NEW YORK — Alice Hoffman has spent the past three decades infusing the literary landscape with her magical takes on everyday experiences. So it seems consistent that her reaction to reaching the 30th anniversary of her first book this month is slightly starry-eyed bewilderment.
“I never thought I would be a published writer,” laughs Hoffman, who wrote her first novel at 21 while studying at Stanford. “I was a reader, but I never thought I’d be a writer.”
But with over 15 novels to her name, as well as works for children and young adults, Hoffman is coming to terms with her chosen profession. And her latest work, “Skylight Confessions,” marks a particularly personal message to her longtime fan base.
The book tracks three generations of a New England family, a clan that begins when Arlyn Singer has a chance meeting with John Moody and, following her belief in fate, marries him. The two enter into a rocky relationship, producing two offspring. Arlyn’s untimely death from cancer haunts her children and husband as they seek to repair their lives and face what destiny has wrought.
Though Hoffman describes most of her books as being “emotionally autobiographical,” “Skylight Confessions” resonates especially deeply with her since she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998. “At the time, my kids were 10 and 15, and also my sister-in-law had recently died of cancer and she also had kids who were 10 and 15. So my thought was, ‘I’m not ready to leave my kids,'” she explains. “And I was really kind of obsessed with that. And I think I couldn’t come to that in fiction until now.”
While “Skylight Confessions” shares many themes (small towns, fate-inspired relationships) with Hoffman’s earlier works “Practical Magic” and “Here on Earth,” her writing recently has grappled with rawer, more emotional territory. She’s also survived the inevitable writers’ block.
“I had this crisis of confidence after 9/11. I think everyone was having a crisis of some sort, but my particular crisis was, I thought, ‘What am I doing? Why am I writing books? It just feels like the whole world could go up and all the books could burn and what is the point of anything?'” she recalls. “And I had this impulse to go back and reread some of the books that I loved as a child, and one of those books is ‘Fahrenheit 451′ by Ray Bradbury. And it changed my feelings about the power of books and the power of literature. It made me realize how important it is to still write fiction.”
Growing up in suburban Long Island, a self-described “working class girl,” Hoffman had no such professional aspirations. She was an avid reader who loved fairy tales and the stories her Russian grandmother used to tell her, both of which continue to infuse her writing. As she puts it, “I want to have that feeling that you could open a door and there could be a giant standing there. Or you could go down into your cellar and there would be a wolf standing there. It could happen.”
Now, 30 years later, it seems her pace has yet to dwindle; she still publishes approximately a book a year. Ask Hoffman to account for her productivity and she employs a typically Grimm analogy.
“You know the whole Rapunzel thing, where you have to keep spinning until you’ve created gold out of straw? I really think there’s a big part of that going on for me,” she muses. “That I need to take whatever is bad, whether it’s sorrow or grief or whatever, and just keep spinning and spinning until it forms itself into a story. And it feels like I’ve made something.”