In a career spanning three decades, Alice Hoffman has published more than two dozen novels for adults and teens, many of which are suffused with magic. Now, years after her last treatment for breast cancer, she has written “Survival Lessons,” her first work of nonfiction, recounting what she has learned about life through enduring serious illness. Hoffman lives and works west of Boston.
DEWEY DECIMAL: I work in an upstairs room that’s really a library. . . . I have a wall of books. They’re arranged by topic, but very personally: a shelf of fairy tales, of nature, of research books about New York City. I know where everything is, but I don’t think anyone else would be able to find anything. I love the feeling of being in a library surrounded by books, especially the books that I love the most. . . . I have objects [around me] that I really love, beautiful objects that are meaningful to me that might not be meaningful to other people: things that have to do with fairy tales, toys, paintings by friends and people I care about, old photographs. It’s a very personal library.
KIND OF BLUE: I used to paint my office different colors to give me the sense of a book. [“Survival Lessons”] is very blue — the cover is blue, the photographs are blue, and it’s all about how to get over the blues and how beautiful blue is in its different forms. [But] I didn’t realize until the photographer came here . . . [that] everything in my room is blue and green: incredibly blue morpho butterflies. Blue glass. Blue paintings. A lot of the furniture is actually old Mexican furniture, which happens to be blue.
BE HERE NOW: [“Survival Lessons”] was like a letter written to myself reminding myself of all the things that matter, and all of the reasons to go on. I had a really hard time with that. When you write a novel, it’s kind of like going into a trance. Writing this book was the opposite — it was very “be here now,” thinking about being in the world and about what mattered to me and the people that I’ve loved.
FLIGHTS OF FANCY: When I was starting out, I had this fantasy that I would write for six months of the year and do other things for six months. When I became a writer, I realized that you’re not a writer for just a [circumscribed] period of time. You’re either in it or you’re not in it. You’re either a writer or you’re not. When you are, it doesn’t stop.
WAITING ROOM: In a way, I’m always writing; there’s never a time when I’m not working. . . . I don’t have a schedule. If anything, I like to start working early in the day. I feel like that’s a great time to work [because] there are less interruptions. . . . But [now] I feel like [writing] is threaded through my life. I don’t really think of it in terms of hours. I’m not as disciplined as I used to be, but I feel like I’m also more of a writer.
When I was ill, I was writing the whole time I was doing other things — when I was sitting in waiting rooms, when I was having tests, I was inside the book that I was working on, and then I’d just go home and do it. Writing was a life raft for me. Whenever something terrible was happening, I would have to experience the terrible thing, but I was also inside of a book.
DREAM ON: When I finish any project, it feels like a dream, and writing — whether it’s fiction or nonfiction — is very similar to dreaming. When I write, I don’t dream. When I stop writing, I dream a lot. I feel like they serve the same purpose. It gets to the same place. I’ve been getting things together and copy editing [my forthcoming novel, “The Museum of Extraordinary Things”], and I’ve been dreaming like crazy, but I’d much rather write than dream.
Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached at email@example.com