Interview: Alice Hoffman

We hear a prolific American novelist recall a Jewish miracle.

By Simon Round, November 30, 2011
Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman

When journalists interview novelists, they invariably ask where the idea for a story came from. Almost as invariably, this is the question that novelists dislike most.

American novelist Alice Hoffman is no exception. She talks of how stories "come to me" - and insists that her novels tend to write themselves. However, in the case of her new book, The Dovekeepers, the moment of genesis is clear. It came during her first visit to the ruins at Masada. While touring the site and the museum at Herod's fort, the site of the mass suicide of Jewish fighters making their final stand against the Romans, her emotions took her by surprise.

"I felt very affected by the place - intensely so. When I returned home, I read the historian Josephus's account. I didn't know there were survivors at Masada. As soon as I realised there were survivors, I decided to write the novel."

The book, five years in the making, has been praised by, among others, fellow writer Toni Morrison. It is written through the voices of four women who all made the journey to Masada. The fact that there were women there at all was a surprise to Hoffman. "When I was at the museum and saw artefacts that belonged to these women, I saw there was a tale which hadn't been told. I felt in a strange way like it could have been my grandmother's story. It came very naturally to me."

Researching this period was a difficult task because of the paucity of information available. Hoffman had to rely on Josephus, a notoriously unreliable source, but the only surviving account of the episode.

She also used the results of the excavations carried out by Israeli archaeologist Yigal Yadin. While she was able to form a firm impression of the episode, the history left many gaps. "It was very difficult because there's almost nothing about women in the ancient world. In the end, I gathered as much material as I could and imagined the rest."

She cannot recall how the idea for multiple female voices came to her but says she had a sense that this would be an appropriate way to tell the story. "I just let their voices come through me. I was trying to make it seem both ancient and modern at the same time."

The story resonates with Hoffman - whose 28 works of fiction include Practical Magic, which was made into a film with Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock - for the same reason that it has become so important in Jewish history: "It's a story about the ultimate act of courage, and also the ultimate act of faith. The other thing that resonates is that of being a survivor.

"This is a story in one way peculiar to Jews but I also feel that it's the story of every nation that has been torn apart by war."

'The Dovekeepers' is published by Simon and Schuster at £16.99

Last updated: 10:57am, November 30 2011