Alice Hoffman Says Goodbye to ‘Practical Magic’

The Jewish author speaks to Alma about the magical legacy of her famous fictional witches.

In 1995, readers met sisters Sally and Gillian Owens, two young girls living with their aunts in a small Massachusetts town in an old house on Magnolia Street. Readers learn, quickly, that the Owens women “have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in town” for more than 200 years and that the Owens women have been cursed — the men who fall in love with them die early deaths. What results is a story of love, magic and sisterhood: “Practical Magic” by Alice Hoffman.

In 1998, Hoffman’s novel was adapted into a film starring Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Dianne Wiest and Stockard Channing.

The film has since become a cult classic, and the love for the original novel has only grown over time.

After years of fans pleading for a sequel, in 2017, Hoffman decided to return to the magical world of the Owens women with a prequel. In 2020, she journeyed even further back in time to the story of Maria Owens — the woman who cursed her descendants — and now, in 2021, she’s finally delivering the conclusion to the story fans have so desperately wanted, telling the tale of Sally’s daughters, the aunts, and of course, Sally and Gillian themselves.

Hoffman is the author of over 30 works of fiction, including the four “Practical Magic” books. In honor of the release of “The Book of Magic,” the last in the series, I spoke with the Jewish author about the legacy of her “Practical Magic” series, writing about Jewish history and her everlasting love of books.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

How does it feel to bring your “Practical Magic” series to an end?

It’s hard for me, because it’s been over 25 years of writing about the same characters. And I feel very close to them and very involved with them. I cried a lot when I was writing this book! Now that the book is out and people are responding to it, I kind of feel like the characters are still alive. I don’t feel as bad as I did while I was sitting alone in a room and writing it.

I know there was a large gap between “Practical Magic,” which came out in 1995, and “The Rules of Magic” in 2017. What was it like for you as a writer to return to the world of the Owens family so many years later?

It was a really long time and I never thought of doing it. But I got mail from readers saying that they wanted to have a sequel, that they wanted to know what happened to the characters. But, I felt like I wanted to know how these characters happened; I wanted to know their history. So I went back in time and I went to the ’60s in New York City in Greenwich Village — which is my favorite time and I wish we were there right now — and it was a total pleasure. I remember walking around Greenwich Village checking all the places where the book takes place and just how much fun that was to write about.

Practical Magic
The “Practical Magic” books, in publication order: “Practical Magic” (1995), “The Rules of Magic” (2017), “Magic Lessons” (2020), and “The Book of Magic” (2021)

And then you went back in time even further with the third book, “Magic Lessons,” going all the way to the Salem Witch Trials. 

I wanted to find out what the family origins were. You know how so many people are doing genealogy to find out where they came from, and they also want to find out how they came to be, who they are? That was what drove me to write about Maria Owens in the 17th century. It was really a huge amount of research, but it was really fun for me to tell the beginning of the story and get to know her. She’s just mentioned briefly in “Practical Magic,” but she felt like a strong presence to me. To tell you the truth, I feel like the whole thing was like a gift to me.

Why does it feel like a gift?

I just felt really lucky. When I first started writing about them, they just kind of came to me fully formed. Even though it was a lot of work, and I always do a lot of revision, it still felt like they just came to me.

I love that the history is so interwoven with the stories in all the “Practical Magic” books; the plots are very conscious of the history, but it works with the magic and the magical realism elements.

Sometimes, as a writer, you don’t even know why you’re writing about the things you write about until much later on. There’s two things I realized about my writing: I’m often writing about survivors, and I’m trying to give voice to women who weren’t able to tell their stories. What you just said about the history being interwoven is part of that for me.

Speaking of history, in “The Book of Magic,” the book filled with curses that drives the plot is written by Amelia Bassano, a Jewish woman. Amelia is a real person, often called Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady.” 

Amelia Bassano / Emilia Lanier by Nicholas Hilliard (Wikimedia Commons)

As soon as I heard that she was Jewish, I found her even more interesting. I had done research into the state of the Jews in Europe and in England, and hadn’t known that they were all expelled for so many hundreds of years in England. That, to me, was a really fascinating part of the research. And then of course, she surfaces again in “The Book of Magic,” and I write a little bit about her at the end, just as a historical note, because I think she’s such a fascinating character.

How did you decide to include her in the story with the Owens women?

That’s a hard question to answer. Part of what I’m writing about in these books is how important languages are; Amelia Bassano was the first woman in England to publish a book of poetry. That was her strength and her power, and she was punished for it. And part of what the books are about is about how words are magic and books are magic. And so, Amelia Bassano did write this book of poetry, but in my book, she also wrote a grimoire [spellbook], a personal book about her life and her magic arts. The book is found by a couple of different characters and opens their world to other possibilities.

While we’re talking about the magic of books, I love that “The Book of Magic” begins with the line, “All the best stories begin in a library…”  Can you talk what libraries mean to you, and in your work?

I feel, and have always felt, that libraries saved my life. In my school, there was a librarian who allowed me to go and hang out in the library and take as many books as I wanted. Then I went to the public library in the next town, because there wasn’t one close to me, and they gave me a card, no questions [asked]. When I talk to the girls that I grew up, [I say] I can’t remember what I was like, and they always say, “You were always reading, you were always going to the library.” I really think it saved me and allowed me to see that there were other possibilities outside of my very small world.

When you think about young readers, or young women, finding your books in the library, what does that mean to you?

That’s a big responsibility. That’s too much of a hope and a dream — that they would mean something to someone. But I know that books meant that much to me, I know that as a reader.

In your Twitter bio, too, you write books are the one true magic. I love this idea. Throughout all the “Practical Magic” books, you see the importance of books and I think it is very clear you love books and love readers, and I love that so much.

I mean it really is my life, and I feel grateful to have it.

Practical Magic
Sandra Bullock and Nichole Kidman star in “Practical Magic.” (Warner Bros/Getty Images)

“Practical Magic” is a movie I rewatch every October. A total classic at this point. How do you feel about the movie adaptation?

I love the movie. It’s different than the book. The movie always has to be different than a book because you’re in such a different medium. But I feel so lucky that all those truly great actresses are in one movie. The fact it’s about women and women’s relationships — at its core, it’s about a form of sisterhood — I think has made it more popular over the years. So it’s kind of a cult movie. I feel really lucky to have been involved with it.

Now that there’s three more books in the “Practical Magic” world, do you hope for another movie down the line? 

The producer of “Practical Magic” also has the rights to “The Rules of Magic” and “Magic Lessons.” So I think they’re hoping that it will be a series — it seems like it’s so much material it would have to be a series rather than a film. I think it’d be interesting.

I read an interview where you talked about how strong women are part of the Jewish tradition; the Owens women are undeniably strong women. Are any elements of your Jewish identity or your Jewish tradition that you brought into the “Practical Magic” series?

I grew up in a household of women — my mother and my grandmother. My grandmother was Russian, she told me my first stories, stories about her growing up which seemed like fairy tales. I always think about that’s how fairy tales began: grandmothers telling granddaughters stories. That close relationship I had with my grandmother really changed the way I looked at the world. She was the most important person in my life — still is, even though she’s gone. It is a tradition [in Judaism] that it’s OK to be literate, it’s OK to read and write. There’s this belief that education and books are the most important thing.

As a Jewish reader, I really enjoy coming across Jewish characters in stories I didn’t initially think had anything to do with Jewishness or Jewish history. And in “Magic Lessons,” there’s Samuel Dias, the Sephardic Jewish pirate who Maria loves. Why is it important to include Jewish characters, and Jewish history, in your novels?

I’m in love with Samuel myself. I had written about Jews in Spain and Portugal in a young adult book called “Incantation.” I really didn’t know much about the Inquisition, I’d never learned about it in school. I wrote the book, really, to find out what it was about. In my further research, I found out that there was so many Jews on the seas — so many navigators and explorers and pirates, which really surprised me, because there was no land that they could land on. There was a large Jewish community in the Caribbean, which I wrote about in “The Marriage of Opposites,” about Camile Pissarro’s mother.

Maria, because she came from England, the route would have been most likely through the Caribbean. There she meets Samuel Dias, who has a ship, and she wants to get to Massachusetts, because she’s in love with someone; she makes a big mistake. She becomes very involved with him and with his father, Abraham Dias. So I write a little bit about the history of the Jews who first came to New York and also to Rhode Island, and that was really interesting for me to research and find out about.

What draws you to research and write about Jewish history in this way? Many of your other books, like “The Dovekeepers” and “The World That We Knew,” are explicitly centered on Jewish history.

Part of it is my own search for identity, because I really didn’t know that much, growing up, about Jewish history. For me to write about the Holocaust in “The World That We Knew,” that was a subject that I really stayed away from, because I felt like I hadn’t experienced it, and who was I to write about that? But when I wrote that book in 2016, I was thinking a lot about politics and about the way people’s destinies are shaped by what happens in the particular country they’re in. I was very depressed in 2016. The thing that I decided to do, because I felt like this would help my own depression, was to try to talk to [Holocaust] survivors. I have a very good friend who is involved in Facing History and Ourselves. And through Facing History, I met people who’d been child survivors and started to talk to them and become friends with them. Then I went to France and talked to people who’ve been child survivors there. It was really one of the best experiences of my life. I felt I needed to talk to people who still thought the world was beautiful and worth living in, even though they had lost so much, and gone through so much.

I grew up in a very Jewish town, and I went to college at a very non-Jewish school, and I was really drawn to studying Jewish history, because I felt like I was like trying to claim myself, claim my identity — so that really resonates with me.

Jewish history — there’s certain things we learned, but certain things we know nothing about. Like the whole idea that there were Jewish pirates! Like, really!?

Totally, that would’ve made Hebrew school 10 times better growing up.

[Laughs] Absolutely.

People don’t often associate Judaism with magic or witches — but there is magic in our history, in some sense. I’m curious what your thoughts are on Jewish magic?

I found that out really when I was doing research for “The Dovekeepers,” about another period that I knew nothing about: Masada and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. There was so much magic and so much female magic, and it’s all been written out of history. I felt like women were written out of history. And not only [women], but anything about magic and anything to do with a goddess.

What does being Jewish mean to you in 2021?

Wow, that’s a big, huge question. It really impacts who I am as an artist, a writer, as a person in the world. I don’t even know how to answer it, because it’s so much of who I am and what my family history is. I became more interested in telling stories that had something to do with being Jewish after the death of my grandmother, because I feel like it’s a connection to her to write about these things.

Do you think of yourself as a Jewish writer, or just a writer who happens to be Jewish?

I don’t, any more than I think of myself as a woman writer. I just think of myself as a writer, just the way I thought of myself as a reader. As a person, a Jew, a woman and a writer. Those are the three things that I am.

What do you hope is the legacy that the Owens family, and the “Practical Magic” books, leaves with readers?

I’m really happy, because I think what I would have wished for has already happened, which is that women tend to share these stories with each other — grandmothers and granddaughters and sisters share the books, and it’s a way to connect with other women and with your own story in history. Women do identify with the story of a witch, and the story of an outcast, and the story of a woman who’s powerful and strong who isn’t appreciated for those things, who’s feared for those things. Maybe what I was looking for myself is what I hope that my readers also feel: Books are magic and love is magic.

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