Alice Hoffman grew up with stories from her Russian grandmother, ancient folktales that also informed her early reading habits.
"Who you are as a writer is very much formed by what you read as a child - what your first books were - and my first readings were folktales and fairy tales," she said. "And then later, the books that I preferred were the books filled with magic. I think that really influenced who I am as a writer."
That influence is evident in Hoffman's latest novel, "The Museum of Extraordinary Things," a sort of historical folktale set in 1911 New York City. The story is built around the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a real-life tragedy that claimed 146 victims, many of whom were young girls.
Hoffman was drawn to the story in part "because it's an incident that people in New York know about it, but it's fallen out of the history books. And that happens, where some major event falls out of learning. It just kind of disappears. I wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times about the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Factory fire. As I started doing research for that, I got more and more interested in that period in New York."
While grounded in history, the novel is greatly influenced by Hoffman's predilection for the fantastical. The museum of the title is like a circus sideshow, offering peeks at animal remains and living people deemed weird or deformed. One of the main characters is one of these exhibits, a young woman put on display by her father. The other main character -the novel alternates between their two points of view - is a photographer with a knack for finding things. The tangle of events following the Triangle fire gradually draws these two characters together, both physically and emotionally.
Much of the setting is based on researched facts, but Hoffman is less sure about the origins of her characters.
"For me," she said, "that's magic. I'm not sure how that happens. I don't want to question it too much because I don't want to hex it. But I think I start to write down images, and the characters just start to come to life. And once they do, they enter into a world where there are other characters. I don't know how that happens. I think for me, it's just bits of my subconscious. But I don't question it. I just go with it."
Her willingness to let the story grow in its own way gives her writing an incredibly organic quality. She is first and foremost a storyteller. The forward flow of time comes to Hoffman as easily as breathing, and it fills her tales with life.
She's also a master of craft and a lover of language. Each sentence shows precision and deliberation, and her novels are part of a long literary lineage. But it wasn't always that way.
"I came to graduate school as somebody who was not very well read. I'd never read the classic books. One of the big, huge gigantic shocks for me was reading Faulkner. I think it was important for me to realize that you could write at such a subconscious level, such an emotional level - with such long sentences - that you could really create a modern folktale."
Hoffman has now mastered the modern folktale herself, with close to 30 books to her credit, mostly novels, but also young adult and nonfiction. If you take into account her writing for magazines and other publications, she is without a doubt one of the most prolific writers of her era. Despite writing so much, she admits it's not always easy, especially with historical fiction.
"I stumble across something in history, and then stupidly start writing about it before realizing how much I don't know. I try to get things as right as possible. You research 10 times more than you actually use. You're informed by it, but then you end up actually not using it because it ends up like a nonfiction book if you do.
"Probably the best question about writing historical novels is how to have it feel alive and not bogged down with facts, and not have it read as if it were a Wikipedia report. I find that it's much more work to write a historical novel than to just write a novel. Every time I start a historical novel, I kick myself shortly after, because why am I doing this? This is like a research project.
"It's a lot of work, but there must be something that pulls a writer to do that."
For Hoffman, at least, the work pays off. "The Museum of Extraordinary Things" lives up to the "extraordinary" of its title, a work of passion that celebrates a place and an era even while it explores a particularly dark moment in New York's history.
"I'm in love with New York City," she said. "I think, especially with Savannah - where people are in love with the city - I think it's like falling in love with a place, and for me, that's the best thing about the book."