more like twenty years, we’ve been doing an event every spring where writers come and read. We’ve had incredible writers, everyone from Amy Tan to Celeste Ng to just so many amazing people who have given so generously of their time and created this state-of-the-art breast cancer center. I’m really proud of being involved with them.

Zibby: I want to get on the list. Put me on the list for the benefit. That sounds great. Obviously, as we’ve discussed with my love of books, I’m a sucker for hearing authors talk. I never seem to get tired of it, which is sort of shocking even to me. Of course, to support a great cause is also wonderful.

Alice: I will. I don’t know what we’re doing this year because everything is different this year.

Zibby: Everything is different everywhere. I’m beginning to think it’s just never going back. I’ve given up. I’ve given up hope.

Alice: I think Zoom is here to stay, don’t you think?

Zibby: I do.

Alice: I think podcasts are here to stay. Certain things I think are not going back.

Zibby: It is nice not to have to move around as much throughout the world to see all these different people, which is nice. That’s the only perk I’ve found. A lot your books have been adapted to movies, TV. How does that process fit into your thinking when you’re writing the book? Do you visualize scenes at all, movie-wise, or does it not even come into your consciousness?

Alice: The truth is, I was a screenwriter for twenty-five years, some with my own books, but mostly for other people’s books. I learned a lot from being a screenwriter. I learned a lot about telling a story. When I’m writing, I don’t think of it as a movie. I feel like it’s something I’m living. I feel like I’m in the book. I’m living it. I am the characters. I don’t really think of it as a movie, like, would this make a good movie? That’s not really the way I think about it.

Zibby: I’m sorry. I did know that because you wrote Independence Day, right, the screenplay for that?

Alice: Mm-hmm.

Zibby: Anyway, I’m sorry. I have heard from other authors how critical a skill it is to be able to screenwrite and then turn — I feel like there’s so many people who write fiction primarily and they’re like, now I’m going to try screenwriting. I think there’s something in the reverse that’s very powerful.

Alice: I think it does teach you something about telling a story. It’s really different. They’re very different things. It teaches you to know what the heart of your story is. I think when you’re writing a novel, this happens to me, you can just really get lost in these offshoots and tangents. Sometimes they’re really interesting. Basically, with a screenplay, you’re pretty much telling a straight-on story. That’s helpful.

Zibby: Which of your many projects are you going to pick up next?

Alice: I’m working on the fourth Magic book. I thought I was finished until I talked to my editor, but it turns out I’m not finished. I have some more work on it. That’s been both really fun and really sad because I feel like it’s the last book. It’s the end of twenty-five-year relationship with the Owens family. It’s been both things. It’s also been a great escape during this time during that’s such a sad, terrible time.

Zibby: Which period of the world? What timeline are you writing that book in?

Alice: It’s modern times.

Zibby: Wow, how great. Then you can have a whole box set, sell it at Halloween.

Alice: They’re not all published by the same publisher.

Zibby: So you can’t do that?

Alice: I can’t do that with all of them.

Zibby: Well, that’s okay. You can make your own.

Alice: That’s a good idea.

Zibby: Little gift bags. What advice would you have to aspiring authors?

Alice: I really think the best advice is to do it every day. My life is a little complicated right now, but I always would get up really early before anybody else was awake, before the phone’s ringing, and work for at least two hours so that you get that two hours in. If you get up at five thirty and start working from six or whatever time it is, for me, that always was really helpful. When I had other jobs, I’d get up before that other job and write then. I feel like if you write every day, it’s not so hard to go back to it. For me, I always feel like if I stop writing, I’m never going to be able to remember how to do it again. That’s my tip. You have to write in order to write.

Zibby: It’s so funny that you’ve been such an established literary figure and you still are afraid that if you take too long a vacation, you’ll lose it.

Alice: I am afraid I’m going to lose it. Every time I start a book I feel like I don’t know who wrote the other books. I don’t know how they did it. I don’t know how to do it. I have to relearn, how do you write a book?

Zibby: How do you do it? Do you get it all out? Do you ever outline your stories?

Alice: I do. I’ll outline. I make a lot of notes. What’s fun for me is world-building. I write down lists of plants and lists of places and if I’m writing about the sixties in New York, all the different music clubs and all the different bookstores that were there, just starting to build the world for the characters to move in.

Zibby: Wow, that’s beautiful. It’s amazing that there’s a job that allows you to just recreate the universe in which you live every time you open your laptop.

Alice: It’s a good job. You know, it’s kind of what you do as a reader. You leave this world behind. You go into a book. You escape. I feel like it’s the same thing when you’re writing. You’re creating this other world using things that you knew, who you are and how you see the world. It’s just creating something brand new.

Zibby: I know the world has changed so much from when you first went to Stanford until now. Is there anything that you miss from the way the publishing industry used to work? Is there anything you long for?

Alice: When I started, nobody talked about getting published. Nobody talked about money. It was right after the Ken Kesey era. Yes, you wanted to write a perfect story or something like that. There were no book tours except for people like Norman Mailer or something like that. There were no book tours. It wasn’t about the outside things. It was about the inside, about wanting to be a writer, wanting to tell a story. I think there’s a lot more pressure on people right now. I think it’s harder to get published. The publishing houses are conglomerates. There were a lot more publishing houses. Now there are also different options about publishing in different ways, online or with small presses. I kind of miss that freedom to just do whatever you wanted to. It was about what you wanted to write, not about what’s publishable. Now for people starting out, they have to think about both things.

Zibby: That’s true. That’s where the commercialization of even fiction writing — but I often hear that the best advice is to ignore all of that, as I’m sure you would agree, and just do what’s fun for you and what you need to write or else you can kind of tell when there’s no passion in it.

Alice: Absolutely. You have to have passion. If you want to be published, it also can’t be, like, a diary. I always feel like I’m writing for myself and I’m writing the book for myself. Somebody else has to read it and have it mean what it means to them.

Zibby: Is there any innovations that you’ve particularly adapted well to that you’re like, I love X, Y, or Z? I don’t even know why I’m asking you these questions. I’m just curious.

Alice: I love Google because if I don’t know what year something happened and I’m in the middle of writing, I don’t have to go through all my books. I can just find out what year the Salem witch trials ended real quick. It’s very helpful. Also, when I started, people were typing. It took a long time. Every time you rewrote, you rewrote the whole manuscript, really. I think it was kind of good practice, actually, but it just was time-consuming.

Zibby: I am old enough that I used to use a typewriter for my school assignments and have my mother help me and have to restart and the Wite-Out, and oh, my gosh.

Alice: Wite-Out, yeah.

Zibby: The idea that you can even produce as clear a thought when there’s so much on the line, when you have to start over again as opposed to now, it’s like, I’ll change that.

Alice: I actually think that’s good for writers. I tend to still do that. When you start at the beginning again instead of moving things around the way we can do now, it gives it different rhythm. It makes for a different kind of revision. Sometimes when I talk to — I’m involved in a program for young writers at Adelphi University out on Long Island every summer. Sometimes I think they really think that writers just write it down, and that’s it. That’s not it at all. Most people have to do lots of revisions and lots of changes. I think that’s just a good thing to know when you’re starting out, that everybody does it.

Zibby: Yes, wait for those comments in Google Docs. Then everything melds together, your love of Google. There you go. Thank you so much. Thanks for chatting with me today. I’m sorry I had such random questions, but I was really curious about the lifespan of being an author for so many different periods of time as the industry has changed. You’ve stayed just as current. It’s really awesome. It was a unique vantage point, so thanks.

Alice: Thank you. Thanks for chatting with me today.

Zibby: Thank you. Have a great day.

Alice: Take care. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Alice Hoffman, MAGIC LESSONS