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, published by Main Street Rag Publishing Company (2018) and winner of the 2019 National Federation of Press Women Book Award. Her poetry has been published in various literary journals and anthologies, including Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility, Lilith, Raleigh Review, Minerva Rising, Third Wednesday, and Saranac Review. Her essays and book reviews have been published in Green Mountains Review, the Forward, Literary Mama, and others. She holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska Omaha. She teaches high school English and lives in Chicago with her husband and two children.