Alice Hoffman sold her first novel, Property Of, when she was 21 years old. This November, she publishes her 25th, Faithful (Simon & Schuster). At 64, she’s been writing and publishing books for over four decades. She has also published one work of nonfiction and nine young adult novels. “It’s not that I write so much,” Hoffman says. “I’ve just been doing it for a long time, and I’ve always thought of [writing] as what I do.”
Hoffman does it well and with popular appeal. Here on Earth, her retelling of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, was an Oprah Book Club Pick in March 1998. Practical Magic, about a family of witches, The River King, about a suicide that may have been a fraternity hazing gone wrong, and Aquamarine, a teen-
oriented comedy, were made into movies. And a TV miniseries based on The Dovekeepers, about four women in 70 C.E. at Masada, aired on CBS last year.
Tucked away in a corner booth at Henrietta’s Table in Cambridge, Mass., after the power breakfasters have gone, Hoffman talks about her writing in general and Faithful in particular. Her work always seems so personal, addressing the reader directly. In part, Hoffman explains, that’s because she sprinkles in snippets from her life. The characters in Faithful visit her two favorite bookstores—the Strand in New York City and the Book Revue in Huntington, N.Y. They even mention her favorite books, including Andrew Lang’s color-coded series of fairy tales and the Misty of Chicoteague series. For Hoffman, it’s all about making the fictional world more real for her readers.
Hoffman frequently goes back and forth between writing novels rooted in historical events—like her 2015 release, The Marriage of Opposites, which is set in the 19th century and tells the story of the wife of artist Camille Pissarro—and current fiction. Faithful begins on Long Island two years after a car accident in which Shelby, then a high school senior, spun out on the ice. Both she and her best friend, Helene, also a senior, were flung from the car, and Helene ended up in a years-long coma. Though Shelby was unhurt physically, it affected her in other ways.
The story follows Shelby from a psych ward to her parents’ basement to New York City. There she takes a job in a pet store and slowly begins to rebuild her life with encouragement from an unknown person who sends her postcards, and from a new friend, Maravelle, who also works at the pet store, and Maravelle’s three children.
Like Shelby, Hoffman grew up on Long Island, has an apartment in New York City, and is a survivor. A main theme of Faithful is survivor’s guilt, something Hoffman has lived with for a long time. “I think I’m always writing about survivors; I’m a breast cancer survivor,” says Hoffman, who found a lump in her breast when she was 45. “Half of all people with breast cancer die.” The Hoffman Breast Center at Mount Auburn Hospital, less than a mile from where we talk, is named for her. She donated advances from a collection of stories, Local Girl, and for her book on breast cancer, The Survival Guide.
Long before her cancer diagnosis, though, Hoffman was aware of survivor’s guilt. “As a kid, my life was changed by reading the diary of Anne Frank and how she got through,” Hoffman says. “Ultimately, of course, she didn’t live.”
But Hoffman is quick to dispel the notion that her books are autobiographical. “I’m not really writing about myself but the books are all somehow related not to my lived life, but to my inner life.” Before she begins writing a book, Hoffman says, she usually starts with an idea or a story. She finds out where the story wants to go by writing the first draft quickly, without going back to make any corrections. Those she leaves for later drafts.
Hoffman revises her work many times before it’s published. “When I’m writing, what I really want someone to do is have an emotional experience,” she says. “That’s what I want as a writer.” She acknowledges that she did in fact cry, “a lot,” while she worked on Faithful. She spent a number of years on the novel and worked on it at the same time as The Dovekeepers, which was published in 2011.
At its most basic level, Faithful is a coming-of-age story about Shelby. But in the process of writing about her transformation from a “skinny bald girl in big boots” who is filled with self-hatred, Hoffman explored what it is to be faithful. She doesn’t use the term to mean steadfast in a religious sense, although Shelby believes she was rescued by an angel after the accident. Being faithful, in the context of the book, has more to do with the bond between Shelby and her mother, Sue, who is fiercely loyal to and protective of her daughter, whom she loves unequivocally. That bond, Hoffman says, is similar to the one she had with her own mother.
The novel also describes the deep connection that can develop between people and their pets. Over the course of the book, Shelby rescues three dogs and a cat, which she gives away. Arguably the dogs, which she keeps, rescue her. “When you rescue [something], you don’t feel as much of a victim,” Hoffman says. Having Shelby steal pets from people who mistreat them also gives Hoffman a fictional opportunity to do something she wishes that she had done in real life: rescuing the pets of homeless people begging for money in Harvard Square. The animals, which are often drugged, are simply props to gain sympathy, she says.
But ultimately Faithful is about Shelby’s guilt. “It’s about forgiving herself for driving,” Hoffman says. “For me the book is very positive. It’s funny.” It will also appeal to young readers. The coming-of-age of a teenage girl who suffers a breakdown, is sexually assaulted, and smokes pot falls well within the scope of YA. This past summer, when Hoffman tested the book on her students at Adelphi University, where she teaches high school juniors as part of the Alice Hoffman Writing Retreat, they read the galleys overnight.
Despite her students’ enthusiasm for the book, Hoffman doesn’t regard Faithful as YA. “I think my readership is very weird,” she says. “It’s eight to 80.” She views Faithful as an adult title that teens can enjoy and that mothers and daughters can read together.
Nor does Hoffman consider Faithful—or any of her work, for that matter—an example of magical realism. That’s a term that she would like to decouple from her name. “[Magical realism] is a new term for an old thing,” she says. “The whole art of writing is magical.” Instead Hoffman prefers to view her writing in terms of the literature of symbolic fairy tales and folktales. In Faithful, she says, she’s trying to give an account of a young girl’s life in a way that more closely mimics journalism. The miracles that are attributed to Helene after the accident, like the candles that burn hours beyond what is possible on the anniversary of the crash, or her ability to heal the sick, are all part of that old-fashioned storytelling.
In one of the book’s many beautiful passages, Shelby is sitting in the backyard on the picnic table and thinking about the fairy tales that she read to her mother after Sue became sick. Hoffman writes that as Shelby read, she and her mother “became lost in an enchanted cottage with vines growing over the window. It was dark and it was quiet and they could hear each other softy breathing. Every story had the same message: What was deep inside could only be deciphered by someone who understood.”
The magic of the story could be one reason people who read early copies of the novel have responded in a “deep, emotional way,” Hoffman says—which she hadn’t expected. That’s despite the fact that she herself was particularly drawn to Shelby, whom she describes as both very funny and a pain in the ass. “Shelby starts out so tough, but she’s not tough,” Hoffman says. “She’s very endearing.”
Hoffman’s not a writer who looks back. She saves all her drafts, but she doesn’t reread them once a book is finished. So she’s particularly excited to have emptied an entire room of manuscripts and foreign editions by donating her literary papers to Adelphi last year. Hoffman also doesn’t write sequels, but she has found a fitting way to continue writing about Shelby, at least on social media.
Before we leave, Hoffman pulls out her phone to show me a picture of her sheepdog, Shelby, who has her own account on Instagram (@mizindependentshelby). Shelby the sheepdog can also be spotted on Facebook, where, in a nod to yoga, you can see her in a mean Upward-Facing Dog.