Alice Hoffman’s new novel, “Faithful,” traces the life of young Shelby and her struggles to overcome her involvement in a car accident that leaves her best friend in a coma. Hoffman, the author of more than 30 books of fiction including “Practical Magic” and “Here on Earth,” discussed the theme of survivorship in her work, the power of the unconscious and how she manages to write a book every year. She spoke from her home near Boston.
“Faithful” has a rather grim premise: A teenage girl ends up in a coma after her friend crashes a car. What prompted this idea?
When I write, I usually have a question that I need to have answered. For this book, it was: Can you have been so damaged at a young age and still be able to pull yourself together and find your way out? That’s what I wanted to know, and that’s where the character of Shelby led me. I’m a cancer survivor 18 years. But even before that, this is what I’ve been writing about. I think I’ve been writing continuously about survivorship. So, it is a grim premise, but I think of the book as funny and moving.
Shelby mysteriously receives postcards at key moments in her life giving her advice. Do you think we all want such an “angel,” as Shelby’s mother calls him?
I feel that it’s everyone’s wish to have someone who really knows who they are. One of the ways that’s accomplished is through reading. The postcards are a kind of symbol for reading. When we read a book, if the book is right for us, and if the book is good, it’s not just that we know the characters — we feel known. We feel this connection. When I read “Catcher in the Rye,” I thought: How did he know how I feel? To some extent, that’s what happens to Shelby with those postcards: Somebody knows her.
Do the simple phrases of advice on the postcards — “Love something,” for example — make up a kind of 10 commandments?
For Shelby, they are like commandments. They’re rules to be happy, or they’re rules to forgive yourself, or they’re rules to be a person. But I have to admit, I’m really not thinking that clearly when I’m writing; I’m feeling it. It’s like when people ask you how to create a symbol. A symbol arises from the text — you’re not conscious of it. It’s a subconscious meaning. You don’t plan it.
Your book circles around a lot of different types of love: falling in love, not realizing you’re in love, sticking with a marriage, having an affair.
As it turned out, the deepest love in this book was between mother and daughter. And I didn’t realize the book was going to be so much about that bond, which really is unique, even if you have a terribly difficult daughter or problems with your mother. It’s so timeless. That, for me, was the center of the book.
Do you have a daughter?
I don’t, and it’s really the biggest sorrow of my life. But I was a daughter, and that influenced the book. My mother and I had a very close relationship, and I miss her every day.
Reviewers often comment on how varied your work is. Do you write differently depending on the subject or audience?
I think I’m always the same writer. I always have the same voice. But I’m always writing about different subjects. Even though I feel like I have a single theme — survivorship — it’s very diffuse, and it covers a lot of territory. And that’s the way I read. I’m a reader of different genres and kinds of books. You can try different things and go to different places with your art, instead of doing the same thing over and over again.
How do you complete a book almost every year?
I work really hard at it, and that’s really the only answer. I do it a lot. I sacrifice things, and sometimes I’m sorry I sacrificed those things. That’s just the way it is. And I have a lot of stories. And not time to tell them all.
A nd so you feel compelled to write as many as you can?
I think every artist feels compelled to do their art when really they should be walking on a beach on a sunny day. If you’re not compelled to do it, I don’t think you wind up doing it.
Carole Burns’s most recent book is “The Missing Woman and Other Stories.”
By Alice Hoffman
Simon & Schuster. 272 pp. $26