and for her book on breast cancer, The Survival Guide.
Long before her cancer diagnosis, though, Hoffman was
aware of survivor’s guilt. “As a kid, my life was changed by
reading the diary of Anne Frank and how she got through,”
Hoffman says. “Ultimately, of course, she didn’t live.”
But Hoffman is quick to dispel the notion that her books are
autobiographical. “I’m not really writing about myself but the
books are all somehow related not to my lived life, but to my
inner life.” Before she begins writing a book, Hoffman says, she
usually starts with an idea or a story. She finds out where the story
wants to go by writing the first draft quickly, without going back
to make any corrections. Those she leaves for later drafts.
Hoffman revises her work many times before it’s published.
“When I’m writing, what I really want someone to do is have
an emotional experience,” she says. “That’s what I want as a
writer.” She acknowledges that she did in fact cry, “a lot,” while
she worked on Faithful. She spent a number
of years on the novel and worked on it at the
same time as The Dovekeepers, which was published in 2011.
At its most basic level, Faithful is a coming-of-age story about Shelby. But in the process
of writing about her transformation from a
“skinny bald girl in big boots” who is filled
with self-hatred, Hoffman explored what it is
to be faithful. She doesn’t use the term to
mean steadfast in a religious sense, although
Shelby believes she was rescued by an angel
after the accident. Being faithful, in the context of the book, has more to do with the bond
between Shelby and her mother, Sue, who is
fiercely loyal to and protective of her daughter,
whom she loves unequivocally. That bond,
Hoffman says, is similar to the one she had
with her own mother.
The novel also describes the deep connection that can develop
between people and their pets. Over the course of the book,
Shelby rescues three dogs and a cat, which she gives away.
Arguably the dogs, which she keeps, rescue her. “When you
rescue [something], you don’t feel as much of a victim,”
Hoffman says. Having Shelby steal pets from people who mistreat them also gives Hoffman a fictional opportunity to do
something she wishes that she had done in real life: rescuing
the pets of homeless people begging for money in Harvard
Square. The animals, which are often drugged, are simply props
to gain sympathy, she says.
But ultimately Faithful is about Shelby’s guilt. “It’s about
forgiving herself for driving,” Hoffman says. “For me the book
is very positive. It’s funny.” It will also appeal to young readers.
The coming-of-age of a teenage girl who suffers a breakdown,
is sexually assaulted, and smokes pot falls well within the scope
of YA. This past summer, when Hoffman tested the book on
her students at Adelphi University, where she teaches high
school juniors as part of the Alice Hoffman Writing Retreat,
they read the galleys overnight.
Despite her students’ enthusiasm for the book, Hoffman
doesn’t regard Faithful as YA. “I think my readership is very
weird,” she says. “It’s eight to 80.” She views Faithful as an adult
title that teens can enjoy and that mothers and daughters can
Nor does Hoffman consider Faithful—or any of her work, for
that matter—an example of magical realism. That’s a term that
she would like to decouple from her name. “[Magical realism]
In one of the book’s many beautiful pas-
sages, Shelby is sitting in the backyard on the
picnic table and thinking about the fairy
tales that she read to her mother after Sue
became sick. Hoffman writes that as Shelby
read, she and her mother “became lost in an
enchanted cottage with vines growing over
the window. It was dark and it was quiet and
they could hear each other softy breathing.
Every story had the same message: What was
deep inside could only be deciphered by
someone who understood.”
The magic of the story could be one reason
people who read early copies of the novel
have responded in a “deep, emotional way,” Hoffman says—
which she hadn’t expected. That’s despite the fact that she her-
self was particularly drawn to Shelby, whom she describes as
both very funny and a pain in the ass. “Shelby starts out so
tough, but she’s not tough,” Hoffman says. “She’s very
Hoffman’s not a writer who looks back. She saves all her
drafts, but she doesn’t reread them once a book is finished. So
she’s particularly excited to have emptied an entire room of
manuscripts and foreign editions by donating her literary
papers to Adelphi last year. Hoffman also doesn’t write sequels,
but she has found a fitting way to continue writing about
Shelby, at least on social media.
Before we leave, Hoffman pulls out her phone to show me a
picture of her sheepdog, Shelby, who has her own account on
Instagram (@mizindependentshelby). Shelby the sheepdog can
also be spotted on Facebook, where, in a nod to yoga, you can
see her in a mean Upward-Facing Dog. ;