Given her practical nature, it seems ironic that novelist Alice Hoffman sprinkles magical realism through most of her novels. There’s an abundance of it in her new “Magic Lessons,” the prequel to 1995’s “Practical Magic” and 2017’s “Rules of Magic.”
“Magic Lessons” (Simon & Schuster, $27, Oct. 6) is the origin story of Maria Owens, the ancestor of the witchy Owens women who populate “Magic Lessons” and “Practical Magic.”
We follow Maria’s life in the 1600s from England to Curacao and on to New York City and Salem, Mass. Along the way, she is schooled in the Unnamed Arts and becomes a healer – though many call her a witch.
When she is betrayed by the man she loves, she lays down a curse “on any man who ever loves an Owens woman,” bringing tragedy and grief to her descendants.
“That’s what it is for this family, because they’re not completely mortal,” Hoffman said from her Boston home, taking a break for a chat. “I’m not saying things can’t change, but basically you have to deal with what you’re given. It’s a continuing lesson throughout our lives.”
That’s Hoffman’s pragmatism talking. Her other voice is inspirationally optimistic, as represented by her universe of characters who survive the worst that life can deliver and then move forward.
“The message in my books is about possibilities, survival, hope and the triumph of the human spirit,” she said. “Writing about Maria Owens was very inspirational for me because she will not let herself be beaten down by circumstances.”
Hofmann is known for her fluid storytelling and versatility, with 30 books for adults and a dozen for young adults and children (one of them, “Moondog,” was in collaboration with her then 16-year-old son, Wolfe Martin).
Three of her titles have been made into movies: “Aquamarine” (2006), “The River King” (2005); and “Practical Magic” with Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman (1998). Her original screenplay about spousal abuse became the 1983 (non-alien invasion) movie “Independence Day.”
Hoffman, 68, grew up on Long Island as, she says, a “working-class girl who never thought about going to college.” She changed her mind when she discovered that “studying was easier than working,” eventually graduating with a master’s degree in creative writing from Stanford University, where she wrote her first novel, “Property Of.”
While she prefers not to discuss her family life, she said, “I will talk about my dog. Shelby the Polish sheepdog is a great writer’s dog because she just sits around and doesn’t like to do much.”
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What have you been doing during the pandemic?
A: Everything that’s not important kind of falls away, so I’m writing a lot. I’m working on the fourth and last “Magic” book, (the sequel to) “Practical Magic.” Maria Owens started the family curse, so now how do we end it? I would never have done it if my readers hadn’t asked me for it. I feel really lucky to have spent 25 years with this family, who have taught me such huge lessons. It’s an ending that’s very emotional for me.
Q: There are literal “magic lessons” throughout the new book, but they double as life lessons: Be true to yourself, do what you know is right, what is broken can always be mended…
A: I wrote “Magic Lessons” in such a dark time, I really feel like I was writing it as lessons to myself. I remember thinking, “Yeah, there are some things you have to do no matter what the world is like.”
Q: There’s one lesson that recurs throughout the “Magic” trilogy: “Always love somebody who will love you back.” That’s profound advice for any era.
A: It’s very important and I wish somebody had told me that, but it’s very difficult to give something to somebody who doesn’t want it. A lot of (village women) come to the Owens women for love charms and spells, but you can’t make something be true that isn’t true. That’s one of the things they learn.
Q: “Magic Lessons” is set around the time of the Great Plague of 1665 in London, which had ramifications in New England.
A: Yes, there were a lot of fears about what was contagious; it has a lot of echoes to what’s happening right now that I didn’t intend when I started the book. The women who were healers, like Maria Owens, had a bigger success rate (with patients) than the physicians, and really the reason is because they washed their hands.
Q: Women were cruelly affected by the politics of the century; men treated them horrifically.
A: To research in-depth the whole Puritan-Salem situation (in the late 1600s) was disturbing in how it targeted women. The whole idea that women who were alone or knowledgeable – especially women who could read – were evil and not to be trusted.
Q: You also did a lot of research on herbal remedies and magic spells.
A: Yes, a lot of things that have been used throughout time that were so effective are still being used. I’m not against modern medicine, but a lot of healing can happen herbally.
Q: As you discovered more and more magic spells, were you tempted to try one?
A: I’m not experimental, so I would rather you try it. I always feel like I’ll be the person who adds one too many ingredients.
Q: You practically grew up in libraries, where you found “the explanation of the world’s beauty and cruelty” in fairy tales.
A: They speak a psychological truth that other literature doesn’t. A lot of them are cautionary tales about how to live in the world. They’re very brutal, but so is the world.
Q: As a writer, your job is to live lives that aren’t your own.
A: It’s a huge escape. I read books (as a teenager) because I wanted to escape from my life and know about other lives and other worlds. It’s the same thing as a writer, only more intense because you’re creating it, so you’re more fully involved. The reason I read and the reason I write are basically the same.
Q: Where do things stand regarding the HBO series adaptation of “The Rules of Magic”?
A: It was going to start filming in the spring, but that didn’t happen. But one day it will. It’s really exciting because it’s going to include all the generations of Owens women from beginning to end.
Q: If you were interviewing yourself, what would be a question you would ask?
A: I would ask, “What would you have done if you weren’t a writer?” It’s very hard to think about what might have been if you had turned right instead of left. But I would not have been happy with a life that didn’t include books.
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