Alice Hoffman spells out how she conjured up origin story Magic Lessons
Alice Hoffman has written more than two dozen books, but her tales about the sorcery of the Owens sisters and their ilk (1995’s Practical Magic and 2017’s The Rules of Magic) remain her most enduring.
2020 marks the 25th anniversary of Practical Magic, which was also turned into a 1998 feature film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. But Hoffman has spent the past quarter of a century living with the Owens in her head, and at last, she's giving readers the origin story they've craved.
Magic Lessons, out Oct. 6, goes back to the 1600s and traces the family’s mystical history to founding matriarch Maria. It follows her journey from England to the Caribbean to Salem, Mass. and beyond. Unlocking the tragedies and triumphs of magic, it uncovers the genesis of the family's infamous centuries-spanning curse, which dooms any man who loves an Owens.
In advance of the book's appropriately autumnal release, we called up Hoffman to talk her lifelong obsession with witches, how she invented the Owens family, and why she'll never tire of telling stories about powerful women.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you always know you wanted to tell Maria's story or was it something you came to gradually over the last 25 years?
ALICE HOFFMAN: I definitely did not think it was gonna be more than one book. If I had, I would have planned it out at the time. It was very difficult to do because I wrote Practical Magic 25 years ago. It was because my readers kept saying they wanted to go back to that family. I did too, but I just had never really thought of doing it. But I'm so glad I did. It felt like a homecoming.
Where did Maria and the Owens family come from?
[I recently found] a drawing that I did, when I was in first grade, of a witch! This is what I've been interested in since first grade. There's a reason why little girls especially are interested in witches, and it’s that witches are the only female mythic figure that have power. It's really about the power of women in a man's world.
How did writing Maria’s story compare to writing the first two books of the series?
In some ways, it was harder because there was a lot more research. I did a lot of research about Salem. I did a lot of research about pirates, which figure into it. I did a lot of research about what was happening in England at the time. But Maria just walked in the door. Sometimes that happens; a character will appear and walk through the door and just be whole. That's what happened to me with Maria, probably because she's been in my life for the past 25 years.
Lovers of Practical Magic will certainly come in with assumptions about her. Did you want to upend or subvert those?
Yes, in some ways. She revealed herself to me. I think some of the story will be a big surprise, especially who she's involved with. She's always been involved with a member of the Hathorne family. John Hathorne, who was one of the judges at the witch trials. But there's also someone else that she winds up being involved with that was a complete surprise to me so I think it will be to my readers also.
You don’t live too far from Salem. Were you able to visit for research?
I did go up there, but everything looks so different. It’s really the Massachusetts of my imagination [in the book]. It is kind of a commercial place, but there's still a spirit there. Salem now is far from Salem then. But you can feel the excitement of the people who come there. It's kind of sweet revenge.
The book is so steeped in the historical record of witchcraft and persecution. What inspired that?
Part of it was that the period necessitated it, but part of it was my interest in this early persecution of women, which was very much directed towards women who were health practitioners. Women who were not physicians, but [practitioners of] folk medicine. Women who were literate. The connection between magic and words and writing is really interesting to me. Also, I was fascinated by the Spanish Inquisition. Some of the characters are shaped by that. The persecution of people who are different, whether it's women as witches, whether it's Jews, whoever it is, it always comes from the same place of being against anyone who's different. Fear of the other.
This book has hallmarks of magic we've seen in the other books in the series, as well as new herbal curatives and magical practices. How much of those things are your own invention and how much are you drawing on folklore?
It's both. I draw a lot on real practices of healing of the time, herbal remedies, folk remedies. But some of them are invented. I have a huge magic library in my bedroom and some of the books are so strange and difficult to find. Magic Lessons has to do with she's learning all about this, and we kind of want to learn magic with her.
All the Owens women are reacting to a world afraid of powerful women. Were current events potent in your mind?
Yes, very much so. I wanted to tell her story because it's really important for us to support women. The whole idea of Puritanism, and the intolerance of the Puritans, which really added to the witch mania, was in my mind in terms of what's happening today. I'm coming to it from a sense of sisterhood. And writing about a place where if you strayed from the values, it was a sign of revolt and perversity. In our time, when you would think that was over and done with, it’s [still] so scarily with us. The last line of the book is about how love is the most important thing and the only thing that matters. This book is really about trying to have faith in the future, even in a very dark time when evil is everywhere. And that’s true right now. In this book, evil really exists. People do terrible things. And you still have to find a way to have faith in the world.
You’re writing a fourth and final book in the Practical Magic series. Can you tease it for us?
It begins in a library, and I always feel the best stories begin in a library. It’s about the whole Owens family, but it’s very much about [Practical Magic heroine] Sally’s daughters, who are now grown-ups. The beginning was calling down this curse as a way of protecting themselves, and the last book is all about breaking that curse.
For more from EW's Fall Books Special, order the October issue of Entertainment Weekly now, or find it on newsstands beginning Sept. 18. You can also find a special edition of the issue at Barnes & Noble stores beginning Sept. 25. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.