In The River King, ghosts appear in photographs and people are knocked out by an overwhelming smell of roses "though the weather was dismal and no flowers bloomed." This isn’t the real world, it’s the world of Alice Hoffman, whose 13 novels sparkle with enchantment.
"There are people who write fiction to come to terms with their own lives. I’m much more interested in creating alternate universes, not everyday reality," said the author, speaking from her home outside Boston. Hoffman, who has peopled her novels with witches (Practical Magic, 1995) and giants (Illumination Night, 1987) and armed her merely mortal characters with charms and spells, never outgrew her love of fairy tales. She thinks at heart, no one has. Everyone wants to believe.
As a girl, Hoffman adored Mary Poppins and stories by the Brothers Grimm and Ray Bradbury, but more than that, she believed in them. "I believed anything can happen. It was a huge escape for me as reader. I loved anything that could remove me from reality and make me see possibilities," she said. "Fiction in general gives you the freedom of exploring the truth without boundaries, to get to a deeper truth, and fairy tales have always been my model."
The River King, with more than a whisper of fairy tale to it, takes place in Haddan, Massachusetts, at a school haunted by the ghost of Annie Howe. "Most newcomers are apprised of Annie’s fate as soon a they come to Haddan. . . . The house is called St. Anne’s, in honor of Annie Howe, who hanged herself from the rafters one mild evening in March. . . ."
Once Hoffman envisioned this gothic image, the rest of the story unfolded. "It’s a strange process, writing fiction," she said. "Here, the town kind of appeared for me, then the school and the river, and people moved in and filled it up." Among the people filling up Haddan are new students Carlin Leander and Augustus Pierce, new teacher Betsy Chase, and Abel Grey, the town’s policeman who has lived there all his life. They meet as strangers, but the mysterious death of one unites the other three. While uncovering the truth, they each discover some truths about themselves. Hoffman writes, "It was the truth that was always as clear as water until it had been broken; shatter it and all that’s left is a lie.""More important than the story you tell is the voice you have," said the author, who achieves that voice by not thinking about it too much. "I’ve always tried to go directly from sleep to the computer, before I have the time to start censoring myself. I like to get up at 5:00. I do my best work early in the morning before the world’s awake. For the kind of fiction I write, which is emotional fiction, you have to let go. Let the walls down, the defenses down. Don’t worry about what people are going to think."
She tries to work quickly and never looks over her first draft until she has told the whole story. Then she burnishes her prose. "I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite," she said. It took three years before she was satisfied with The River King.
Though Hoffman may have the most in common with the book’s impulsive, exotic Betsy Chase, she feels the most protective of the teenagers, Carlin and Gus. The author’s children are 12 and 17, but Hoffman didn’t use their behavior for the book. She didn’t have to. Her own teenage years still feel achingly fresh. "It stays with you like no other time does. Falling in love for the first time, succeeding for the first time, failing for the first time — it’s intense. I remember how important, how dire everything seemed. Everything seemed so life or death. I think it’s still that way."
Adolescent angst may be eternal, but some things have changed since Hoffman’s high school years. The killings at Colombine High School occurred while she was writing The River King. "I felt like changing the book because of Colombine, but decided to leave it the way it is. There seems to be so much intolerance about sexual orientation, so much bullying, more people getting guns," said Hoffman. "It’s harder to be a teenager now."
Harder, even than when she wrote about New York gang life in her first novel, Property Of. The book came out in 1977, when Hoffman was in her early 20s, barely out of her teens, herself. "I was a baby, I knew nothing, I had never heard of Farrar Straus [her first publisher] when I started," she said, laughing. "Back then, you got no money, no publicity, but they took more chances. It was much easier to get published. [Her current publisher] Putnam’s stayed with me in a way I’m not sure publishers do anymore. If you’re not having huge sales, they don’t want to see you."
Hoffman doesn’t think about sales, huge or otherwise, when she works. "I always feel you’re writing the book you couldn’t find, so you have to write it yourself." Though she confessed, "Some people pressure you to write the same book over and over again," Hoffman doesn’t pay much attention. She’d rather stretch herself as a writer and keep her own council, something she learned to do as a girl. Back in elementary school, her "very, very smart" older brother was the teachers’ darling. Hoffman, who was not, wasn’t above filching his old papers and resubmitting them under her own name. "His would get an A and mine would get a C or D. I realized it didn’t matter what anyone else thought and whatever judgment I got was going to come from myself. You have to have faith in yourself."
The author of The River King also has faith in the power of myth and the power of literature. Though reading and writing may seem like solitary acts, she believes books bring people together, providing "that feeling of community, of what feels true for you feels true for me, the sense you’re not alone and somebody knows how you feel. I believe literature can change things," Hoffman said. She believes it the way she used to believe in fairy tales — with all her heart.
Ellen Kanner writes from Miami.
Author photo by Jake Martin.