The ice queen cometh

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 May, 2005, 12:00am

ALICE HOFFMAN MIGHT write deeply moral accounts of the need for redemption and reconciliation in buffeted lives, but when it comes to Richard Ford, she's not talking forgiveness. When Hoffman dismissed Ford's The Sportswriter in The New York Times, Ford launched a retaliatory strike so fierce it's become literary legend. He posted Hoffman a copy of her latest novel complete with two bullets lodged inside. Hoffman becomes apoplectic when I mention having interviewed Ford. 'If you know anything that he's done or said that's illegal, you should call the police. And I seriously mean it. I don't want to discuss him.'

It's a rare moment when her generous and optimistic world view subsides to hint at the delicate spaces of her psyche. Although her novels unpeel the dark realities beneath the appearances of the everyday, when pressed about her own life, Hoffman gives little away. At a previous, more forthcoming moment, she spoke of her childhood home as a place where 'unhappiness was trapped in our house like a bubble'. Yet now, when pushed to elaborate, Hoffman is politely dismissive. 'Unhappy families are the norm, aren't they?'

Her guardedness comes as no surprise. A 1994 New York Times profile opened: 'Go away! If Alice Hoffman's house could talk, that is what it would say.' For two decades, she declined all interview requests. 'It was too difficult,' she says. 'I had kids.' Hoffman's phobias contributed to her aversion to book tours. 'I have a huge fear of planes and cars. I see disaster every time. I have a hard time travelling.' And she says readers should avoid meeting the writers they respect. 'It's the subconscious of the person that's in their writing, not the person on a book tour.'

Hoffman's new novel, The Ice Queen, (Little Brown) is narrated by a librarian and self-styled devotee of death, expert at swatting flies and terrifying children with gruesome tales. The unnamed librarian, says Hoffman, 'is a woman who lives her life in books, and has been both betrayed, and saved, by language'. A self-proclaimed Ice Queen, she's been emotionally frozen ever since, aged eight, a malevolent wish materialised with tragic consequences: 'Not the sort of wish for ice cream or a party dress,' Hoffman writes. 'The other sort, the kind that rattles your bones, then sits in the back of your throat, a greedy red toad that chokes you until you say it aloud.' A near-death experience leads her into the orbit of the reclusive Lazarus Jones, fabled for surviving 40 minutes of death after being struck by lightning. The Ice Queen's erotic relationship with Lazarus, who Hoffman describes as 'the flame to the narrator's ice', becomes the catalyst for her melting.

The Ice Queen is closer to fairytale than anything Hoffman has written before. Not only is the realism scaled down and the magic ramped up, but it's also 'a departure in that it's pared down, bare and spare, like a fairytale'. Hoffman shares the librarian's contempt for the moralising fables of Hans Christian Andersen. 'I hated them as a child and, on re-reading them recently, still hated them. There's a real punishing tone to them.' Both Hoffman and the Ice Queen prefer the Brothers Grimm who are, unlike Andersen, not afraid of the dark. 'I love Grimms' stories - deep, dark tales full of truth.'

Hoffman's 16 novels are propelled by their own uncanny logic. Chimneys float down flooded streets continuing to emit smoke. Characters are struck unconscious by the heady perfume of roses. Even when her novels don't quite tip over into the supernatural, there's always a whisper of magic pervading her evocations of the natural world. The scent of honey-suckle and the blossoms of hollyhocks are often so overpowering that - to borrow one of Hoffman's most regularly deployed phrases - grown men weep. When civilisation is pitted against nature, as with the semi-feral Wolf Man of Second Nature, she falls unequivocally on the nature side of the ledger.

Hoffman, who was raised in a blue-collar suburb of cookie-cutter cement houses, traces her preoccupation with nature 'to the lack of it as a child. There were no trees, so when we saw the slightest bit of nature we went gaga'. Her parents divorced when she was eight, in a neighbourhood where split families were as uncommon as tertiary educations. Not until university did Hoffman meet another child of divorced parents. 'It made me feel like I was outside of everyone.' Her parents were the only people in the vicinity with college degrees, but they held no educational aspirations for their daughter. 'It wasn't a time of aspirations for girls.'

Her first job was at the local plant of Doubleday books, the publisher that later published her debut. Yet her introduction to the underside of the book industry lasted only hours. By lunchtime Hoffman had quit, deciding to enrol herself in night school. 'If I stayed I would have had a different life.' By 17, Hoffman had grown alienated from her peers. Classmates were developing heroin addictions. 'I had lost my friends, or they had lost themselves. I was in this free-floating place where anything could happen.'

At 16, Hoffman submitted her first story to Esquire. She received a handwritten rejection letter 'which blew me away. I was shocked to be treated like a writer.' Even when she was awarded a scholarship to study creative writing at Stanford, the prospect of becoming a published writer hardly occurred to her. 'Now, when people go into writing programmes they're thinking about that right away.'

Although her imagination was fed throughout her childhood by the folklore of the Brothers Grimm, it was the tales of her Jewish grandmother that initiated her into storytelling. She relayed stories of her childhood in the small, anonymous village of her native Russia, a township encircled by a river and a forest presided over by wolves. 'It sounded like a fairytale to me.'

Grandmothers are no less important in Hoffman's novels, which often explore the bonds between grandmothers and granddaughters. In addition to their nurturing role, they often trade in otherworldly powers - the dark magic deployed against predatory males. Hoffman's plots often hinge on young female protagonists being drawn to reckless or sinister men. She offers a sly response when asked if her powers of empathy lie with female rather than male characters. 'I read mostly women writers [because] women have more of a capability of writing honest male and female characters, whereas it's rare with contemporary male writers.'

The birth of her two sons - now 16 and 21 - altered Hoffman's writing life. She would rise at 5am to hastily scrawl a scene before the chaos of parenthood took over. 'I was a lot more organised and regimented.' Her preoccupation with devotion and loss intensified because 'suddenly you have something to lose in such a deep way'. Hoffman's themes are love and its attendant pains because 'that's all life is, really, a renewal and then another loss'.

In 1998, Hoffman was diagnosed with breast cancer. Having delayed surgery until after finishing the first draft of The River King, she moved a futon bed into her office and wrote through the 10 months of treatment. Writing provided her with a sense of control. 'It's as if The River King replaced that period for me. I remember the book more than I remember the life.'

Her next book, The Foretelling, is a young adult saga of the Bronze Age, a departure prompted by Hoffman's realisation that she'd never written about war. 'When I was starting out as a writer I felt that, as a woman, I couldn't write a great novel because great novels had to be about war. Those were the books we read at school.'

Hoffman, who admits to being 'more optimistic in my books than in my waking life', struggled to justify her craft in the wake of September 11. Then, she read Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. The novel depicts a dystopia where books are proscribed and Firemen stake out the city dousing remaining volumes in kerosene. 'It's a book about how important literature is in people's lives. I remembered why it was important to go on writing.'