The River King

Interview

Excerpted from The Book Report – interview August 4, 2000

Alice Hoffman spins yet another magical tale in her latest creation, The River King. Set in the small New England town of Haddan, the characters who attend the private school and the townsfolk are at the center of this moving story. Bookreporter.com’s Jana Siciliano and Dana Schwartz explore the rose scented hollows of Hoffman’s Haddan in this interview. Find out what inspired Hoffman’s new gem, hear about her intense rose research, the fairy tales she loves, the controversial book she is in the midst of writing, and more. As with her fiction, Hoffman will not disappoint.

TBR: Nature is a strong factor in your new novel The River King. The thick scent of roses lingers in the air long after the blooms die, little minnows show up in the pockets of a dead boy’s jacket, frogs appear in bed linens long after the flood waters have subsided. Are the people living in this small town completely at the mercy of nature? What led you to create such a strong tie between humans and nature?
AH: I think we are bound to, and by, nature. We may want to deny this connection and try to believe we control the external world, but every time there’s a snowstorm or drought, we know our fate is tied to the world around us.

TBR: The River King focuses on characters who are the outcasts, the “others”, in the fictional New England town called Haddan. Carlin is beautiful, athletic, but untamable. Gus is long-limbed and coltish, but inside his awkward body his mind swirls with creative genius. Betsy is a wild photographer who is oddly stuck in a rather passionless engagement. All are feared and sometimes revered because they are on the fringe of society. Many of your books are centered on people like these who are strikingly different — what draws you to this type of character again and again?
AH: My theory is that everyone, at one time or another, has been at the fringe of society in some way: an outcast in high school, a stranger in a foreign country, the best at something, the worst at something, the one who’s different. Looking at it this way, being an outsider is the one thing we all have in common.

TBR: The book is very complex and multi layered, obviously you put a lot of thought into all the various characters and their histories. What came first — the love stories, the rose lore, or Haddan — when you were first sparked to write The River King?
AH: Every time I write a novel it begins in a different way. Sometimes with a character, as in Seventh Heaven, which began with Nora Silk, a woman who arrives in a neighborhood and shakes up the residents’ lives. Sometimes with a place, as in Turtle Moon, where the invented town of Verity came to be all at once, as if a map had been delivered to me in the middle of the night. The River King began with the river itself, and with the town of Haddan. Luckily for me, the characters began to populate the town and the school, and with them came their histories, love and roses included.

TBR: What was your inspiration for the Haddan school? Did you ever attend a small private school like that? Why do you think those kind of schools are a hot bed for fiction?
AH: I never attended a private school like Haddan, but I’m always interested in what happens when characters are thrown together in a place from which there is no escape. I often write about islands of one sort or another, and in a way the Haddan School is an island. In a situation like that, people are bound to reveal themselves and conflict is bound to rise.

TBR: Too much love or the lack of love is a huge factor in the lives of the Haddan students, faculty, and citizens. Those who love too headily and recklessly are often — but not always — the ones who meet the most tragic of ends. Do you find this risk of love occurs more in real life or more often fiction?
AH: I think love is a huge factor in fiction and in real life. Is there a risk? Always. In fiction and in life.

TBR: The characters of Gus, Carlin, and Betsy are all very intricate and intense. Are they based on anyone you know?
AH: All the characters in my books are imagined, but all have a bit of who I am in them — much like the characters in your dreams are all formed by who you are. After a while, the characters I’m writing begin to feel real to me. That’s when I know I’m heading in the right direction.

TBR: Your rose lore and the Haddan School history are deep. It’s obvious to your readers that you enjoy spinning and delving into this fictional history. How did you do your research?
AH: AH: I did read quite a bit about roses before writing The River King and for a few months was something of an expert on the subject, but that didn’t last. Every time I finish a book, I forget everything I learned writing it — the information just disappears out of my head.If anything, I think my research centers on Mood, rather than Fact. Before writing The River King I reread a good deal of Poe, who is — there’s no other word for it — awesome. I pay homage to his THE BLACK CAT with a wandering feline of my own in The River King. Black, of course, with only one eye, but a very good judge of character all the same.

TBR: Roses are both harbingers of death and a beautiful and prominent prop inThe River King’s past and present. What is it about roses that makes you figure them so prominently in the story?
AH: Roses are important to us all — in a way the evolution of the rose tells the human story. Certainly, here is one instance where we have been successful in controlling nature — from the simple came the elaborate, with varieties as different from each other as they are from lilies or peas. The folklore about roses is fascinating; it’s a very emotional flower, and often represents the many layers of the psyche, which is probably why it figures so predominately in so many fairy tales.

TBR: I really appreciated the way you wrote Carlin and Sean’s relationship. You could have easily made it full blown, but instead you chose to keep it subtle. The passion is there, but it simmers beneath the surface, unlike Betsy and Abel’s heated and rose scented nights. Varying in degrees, both relationships really work. How do you determine how much pressure to put on your fictional relationships?
AH: Thank you. It took me a while to figure this out. Originally, in the first draft, Carlin and Sean’s relationship was quite different, and then I realized what is most important to Carlin is to take the time to make choices. Maybe that’s what is most important to every 15-year-old girl, but in the case of Carlin the mistakes she made in her friendship with Gus are also an opportunity to change the way she deals with the other emotional involvements in her life. Anyway, the sort of love that will not wait is probably best to pass by.

TBR: The story has many hints of Shakespeare — the wide range of characters, the vitality of love and death, the forces of nature, the layered plot, the depth — are you a big Shakespeare fan? What is your favorite work?
AH: The notion that every story about a kingdom is also a story about a king, as well as his wife, his children, his friends, his countrymen, is perhaps what I find most moving, particularly in HAMLET. The ultimate outsider — who hasn’t felt a kinship with Hamlet and his terrors? And I admit that reading ROMEO AND JULIET changed my life and the way I looked at love, which is probably true for every teenage girl who reads the play.

TBR: What does the title The River King symbolize? Did you have alternate titles, or was this always the one you had in mind?
AH: I think the title will probably symbolize different things for different people, depending on their reading of the book. Who is the River King? became something of a joke among my initial readers because people had such different interpretations. Some thought the River King was Gus, others thought Abe, or Abe’s grandfather, or the unusual species of trout which swim in the Haddan. It’s probably best if I keep my own thoughts about this to myself, because I think it’s a conclusion every reader has to come to on his own. I will say, for me, it’s none of the above.

TBR: I read in an article recently that you adored fairy tales as a child. What are some of your favorite stories? Do you prefer Grimm or Andersen — or do you have a more esoteric favorite?
AH: Oh, I much prefer Grimm. I also grew up with Russian fairy tales, from my Russian grandmother, and have always had a particular fondness for Baba Yaga.

TBR: In that same piece you explained how your books can be viewed as fairy tales for adults. But even with the natural and, at times, supernatural aspects of The River King; it’s based more in reality than fantasy. How do you balance these opposite forces in your writing? How do you determine how much fantasy to include in a story, or does it just happen naturally?
AH: I never plot out my novels in terms of the tone of the book. Hopefully, once a story is begun it reveals itself. But frankly, I don’t think I make much of a distinction between the “real” and the “fantastic.” They both seem to be threads in the same cloth as far as I’m concerned.

TBR: Would you ever consider writing a collection of contemporary fairy tales?
AH: How did you know? I am writing a collection of modern fairy tales at the moment! I’m also working on a novel based on a classic fairy tale — a very controversial one. And in the spring Scholastic will publish Aquamarine, a little novel of mine about a teenage mermaid at a beach club. Aquamarine, by the way, is definitely not an Andersen mermaid.

TBR: Do you look to New England writers when conjuring up the Northeastern magical experiences in your books? If so, who? And what draws you back to Massachusetts again and again?
AH: AH: Hawthorne has given us a tradition that some people refer to as Yankee Magic Realism, and I do think there is a certain quality to the landscape that definitely leads into the dark woods. Maybe it’s how close we are to history here that makes Massachusetts such an interesting place to write about, or the sense that this was the initial American frontier, or the literary legacy of so many great Massachusetts writers. Maybe it’s just those long, white winters which cause the imagination to wander into that territory.Although it seems, even to myself, to be more, I’ve only written about Massachusetts in five books — Illumination NightAt RiskPractical Magic,Here on Earth, and The River King. Many of my books are set in New York, where I grew up (Seventh HeavenSecond NatureAngel LandingThe Drowning SeasonProperty Of and Local Girls) or in California, where I went to school (White HorsesFortune’s Daughter) or in Florida, simple because I love the landscape (Turtle Moon).

TBR: Your book Practical Magic was made into a movie a few years back. Do you see The River King as a potential film?
AH: I never see a novel as a film while I’m writing it. Mostly because novels and films are so different, and I’m such an internal novelist. I’ve been a screenwriter myself for twenty years, so I do think of a film at some point, and I do think The River King would make a good film. But, of course, different from the book. All that information could never fit into an hour and twenty minutes. Yikes! That was the reason I couldn’t write the screenplay for Practical Magic. I wouldn’t have had the heart to chop up that book, and I suppose someone had to do it to fit it onto the screen.

TBR: Has being a mother affected the way you write, throughout your career? And if so, how?
AH: I’m much faster now. When you only have a certain amount of time to write, after a while you learn to use your time well or you stop writing. Still, as every mother knows, it’s a difficult balance, and most of us wind up feeling guilty no matter what we do. (I should be working more, I should be with the children more. No win. No way.) Ironically, now that my children are older and gone quite a bit, I find it harder to work when they’re not around. Too much free time!

TBR: Have you begun working on your next book? If so, can you tell us a little about it?
AH: My next book is the novel I mentioned, based on a fairy tale, but far away from the original. I can’t really tell you about it, because the story is still revealing itself to me. And, in the process, so much changes.

TBR: TBR: What one sentence of advice would you impart to aspiring writers?
AH: No one knows how to write a novel until it’s been written.

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