Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Alice Hoffman talks about The Red Garden

Alice Hoffman really needs no introduction, but I want to give her one anyway. A bestselling author for adults and young adults, a screenwriter, and humanitarian (she does great, great work for breast cancer), she's also beloved by her legions of readers AND she knows and loved NYC's City Bakery, renowned for the best hot chocolate on the planet. I took the arc of The Red Garden with me everywhere, from the NYC subways to a book convention in Michigan. I'm thrilled Alice agreed to answer my questions. Thank you so much, Alice!

What I really loved, beside the shimmering language, was how strong and powerful the women were, something that kept being passed down through the generations. Could you comment on that?

The Red Garden is very much about survival – in the natural world, in the world of loss and love. The women in the book all have the will to survive, even in the most extraordinary circumstances, and I think there is a sense of knowledge and experience being passed down throughout the history of the town.

The Red Garden had so much of a magical fairy tale quality to it, but by that, I mean The Brothers Grimm—the real, dark fairy tales that haunt you, rather than the happier Disneyfied versions. Would you agree? And where did that love of fairy tales come from?

I grew up reading fairy tales, and always felt they were the stories that didn’t talk down to me as a child-reader. The darkness inherent in Grimm’s’ Tales, and the Russian fairy tales my grandmother told me, seemed “true”. I think children understand that fairy tales are often journeys that chart growth – growing up, finding oneself or one’s true love. Real fairy tales are often brutal, and beautiful as well.

The Red Garden, explores the threads that link people and places and memories together from the 1700s to the present. You’ve explored before, in Blackbird House, how a place can become a character and a catalyst, and how the natural world can influence or impact our choices. Do you feel that we can ever escape our pasts or our places—and should we?

In Blackbird House the focus was a house, and the ways in which an old house can contain many stories, many lives. In The Red Garden I think the complications are more complex --- it’s the story of a town, but also of the complicated relationships and personal histories of the residents. I made a “family tree” after the book was completed and was surprised to find how inter-related everyone was, and how many secrets were never discovered.

I loved reading about Johnny Appleseed in The Red Garden, and truly, the novel is filled with history. I was wondering how much research you did or if you let your imagination take over?

I did quite a lot of research, and I was surprised at how my vision of Johnny Appleseed was formed by Disney. He was a truly remarkable character – a precursor to the hippie movement, a true believer. For each story, I researched the time period and my characters grew out of the time periods in which they lived.

I’ve been reading your work since Property Of. It seems to me that your earlier works feel and read differently than your later ones, which isn’t to say they all aren’t terrific. I’m wondering how much of this is organic or conscious or a little of both? Do you feel that as you yourself change, so does your writing?

I think most writers have themes or obsessions, but I agree that a writer’s work changes with life and work experience. What you write at a very young age reflects who you are as a writer in a particular moment in time. It makes sense that as you experience the world your vision evolves. Hopefully, we get smarter and are more compassionate as time goes by.

People talk about how difficult it is to translate good books into good films. Obviously the forms are different. It’s funny, but Independence Day (a wonderful film that you wrote), feels like an Alice Hoffman movie, but Practical Magic, though enjoyable, did not. Maybe it’s that word “based on a novel by”, which changes the story for filmic purposes. Or maybe it’s simply because you didn’t write the script. So, I’m curious. Had you ever envisioned Independence Day to be a novel or was it always a script, and do you think that’s why it felt like such an intrinsically Alice Hoffmanesque film? Is there a way to solve this problem of better translating a book onto the screen?

I wrote the screenplay of Independence Day so it was “mine” in a deeper way – I wasn’t the screenwriter or involved in the production of any of the films made of novels. Independence Day was never envisioned as a novel; it was always meant to be a film. I think a novel can make for a great film, but it has to be a unified vision. The practice of having three or four writers on a film is a mystery to me – how could there be a voice or a vision?

What is obsessing you now?

For the past five years I’ve been working on and researching a novel set in the distant past in the Middle East. I’m currently obsessed with the time period – finding out everything from how cheese was made, to what sort of snakes lived in the wilderness, to the habits of leopards.

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