Novelist shares story-writing secrets
By Rita Papazian
In an interview with the publisher of The Writer magazine this month, prolific novelist Alice Hoffman talks about the important elements of storytelling: the inner story and the outer story. The inner story is the core story and the outer story is "what happens every day, the things that keep you turning the page to find out," she said.
Hoffman, whose latest novel, The Story Sisters, was reviewed in The New York Times this past Sunday, spoke that afternoon at Sacred Heart University as part of WSHU's lecture series, "Join the Conversation," which puts noted authors together with public radio listeners, for engaging, thought-provoking discussions.
During her hour-long appearance, which included her reading the opening pages of her novel, a question-and-answer period, along with her personal thoughts about her writing, the Long Island native also gave a glimpse into the inner and outer world of her life as a writer.
The Story Sisters is "a coming of age" novel, that according to The Writer mixes the supernatural with the ordinary to explore the inexplicable nature of human endeavors such as love, evil and redemption. The plot focuses on the lives of three sisters Elisabeth, called Elv, who is 15 when the novel begins. Her sister Meg is a year younger and Claire has just turned 12. But, this is no ordinary coming-of-age novel. As novelist Chelsea Cain noted in her Times review, the novel is "Little Women on mushrooms as a family ["navigates] through motherhood, sisterhood, daughterhood."
Hoffman thought the mushroom reference was "very funny," especially since she makes a number of references to Little Women in her book.
In the magazine interview, Hoffman was asked what sparked her idea for The Story Sisters. She said she has wondered why "children raised in the same family can be so different, how people can experience the same childhood and have such a different response to it. I started to think of sisters who lived in the same house and how they could experience their childhood in such radically different [ways] from each other. It all grew from thinking about these characters."
Hoffman has "no sisters nor daughters." She has a brother and is the mother of two sons. The author said there are two kinds of fiction writers; those whose novels reflect their own lives; and those who "write to escape their lives." She is of the second group and writes from the subconscious.
Growing up, Hoffman was a fanatical reader "I wanted to escape. I wanted to escape from my life," she told her audience.
In order to tap into her subconscious, especially for this book she would rise early, usually at 4:45 a.m. to write. She has been very fascinated by dreams and learned that one's deepest dreaming occurs between 3 and 6 a.m. She found her rising early to write put her in a dreamlike state where she easily tapped into her subconscious.
Readers familiar with Hoffman's other 20 books can well understand her talking about the subconscious. She is one to wrap reality with the magical, even supernatural. In her books, especially with The Story Sisters, Hoffman said she enjoys the telling of stories within stories or nesting stories together. She cited the two characters in the book, the grandmother Natalia and her friend Madame Cohen. She patterned them after her own two grandmothers. And in talking about storytelling she mentioned that grandmothers who passed down stories to their own daughters were the "original storytellers." In the book, the grandmother and her friend, are "the heroines who set things right," she said.
In her interview with The Writer, Hoffman said, "The book is about the power of stories and storytelling and how we create stories for ourselves out of the pieces of our lives."
Hoffman began each chapter in the book with her own fairy tale, which represents the "psychological truth" of the three sisters' lives. If people read all the fairy tales at once, they would see a complete picture of the characters.
Hoffman answered a range of questions offering glimpses into her journey as a writer which began with her graduate studies at Stanford University's Creative Writing Center where she began serious writing, but never thought about her work being published. She credits her mentor, professor and writer Albert J. Guerard, and his wife the writer Maclin Bocock Guerard for helping her publish her first short story in the magazine Fiction which was seen by an editor who asked if she had a novel.
Hoffman told her audience Sunday that her answer was yes, she did have a novel -- and then began writing one right away. That is how she learned to write quickly she said. The novel, Property Of was published six months later and became the first of many published works totaling 18 novels, two books of short fiction and eight books for children and young adults. Currently, she is writing an anthology of short stories, each linked to one another.
Since her fervor to write that first novel while in graduate school while working two jobs, Hoffman continued to "multi-task" as she raised her two sons and continued writing. She disciplined herself to get up early to write. Today with her sons grown, her schedule is less hectic.
Asked about the symbolism in her books, Hoffman said the symbolism comes from the subconscious. She cited only one conscious effort of symbolism when she used a blue heron in one of her books. She cited a personal story of her sister-in-law's battle with brain cancer and how after she died, the family saw a blue heron fly overhead during her burial and then again a year later during a memorial service.
"Readers are more aware of the symbolism than writers," she said.
Hoffman outlined her stories as well as allowing her characters to take over. She noted that author Jodi Picoult had read her latest book, called her up and said, "I can't believe you made that happen."
Hoffman replied, "I didn't make it happen. The characters made it happen."
To a question about revision, the author said, "Revision is big. I believe in revision because I'm a fast writer and I don't want to censor it. I really think we have to rewrite the whole thing a couple of times because it's a rhythm. It's like playing a musical instrument. Hoffman retained 60 pages of the original manuscript of The Story Sisters. The rest was thrown out. Everything a writer may like in his or her work, such as description "may not serve the purpose of the novel," she told her audience.
When she writes, Hoffman prefers facing a blank wall rather than looking out a window to the landscape and nature that play a vital role in her stories.
"I rather be inside my head," she said. "Nature is very inspiring, but when it comes to writing, I don't want a perfect view. I want the wall."
Many of Hoffman's novels, are known for that teenage rebel, such as Elv, the oldest of the three sisters readers meet in The Story Sisters. Hoffman said, "We all have that person inside of us. It's easy to tap into those feelings. The books that you read when you're 15 or 16 really affect you so well." At 16, Hoffman read a lot. Today she doesn't read much. "Reading and writing serve the same purpose." Today she spends a lot of time writing.
One audience member asked Hoffman: "So who is that sexy bad guy you have in every book?"
"It's whoever you think it is," the author replied. "That's what is so great about fiction. It's so interactive."
She related a "story," about the time she was speaking in Washington, D.C., and someone asked her who her favorite male character was. She said it was Heathcliff, the infamous love interest in Wuthering Heights. As she said the character's name, she noticed Hillary Clinton in the audience nodding her head in agreement. Actually, Hoffman said, she has come to realize it was Emily Bronte's imagination that she was in love with.
Which of her books is her favorite?
"I always feel it's going to be the next one."
One member of the audience remarked about how she enjoyed observing Pres. Barack Obama carrying a book of poetry. She asked the author if she felt more world leaders should be reading fiction?
Hoffman said, "Yes, that's where the real world is."
Does Hoffman read her own book reviews? She tries not to read them.
"If you read the good ones, you don't believe them. If you read the bad ones, they stay in your head," she said.
Hoffman's success as a writer is evident in the way her novels and their characters stay in the minds of her readers who remain true fans. Geri Diorio of Stratford attended the event with Dorothy Pawlowski of Ridgefield. Both women are librarians at the Ridgefield Public library.
"I love the way she incorporates magic and realism into relationships," Diorio said. Pawlowski admires the author's insights into relationships.
Arlene Simpkins of Southport, who has read all of Hoffman's novels, said, "She has a lot of imagination and she talks about a side of life that people don't talk about."
Joan Lowe of Greenwich admires the author's development of characters who instill an empathy from readers.
Laurie Douglas and her 16-year-old daughter Clara, of Guilford, are both avid Hoffman readers. Both spoke admirably of Hoffman's characters that appear both real and magical at the same time.
WSHU's next author talk will be on Wed., July 22 at 7 p.m. with Richard Haass, author of War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars. For reservations go to