Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1070

Alice Hoffman is the author of several novels and short stories; she has also written screenplays. She has a knack for turning the ordinary into the extraordinary, and writing is her only vocation.

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Hoffman was born March 16, 1952, in New York City. Her father, a real estate agent, and her mother, a social worker, divorced when she was eight years old. After her parents’ separation, Hoffman remained with her mother, a woman who was university educated as well as an avid reader. As she grew up in Franklin Square on Long Island, New York, Hoffman, too, spent a great deal of her time immersed in literature. She was a voracious reader with a passion for science fiction, fairy tales, and anything to do with magic. Stories about normal families encountering the fantastic were Hoffman’s favorites.

Hoffman has never outgrown her childhood interest in magic or love of creating her own fantasy worlds. From a young age she enjoyed writing. Throughout her childhood she filled notebooks with different versions of spectacular fantasy worlds, and she has said that she “always wanted to be a writer.” After graduating from high school she entered Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. She received encouragement from her professors and gradually began to gain confidence in her work. After she completed her B.A. degree in 1973, she was awarded a Mirelles Fellowship to the M.F.A. program at Stanford University. While attending Stanford, Hoffman studied under Albert Guerard. Hoffman earned her M.A. degree in 1975, and the following summer she attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont.

As Hoffman pursued her M.A. degree, her work began to appear in print. Magazines including Ms., Redbook, Fiction, and American Review published her short stories and helped launch her career. Before she even had a chance to cultivate her reputation as a short-story writer, a publishing house contacted her about writing a novel. The novel she delivered was Property Of. Published in 1977, Property Of quickly garnered critical praise and was hailed as “an impressive debut.” With Property Of, the story of a troubled love affair between a seventeen-year-old girl and the leader of an urban gang, Hoffman established herself as realist capable of rendering everyday occurrences as something fabulous.

In 1979 Hoffman published her second novel, The Drowning Season. The central characters of the novel are Esther the White, a Russian emigrée, and her granddaughter, Esther the Black; the story revolves around the dynamics of their family. Critics praising the novel have said that its mythic features and hypnotic language are its best qualities. Hoffman’s The Drowning Season was named by Library Journal as one of the notable books of 1979.

By the time The Drowning Season was published Hoffman had married, and she and her husband, Tom Martin, a screenwriter, moved to Boston. There Hoffman met Faith Sales, a vice president and executive editor at G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Sales became her editor, mentor, and friend, and with Sales’s guidance Hoffman completed two novels in rapid succession. In 1980 Angel Landing appeared; White Horses followed in 1982.

Before Hoffman’s fifth novel, Fortune’s Daughter, was published, her first son, Jake, was born. According to her, it was while she was pregnant—she assumed she was carrying a girl—that the idea for the novel came to her. She told one interviewer, “I thought a great deal about what it means to have a daughter, to want to give someone everything you didn’t have.” She translated her musings into a hauntingly lyrical tale concerned with the loss of children.

The subject of Hoffman’s next two novels, Illumination Night and At Risk, is fear. In Illumination Night Hoffman examines the effects of a character’s agoraphobia—an affliction from which she herself has suffered—on her family. The subject of At Risk is the fear of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Hoffman, who gave birth to her second son, Zack, shortly after the novel was published, has suggested that her own paranoia about the disease and her fears about how it could affect her own children prompted her to write the novel.

Hoffman’s work has always been imbued with a sense of magic and witchcraft, which has become increasingly prominent in her work. Seventh Heaven takes place in 1959 Long Island, where single mother Nora Silk moves to town and challenges the conformity of her new neighbors. Turtle Moon is a murder mystery set in a town in Florida where the turtles emerge from the waters in May and everyone goes a little crazy. Second Nature begins with a woman impulsively bringing a man who had been raised by wolves home from a psychiatric institution and follows his learning a “second nature” as a human in a latter-day Beauty and the Beast story. Practical Magic follows the (mis)adventures in love of two sisters from childhood to adulthood, a course frequently derailed by the fact that both are witches, whose love spells tend to go awry. This novel is perhaps Hoffman’s best known, and was made into a film in 1998.

Here on Earth relates the events occurring after March Murray returns to her home town for a funeral and becomes involved with all the people she left behind when she moved to California. Local Girls is a series of fifteen interconnected short stories that visit Gretel Samuelsen, her best friend, her mother, and her mother’s cousin at points throughout Gretel’s adolescence. The River King takes place at a New England boarding school, where love triangles among both faculty and students have a tragic outcome. Blue Diary explores the aftermath of a seemingly perfect man’s arrest for a long-ago rape and murder—a crime which he admits committing, but from which he claims to have redeemed himself by his subsequent behavior. The Probable Future concerns a modern family with magical gifts.

In 1997 Hoffman began publishing children’s books in addition to her adult novels. Fireflies, Horsefly, Aquamarine, Indigo, and Green Angel all deal with varying types of love and loss, with a hefty dose of Hoffman’s trademark Magical Realism. Since the publication of At Risk, which generated much critical interest, Hoffman has been compared with such writers as Anne Tyler and Mary Gordon. Her body of work has secured her reputation as a writer whose work is both commercial and literary and is always compassionate and accessible.

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