September 24, 2019

Alice Hoffman

A little magic is necessary to write the darkest stories
Interview by

We spoke with Alice Hoffman about her new novel’s origins, her research into the history behind the tale and what she feels The World That We Knew has to say about the world we live in now.

Share this Article:

With The World That We Knew, Alice Hoffman has woven a new historical fantasy that combines an often under-acknowledged part of the history of the Holocaust—the stories of hidden Jewish children—with the universality and emotional weight of a fairy tale. It’s the story of a young girl’s journey to freedom from Berlin through France with the help of a golem, a mystical guide and protector straight out of Jewish folklore, and all the lives they touch along the way.

We spoke with Hoffman about the novel’s origins, her research into the history behind the tale and what she feels The World That We Knew has to say about the world we live in now.

This novel grew out of a chance encounter with a stranger who asked you tell her life story, as she was one of the Jewish children who hid in France during World War II. How long after that chance encounter did it take for the book to form in your mind?
Several years passed before I began to write the book, but I often thought about that meeting and her story. In the fall of 2016, I began to write and to interview survivors. I realize now that the stranger gave me a great gift.

Did you always intend this story to become a kind of fairy tale involving various supernatural elements, or did that simply emerge in the telling of Lea’s story?
I didn’t know how I could write about such darkness in a realistic way. First of all, it’s been done many times. But more importantly, I think writers have a style and a voice, and for whatever the reason, perhaps because I grew up on fairy tales and my Russian grandmother's stories, this is the voice that came to me.

Was Ava always intended to be such a fully formed character in the story, or did the idea of her discovering herself beyond the purpose she was created for arrive later?
All of my characters change and grow during the writing of a novel. I think I know them, I think I know everything about them, and then I’m surprised. We both discovered what her fate was together.

“I had no idea how people survive such dark times. For me it was a learning experience and a very deep sort.”

The heron is both a fascinating character and metaphorical presence in the book. How did he come to you?
Sometimes you write an outline, which I do, and you think you know everything that’s going to happen in your novel. But really, a novel takes on a life of its own. I didn’t plan the heron’s appearance. I will say that herons have a very personal and private meeting for me, so I was not surprised when he arrived.

You included a reading list of research at the end of the novel. What surprised you most in your research about the hidden Jewish children of World War II?
I knew nothing about the situation of Jews and refugees in France during World War II. I had no idea the children were separated from their parents. I had no idea that the rules keep changing. And I had no idea of how brave people had been. To interview child survivors who are now in their 80s and 90s was a complete honor for me.

The book is a powerful depiction of the glimmers of hope and humanity blossoming in a monstrous time. How did you balance the more hopeful elements with the horrors?
I think this is a book that’s about hope. It’s a book I know I needed right now, considering our current situation, and I think I needed to be reminded of the past. I wanted to speak with survivors because I had no idea how people survive such dark times. For me it was a learning experience and a very deep sort.

Were there other characters within this world of hidden children that could have grown into bigger presences in the novel? How did you decide which points of view would carry the narrative?
Those things are decided in the process of writing and rewriting and rewriting again. There can always be characters that could have been or should have been or would have been, but when it comes down to it, the book is just the book it’s meant to be.

The World That We Knew is a book about the importance of love in a hateful time, making it perhaps more timely and relevant than anyone in 1944 might have imagined it being in 2019. What did you learn about love and humanity while writing it that you hope readers also take away?
This is a very big and beautiful question and a very personal one. I think it’s a very timely book, and I think we all have to look at what’s happening around us right now and think about what happened in France during World War II, when people were so afraid of anyone who was different, Jews and refugees both. In the end, love is the only thing that matters, even when you’re living through a time filled with hate.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The World That We Knew.

Author photo by Deborah Feingold

Get the Book

The World That We Knew

The World That We Knew

By Alice Hoffman
Simon & Schuster
ISBN 9781501137570

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Interviews