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Interview with Alice Hoffman
by Marcy Zipke

Alice Hoffman photo by Jake Martin

Alice Hoffman is a distinguished author whose adult novels include Blue Diary, Practical Magic, Here on Earth, Local Girls and the New York Times bestseller, The River King. More recently she's also begun publishing children's books. Her titles for kids include Fireflies, Horsefly, Aquamarine and Werepuppy. Hoffman lives outside Boston with her family and werepuppy.

Tell me about how your kids contribute to the writing process. How do you get creative with your children?

There's not enough creative writing in schools anymore. Either the kids have total freedom, and they don't know where to start at all or they are dictated to. I think there's room in the elementary curriculum for creative writing and it's a shame there isn't more of an emphasis on it.

A really fun thing to do with your kids, if you have the time and energy, is writing exercises. You don't have to be completely directive, but you can do exercises like those that adult writers use: for example, both you and your child could start writing with the same sentence and see where your individual stories go. Or you could make list of words together and then put them in a story. Exercises for starting to write are games for your imagination. And even though a lot of kids are big readers, they feel like writing is a mystery-like you're supposed to sit down and ideas will just come to you. And as we writers know, that isn't the case.

What made you want to start writing children's books now that your children are older and you have a successful career writing adult novels?

I wanted to write for children because I wanted to include my younger son, Wolfe, in the process. He's 12 now but I think when I started writing for kids he was around 7 or 8. He was the inspiration, in that he couldn't read my books but he had the sense that I was doing something. I disappeared into a room all day and he didn't know what I was doing. So I tried to include him in my writing process. He was my first reader and helped me edit -- he saw all of the stages of my writing and I felt like it was a great experience having him involved.

In fact, now we've even written a book together called Werepuppy, which is to be published by Scholastic in 2002. The book is based on a puppy we once had that was so cute, but then would just go berserk, so we decided it was a Werepuppy. Writing with Wolfe was totally fun. We brainstormed together and wrote bits, threw stuff out, wrote and changed everything. It was really interesting for him to see the process. Kids are great editors; they can feel if something is off, if it's less honest. And one important thing he learned is how long the process of making a children books takes; even once you're done, it takes so long, waiting for the illustrator to finish and the book to get made.

Another reason I wanted to write children's books is because I was a huge reader as kid and I really feel like the books you read as a child influence you more than the books you read as an adult.

Tell me more about what it's like to collaborate with an illustrator. How does working with someone else change the writing process? And how did those relationships come about?

Well, first of all, I didn't get to choose the illustrators for my books. I had right of refusal, not of choice. It was the editor and art director at my publisher who found the illustrators. And they have a vast knowledge of who's out there and who's good. So, while I didn't like waiting to see what my book would turn into, it is a nice experience to see a world created from something I wrote. And it was interesting for Wolfe, too, to see how someone else can be creative with the same material but in a different way.

Did you end up making changes to the text after you saw what the illustrator had come up with for your books?

Oh, yes. After the illustrations were in, I had to go back through with my editor and cut lots of descriptions from the book that just weren't necessary anymore. The illustrations matched my descriptions so well, the words were just unnecessary. I liked that. I'm not a visual person, so it was fun to see how someone visual makes my writing come alive

Is it easier or harder to write for kids? What's the difference?

Easier, definitely. It's a vacation from writing novels. In most ways the process is similar, but the books are shorter and I'm focusing on a certain age group so I deal with certain subjects and not others. For example, children accept magic more than adults do, so I can be freer with my imagination. And writing for kids is more fun, more pure fun, in that I can write with a certain tone and leave out the harsher realities that are in adult books.

Are the plots of your children's books all new stories, or are they stories that have been floating around in your head for a long time?

My grandmother was from Russia. I think she really started my love of storytelling. She used to tell stories of growing up in Russia that were a lot like Fireflies. You could never quite tell what was fiction and what was truth, but the stories were magical. She inspired me and got me started


Can you tell me anything about Aquamarine?

Aquamarine is for children and anyone else who believes in mermaids. It's a chapter book about two girls who are best friends and are spending their last summer together because one is moving away. They go to a deserted beach club and find a mermaid in swimming pool. It's also really about their last summer as children.

What was the specific inspiration for Fireflies and/or Horsefly?

I was writing the novel Second Nature when I started working on Fireflies, and I think of those two books as something of the same story but geared to different levels of readership. In fact, most of my children's books are compatible to adult books. I was thinking a lot about horses and the way working with horses changes the way you see the world while I wrote Here on Earth, so that was the inspiration for Horsefly. The kids in both books have to learn to fly, so to speak.

It struck me that both Fireflies and Horsefly -- as well as your most recent adult novels-are about awkward children learning to be comfortable in the world. Is this a theme in your writing? Is it you?

A lot of people write about how you live in the world and the ways to go about figuring that out.

Marcy Zipke is a former Assistant Editor at Penguin Putnam and is currently a student of Educational Psychology. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

To learn more about Alice Hoffman go to

(Do you think it's easier writing for kids or adults? Are there activities or exercises you've found helpful in getting your kids to write? If you try any of the exercises here, please let us know what happens). Contact us.

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