After Alice Hoffman published her first short story at 21, a literary agent asked if she had a novel he might read. She didn't, but she wasn't about to admit it.
The young graduate student just wrote furiously for a few weeks until she could answer in the affirmative.
"I didn't have time to doubt myself," she says of taking the plunge into full-length fiction.
The result was the haunting Property Of, published in 1977 and described by the New York Times as "a remarkably envisioned novel, almost mythic in its cadences."
Since then, the native Long Islander has penned more than 30 novels for adults and young readers, from Practical Magic, the tale of two witchy sisters made into a 1998 Hollywood blockbuster starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, to 2011's The Dovekeepers, a runaway hit with book clubs across the country.
Often revisiting and reimagining the themes of fairy tales and female identity, Hoffman continues to bring unique, accessible stories to the modern American canon. Her latest novel is The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a winding, redemptive romance set against the backdrop of a New York City on the verge of social revolution. Intertwining Manhattan's upper class with Coney Island's circus culture, the book also plants an unblinking eye on the events leading up to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the workplace disaster that killed 146 and galvanized the labor movement.
Hoffman took a few minutes to talk with Connect in advance of her appearance at the Savannah Book Festival, Feb. 14-16.
Many of your books contain a supernatural element, but there's an absence of magic in this one. Was that a conscious creative decision?
Alice Hoffman: What I'm mostly interested in is magic in the storytelling—and this is kind of a magical setting, a magical time. What happens is very magical in its core elements.
It is a historical novel, based on a real world, and I had to work within the confines of the facts of that world in 1911 and what really happened. But I did want to write a story that was kind of a mystery.
What was it about that period fascinated you?
AH: A friend of mine had written a book about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and asked me to go to the 100th anniversary and write about it. It's kind of fallen out of the history books, and the idea that the people who died in that tragedy aren't remembered anymore is very upsetting.
It was a similar situation to 9/11 in that it was such a huge loss of life in New York City—the biggest workplace loss of life in the history of the city. So I started to do research for an article I wrote for the Los Angeles Times and I just got more and more interested in that time period.
It was really a turning point for so many social issues—worker's rights, women, and immigrant culture all intersected, as they do in this story.
AH: Exactly, everything happened in that one year. It was the labor movement, the feminist movement, immigration—and that rang as a very modern situation for me, because the importance of those issues between then and now is not so different.
Many of your books feature female protagonists who find their way to their own self-determination and strength. Was this more challenging given the historical constraints?
AH: It was so interesting to examine the women of the time period and what their rights were and what constrained them, and how those same things are happening in other parts of the world right now. The whole idea of women as second-class citizens—we're not that far removed from it in many ways.
This kind of tragedy still happens—to women, to garment workers—all over the world. But this was not in the history books when my kids were going through school. It had been erased. There are New Yorkers who remember, and Jews and also Italians, who worked in those factories, but it had kind of disappeared. And I feel like if you don't speak about things, they disappear. So that's one part of the book.
Another part is that there was a time when our families came to this country, and it was like a fairy tale. They came from a place where their fate was set, and then came to America and anything could happen.
Do you consider it ultimately to be a love story?
AH: I think it's a story about how love can change the world.
You just gave me chills.
AH: [laughs] Well, the lovers don't meet until way late in the book, because it's such a mysterious path that they both take.
It also seems like a love letter to a long-gone New York City—you include dreamy descriptions of an undeveloped Brooklyn and wilderness along the Hudson River. What research did you do to capture that extinct environment?
AH: It was kind of like time traveling! I mean you can go to that place, but it's not that place anymore. So you have do it through books, photographs—it's like being an archaeologist in a way.
I did go to Brooklyn a lot as a child—my grandparents lived there—and Coney Island too, and I knew it in a different way than it is now. I'm fascinated with the whole idea that a city—and I think this is true for most cities but for New York especially—can keep morphing and changing and becoming something different all the time.
Last year we had coyotes in Central Park for the first time in something like 50 years, and it's so interesting to me how things can go back and forth in an instant.
You've said that your book Here on Earth was your homage to your favorite novel, Wuthering Heights. Is this new one your paean to Jane Eyre?
AH: I had a friend who once said you're either a Wuthering Heights person or a Jane Eyre person, and I'm definitely a Wuthering Heights person, not to alienate the Jane Eyre fans [laughs].
I think Jane Eyre is a very interesting book in terms of who you relate to, whether it's Jane or the madwoman in the attic—the "freak." Me, I always identified with the madwoman in the attic.
Does that inspire themes about being an outsider, of living outside of society, physically and spiritually cast out?
AH: I think it's seeing things from the perspective of an outcast or an outsider. I think all writers are always outsiders. They're always the people who are standing on the sidelines. Eddie the photographer in the novel, was recording things, watching things, but not necessarily participating.
Were the freak show acts you write about in Museum of Extraordinary Things based on real people?
AH: I did read about people who were exhibited in shows, there was a famous museum back then on 14th Street, and then Barnum and whatnot. But I really wanted to create my own community so those characters are all from my imagination.
Do you feel like an outcast?
AH: I'm definitely a watcher, I'm someone involved in the world outside of the world. In other words, I'm a reader: Readers by definition are outside of the world and enter a different world of their choice. I always did feel that way. But I kind of think everyone does at some point, in one way or another.
As a reader, I think good writing makes you feel known in some way.
Is your creative process based on intuition or logically planning out a story or both?
AH: It really is both. It's partially intuitive and it's partially organized. I'm someone who was a very bad student, I never followed the rules, so I don't know how it happened that I was able to do this.
But I think it's because I was such an escapist reader and I feel like I use writing for the same purpose that I use reading. That said, every time I start a novel I feel like I have no idea how to write a novel. I really have to learn it all over again every time. [laughs]
Have you ever visited Savannah?
AH: No, and I'm dying to come there! I imagine it to be a little like New York, where people are in love with their city, and the city becomes a living creature.
I'm really excited—it seems like Savannah is full of ghosts and folklore and magic.