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The Blog
HorrorOct 27, 202220 min

Q&A with The Book of Magic Author Alice Hoffman

The Book of Magic author Alice Hoffman chats with fellow novelist Alix E. Harrow about witches, romance, genre wars, and more.

By Zak Price

Genre-defying author Alice Hoffman discusses her latest release, The Book of Magic, and more.
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The New York Times bestselling author Alice Hoffman’s recent novel, The Book of Magic, was originally published much to critical acclaim on October 12th, 2021. The first sequel introduced in the Practical Magic series, Hoffman’s text continues the stories of the beloved Owens family women just as it continues to spark discourse a year after its initial release.

First heard on the Likewise app, the following Q&A between Hoffman and like-minded author Alix E. Harrow covers all things literary, mystical, and wickedly witchy:

Event Transcript

Alix: I'm Alix E. Harrow, author of The Ten Thousand Doors of January and The Once and Future Witches. I am privileged to be talking today to Alice Hoffman. She is the author of more than 30 books, including The World That We Knew, The Marriage of Opposites, The Dovekeepers, Here on Earth, and the Practical Magic series, which includes the first direct sequel to Practical Magic, The Book of Magic, which came out in paperback, I think yesterday. So thank you so much for being here, Alice.

Alice: Oh, it's great to talk to you. Thank you for having this conversation with me. Yeah, it did come out yesterday, kind of.

Alix: See, that's a sign of someone who's had 30 book releases, or probably 60 if you count hardcover and paperback. You're just like, did it come out yesterday? I guess it did.

Alice: I know, it's a lot of books over a lot of years. And I guess I feel like once it's published it kind of belongs to somebody else. Not to me.

Alix: Yeah, I've only had two books come out, but I am starting to be familiar with the process of detaching.

Alice: Yes, when I finished my first book and it was published, I woke up crying and I had dreamt about my characters and it was kind of like this feeling of loss. And sometimes I have that still, but not to the same extent. Do you have that when you finish a book?

Alix: Yeah, I think one of the reasons that I am actually grateful for publishing being fairly slow is that by the time other people are reading about these characters, I’ve moved on to something else. I'm in a new world now. I've let go of them and I'm no longer so personally caught up. If I could write something and then immediately publish it as people do, I would be a wreck. I would be a disaster.

Alice: Right, that's true. You're on to the next thing. And for me, when I do something historical, by the time it comes out I'm onto something else and I don't remember a thing, my research is gone for me.

Alix: With that in mind, I have a lot of questions for you about this.

Alice: Oh okay, I hope I can answer.

Alix: So the first thing I wanted to ask about is the beginning of this book. So, your first line starts, “Some stories begin at the beginning and others begin at the end.” And we learn right away that Jed Owens is about to die. That is such an unusual entry into a story. How did you land on it?

Alice: You know, I have no idea, I just thought it up. I think it just happened when I started writing. She just knew that this was going to happen to her. And I don't know if that happens with you with some characters, but some of mine, I feel like they walk through the door kind of fully formed in a way. And she just knew she was going to die. And at first, I didn't know how much time she had, but then I realized I couldn't drag this out for too long, it would be too sad. So she only has a few days and she wants to, in those days, complete her life and do the things she really wants to do and see the people that she cares about.

Alix: And it struck me as such a particular choice because this book is also the conclusion of a series that you've been writing since ‘95, I think. And I think it's the only one of the four books that is a sequel to that first one. So it's the only one that chronologically happens afterward. So it's really an ending in so many ways.

Alice: Yeah, I know. Well, I think I felt like I wanted to write this book because I felt like I wanted closure and I wanted my readers to have closure and the characters to have closure, which I actually do not feel in that first book. I miss these characters terribly, and sometimes I find myself writing little things about them. And like what you were saying, they've been with me for so many years; I guess it's been like 27 years and that's a lot of time to be with a family of characters.

Alix: How much when you were writing it? I mean, I've only done one tiny sequel in my life and it was only a novella, and it was really, really hard. So I'm curious, how much were you thinking about the weight of the body of work versus the weight of just this one book while you were writing?

Alice: Well, I realized how stupid I was not to figure out the progression, but it just didn't work for me that way because when I wrote Practical Magic, I never thought that I'd write another book with these characters. And the only reason I did really was because my readers were asking me for it over and over again. And I thought, well, that's a pretty good idea they're having. And so, I think it was 20 years later, I wrote The Rules of Magic, and that takes place in the sixties in New York City, which is kind of my era. And there are some mistakes that I think wouldn't have been there if I knew that this was going to be a series and if I knew to plot it out long term, which I did not.

Alix: So I did cheat a little bit. In my first question, I cut your first line off because the full first line is, of course, “Some stories begin at the beginning and others begin at the end. But all the best stories begin in a library.” So this is also a book about books, which is one of my favorite genres ever. And it seems to me in all your work, you play a lot in the slippage between literal magic and literary magic. Why do you find yourself returning to magic books and the magic of books so much?

Alice: Well, it's a big question and it's an interesting question. I think for me that the magic in my life was books and discovering the library. And it kind of took me out of my life. And the first books I really found were in my school library. And then my mother had a bookshelf of books that I would sneak and steal and read. And I didn't know anybody else. No one in my neighborhood had a bookshelf or any books other than Reader’s Digest. That's basically it. So for me, books were the magic of my life. They changed everything. And I always feel that when you go into a library, especially when you're young, it's kind of the first time that you get to make your own choices and make your own discoveries. And that's really major and magical. I always think that what happens between a reader and a book is that you take this book and you kind of make it your own as you're reading it. You know, imagine it the way you see it, not the way the writer or the person sitting next to you sees it, but it becomes your own.

Alix: In one of my favorite recent releases, there was this brilliant, wonderful fantasy book written by a professor of Victorian literature. And the conceit of it was that readers read characters out of stories, but each reader would read the character a little differently. So there were at one point, I think, six different Mr. Darcys wandering around and I was like, that's exactly how it is. That's how it feels.

Alice: Yeah, that's totally it. That’s really exactly what I feel about reading and about how important the reader is to what happens. And I feel like it's the most interactive art there is; the reader's as important as the writer.

Alix: That makes me want to jump around in my questions a little bit because you mentioned your bookshelves growing up. I am so curious, and I know this is a little bit of a fraught question, but whenever I read your work, I'm always curious about how you see yourself in terms of genre. I've seen your books everywhere in bookstores. How do you feel about those labels? Magical realism, fantasy, literary fiction, or just fiction?

Alice: I have a real thing about this, that was a button you just pushed. I do not believe in, I guess, genre-izing literature. I think it is a huge mistake and I think it's a way almost to put down certain books. And I always think, okay, so the people that I read when I was younger who were considered fantasy or science fiction, like Ray Bradbury, are now just considered great writers. And I find that very annoying. I don't believe in genres and I think in the past fantasy and science fiction writers tended to be thought of as less. I think that's becoming less true because magic seems to be running through literary fiction, or what's considered literary fiction, and all sorts of mainstream fiction. But I don't think that used to be true. It certainly wasn't true when I started writing; it was considered kind of weird, as I'm sure you know.

Alix: Yeah, I'm familiar with the genre wars and I always feel very fraught about them because I think there are a few of us that actually read that way in strict lanes of reading. Of course, if you grew up in bookshelves and libraries, you just pick up what's there and some of it has wizards and some of it does not. And that doesn't really affect your love of it.

Alice: I always feel like it's a way of grading people and I don't like it.

Alix: For sure. And actually, the last couple of years has been the first time in my life that I have read full-on genre romance novels and I feel like I've been missing out for my whole life. I feel like, oh no, I bought the horrible marketing. I bought the strict genre barriers and I'm just so disappointed in myself, but also in the world for continuing to be like some genres are good and literary, and others are bad and trashy.

Alice: Well, for bad and trashy, it's usually a female.

Alix: Yes, it’s extremely gender-coded for sure.

Alice: Yes, exactly.

Alix: Well I'm glad to hear you say that because that is very much how your books read. I just always kind of adored your conception of magic itself. It fits so well with my childhood books that treated magic or witchcraft as an assumption rather than a big reveal. I just loved that.

Alice: I felt the same way. You know, one of my favorite writers was Edward Eager. Do you know him?

Alix: Yes.

Alice: And what I loved about him was that everything was so regular, so normal, so unmagical, and then kaboom! Right on the street, right on the sidewalk in this suburban place, there was magic.

Alix: Absolutely. I'm curious, I guess in sci-fi and fantasy it's what you would call your magic system or your world-building, but how did you invent your magic in the series?

Alice: Yeah, that's interesting. I was actually talking to somebody yesterday when I went to visit the set when they were making the movie of Practical Magic. I went into the set designer's office, and she had a huge wall that was a mood board, which is something that I sometimes do. I had the sense that we did the same thing, that we created a world for the characters to step into. So I always feel like that's what I'm really doing. For me, the characters kind of walk in, but I have to build the world for them to live in.

Alix: When I was doing my witch book, not four witch books, but my one witch book, I found it a little bit of a struggle because I wanted the magic to feel somewhat predictable. It abides by certain rules and there's a rhythm to it that makes sense. But I still wanted it to feel kind of magical, surprising, and charming. How did you balance that?

Alice: I feel like for me it's kind of like it's taking place within the normal world. But for me, my witches kind of inherit their abilities. There are those who are born witches and those who are made witches, and my characters were born that way, to quote Lady Gaga. And there's nothing they can do about it, so it's part of their normal life. And just like everybody, some things you inherit, you don't want.

Alix: So your characters didn't have to go to a complicated magic school and take lots of notes. I also wanted to ask about how in The Book of Magic there are three generations of Owens women to follow at this point. You've done that kind of writing before where you juggle multiple generations of characters, and just on a craft level, how do you maintain that big of a cast?

Alice: It's funny, I don't know. I don't have the answer to that. I always feel like I'm the last to know everything about what I do. But it doesn't seem difficult. It seemed more difficult to have somebody kind of in a bell jar just themselves. I mean the more characters, the more complex, the more interesting, and the more choices you have as a writer. But in a lot of these things, I don't really feel like I'm making the choices, I feel like it's just what happens.

Alix: Just last weekend I was on a panel with a writer who writes her novels in 21 days and doesn't revise. So everything she does just comes how it comes. And I think everyone else on the panel was just sort of quietly shriveling.

Alice: Oh, didn't you want to just murder her? I mean, that's my dream. I wish I could write a novel in 21 days and never revise it. I revise a lot. I mean, I can't even tell you how many times I revise because I just have no idea. But sometimes I'll cut half of a book and sometimes characters completely disappear and the finished book is nothing like the book I began with. So for me, it's a lot of work and I always feel like the best way is just writing my way into it. I have outlines beforehand, and I have poster boards, and I put these post-it notes of what people are going to do in every chapter. And then the whole thing completely changes once I start writing. Do you have that as well?

Alix: I do. But I'm definitely an over-planner. I have the beautiful outline, and I have it all broken down, but I am increasingly starting to feel the real difference between the people who just kind of write and the planners who think they know where they're going.

Alice: Yeah, exactly. I always think I know and then it always changes.

Alix: But it's important for me to believe briefly that I know where I'm going.

Alice: Oh, I think it would be really scary otherwise. I mean, that's the kind of blank page feeling where that's pretty scary. Do you find it more difficult to begin a book or to end a book?

Alix: Beginning. Absolutely beginning. I mean, and I’m sure it's similar for you, I know where I'm starting and I always know really clearly what the final scenes are. But making the beginning feels like it sort of necessitates that ending is very hard.

Alice: Yeah, it totally is. I find that beginnings for me are much easier because you have the whole world out in front of you, but then you have to narrow it down. You have to get to the end of the book eventually. And I used to occasionally write the end of a book before I write the beginning, and that's so you know where you're going. But I don't know if you ever really get there.

Alix: That's fascinating, I want to try that now for sure. I also wanted to ask, and this is maybe my own confirmation bias and action, but I feel like there are booms and busts of witch books and I feel like we've just gone through what felt to me like a boom of witch content. I don't know if you feel that way, but why do you think witches are perennially popular?

Alice: Well, I think you can tell at Halloween that half the little girls dress as witches. It's more interesting to be a witch than a princess. And I feel like a witch is really the only mythical figure with power. And I think for little girls especially a witch is not a scary figure. It's kind of a freeing idea that you have power and that you can be in charge of things and that you can control things and you don't have to be afraid. If anything, people will be afraid of you. So I mean, I just think what other mythical female figure is there that is so appealing, especially to girls?

Alix: I completely feel that way. And I feel like its popularity follows a little bit of our cultural politics and these moments where you feel particularly disempowered and that fantasy of agency is really appealing. It always feels to me like there's a rash of witch media. I do think you're right, too, about how being feared is this powerful, attractive thing because I was thinking about Halloween costumes, as I have young children, and there are a lot more villain options for boys than for girls.

Alice: I don't know, I always think those princesses are more villains, frankly.

Alix: I mean, yeah, inherited power is not a good situation, I think we can agree. But no, our neighbor, who is a six-year-old girl, came over to our house and we watched Star Wars together and now she's going to be Darth Vader for Halloween. I'm very pleased.

Alice: Well, I just think that in every story where there's a witch, there could also be a girl who saves herself. I think I was always so interested in fairy tales, and I never truly understood why. I think part of it was I had a Russian grandmother who told me fairy tales, but I think something like 85% of the heroes in fairy tales are girls. So I think that was part of the appeal for me, even though I didn't recognize that at the time.

Alix: Absolutely, I feel the same way. I recently did some fairy tale retellings and I feel like you get this slightly weird, oh, faux-feminist pushback of how fairy tales aren't feminist. But I really do feel that they are the results of a female imagination at work in a lot of ways. And it's like, no, the worlds they’re set in are not feminist because they’re our world and that's typically horrible. But these are stories of agency and of choice, and I think that's really powerful and interesting.

Alice: I totally agree. But I think very often it's the girl who has the good idea; it's the girl who has the idea of how to rescue herself and sometimes someone else.

Alix: And they have a lot of female villains, which I think is equally kind of alluring in some ways. The evil stepmother is a memorable figure for a reason. I wanted to ask, before I get too deep into fairy tales with you, about the romances in your books, which I love so much. And you've written so many wonderful love stories, but I feel like you often pull the focus of the book, the load-bearing relationships are the familial ones between. And then the romances sort of anchor this already established network of relationships. Is that something you set out to do intentionally or is that just how you conceive of their romance arcs?

Alice: Well, I think with Practical Magic and those four books, it began with two sisters and it ended with two sisters. That was always what the books were about. And even though love was definitely a major part of it, and also being cursed in love, it was always about two sisters and continued with the older aunts. So that always seemed to be the heart of those books.

Alix: I completely agree. I also, just in general, am amused continually at how much in the romance genre of novels, how many of them are also family stories. I was talking with my mom and I was like, "isn't it funny how these are romances?" But often the most cathartic scene is the heroin finally talking to her mother because we come from these already complicated networks.

Alice: I think for me, I am an aunt, and my relationships with my nieces and nephews are really important to me. So I think that probably really affected the texts.

Alix: Absolutely. So, this is a very particular question. This comes from me reading Green Angel at a formative age, which came out at the time that I was just reading basically all the YA releases that I could find. And I can't help but notice that tattoos have come up a lot in different ways in your work as this visualization of the character’s internal state or as actual magic in Green Angel. What draws you to tattoos as a literary device?

Alice: I think it's the idea of printing your outside. And I think that's often a very beautiful thing to do where you can tell who someone is, not just who they are, but what their story is. Green Angel is a book that I wrote right after 9/11 when I actually had terrible writer's block and I just felt, like, what was the point of it all? And I went back and read Ray Bradbury, which I sometimes do because I just loved him as a writer and a person. And I went back and read Fahrenheit 451 and remembered how incredibly important books could be. So Green Angel is really about a girl who suffers a great tragedy and a great loss and then she basically writes her way back to life. And I feel very often when you’re writing a book, you're telling the story of your life in one way or another. And for me, that is definitely the story of my life.

Alix: Yeah, it's funny that you say that. It's very, now that I think about it, very deeply and obviously inspired by 9/11. But reading it at 12 or 13 years old I fully did not pick up on that.

Alice: Well that's okay. I think books are different depending on what age you are when you read them and change as you read them. I always think that about Wuthering Heights, which is another one of my very favorite books. When you read it when you're young, you think Heathcliff is such a great romantic hero. And then when you read it in your forties, you think Heathcliff is a maniac. And then when you read it when you're older, you think Heathcliff is very complicated.

Alix: That's phenomenal. Actually, one of my friends just wrote a YA retelling of Wuthering Heights, which I think is just a fascinating concept, but it's sort of a post-colonial reclamation in some ways. So it's all the racial subtexts of that book kind of dragged out into the light and it's really quite good.

Alice: Well, that’s a lot like the Jean Rhys book, Wide Sargasso Sea, which is a retelling of one of Charlotte Brontë’s books.

Alix: I see, It's Jane Eyre.

Alice: Yeah, it's so funny because people always say you're either a Wuthering Heights person or you're a Jane Eyre person, and I think I just revealed who I am.

Alix: Alright, I was talking to my friend and he was like, "there are really only two kinds of writers. There are the ones who always know what season it is in their book, and the ones who never know what season it is." You clearly always know what season it is, I could tell you what's in bloom at the house on Magnolia Street. How did nature enter your writing so clearly and so beautifully?

Alice: It's funny because I grew up without nature. I mean, there was no nature where I lived. It was completely urban. And I think for me that part of the magic and creating the magic of the world is dealing with the natural world. I have so many books about plants and animals and people think that I'm a great gardener, which I am not at all. I aspire to that and I just feel like that's part of the magic in my world.

Alix: Oh, that's fascinating. I absolutely would've guessed you were a great gardener.

Alice: Not at all. I can kill anything.

Alix: Are there any plans for a Book of Magic adaptation? And I'm sure you legally cannot tell us that, but still.

Alice: You mean as a TV series? Well, there was a plan to do all of them and it was supposed to start filming this September, but the network that was going to do it was sold to another network and they canceled everything.

Alix: Oh my goodness.

Alice: So I don't know what happens next. We'll see.

Alix: Oh my, It got that far though.

Alice: Yeah, it was greenlit and then there there was a sale.

Alix: The TV world is so insane right now. Everything is up in the air.

Alice: It really is. So I don't know what’s going to happen.

Alix: Now I have to ask a happier question. What idea or events sparked you to return to these characters?

Alice: It was completely getting messages from my readers. I mean, there was nothing else. And most people were asking for a sequel and I just felt like I'd rather go backwards. And I'm always interested in what makes people what they are and what their lives were like. And I think it's so interesting that if you're in a different generation, you can never really know that person because you didn't know them as they were when they were young. And so I wanted to go back and show Franny and Jet when they were young and go back to the 1960s.

Alix: Yeah, that makes total sense. I mean, it's a terrifying amount of power. Readers be careful, these things happen. I want to know, I've read in previous interviews that you don't read a lot of new fiction while you're writing and just judging by your output, that must be all the time.

Alice: It's hard for me because I'm not the kind of reader that I used to be. I used to carry a book with me everywhere and always be reading. And I've really missed out on a lot of books because very often, I was just saying this to a friend, when I'm sitting there, I can either be reading a book or writing a book, and I usually choose to be writing a book.

Alix: Absolutely. But have you been reading or watching or consuming any stories? What have you been reading or watching lately?

Alice: Well, I've been reading a few things, but I just read Elizabeth Strout’s Lucy by The Sea. I love her writing. I mean, it's so different than mine. And maybe that's one of the reasons I love it. And I love how you think you're reading something and you think it's going to happen and all of a sudden it emotionally kind of just gets you in some very deep way. It's always a surprise to me how great a writer she is. And how she manages to do that every time.

Alix: I haven't read that one yet, but I have read some of her work and it is fabulous.

Alice: Love it.

Alix: I did want to ask, you've mentioned Ray Bradbury a few times. What other formative writers or books do you feel kind of poured into your writing?

Alice: Well, Ray Bradbury is a big one for me, and I just have a few. Edward Eager was big for me. I also love those Mary Poppins books. I love them. Oh, she's so nasty. I loved her and I loved Shirley Jackson.

Alix: Oh my goodness. Yes.

Alice: She's somebody that I found on my mother's bookshelf and it just blew my mind when I read her books. And also, of course, Wuthering Heights was really made major for me when I read that book. Those are the big ones. And also Toni Morrison when I was in graduate school I started reading her, and I just felt like, I really do believe there are only so many stories, but really what matters is the voice of the writer. And she's always so distinctive and beautiful and poetic and it just blew me away. I got to know her a little bit. I feel so lucky.

Alix: Oh my goodness, really?

Alice: I guess, I mean I love all of her work, but I think Beloved is my favorite of her.

Alix: That's gotta be the one for me for sure. I'm from Kentucky, and all my family is, too.

Alice: Oh, really?

Alix: Yeah. And Beloved is based on an actual historical episode from Kentucky. But just the tone of it, the rhythm of it, the language, it just always hit me so hard.

Alice: So amazing. And I got to see, she did lectures at Harvard right before she passed away, I got to see three of them. And she talked about Beloved and finding this little newspaper article about the true case and then thought, I'm not reading anymore. I'm just reading that and the rest I'm going to imagine. And I thought, yeah, that's why the book was so great because she didn't get bogged down with research. She kind of wrote from her heart and soul and it's such a great book. I think she's the greatest American author.

Alix: Absolutely. I used to say the greatest living author. The only newer, younger writer that has made me feel any of those same feelings is, I don't know if you've read Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing at all, but I feel like, oh my goodness, the prose and the themes and the voice of it are just so striking.

Alice: Yeah, I think when I went to graduate school I had a great professor in writing who always said that voice is the most important thing. I always feel like a voice is like a fingerprint.

Alix: Definitely, do you have a character that you identify most with?

Alice: I guess I identify with all of them when I'm writing them, as I'm sure you must also, You kind of are your characters. But I think Franny is the character that I identify with a lot, more than anyone else.

Alix: Well, I love her. That makes sense. I actually think we're going to wrap it up here, unless there's anything else that I'd missed or anything you'd like to say.

Alice: No, but I really enjoyed talking to you. It makes me feel like I want to talk to you more, but we can do that. Not here, but I just feel like there's kind of a kinship when writers meet each other and because we're spending a lot of our time in a different world. And anyway, I would love talking to you and thank you so much.

Alix: Oh, thank you so much. This has been a total honor.

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