‘Write my life’: A stranger’s plea inspired Alice Hoffman’s new novel
If you attend an author’s reading, you could walk away with a signed book, a brief connection with someone whose work you admire, possibly a tote bag.
Or maybe the author will write a book inspired by your life.
The writer in the last scenario is Alice Hoffman.
After a reading at a Florida library, a well-dressed woman collared Hoffman, whose best-sellers include “Practical Magic” and “The Dovekeepers.”
“The woman said she was a ‘hidden child,’” said Hoffman — meaning her Jewish parents saved her from the Nazis by sending her to live with non-Jewish people.
“I didn’t even know what that was at the time, but she told me that her parents put her in a convent and if I didn’t tell her story, it would be lost. I said, ‘I don’t have the right to tell that story.’ But as time passed, I kept thinking about how I didn’t know about the hidden children and that the next generation was even less likely to know about them. So maybe I should write it.”
“It” is Hoffman’s new novel “The World That We Knew,” and features one of her trademark elements — magic — in the form of a golem named Ava.
As the Nazis grip Berlin, a woman realizes her daughter, Lea, must get out. So she asks her rabbi’s daughter, Ettie, to create a guardian for Lea, with the help of a spell and some special clay. The fates of Lea, Ettie and Ava intertwine as they escape to the French countryside, where Lea’s relationship with the golem becomes even more loaded when she learns that the to-all-appearances-human Ava must be destroyed when Lea comes of age.
Most of those details were invented by Hoffman, supplemented by additional research.
“Very often, I go into a book not knowing anything. I have a question and I want to know the answer. So I went to France and visited these chateaus — homes for the children — and I met with survivors in the States and France.
“One really amazing gentleman came to the country from Paris, and we went to the village where he had been a hidden child. He hadn’t been back. It was extremely emotional.”
Hoffman isn’t a historian or a Holocaust expert, which helped her define the kind of book she wanted “The World That We Knew” to be.
She knew it would involve “love, loss and survivorship,” subjects she often writes about, and it would take the form of a folk tale about losing a child.
Current events also informed the writing, particularly stories about people detained at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I was writing about what hate does, the effects of the fear of people who are ‘other.’ I didn’t realize that so much of what was happening in France during World War II was anti-refugee, that it began not as a movement that was anti-Jewish but simply anti-refugee. So I found myself writing about how it’s really a choice, about how easy it can be to look in the other direction. These things happen slowly and then, all of a sudden, they have happened.”
FEAR OF PUBLIC SPEAKING
Hoffman is eager to discuss “The World That We Knew” on her book tour.
That eagerness is a fairly recent development.
“I used to not even tell anyone I was a writer,” she said. “For the first 15 years of my career, I never, ever mentioned it because I had a fear of speaking in public. I didn’t do readings. I didn’t do events. I was very isolated.”
Hoffman conquered her fear (along with her addiction to smoking) with the help of a therapist. And maybe with the “help” of a health crisis.
“My relationship to readers is completely different now, and I think part of that came because I’m a breast cancer survivor. I don’t know why — it wasn’t the internet — but now I feel like I have a really close relationship with readers,” said Hoffman, who has met many breast cancer survivors since helping create Boston’s Hoffman Breast Center.
She prefers the question-and-answer period to the actual reading aloud, probably because she has never enjoyed being read to.
But another factor in Hoffman’s changed relationship with fans may have been her recognition that she is both a writer and a reader. (She’s bringing “a pile” of books on tour, including the latest by Margaret Atwood and Elizabeth Strout.) After decades of hearing from readers who enjoyed her work, Hoffman finally made the connection to her own feelings about cherished writers such as Ray Bradbury, whom she began reading as a girl.
“I know the feeling that writers are — they’re a part of your life. I was afraid to meet Ray Bradbury, so I mostly had contact with him over the phone, but he was even better in real life,” said Hoffman, who is saluting the late “Fahrenheit 451” writer for the magazine Ploughshares, in honor of next year’s centennial of his birth. “I wish I had met him years and years earlier than I did. He was such a great help to so many writers. Just a super-generous guy.”
Embracing the connections she makes on the road has made book tours fun, even if the actual writing remains as difficult as it was when she debuted in 1977 with “Property Of.”
“It used to be I had to be forced to go, but now it’s a lot of fun for me to do those kinds of things. My readers are really different,” Hoffman said. “They can be 12. They can be 70. But they’re real book lovers. And I think they’re open to their emotions, which is a little unusual. I feel a real sisterhood with them, even with the guys.”
That openness may have something to do with her frequent use of magic and her willingness to dive into tricky emotional terrain.
Judith Light recorded the audio version of Hoffman’s book — “I cannot wait to hear it because I am such a Judith Light stalker,” Hoffman said — and the two recently spoke about “The World That We Knew.”
“She was saying she had to stop a couple of times, when she was recording, to cry. And I said, ‘You know what? I had to stop to cry a couple of times when I was writing.’ And I bet they were the same times.”
‘MAYBE WE’LL MEET AGAIN’
Like most writers, Hoffman writes to suit herself. But she admits she felt added responsibility for “The World That We Knew” because of its real-world inspiration.
“I tried to keep it out of my mind, but I did worry about this book, about what a survivor might think,” says Hoffman, who was reassured by a family friend who’s a Holocaust survivor and an early reader who helped her with research.
But what about that Florida woman? The “hidden child” whose life inspired the novel?
Hoffman doesn’t know her name and isn’t even sure she’d recognize her, but she has made peace with that.
“I didn’t experience the Holocaust, but I feel grateful that she gave me permission to write about a part of it and that she wanted me to write about it. Maybe she’ll read it. Maybe we’ll meet again. But it doesn’t matter because she helped me think about this book.”
Hoffman has also thought, of course, about why that woman chose her. It’s unlikely she’ll ever know.
“I think she may have picked me because I write a lot about mothers and daughters and I’m an emotional writer. That’s all I can guess.
“Maybe I needed her to pick me. Maybe I was just lucky.”
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