At 24, Alice Hoffman kicked off a stellar literary career by publishing her very first book, Property Of. That was 1977. Then came the deluge: 16 more novels (including Practical Magic, The Ice Queen, The River King, Here on Earth), plus short stories, screenplays, fiction for teens, picture books for youngsters, not to mention critical acclaim and financial success. Hoffman's latest novel, Skylight Confessions, presents a part romantic, part toxic portrait of a wildly dysfunctional family across several generations, with ingredients such as an architecturally significant house, a red-haired ghost, and the constant intervention of fate. Victoria Lautman chatted with Hoffman, who spoke by phone from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Q: Three decades, 17 novels, and nearly a dozen other books. I'd say that's prolific.
A: I honestly don't feel prolific. My children have moved out and I'm not writing screenplays, so to tell the truth I now feel really lazy! But writing is like breathing for me, not a hardship . . . just part of daily life.
Q: Skylight Confessions encompasses a slew of unusual characters and strange situations. Which inspired you first?
A: I always feel like I'm the last to know, since so much comes from the subconscious. It's like a dream-you're going with the flow, and the characters are living a life of their own. I have tons of notes and outlines, but now I don't remember anything or how I even wrote it. It really is like a trance. I didn't even realize the main character would die so quickly.
Q: Considering your own survival of breast cancer, it seems awfully brave to kill someone off with the very same disease.
A: Yes. It took me seven years to be able to do that. Cancer is a thread in my life that will just be there now. I've written about it before, but wasn't as concerned with death and dying as I am now. And this was a really scary place for me to go, the idea of being diagnosed with something horrible, leaving behind motherless children.
Q: Edifices and ectoplasm make dramatic appearances in a lot of your work, and the modernist glass house at the core of Skylight Confessions even becomes haunted.
A: As I get older, modern architecture seems much purer in a way, since it's not laden with memories like an older house. Yet this one is haunted, so it doesn't matter that it's modernist. Houses are really important to me and in my work. I'm just beginning to realize how important, and how a house can claim you. I grew up in a small, Levittown-type tract house on Long Island that looked like all the others, sitting in a field, and I used to dream of houses.
Q: But why all the ghosts?
A: I think it's dealing with the nature of reality, that you're both in the present tense but also in the past, not just the here and now. I really feel this layering time, and it's what I'm trying to get across in my books. The people you know who are gone are still with you, still affecting you-like ghosts. And who am I to say whether they exist or not? I wish they did. And I do have a sense that you're haunted until you let somebody go.
Q: So are you the pet author for Wiccans and other fringe groups?
A: Interesting! I do have a very wide-reaching audience, with 54-year-old women, 20-year-old Goth musicians, men, fans of science fiction and fantasy. The novels just seem to transcend class or age.
Noteworthy new releases for February
Besides car chases through the Loop, what elements constitute a homegrown crime thriller? Chicago inspected the prose of first-time local novelists Marcus Sakey (TheBlade Itself; St. Martin's Minotaur) and Sean Chercover (Big City, Bad Blood; William Morrow), both débuting in January. In addition to tackling Chicago's seedy underbelly, Sakey and Chercover contribute to a crime fiction blog, theoutfit collective.com.
The Panic Bell (Undertow)
"If you don't know by now / you never will," Steve Dawson sings on Dolly Varden's newest. The sentiment doubles for anyone who hasn't yet discovered this rootsy country-pop quintet, considered one of Chicago's consistent pleasures.
It's a Wonderful Lie (Warner Books)
Chicagoan Laura Caldwell attempts to reconcile her Charlie Trotter's taste and McDonald's budget in "Money Doesn't Buy Happiness," one of 26 humorous essays by female writers in this collection that chronicles the freedom and challenges of 20-something life.
Bambi vs. GoDZilla (Pantheon Books)
What do producers actually do? And why are so many successful screenplays so bad? Chicago-bred playwright-screenwriter-director David Mamet offers a subversive-as-always look at the movie business, from the inner workings of pitch meetings to manners (or the lack thereof) in Hollywood.
Photography: Lautman - Marc Hauser, Hoffman - Deborah Feingold