“Ray Bradbury Saved Me,”Alice Hoffman on Writers Block, Impressionism, and Survivor’s Guilt
TSM: Tell us about your newest book?
AH: Faithful covers ten years of a young woman’s journey in New York City. It’s about love and survival and finding yourself after you’ve been lost. In many ways, it’s the story of survivor’s guilt. My character, Shelby, is in an accident and she can’t forgive herself for the fate of her best friend. Her story is tragic and funny and I think it’s one that every mother and daughter can especially relate to. One minute you resent your mother for everything, and the next you realize all that she’s done for you. And of course, it’s about faith in many ways, faith in the future and in the goodness of other people even in dark times. It takes place in Chelsea, my favorite New York neighborhood, where I’ve lived on and off for all of my adult life, and also on Long Island, a place I yearned to escape from and only now see that I was glad to have grown up there.
TSM: Have you been a fan of Impressionism?
AH: I’m a huge fan of Impressionism, but the stories of a rebel painter who saw the world as no one else did really captured me. As a writer, I wondered how a painter saw the world in order to create. My imagination is interior but influenced by place, and I guessed that it was the reverse for a painter and that his imagination would be formed by exterior influences—what was visual—and then influenced by his inner life.
And then I was also interested in what makes a person do something so unexpected and become an artist, or a writer, for that matter, when there is nothing in his or her life to predict that might happen. It’s the way you see the world, I believe. From outside looking out, or outside looking in.
TSM: What was it like to research the book? Did you travel to St. Thomas?
AH: I read a great deal about St. Thomas and the Jewish community there of those who had escaped the Inquisition in Spain and then in Mexico and Brazil. I waited until the book was published to visit. It was an honor to speak in the synagogue where the artist and his family worshipped. I was glad I hadn’t gone prior to writing the novel because St. Thomas has changed so radically from the time I wrote about. Still some things remained the same, and I understood Rachel Pizzarro’s desire to flee from a small island where everyone knew your business and judged your actions. She was a rebel and so of course, her son was a rebel as well.
TSM: What books are you reading now?
AH: The Children by Ann Leary and The Book That Matters Most by Ann Hood. I’m reading books about family complications and love, and both of these are wonderful novels. I’m also rereading Ray Bradbury, which I do every summer. This year, The Illustrated Man, a book that’s very important to the characters in Faithful.
TSM: Did you make an outline of this book or start from the initial idea
and carry it along to full length?
AH: I always make an outline, but it always changes when the characters take over!
TSM: You write literary works that make it to the bestseller lists. How
have you managed to walk that tightrope of being commercially successful
yet making sure your books are being read by fans of very good writing and literature?
AH: I think I write the book I want to read. That’s what matters to me.
TSM: What are you working on now?
AH: I’m working on a prequel to my novel Practical Magic and having fun being back in that world.
TSM: Which book would you say had the biggest influence on you?
AH: Wuthering Heights, my favorite novel.
TSM: Is writing for a younger audience easier or more of a challenge?
AH: I can go to a more emotional place with younger readers who don’t have their defenses up as we do and are more ready to believe.
TSM: The titles of your books are always so vivid. What’s the bigger headache: a title or overcoming writer’s block?
AH: Oh, writer’s block. Very tough. I didn’t believe in it until I had it after 9/11. As usual, reading a Ray Bradbury book saved me.
TSM: What do you think the future holds for the publishing industry with all the changes we’ve been reading about?
AH: The future is a mystery.
TSM: Best thing about being a writer?
AH: You get to not only read stories; you get to write them. For that, I’m still grateful.