The prolific, award-winning author has written for a variety of audiences for more than 30 years, for adults as well as for children; her latest book, Nightbird, laced with her signature magical realism, is for middle-grade readers and tells the story of 12-year-old Twig, whose family has lived under a witch’s curse for 200 years. Hoffman last spoke with PW in 2006, upon the publication of her YA novel Incantations. We recently spoke via telephone with the author, snowbound in her Boston home, and she talked about how being an “escapist reader” turned her into an “escapist writer.”
You’ve written many novels for adults and teenagers, as well as several picture books, and your latest, Nightbird, is a middle-grade book. Why did you decide to write for this audience?
I never know why I write something for a certain age group. I believe that the best books are the ones you write for yourself. I write for different audiences because I’m always writing for myself at different points in my life. With Nightbird, I wanted to write a book for my 10- or 11-year-old self. And I also wanted Nightbird to be a real mother-daughter book – a book mothers and daughters could share. When I was a kid, even if my mother and I weren’t talking, we would be reading the same books at the same time.
So when you get a story idea, you already know which audience you’ll be writing for?
Yes, the book comes as the book, ready for its audience. I write both short stories and novels, for example, and ideas present themselves to me for a certain age group, or for a certain format. Some stories just feel more right for certain ages.
What kind of shift does writing for different audiences entail?
I believe kids and teens are more open to leaving logic behind and going with the flow of the story, as long as it rings emotionally true for them. Adults are often not as willing readers; they require more rules. So I think I write about magic for kids and teens knowing they are more willing to go along with the storytelling.
You wrote adult novels for more than 20 years before starting to write for a younger audience, first with picture books (Fireflies, Hyperion, 1997; Horsefly, Hyperion, 2000; and Moondog, Scholastic, 2004), then moving into YA. What originally drew you to writing for younger people?
I think it was having children. When I had young children, I started to write picture books and as they grew up I started writing for teens. Now they’re adults, so I’m writing for myself – myself at different ages. In fact, I think many adults are reading more YA and middle-grade books now because they want to go back to who they were. There’s an extra charge to reading children’s books as an adult, because you’re reading as a present and past reader – reading as who you are now and as your younger self.
You said you wrote Nightbird for your 10- or 11-year-old self. What specifically inspired this story?
I was thinking about how kids feel like outsiders. Nightbird began with the idea of a girl who has a secret, who has somebody in the family who could be viewed as a monster. There are often family secrets we have to keep, and I wanted to explore what it’s like for her to deal with keeping a secret from others. Keeping a secret keeps you separated from other people – turns you into a reader, in fact.
The “monster” is actually such a kind-hearted person for most of the book.
Yes, monsters often turn out to be big-hearted, while princes turn out to be mean. And that’s an important message of the book, too, that appearances can be deceiving.
I was also thinking about the mythology of New England. As a reader, so many of the books I loved took place in New England – Little Women, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s books, Edward Eager’s books. And I think of myself as a New Yorker, but I’ve actually lived in Boston since 1980.
Nightbird takes place in a small town in the Berkshires. You create that atmosphere so well. Have you ever lived in a small town like Sidwell?
Not really. I always dreamed of living in a town like that, though. I grew up on Long Island, in a cookie-cutter suburb. The countryside always seemed to have a dreamy atmosphere to me, so Sidwell is my fantasy of where I’d like to live. I was an escapist reader, so now I’m an escapist writer. I read to step into a different world, so when I write, I’m writing about what I want to escape into.
What books did you escape into when you were a child?
The books that mattered to me most were Edward Eager’s, who I really loved – Half-Magic, Magic or Not? – Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins, and everything by Ray Bradbury. Especially Something Wicked This Way Comes.
It’s not difficult to see how those children’s books inspired your work, but why was a science fiction writer like Ray Bradbury important to you?
Ray Bradbury’s books are written for adults, but the best time to read him is the summer when you’re 12. He wrote about innocence, about leaving childhood behind, about the space between childhood and adulthood. His stories are really stories of innocence and experience. I don’t think of him as a science-fiction writer, I think of him as writing about suburban magic – like Edward Eager.
Magical realism is a phrase often used to describe your books. Have you been influenced by other writers of magical realism?
I am most influenced by fairy tales. As a kid, I felt they were the most emotionally honest books. Although they were brutal, they felt true. When I was a child, I felt that many of the kids’ books of the time talked down to me. In fairy tales, miraculous things happened but they were told in a matter-of-fact tone.
And are you working on a new project at the moment?
I have an adult novel coming out in August, The Marriage of Opposites about Rachel Pissarro, the mother of the painter Camille Pissarro. He grew up in a Creole community on the island of St. Thomas, and his mother was involved in one of the biggest scandals of St. Thomas. She was a fascinating woman.
How about any middle-grade or YA books? Do you have anything percolating?
I definitely hope to keep writing for those age groups, but I never know until I have a first draft if it’s going to work out. One of the things I loved about the Edward Eager books was the group of friends having magical adventures together. So I’d love to go back to Sidwell and have magical adventures.
Nightbird by Alice Hoffman. Random/Lamb, $16.99 Mar. ISBN 978-0-385-38959-4