Some Questions for Alice Hoffman

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Shiny Editor, Annabel asks Alice Hoffman some questions about the themes in her writing career and her latest novel The Museum of Extraordinary Things, which is reviewed here.

Annabel: Before I get to your latest novel, I’d like to take you back to the beginning if I may. The first book by you that I read just happened to be your first novel, Property of, and I loved it.  It’s a coming of age story of a teenaged girl whose life goes in the wrong direction, but she finds the strength to turn it around just in time.  It obviously set you off on the right direction – how do you feel about your debut now?

Alice: I feel so fortunate — I had written a story published in a small literary magazine, and a famous editor in NY wrote to ask if I had a novel. I was stunned, but said yes, and began writing that day. I think I was innocent enough to write from my heart.

Annabel: I love the subtle way you weave the supernatural into many of your novels – there’s so often a dark fairy-tale magical element – sometimes integral to the plot as in Practical Magic, sometimes a sense of something smouldering away underneath as in The Ice Queen (my personal favourite – it’s the red dress!). Is it a love of fairy-tales that brings it out in your novels – where does this come from?

Alice:  My first stories were ones my Russian grandmother told me, and then Grimm’s’ fairy tales. I always found them more “true” than other children’s literature, and I loved the darkness and magic told in very matter of fact language. I have always thought of literature and magic as linked, braided together.

Annabel: Coming at last to The Museum of Extraordinary Things, the magic is notable in its absence.  Yet there is magic there, albeit in a different form; it’s now about the creation of illusions and putting on a show.  Because the novel has a fascinating historical basis, was that magic enough already?

Alice:  Yes, for me New York is a magical place where anything can happen: people can reinvent themselves, create illusions, and start over. New York at the turn of the century seemed especially magical, and Coney Island seemed like a dreamscape.

Annabel: It takes Ed’s camera lens to pierce the magician’s glamour and see the truth underneath. I found the scene where he took photographs of the museum’s ‘exhibits’ relaxing in the garden very rewarding; I grew to love the Wolfman, Mr Morris. The fact that they are just normal people contrasted with the abuse they got – that must have been hard to write?

Alice:  I felt the same: these are very normal people, perhaps the most normal people in the book, despite their odd appearance. For me, Ed’s camera was his “true eye” and helped him to see clearly, as I think art is for us. We can see the world in a truer way through photographs, paintings, literature, and what is hidden to the naked eye is revealed.

Annabel: The events are framed by those two awful fires, both of which happened in real life. The early 1900s was an interesting time in New York City. Did you always plan to include both fires in the novel?  If not, which came first in your researches?

Alice:  I began with only the Triangle Fire, but as I did research, I realized the Dreamland Fire was only two months later and it seemed fitting that the story would be told between the two fires as each fire changes New York and the characters’ fates.

Annabel: And finally, can you give us any hints of what you’re planning next?  More history? More NYC? Back to more magic?  We’d love to know and thank you for answering my questions.

Alice:  I’m working on a novel set in the West Indies in the early 1800s. It’s a love story, so I think love is the magic in this book. And also a book for pre-teen and teens called Nightbird out next year. It’s the story of a small New England town where there may be a monster– definitely magical.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors.

Alice Hoffman, The Museum of Extraordinary Things (Simon & Schuster, April 2014), 384 pages.

BUY at Blackwell’s in paperback via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)