About The Author
Alice Hoffman was born in New York in 1952. She published her first novel, Property Of, at the age of just twenty-one, while she was still studying at Stanford University. She has published a total of twenty-one novels, three collections of short stories and eight books for children and young adults. She also wrote the screenplay for the 1983 film Independence Day, starring Kathleen Quinlan and Diane Wiest.
Her books frequently feature elements of magical realism. Her best known novels are Here on Earth, which transplanted many of themes of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights into a modern setting; At Risk, about a family dealing with AIDS, which frequently features on school and university reading lists, and Practical Magic, which was made into a film starring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock.
She currently lives in Boston and is a visiting research scholar at the Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Her novel The Dovekeepers is set in the Judea desert in the first century AD, as a band of around 900 Jews on the mountain of Masada holds out against the Roman army. The story focuses on four women, all of whom have secrets: the baker's wife, a warrior's daughter, a woman expert in ancient magic and medicine, and the daughter of an assassin who has never forgiven her for the death of her mother when giving birth to her. The lives of these four complex and fiercely independent women intersect in the desperate days of the siege.
The book has already been described by Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison as 'a major contribution to twenty-first century literature.
In this exclusive interview for Foyles by Frances Gertler, Alice discusses the challenges of writing a novel set some 2000 years in the past, the fluidity of ancient belief systems and the difficulty of finding silence in the modern world.
Questions & Answers
You've written 21 novels but this is only the second based on actual events; what was it about Masada that you found so compelling?
My visit to Masada was so intense and moving that I was compelled to write about the people who had lived in this remote and astounding place.
Your writing to date has mostly been set more or less in the present (or future); what were the challenges of writing a novel set some 2000 years in the past?
Writing the novel was extremely challenging for me. I'm not a historian, but a novelist, and so while trying to be historically accurate I also very much wanted to be 'emotionally' accurate, to create characters who might have lived and breathed and loved during the time of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. I had researched novels before - especially my books for teens, one set during the Spanish Inquisition, and one a novel about a group of warrior women who lived during the Bronze age, and had also written about colonial America. But The Dovekeepers was a much more expanded project, a huge undertaking. I knew nothing about the time, the culture or even the religion and had to start at the beginning.
Your book is full of details about how communities lived, ate, cultivated crops and so on. What were your main sources?
I felt it so important to find out as much as I could about the domestic details of women's lives, as well as being as true as I could be to the history of the time, as well as the natural and spiritual world. My main source was Josephus's, The War Against the Jews, the only written account of the fall of Jerusalem and of the siege of Masada. I used archaeological findings as often as possible for information about pottery, clothing, crops, work, and even make-up. As a visiting scholar at Brandeis University I had access to that University's vast library, and found several academic books about daily life in the Middle East. I learned how to make cheese, bread, spin yarn, care for goats and also how to address the mysteries of the world in prayer and practice.
The story revolves around four strong central characters, women each very striking and each very different from the others though they are connected by circumstance. Is there one to whom you felt most closely drawn?
I thought I might feel closer to one woman than the other, especially because some of the women commit questionable acts. In the end, however, I felt close to them all, and although the women are very different from one another they form a circle, all drawn together by circumstance, trauma, love, and experience.
Silence and keeping counsel are important drivers in The Dovekeepers. Do you think in this Googling, Facebooking, Twittering world we have lost the arts of silence and discretion?
I think it is indeed much more difficult to find silence and peace in the modern world. When I went to the desert and stood in the sacred spaces of the past, I certainly felt a deeper connection to the heart of the world than I do in the frenetic, noisy streets of New York City.
There is a very strong sense of the theme of exile which gives this novel real contemporary resonance. How conscious of that were you while writing?
The theme of exile is a thread in Jewish history that is always there, as it is in so many other cultures. In all of my work I think I write of outsiders, of those who stand outside and act as watchers, who report back to the rest of the world.
How challenging - or liberating - was it to write a story whose ending will be known to the vast majority of readers from the outset?
I think most people don't know the true ending of Masada, that there were five survivors who told the story to the world. In knowing that so many of my characters would perish, I believe I felt much closer to them.
Many of your books contain elements of magic but in this one there is an intriguing interplay between magic and ancient belief systems. Can these two be reconciled?
I'm writing about spiritual lives that contain what we as modern people would categorize as either magic or religion. But I found belief systems were more fluid in the ancient world, and that cultures influenced each other greatly, so that daily life might contain various kinds of belief systems.
Is anything known about the eventual fate of the two women and five children who survived the events at Masada?
Nothing is known, and so I felt free to create their lives, and their futures.
Some of your books have been made into films; are there any such plans in regard to this one and would you welcome seeing it translated to the screen?
I think The Dovekeepers would be amazing on screen - it is so visual and so much is added by the physical world, the beauty and the silence of the desert.
Read an exclusive blog by Alice about her new novel, The Rules of Magic, the prequel to her much-loved Practical Magic.