Wednesday, March 19, 2014

An Evening with Alice Hoffman

On February 25th Alice Hoffman made an appearance at Newtonville Books, conveniently accessible to me via the subway. It's important to note that in June of 2009, I headed to Long Island to attend one of her signings for The Story Sisters. I had never been to Long Island and had printed directions from MapQuest. Turned out that was a mistake. I was in traffic for hours. I was in the Lincoln Tunnel forever. The directions estimated 2.5 hours and even though I had taken the day off from work and left at 3pm for a 7pm signing, I didn't arrive until 8:30. The signing was over and Alice Hoffman was gone. I bought one of the signed copies and left. Since then I've read more of her novels and my admiration has at least doubled. You can imagine how determined I was to actually meet her this time.

I arrived with time to snag a seat in the center and purchase her latest book, The Museum of Extraordinary Things. Newtonville Books is a cool bookstore. I know all bookstores are cool, right? But check out their check out counter filled with books.

I could feel energy dancing through me, but I managed to stay still and not draw unwanted attention. Thanks yoga. The first thing she talked about was her life as a writer. As much as I love her books, I didn't know much about her personal life or how her writing career began. It's generally reassuring to hear wildly successful authors talk about writing. Their habits and methods are so similar to my own that it's a validation that I'm not on the completely wrong track, as I frequently fear I might be. She described her feelings when she starts a new project saying, "I can't write this. I don't know who that writer was that wrote all those other novels under my name but it can't have been me." While it's not exactly reassuring that writers never lose their doubt, it is a comfort that they write their way through it. If they can, maybe I can too. She talked about having writer's block and how she never expected to write a book like The Dovekeepers or The Museum of Extraordinary Things. She read from the book and answered questions.

The book I'm currently writing has involved a lot of research and I asked her how she approached her research for The Dovekeepers, which is set in Masada in 70. She said it was overwhelming at first, but eventually she realized that she only needed to know what her characters knew and so that helped her target her research area. As there isn't a lot of information about women's lives during that time, she found other ways to answer her questions. For example, nomadic tribes making bread in the desert today without any modern technology probably isn't all that different from making bread in the desert almost 2,000 years ago.

Finally, it was book signing time. I was getting my chance to speak to her privately. I had so many things I wanted to say and ask, didn't I? I must have lost most of them while waiting in line. The only ones I could remember seemed foolish. I managed to tell her that I loved all of her novels and she seemed flattered and a bit surprised, maybe because I was much younger than most of the people there. I thought afterwards I'd remember a million questions to ask her, but I didn't. Turns out the words she gives us in her books are enough for me.


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