Alice Hoffman: What Jews share with witches

The author of Practical Magic tells Jennifer Lipman why she's written a prequel


It’s fitting that I speak to Alice Hoffman in Halloween week, because she created some of popular culture’s most famous witches. Up there with Bewitched’s Samantha and Sabrina Spellman, Practical Magic’s Gillian and Sally Owens are indelibly scored into people’s minds thanks to Hoffman’s novel and the subsequent 1998 film adaptation, starting Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman.

More than 20 years after the original, Hoffman, author of some 26 books for adults and teenagers, has revisited the Owens. The Rules of Magic is a prequel, telling the story of the sisters’ eccentric aunts (memorably played by Stockard Channing and Dianne West in the film) during their youth in swinging 60s Greenwich Village. It’s where Hoffman grew up, and she saw it as the perfect backdrop to a story about magic, passion and tragedy.

“I’d got a lot of letters and emails from readers desperate to know about the Owens,” says Hoffman, 65. I realised that what I wanted to do was go backwards in time, and write about the 60s, which was a really important time in history.”

Hoffman’s sorceresses are good ones, their talents misunderstood by society. Witches, she suggests, are rather like Jews. Not so much because of misguided historical persecution (although there is that) but because theirs too is a matrilineal inheritance: power imparted to generations of women through storytelling and physical skill.

“There is magic in storytelling, in that tradition of passing down knowledge,” says Hoffman, who grew up listening to her Jewish immigrant grandmother’s tales of a different era. “It absolutely made me curious. We would be in New York and she’d tell these stories of Russia and I’d feel she was telling me a fairytale. They were just the most important stories to me.”

She became more interested in Jewish storytelling with the passing of her grandmother and mother. “It’s a connection for me with the past and the people that I love,” she explains. She has increasingly delved into Jewish stories, from bringing to life the Lower East Side immigrant experience with The Museum of Extraordinary Things, to her 2011 novel The Dovekeepers, a retelling of the Masada story through the eyes of four female members of the community. Writing that book, which she developed after a visit to Israel with her archaeologist son (she has two sons); she discovered “there is so much magic in the word of religion and spirituality”.

Two years ago she brought to life the story of Rachel Pissarro, the little-known Jewish mother of the famous French impressionist, Camille. Rachel was the most scandalous woman on the Carribean island of St Thomas after falling in love with her dead husband’s much younger nephew. The Jewish community shunned the couple, who were forced to mary in secret.

“I’m in awe of her,” says Hoffman, who says she too has a rebellious personality. “She’s the kind of woman I wish I could be.”

She came across Rachel’s story by chance, at a small exhibition on Pissarro. “I didn’t know he was Jewish, I didn’t know he was from St Thomas, I really didn’t know much about his art,” she recalls. “Then I read that his mother had caused the greatest scandal in St Thomas’ history so immediately I thought: it’s a novel.”

Writing the stories of voiceless women is something of a theme for Hoffman, whose motivation for The Dovekeepers was partly the dearth of information about women in the ancient world. “Women didn’t tell their own stories and a lot of their history was just removed from the stories that were handed down,” she says.

On finishing The Marriage of Opposites, she visited St Thomas, which in its 18th century heyday had a thriving Jewish community. At the synagogue, she looked at where women had sat in the back. “It was tiny and I realised it was such a small community, it was smothering Rachel,” she says. Today the synagogue is papered with articles about this celebrity congregant. “So I feel like she kind of won in a way.”

Rachel, like The Rules of Magic’s Bridget and Frances and many of Hoffman’s other protagonists, is active, in charge of her own destiny rather than waiting for a man to rescue her. “I think that’s kind of the fascination with the kind of icon of the witch, in that she’s a strong woman without a man,” suggests Hoffman. “She is kind of a feminist figure.”

We discuss whether things have changed for women over the eras about which she has written, especially in the two decades since Practical Magic. In the book there is a striking passage in which a teenage girl flees a predatory man: the novel is about the consequences of domestic violence.

“Unfortunately I do not think that things have changed for women,” she sighs, noting the growth of the #metoo movement. “It was astounding how many women it had happened to, and how many women had had it happen at work. I feel like it’s really important to be vocal about this and try to change it.” Still, she is optimistic, pointing out that since the revelations about Harvey Weinstein, people have “felt like for the first time that it was OK to say something — they weren’t as terrified about what repercussions were going to be”.

Next up for Hoffman is a book with her cousin bringing together knitting and fairytales (Hoffman suggests the craft is good practice for writers “because you have to take everything apart to do it”). She tends not to talk about her work until it is finished “because you don’t know if that book is going to live”.

For now, she is enjoying reading the work of other authors, something she only gets to do on tour “because when I’m writing I’m not reading”. She mentions Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl and Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us, but says she is an eclectic reader. “I feel that way about my own writing, I don’t want to read the same book over and over and I don’t want to write the same book over again.”

So would this prolific novelist, who used to rise at 4.45am to work, cast a spell giving herself more time to write? In fact, says Hoffman, if she had magical powers, she would want to travel in time. “That’s what I feel I do when I write historical books.To see the magic that takes place in history, that would be the greatest gift.”

She wouldn’t go back to Masada or St Thomas. “I’d want to go back to some other time — I feel like I’ve already been those places.”

The Rules of Magic is published this week by Scribner UK (£16.99)

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