In 1960s New York, Witchy Women Learn 'The Rules Of Magic'

Oct 8, 2017

Two witchy sisters, a family curse on love and lots of potions and hexes: author Alice Hoffman is returning to the story of the Owens family.

She introduced the fictional family in the 1995 novel Practical Magic, which was turned into a film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. Now, in The Rules Of Magic, we go backward in time to learn the histories of the aunts in that saga.

"I'm just interested in what makes a family, and going back in history to see," Hoffman says. "I always feel like you can never really know certain people in your family – your mother, your father, your aunts – because you didn't know them when they were young."

Hoffman locates the Owens clan in the New York City of the 1960s, where sisters Francis and Jet come of age alongside their brother Vincent – and learn that they might have magical powers.


Interview Highlights

On introducing the character Vincent, who did not appear in Practical Magic

It wasn't really my choice, you know? I think sometimes you're writing and all of a sudden it just happens. And Vincent just arrived, with some secrets of his own ... It's interesting, because it's about finding out about yourself, and he didn't know some things about himself, and I didn't know certain things. So we discovered it together as writer and character.

It was not planned at all. I never knew [the Owens aunts] had a brother.

On the prevalent belief in magic in early New York City

I didn't really realize that in colonial America, and in colonial New York, magic was rampant. There were astrologists ... There was so much magic going on in early New York, and you kind of never hear that.

It's always the secret history, because it's the history of women. It isn't written down — it's just told. It's an oral tradition. That's true.

On setting the story in 1960s New York

Well, for one thing, I didn't realize it at the time – I always feel like the writer is last to know pretty much anything — but I really feel there's this kinship between the '60s and right now. Going back in time, I had a lot of the same feelings that I have right now. I think it's really an important thing to go back and look at what we did in the '60s, how the world changed: how it changed for women, how it changed for gays and lesbians, how people work to make it change.

But for me, you know, that was the time period when I was young. I lived through it, and I actually remember a lot of it. And I think it's just an amazing time in our history.

On witches as feminist icons

When I was doing the research about what had happened during the Salem witch trials, it was very interesting that so many of the women who were arrested, who were persecuted, were either single or they owned real estate. They were independent, mostly. They weren't poor. They were women who kind of lived on their own, but they lived on kind of the fringes.

Witches appeal, still appeal to little girls who dress up for Halloween. There's something about the power that witches have – the power and also kind of the knowledge, and the storytelling. And I think what a witch is has been really twisted – witches really were healers throughout time.

Camilo Garzón and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Two witchy sisters, a family curse on love and lots of potions and hexes. Author Alice Hoffman returns to the story of the Owens family first begun in her book "Practical Magic." You may recall it was turned into a film with Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. Now, in "The Rules Of Magic," we go back in time to learn the story of the aunts in that saga. Alice Hoffman joins us now from WGBH in Boston. Welcome to the program.

ALICE HOFFMAN: Thank you so much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So why bring the Owens sisters back? Was it popular demand, leftover material?

HOFFMAN: (Laughter) You know, it was popular demand. But also, I feel like I've been with this family for 20 years, and I've been thinking about (laughter) writing about them, but my choice is always to go backward in time, not forward.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why?

HOFFMAN: I'm just interested in what makes a family and going back in history to see - you know, I always feel like you can never really know certain people in your family - your mother, your father, your aunts - because you didn't know them when they were young.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. Exactly. So this is a prequel to "Practical Magic." We are reintroduced to Frannie (ph) and Jet, the aunts in the first book, and they are teenagers. And there is a brother called Vincent. Can you set the scene for us?

HOFFMAN: Yeah. They live in New York City in the '60s. Well, it starts in the '50s. And then, all of a sudden, everything changes when it becomes 1960. And so it's all of my favorite things together - New York City, magic, the '60s, and sisters.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And they are living in a house together, and they're sort of struggling against the strictures of their life and exploring who they are. And they don't know at the beginning that they might have magical abilities.

HOFFMAN: No, it's a secret. It's a family secret, and it's always a family secret with the Owens family. They want (laughter) to, you know, escape from their history, and they want to escape from who they are. And, really, the book is about finding out who you really are.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I want to talk about Vincent because he's new, but he's oh so compelling, sexy, young, a bit of a rebel.

HOFFMAN: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But I have to ask - Why bring a man into this picture?

HOFFMAN: Well, you know, it just - it wasn't really my choice (laughter), you know? I think, you know, sometimes, you're writing. And all of a sudden, it just happens. And Vincent just arrived with some secrets of his own, which I don't want to divulge because he didn't know - you know, it's interesting because it's about finding out about yourself. And he didn't know certain things about himself, and I didn't know certain things. So we discovered it together as writer and character.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Really? Is that sort of like, you're there. And all of a sudden, he just popped into your mind as a character, and you just felt compelled to write him?

HOFFMAN: Absolutely. I mean, it was not planned at all. I never knew that they had a brother.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As you mentioned, this is set in the '60s in New York. Why go back, though, to that time when so much was changing and set your story there?

HOFFMAN: Well, you know, for one thing, I didn't realize that at the time, I always feel like the writer's the last to know pretty much anything. But I really feel there's this kinship between the '60s and right now. And going back in time, I had a lot of the same feelings that I have right now.

I think it's really an important thing to go back and look at the - what we did in the '60s, how the world changed, how it changed for women, how it changed for gays and lesbians, how people work to make a change. But for me, you know, that was the time period when I was young. I lived through it, and I actually remember a lot of it. And it's just really - I think it's just an amazing time in our history.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You grew up in New York around that time?

HOFFMAN: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And a lot of the book is set around Greenwich Village. Was that an area that you knew well?

HOFFMAN: Well, you know, I grew up on Long Island. So every Saturday, I took the train. I took the subway and went to Greenwich Village, as did everybody else. So, you know, it's funny when I go back now. Even though it's changed a good deal, I still feel like the same ghosts are there, the same things go on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You really do introduce magic so seamlessly into a period and a place that we know so well. What are the challenges, though, of introducing the supernatural into something like that?

HOFFMAN: You know, I think because I grew up in Long Island, I felt like everything around was magical. And it's a funny thing because, you know, every firefly, every tree, everything that wasn't, you know, concrete where I grew up seemed like magic. And I also feel like, you know, what you read as a kid influences you so much, not as...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So much.

HOFFMAN: So much - and especially as a writer. I mean, the books that I loved growing up, whether they were fairy tales or folk tales or - I loved a writer named Edward Eager. He wrote "Suburban Magic." And I loved Ray Bradbury. And that feeling that anything could happen, even in your ordinary neighborhood, really appealed to me...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah.

HOFFMAN: ...As a reader and as a writer.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. "The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe." I was - yeah, whenever you'd see a wardrobe or a lamppost, it was always like Narnia was just around the corner.

HOFFMAN: (Laughter) Right.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What draws you to witches in particular as a theme? Your witches, I have to say, have a strong whiff of feminism.

HOFFMAN: Well, you know, I think all witches do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah.

HOFFMAN: And when I was doing the research about, you know, what had happened during the Salem witch trials, it was very interesting that so many of the women who were arrested, who were persecuted were either single or they owned real estate. They were independent, mostly. They weren't poor. They were women who kind of lived on their own, but they lived on kind of the fringes.

And I feel, you know, witches appeal - still appeal - to little girls who dress up for Halloween. There's something about the power and - that witches have - the power and also kind of the knowledge and the storytelling. And I think what a witch is has been really twisted. And witches, really, were healers throughout time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. You're right. Witches were difficult to control, for they had minds of their own and didn't hold to keeping to the law. I loved that.

(LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN: That's true even now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Even now, indeed. Any more Owens tales in the making? Are we going to go even further back, perhaps to the original Owens?

HOFFMAN: I'd like to sometime. I have to see what happens. If she walks through the door, then I'll follow her.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alice Hoffman's new book is "The Rules Of Magic." Thank you so very much.

HOFFMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.