Friday, January 28, 2011
Water from the Magical Well
I slogged through mountains of snow last night to hear Alice Hoffman read and talk about writing. I almost didn’t make it uptown, worrying that leaping over filthy pools of slush in my leaking UGGs was too treacherous. But a voice inside me kept saying, “Go, go, go. You have to go.” I’m so glad I listened! Why, you ask? First, let me backtrack.
I used to inhale Hoffman books. Here on Earth, her homage to Wuthering Heights was a favorite. And Fortune’s Daughter, examining pregnancy, birth and loss through two sisters: one a fortuneteller who lost her only child, the other, awaiting the birth of her first child, was another treat. Practical Magic, which was made into a film, involves the Owens girls, two orphaned women whose aunts were witches. The girls are blamed for every freaky incident in their small town.
When I got older and went back to get my MFA in creative writing, and I started to write for children, I noticed a phenomenon. Authors of adult fiction, who already had big careers, like Joyce Carol Oates, and, oh no, my old fave, Alice Hoffman, were publishing YAs. The MFA buzz was that this was almost as suspect as celebrities who assume they can pen a picture book and get published immediately because they're already famous. Publishers know, therefore, they’ll have an automatic bestseller.
The YA market was already reaching a glut. In MFA programs, there was additional snobbery. Anyone who made it into Oprah’s book Club, or had their book commissioned into a film, was selling out their raw talent. So, so misguided, I say now.
For one thing, MFA programs should not neglect to teach the importance of the market. I teach my students not to be a slave to it, but to be aware of it. Number two, any club or society that pushes books and literacy is gold, what with the distractions of the Net. So, more power to Oprah and her Book Club. Even Lord Franzen has capitulated with his newest novel, Freedom.
Okay, getting back to why seeing and hearing Ms. Hoffman was so auspicious for me, My work-in-progress is magical realism. And Ms. Magic herself, the amazing Alice, has been exploring this for years—before there was ever a girl named Stephanie Meyers, before the zillion vampire paranormalists bit the public’s fancy. Hey, did I just make up the word paranormalists, or what? I also learned, last night that she was writing books for kids all along, in between her other work. So, I stand chastened.
Hoffman’s early influences were Grimms, and Singer, and that master of prose poetry, the impish sideshow gremlin, Ray Bradbury.
Ray Bradbury was one of my earliest inspirations. His words dive-bombed off the page and straight into my stunned synapses. Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes and just about any novel the man wrote had this effect on me. Phillip K Dick might be the master of sci-fi plot. But Bradbury is still, at 90-something, King Poet of weird. The guy can draw too!
So, hearing Alice Hoffman read from her latest creation, The Red Garden, I was smitten all over again—a garden where only red things sprout. Imagine! She's not a flash in the pan. She’s been spinning gold for a good 30-something years. Now, that’s true magic. I’m reading her again, even those YA, tween and picture books.
I can’t wait to learn more from the master.
Who's your great inspiration?