Q&A with Alice Hoffman about her upcoming novel set in the Practical Magic universe, Magic Lessons

Her upcoming novel Magic Lessons is an unforgettable story that traces a centuries-old curse to its source, and unveils the story of Maria Owens, accused of witchcraft in Salem, and matriarch of a line of the amazing Owens women and men featured in Practical Magic and The Rules of Magic.


 

Alice Hoffman is the author of more than thirty works of fiction, including The World That We Knew, Practical MagicThe Rules of MagicHere on EarthThe Red GardenThe DovekeepersThe Museum of Extraordinary ThingsThe Marriage of Opposites, and Faithful.

Her upcoming novel Magic Lessons is an unforgettable story that traces a centuries-old curse to its source, and unveils the story of Maria Owens, accused of witchcraft in Salem, and matriarch of a line of the amazing Owens women and men featured in Practical Magic and The Rules of Magic.


An interview with Alice Hoffman
 

Q. Why did you decide to return to the world of Practical Magic? Did you always plan to further explore the origin of the Owens family?

A: My readers sent me back to the world of Practical Magic. I had so many letters and messages asking for more, and after writing The Rules of Magic, which takes place in the 60s and 70s, I decided to go all the way back, to the original Owens ancestor, Maria Owens. I’m always interested in how the past influences the present, who the “ghosts in the nursery” are, who has influenced us, even if we never knew them.
 

Q. There are a few characters in the novel who are real historical figures. One of these characters is John Hathorne, who plays a pivotal role in the story, and was one of the leading judges in the Salem Witch Trials. Why did you decide for Maria to have such a significant relationship with a real person? Was Maria in any way inspired by real women during the Salem Witch trials?

A: When I wrote Practical Magic I didn’t intend to continue to write about the family, but when I did I had to pay attention to the fact that the original novel contained a family history, one I had to keep true to in Magic Lessons. In Practical Magic, Maria becomes involved with John Hathorne, who was a judge during the Salem Witch trials, a rather evil one who never apologized for his actions, and who was also the great-great grandfather of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the author, who may have added the w to his name to distance himself from his family. That a judge who sent witches to their deaths would become romantically involved with a witch seemed a fascinating set-up. In many ways the situation reminded me of the themes in The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne’s classic novel.


Q. One of the recurring themes in all three of your novels set in the Practical Magic universe is heartbreak. In the beginning of the novel, Maria Owens, swears she will never fall in love, but fails to keep this promise to herself, despite her incredible fortitude in all other aspects of her life. Why do you think this is?

A: These novels are an exploration of the nature of love. The Owens family is cursed in love, but the curse is not so far from what anyone who loves may suffer, including loss, grief and betrayal. Heartbreak is a part of being human, and that’s what the characters in these novels learn.


Q. The witchcraft in Magic Lessons is so specific and feels so established. Did you do any research about the kind of magic that was practiced during this time? If so, did that inspire the magic in this novel?

A: Yes, I do a huge amount of research and have a magic library of reference books. I think the magic in my fiction was inspired by the books I read as a child, especially fairytales. I use mythic magic, ancient magic, and also green magic, the healing magic practiced by women all over the world.


Q. In the novel, Maria’s familiar is a crow she calls Cadin. Typically, crows are associated with death and bad luck, but Cadin is loyal and kind and Maria’s best friend. Why did you choose a crow as Maria’s familiar?

A: Although crows are considered unlucky in some cultures, they’re lucky in others, and there is a good deal of folklore (and fact) about their uncanny intelligence. They’re often thought of as a connection to prophecy and to female warriors. Apollo was the god of prophecy and associated with crows. A connection with birds is often viewed as having magical aspects, and augury is divination by observing the behavior of birds. Many of the Owens women have a connection to birds, and Cadin is Maria’s faithful familiar until the end of his life.


Q. One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the backstory of Abraham and Samuel Dias. The father and son are Jewish pirates who had been forced to flee Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. Did you learn about this during your research for the novel? Or did you know about this history prior to writing and it was always your intention to include it?

A: I wrote about the Inquisition in my novel, Incantation, and about the fate of Jews from Spain and Portugal forced to flee their countries for the new world in The Marriage of Opposites, and so I knew there had been Jewish pirates, as well as navigators and explorers. There were times when no country was safe for Jews, and the sea was the only home they could claim. All the same, Samuel Dias was something of a surprise to me, and I’m so glad Maria found him.


Q. Some of the most important relationships in this novel are the ones between daughters and mothers. Both Maria and her daughter Faith have relationships with their birth mothers and an “adopted” mother, albeit their experiences are completely different. What do you think these relationships say about the nature of motherhood?

A: I’m always interested in relationships between mothers and daughters – it’s such an intense, important relationship. I do think many of us find women in our lives who are not our biological mothers, but who become important mentors and teachers who serve in much the same role, friends who become family.


Q. At one-point, regarding men in power, Maria thinks, “They always want to burn a woman who defies the rules. They want to turn lies into the truth.” Do you think this is still true today? Do you think there is any relevancy of the Salem Witch Trials in 2020?

A: Unfortunately, I do believe that it is still difficult to be a woman who defies rules, who is powerful or successful. There is a reason why little girls still want to dress up as witches, and why women are still interested in the role of the witch, the only mythic female figure who has power, who doesn’t need to be rescued, who has knowledge and a connection to the earth. The witch trials were a way to gain control of an entire society by terrorizing and punishing women, and that is still happening today, in many cultures. What I love about the Owens women is that they are always there for other women—they keep the porch light turned on so that women in need know they have place to go for help during hard times.


Q. The primary rule of magic in the novel is, “Do as you will, but harm no one. What you give will be returned threefold.” Do you think that this rule applies to all of us? Do you think, in some way, what we put out into the world is returned to us?

A: These are the traditional rules of magic throughout time and throughout the world. I think they are important words to live by, and of course I added a third rule. Fall in love whenever you can.


Q. In addition to the first rule, there are so many “lessons” to be learned in this novel, about magic, about love, and about life. Is there one lesson that you want readers to remember most?

A: Know that love is the only answer.
 

Magic Lessons will be published in hardcover on October 6th.


 

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