"I want to share some advice from my grandmother," author Alice Hoffman told the female-dominated audience at Tuesday night's Arts and Letters Live at the Dallas Museum of Art, co-sponsored by the Dallas Holocaust Museum.
Hoffman, wearing flats, glasses perched on her nose, reached into her bag for some papers. Her grandmother's voice echoed from the page. "All a person really needs is a bag of potatoes and a toaster," Hoffman quoted, tickling the ladies.
Cook badly, she advised, for a lover; his reaction will reveal what kind of man he is. "Between men and women, love is not only blind, but stupid." That warning received nods of agreement. "Nothing lasts forever," we were reminded.
Nothing does last forever. Life, passion -- they have an expiration date. Loss, love and the art of surviving both are recurrent themes in Hoffman's work, and extend to her newest novel, The Dovekeepers.
She may be best known for Practical Magic, a book adapted into a movie starring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock. Hoffman spent 20 years in Hollywood as a screenwriter supporting her career as a novelist. Having worked on both sides of the fence, she spoke with authority when she declared, "The book is always better."
She finished her first novel, Property Of, in six months. At the time, Hoffman was a graduate student at Stanford and secretary at the university's sex clinic. She rose at 4:45 every morning to write. That fledgling writer, Hoffman said, would appreciate The Dovekeepers. This is the book she was meant to write, she said, after 40 years of practice. "[It is] closest to my soul."
The Dovekeepers is woven around a historical account of an ancient siege that began in A.D. 70 at the fortress of Masada in Israel, near the Dead Sea. When it became clear Roman legionnaires would breach the walls, more than 900 Jews committed mass suicide rather than surrender. Two women and five children survived. Hoffman described it as a "timeless story about women and war," but also about surviving and hope. "Sorrow is what makes us who we are," she said.
The story is told through four "everyday" women, all dovekeepers, who are trapped behind the walls of Masada. The stories of women, largely absent from ancient literature, are deeply meaningful to Hoffman. When she first visited Masada, she was alone with her companions in oppressive heat. It was an "intense spiritual experience," said Hoffman. She could "hear the voices of my grandmothers....and foremothers in Israel."
Though Hoffman has Jewish heritage, she wasn't prepared for the volume of research required for the book. She knew little about the history she pieced together for The Dovekeepers, but she drew strength from a mentor's advice: "Don't write what you know; write what you feel." Artifacts Hoffman saw at the fortress insinuated themselves into the story; the fabric of a Roman's uniform, and two dozen skeletons unearthed in a cave appear in the pages of The Dovekeepers.
"I was the last person to ever think I'd become a writer," Hoffman said. But after 40 years creating novels, children's books and screenplays, she's more than a writer. She's a storyteller, a recounter of forgotten history. "History disappears," Hoffman said, "If you don't teach it to your children."