Alice Hoffman: A Profile
Originally published in Ploughshares, Volume 37, Number 4, Winter 2011-2012
"When I went to a movie set for the first time I felt that the person I was most like was the set designer," Alice Hoffman tells me as we sit in a room whose centerpiece is a vivid bouquet of the same tea roses that bloom in the yard beyond the window behind her. "The set designer is building a world that the actors will then walk into, but she's the one who has to create that world. I feel that's what I do as a novelist. It's my job to create the world the characters will enter and interact with each other."
We are discussing her newest novel, The Dovekeepers, where from scant historical and archaeological evidence about the Jewish exile in the desert following the Roman destruction of Jerusalem she has created, within that ancient world, a story that resonates as contemporary. "I don't think of myself as a writer of historical novels," she says while acknowledging that she has often set her stories in the past, "but I just had to know what those women knew."
She speaks of the two women who are said to be the sole adult survivors of the Roman massacre at Masada, where upon her own visit to the site a powerful experience of the artifacts preserved in the museum led her to read the account written by the historian Josephus. "When I learned from him that there were two women who escaped with five children—I had never heard that—I decided, well, that's the story I want to tell."
I wonder if in approaching the material she'd asked herself "What If?" she'd been in Jerusalem, and she replies, "Not what if I'd been in Jerusalem, but I AM in Jerusalem. I am there! All of these characters are a part of me, but they're working out in their time and place issues that I need to work out in my time and place."
Then what are the questions that she began with? She answers, "I write a novel to find out the questions. In The Dovekeepers I thought my question was how do you survive in a world of war, but I now think my question was something quite different, one I didn't realize until it was over. It has to do with mothers and daughters and the intense relationship between them, and the way people forge those kinds of relationships with those who are not their own biological mothers, and how you learn about life through what you're told by your mother and grandmother and the other women you're close to." To illustrate this conviction, the novel's climactic section called "The Witch of Moab" begins, "My mother taught me everything a woman must know in this world and all it was necessary to carry into the World-to-Come."
Hoffman elaborates, "Growing up in New York and having Jewish grandparents from Russia, the idea of survival was an early fairy tale for me. Finding your way through the woods—finding yourself—is about being able to survive. I'm always writing about survivors—it's my theme—and this has become more my theme now, since I've become a cancer survivor. The Dovekeepers starts out with a quote that comes from an ancient spell: 'Let my burden be your burden, and yours be mine.' And I think that's what it's about. There's no way to get through this life without being helped and helping. In writing about war and loss it really does set you to thinking about what matters, and I think that's what people read fiction for, to think about what matters."
She makes a parallel investment in what matters by giving generously, of her time and energy and money. By donating the advance for a 1999 story collection called Local Girls she initiated The Hoffman Breast Center at the Mount Auburn Hospital, a Harvard University teaching hospital, to consolidate care for breast cancer patients. She has sustained her support with major gifts and by featuring other prominent writers for annual fundraising events. Modestly crediting her Socialist grandparents for this impulse to provide for others, she also points to the example of Grace Paley, a literary hero "who was always on the front lines" and whom she recruited to benefit the Breast Center. "I give because I've been given so much," Hoffman says, "and because I feel a need to give. I came from having nothing, and I believe that, when you can help, you want to help other people."
From her earliest fiction to this most recent work, she is concerned with the urgent need of women and girls to become independent, as she herself has succeeded in doing. As a scholarship student in Stanford University's graduate creative writing program, when the legendary editor Theodore Solotaroff's published her short story "Property Of" and asked if she had a novel, she promptly wrote Property Of, which Publisher's Weekly called "Highly original ... the gang rivalries, the intricate hierarchical subculture of villainous young thugs, and the heady pulse of city life on the run are captured with credibility, even humor." The New York Times Book Review celebrated its "Fierce personal intensity," and The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, "Watch Alice Hoffman—there's no denying her power or her talent."
In that first novel (reissued in 2007 as a Farrar, Straus and Giroux Classic in a 30th anniversary edition) her young protagonist struggles to reconcile intense love with total possession, refusing to become "property" even when her independence is precarious. Working to resolve this conflict marks much of Hoffman's writing, but it is explicit again in a life-and-death sense in The Dovekeepers, where the identity of the women—"The Assassin's Daughter," "The Baker's Wife," "The Warrior's Beloved"—derives from the dominant men.
"In the Bible there are little more than a hundred women," she explains. "Not all of them have names, and most of them are talked about in relation to something else, usually a man. The Dovekeepers is about having a name, and now that you mention it, that's what Property Of is about, a nameless narrator who has no identity, no feeling of self. So, yes, thirty-five years later I'm writing about the same themes."
But as much as her work is about resisting a set of fixed limitations, it's just as consistently about escape, whether from the trap of heroin in her first novel or, here, from an assault by Roman troops that was considered impossible to survive. "Well, until I went there and discovered the Josephus account I had no idea that anybody did escape from Masada," she says of the two women survivors whose story she tells. "And I had no idea when I was doing this book that magic would feature so heavily into it, none at all. Of course I was drawn to it so I must have had some sense of it, and in the museums I must have seen magical amulets that I wasn't fully aware of. In my research as a visiting scholar at Brandeis I was shocked at the prevalence of magic in the ancient world, and in the ancient Jewish world. But it was the archaeological artifacts in the museums that brought these people to life. There were the remains of three people who are characters in my book now, and the hair and shoes of a young woman. They came alive for me."
She pauses as if to allow her freshly-cut sun-ripened roses to intervene with their golden-pink oranges and lemony reds, the colors blending the way their perfumes combine. Without changing the subject she says, "When I went through my treatment for cancer I read Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, which was his attempt after his experience in a concentration camp to find a philosophy of why people had to go through brutality and sorrow. What I got from the book was that sorrow defines us and that's who we are, that we would not be able to have the compassion or the faith or the ability to love or the ability to value the world if there wasn't this other component. Evil was created on the same day as good, but why did that happen? The ultimate question we're all asking is why does there have to be evil? Why does there have to be sorrow? Why do people have to suffer the way they do?" But she still concludes, "Even though I write about tragedy I always think that I'm a much more hopeful individual as a writer than I am as a person. I think to read a book without some hope is really devastating."
In this tension is the balance of opposites that The New York Times Book Review celebrated in its review of an early novel, Fortune's Daughter, an assessment which can also describe her entire body of work: "It is in its juxtaposition of the mythic, the apocalyptic, with the resolutely ordinary ... that this novel finds its unique voice. It is beautifully and matter-of-factly told."
She elaborates, "I have an obsessive desire to write because I was an obsessive reader. I have a need to expand reality, to have it interpreted in some way because, for me personally, it's too painful. In this issue of Ploughshares some of the work is experimental and daring, some is more traditional, and some of it reads like a fairy tale. But every story and every poem was interesting to me, and created a world. There are beautiful poems by a writer I idolize, Ursula K. Le Guin. My favorite book of hers is The Left Hand of Darkness, where it's almost as if she's an anthropologist in creating other worlds. I'm interested in unique, singular worlds, and in this issue there are several of them."
I can't resist asking if there's anybody in these pages who reminds her of the young writer she was with her first publication in a prestigious literary magazine—she who is now the acclaimed author of 29 books—and she surprises me by answering, "You never know. Sometimes it's not about how good a story is, it's about how much the person wants to write. There are many great first stories—and it's not that I don't think it has to do with talent, because I do—but continuing success as a writer also has to do with desire. I became a writer in literary magazines, and I think they're so important because it's the way readers get to find out about writers they didn't know about, as well as an invitation to read known writers but with different kinds of material and in a different way. What I was looking for with this issue was what I wanted to read, and that was how I worked as an editor. What do I want to read?"
With her work published in over 20 languages and in more than 100 foreign editions, when I ask her to talk about her own readers she says, "I have so many readers who started to read me when they were 11 or 12, at summer camp. And the interesting thing for me is that I have a lot of mother-daughter readers who say to me there were times when I couldn't talk to my mother or when I hated my daughter or whatever, but we read the same book. I think that's so important because, when you read the same book, you're connecting in some deep way that you may not be able to otherwise. I used to have mothers giving their daughters my books. Now I have daughters doing the same thing."
And does she have mothers and daughters who come together to Alice Hoffman readings? She smiles, glancing at the vase of vibrant tea roses that she has grown. "I was at a book festival in Tucson when a daughter and her mother walked past my husband, who overheard the girl say 'Oh my God, Alice Hoffman!' and her mother ask 'Who's Alice Hoffman?' and the girl say 'You don't know who Alice Hoffman is?' So here was this 10 year-old reader introducing her mother to my book, and I feel truly grateful to her. She's my spiritual daughter, that 10 year-old girl in Arizona."