Black For­est, Germany

Alice Hoffman’s nov­el The World That We Knew, is a Holo­caust sto­ry spun with golems, mag­i­cal herons, and oth­er fan­tas­ti­cal ele­ments. This book fol­lows the life of twelve-year-old Lea who escapes the Nazis with the help of a pow­er­ful, female golem named Ava; the two try to make sense of their rapid­ly chang­ing world, while strug­gling to under­stand each oth­er. Alice dis­cussed her inspi­ra­tion, her writ­ing process, her Jew­ish influ­ences, and her cur­rent project.

Jamie Wendt: Alice, can you dis­cuss what your writ­ing process was like for The World That We Knew and how that process com­pares to the writ­ing of your pre­vi­ous books? In addi­tion, what research did you have to con­duct for this novel?

Alice Hoff­man: I do a lot of research, and I did a lot of research for this book, but what was dif­fer­ent — com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent — was that I real­ly want­ed to meet sur­vivors. I want­ed to meet peo­ple who had lived this sto­ry, in a way. And I have nev­er want­ed to do that! I real­ly have avoid­ed people.

I remem­ber see­ing Toni Mor­ri­son give a talk not long before her death, and she was talk­ing about Beloved, which is a book that I real­ly love, and she said she read a one-sen­tence arti­cle about the true sto­ry that it was based on, and that was it. She didn’t want to do any more research, because she didn’t want to be bound by real­i­ty; she want­ed to cre­ate a world. And that is how I usu­al­ly feel, but this time, I felt dif­fer­ent. I real­ly want­ed to meet peo­ple. It was just such a dif­fer­ent process for me, com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent from the way I usu­al­ly work. I felt so lucky to be able to meet so many amaz­ing peo­ple who had sur­vived and were will­ing to share their sto­ries. The book itself is not their sto­ry; it is still my cre­at­ed sto­ry. But it was informed by the emo­tion­al con­tent of the sto­ries that they told me.

JW: That’s so inter­est­ing. On the first page of The World That We Knew, you have a note to read­ers regard­ing a spark of inspi­ra­tion for this book that came from a woman — a Holo­caust sur­vivor — at one of your read­ing events.

AH: Yes, it might have been over fif­teen years ago. I met her out­side of a library in Palm Beach. I was giv­ing a talk and she was wait­ing for me, and a lot of nice peo­ple want me to tell their sto­ries. So, I thought this was kind of anoth­er ver­sion of that. She had a sto­ry and she want­ed it not to be for­got­ten. When she told me the sto­ry, I had nev­er heard about hid­den Jew­ish chil­dren, and I didn’t feel like I could tell her sto­ry, but I just kept think­ing about her. I thought about her ever since I had met her. I want­ed to do more research and I want­ed to find out what the sto­ry was. Some­times, I feel like she was an angel that came to me and told me what to do. It took me a long time but I final­ly listened.

Some­times, I feel like she was an angel that came to me and told me what to do. It took me a long time but I final­ly listened.

JW: In addi­tion to talk­ing to sur­vivors, did you have to research any­thing regard­ing Jew­ish mys­ti­cism and golems for this nov­el, or were those top­ics that you grew up with? I know you already have an exten­sive back­ground in Jew­ish knowledge.

AH: I grew up with a Russ­ian Jew­ish grand­moth­er telling me sto­ries and fairy tales. But, in research­ing for this book, I went back and read more about the his­to­ry of the golem and the his­to­ry of sto­ry­telling with the golem, and, for me, once that start­ed to hap­pen in the book, I real­ized that the golem was a way for me to tell the sto­ry. The golem was going to be a wit­ness, and in a way, she was kind of like me — a wit­ness to what happened.

JW: In my book review of The World That We Knew for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, I refer to the nov­el as using fairy-tale ele­ments as a means for [your] char­ac­ters to com­pre­hend their chang­ing sur­round­ings; [your] female main char­ac­ters become like wolves in a world of demons, evil spir­its, and angels of destruc­tion.” Can you dis­cuss your inspi­ra­tion for con­nect­ing mys­ti­cal ele­ments, such as a female golem, with a fairy-tale nov­el where Nazis are the demons?

AH: I think you are com­plete­ly right in your view of it. I grew up read­ing fairy tales and, as a kid, I always pre­ferred them to oth­er children’s lit­er­a­ture, because I felt like they told the truth. I felt like sym­bol­i­cal­ly, they got to the deep­est emo­tion­al truth. That feel­ing about fairy tales has stayed with me, and also the feel­ing that these were the orig­i­nal sto­ries, told by grand­moth­ers to grand­chil­dren, to intro­duce them to the world — all that’s good and all that’s bad, what to be wary of and how to live your life. The oth­er part of it, though, was that there have been so many nov­els writ­ten about the Holo­caust, and I real­ly haven’t read any of them. I have read a ton of lit­er­a­ture on the Holo­caust, but not nov­els. The sto­ry of the Holo­caust is so illog­i­cal and irra­tional. It makes no sense. Why would peo­ple act this way? It’s inhu­mane. It just defies log­ic. The only way that I felt I could tell it was to use fairy-tale log­ic to try to make sense of a world where noth­ing made sense.

JW: Along the lines of a fairy tale, it seemed like the golem, which is cre­at­ed by your female char­ac­ters in The World That We Knew, is a way for these young women to gain a sense of pow­er and strength, which allowed them to persevere.

AH: When I read about the golem, it was always very male. Men cre­at­ed it; it was a male crea­ture who was mon­strous, got out of con­trol, then turned all of his anger onto his mak­er. I just thought, what would it be like for a female golem to take care of a girl? What would the dif­fer­ence be? And I think the dif­fer­ence is love.

Inter­est­ing­ly, I went to France when I was doing research for this book, and at the very end of the trip, the dri­ver said, I have this place I want to show you.” And it was just real­ly weird, but I was like, Okay.” And he drove up to this vil­la on a hill, and he said, This is the place where Mary Shel­ley wrote Franken­stein.” And I just got a chill, because I actu­al­ly think that may have been how I first start­ed think­ing about the golem because Franken­stein is a golem sto­ry. Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture fil­ters into oth­er lit­er­a­ture, and it’s def­i­nite­ly a golem sto­ry. I felt like it was fate that I should wind up at the house where Mary Shel­ley wrote Franken­stein as I was leaving.

I felt like it was fate that I should wind up at the house where Mary Shel­ley wrote Franken­stein as I was leaving.

JW: So much Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture is based on eye­wit­ness account. Do you feel that by includ­ing human-made golems, sym­bol­ic herons, and oth­er fan­tas­ti­cal-ele­ments in your sto­ry is a way for read­ers to bet­ter under­stand the real­i­ties of the Holo­caust? What drew you to bring mag­ic to a Holo­caust novel?

AH: It is what I am inter­est­ed in as a read­er and as a writer. You can get to a deep emo­tion­al place by not writ­ing real­is­ti­cal­ly, espe­cial­ly when you are writ­ing about things that are so hor­rif­ic, things that we are so inca­pable of under­stand­ing emo­tion­al­ly — or how these things hap­pened, and what kind of peo­ple would do these things. That was part of it. But also, the peo­ple who I spoke to who were in their eight­ies and nineties, some of whom became my friends, and they were real­ly telling the sto­ries of them­selves as chil­dren. So, it is real­ly a child’s sto­ry and the way chil­dren see the world. No one I spoke to ever saw their par­ents again.

JW: How did you meet all of these sur­vivors, and what trav­el­ing did you end up doing to research this book?

AH: I met the sur­vivors in this coun­try, through a friend of mine who is involved in Fac­ing His­to­ry, which is a great orga­ni­za­tion that has cur­ricu­lum for mid­dle and high schools, focused very much on being an upstander and not a bystander. They are very involved with sur­vivors, so I was intro­duced to a lot of peo­ple through that orga­ni­za­tion. In France, I hired a his­to­ri­an who knew a lot of peo­ple, so I had all of these appoint­ments. Also, there were peo­ple here who still had rel­a­tives in France, so it just became big­ger and big­ger. I went to somebody’s house and they were not Jew­ish, but they had this house that had been a place where two sis­ters who were nurs­es had hid Jew­ish chil­dren; they invit­ed every­one in the com­mu­ni­ty who had been sur­vivors, so I just met more and more peo­ple. I was very lucky.

JW: Did you do any writ­ing of your book while you were in France, or just once you got back home?

AH: Oh, no, no. Not in France. We put on so many miles every day; it was insane because I didn’t have that much time. We just did as much as we could every day. I had writ­ten part of the book before going to France, and did out­lin­ing before­hand, as well as a bunch of research. Then I came back home and did more of it. I do a lot of revi­sion, so I can’t real­ly remem­ber, to tell you the truth, what the process is. It all becomes a blur for me by the time I am fin­ished writ­ing the book.

JW: Much of your writ­ing focus­es on his­tor­i­cal aspects of Jew­ish life, whether it be about suf­fer­ing and sur­vival on Masa­da in The Dove­keep­ers, or the nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in St. Thomas in The Mar­riage of Oppo­sites, or the Holo­caust in The World That We Knew. What specif­i­cal­ly attracts you to Jew­ish themes and history?

AH: I didn’t used to do that when I first start­ed out. I knew some of my char­ac­ters were Jew­ish, but I didn’t real­ly get into it. I think it was real­ly after my grand­moth­er passed away that I real­ly felt more con­nect­ed because I was miss­ing that con­nec­tion that I had through her. I tried to find it through my writ­ing. I also have fam­i­ly in Israel, and when I went to vis­it them, I went to Masa­da, which was a turn­ing point for me in terms of my writ­ing and what I was inter­est­ed in. I am also a can­cer sur­vivor. Sur­vivor­ship, which had always been a part of my themes, real­ly became the dri­ving theme in my work. I remem­ber being up on Masa­da and it was August and broil­ing hot and I had a very intense spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence. Then I saw a plaque that said there had been sur­vivors. I had heard the sto­ry of Masa­da, but I cer­tain­ly nev­er heard that there had been sur­vivors. As soon as I saw that, I start­ed think­ing that maybe this is a nov­el. I knew noth­ing about any­thing, and if I had known more than I did, I prob­a­bly would have been too afraid to write it. There was just so much to study and to research and to learn. But since I knew noth­ing, I just went ahead with it!

My inter­est is real­ly to tell the sto­ries of women who couldn’t tell their own sto­ries, for what­ev­er rea­son. There just are not many sto­ries about women in the ancient world, oth­er than Cleopa­tra. Mag­ic, reli­gion, and mid­wifery were all very con­nect­ed. There were a lot of amulets, and female amulets, female mag­i­cal arche­o­log­i­cal finds — who knows what they mean — god­dess things, you know. Those are the sto­ries that inter­est me the most — sto­ries of women and their rela­tion­ships, moth­ers and daugh­ters, grand­moth­ers and grand­daugh­ters. I grew up in a house­hold of women and that’s prob­a­bly one of the rea­sons why that inter­ests me so much. Those are the kinds of things that influ­ence you as an artist.

Sur­vivor­ship, which had always been a part of my themes, real­ly became the dri­ving theme in my work.

JW: Besides writ­ing an inter­est­ing and com­pelling sto­ry, what are the par­tic­u­lar objec­tives you had in writ­ing The World That We Knew? Do you iden­ti­fy these objec­tives in advance to guide your writing?

AH: For me, this book felt real­ly, real­ly per­son­al, because even though this isn’t my expe­ri­ence, at the time I was writ­ing it, it was a very dif­fi­cult time in my life. And I felt like I need­ed to hear the sto­ries of peo­ple who man­aged to sur­vive the unthink­able. I need­ed to find out why humans want to live, why they fight to be alive, and I felt like I learned that by talk­ing to the sur­vivors who I met. It was very inspi­ra­tional and extreme­ly mov­ing, and I felt like it was a real­ly a life chang­ing expe­ri­ence for me. I feel real­ly for­tu­nate that I got to do it.

JW: What is your next, or cur­rent, writ­ing project?

AH: My cur­rent writ­ing project is a book that is com­ing out in Octo­ber; it’s the third in a series that I am doing that start­ed with Prac­ti­cal Mag­ic. And there is a book called the Rules of Mag­ic, and this new book is called Mag­ic Lessons. Each book goes fur­ther back in time. Mag­ic Lessons takes place in the 1600s in Eng­land, Mass­a­chu­setts, and New York. It is about women who sur­vived the witch­craft mania. I did a lot of inter­est­ing research, espe­cial­ly about Salem. There always has to be some­body who is oth­er,” some­body who you are going to attack, who you are going to blame for every­thing. The witch is the only female, icon­ic, myth­i­cal crea­ture with pow­er. I think it is real­ly inter­est­ing, still, to young girls and young women, what it means to be a witch, to be thought of and treat­ed like a witch, to have pow­er but to have peo­ple want­i­ng to make you powerless.

JW: To wrap up, what are you cur­rent­ly read­ing? And who or what inspires you?

AH: Right now, with the way that things are, it has been real­ly hard for me to read. I’m writ­ing more right now than read­ing. Any­way, when I am writ­ing, I’m not usu­al­ly read­ing. I’m most­ly doing research. I was a fanat­i­cal read­er, but now I’m a fanat­i­cal writer. Read­ing and writ­ing are both such an escape; it’s like open­ing a door and walk­ing into a dif­fer­ent world. I love to read, but right now with the pan­dem­ic, I feel like when I write, I am real­ly gone. I’m real­ly some­place else.

Jamie Wendt is the author of the poet­ry col­lec­tion Fruit of the Earth (Main Street Rag, 2018), which won the 2019 Nation­al Fed­er­a­tion of Press Women Book Award in Poet­ry. Her man­u­script, Laugh­ing in Yid­dish, was a final­ist for the 2022 Philip Levine Prize in Poet­ry. Her poems and essays have been pub­lished in var­i­ous lit­er­ary jour­nals and antholo­gies, includ­ing Fem­i­nine Ris­ingGreen Moun­tains Review, Lilith, Jet Fuel Review, the For­ward, Poet­i­ca Mag­a­zine, and oth­ers. She con­tributes book reviews to Jew­ish Book Coun­cil as well as to oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing Lit­er­ary Mama and Mom Egg Review. She has received an Hon­or­able Men­tion Push­cart Prize and was nom­i­nat­ed for Best Spir­i­tu­al Lit­er­a­ture. She holds an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Oma­ha. She is a mid­dle school Human­i­ties teacher and lives in Chica­go with her hus­band and two kids.