Alice Hoffman grew up in Franklin Square and remains connected with her alma mater, Adelphi University, so a visit to Long Island is a kind of homecoming. The author of "The Dovekeepers" and "Practical Magic" will be at Plainview-Old Bethpage Public Library on April 19 to discuss her most recent novel, "The Museum of Extraordinary Things" (Scribner, $16 paper). It is the Long Island Reads selection for 2015, and there are book discussions and special events at public libraries islandwide. In a recent telephone conversation, Hoffman explained how she came to write a love story framed by two catastrophic fires, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory blaze that killed 147 garment workers and the conflagration that destroyed Coney Island's Dreamland amusement park.
Your book is set in New York City in 1911. What attracted you to that period?
Initially, I was drawn into it by a friend of mine at Adelphi's School of Education who asked me to write an article about the Triangle Factory fire on its 100th anniversary, because we both feel that if kids don't read about these things, they fade from history. Then I read an autobiographical essay by my maternal grandfather, who had been in the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. That was where the book really came from, especially his memory of his political conversion in Poland. He was 8 years old, working in a factory, and he heard the factory owner's children swimming in a pond. It just clicked: This isn't right.
You gave a similar experience to your character Eddie.
Yes, I expected the novel to be about Eddie. But when I started doing research, I couldn't believe that there had been these two major fires in New York City in a single year, so then the book changed. Coralie arrived one day, swimming in the river, and that was it. It's kind of a magical thing, when you create art: Part of it is planning, but part of it just happens. I know that more and more lately I have written about survivorship.
Do you know why that is?
I am a cancer survivor, and while I was being treated I read two books: "The Diary of Bridget Jones," because I needed to laugh, and "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl. He was a psychiatrist who had been through the Holocaust, his family was murdered, and the book asks, "What is the point of sorrow?" It was really meaningful to me. When you're face-to-face with trauma and tragedy, a person's inner core is revealed.
What's your next project?
I'm doing another historical novel, about the artist Camille Pissarro's mother. It's different than "The Museum of Extraordinary Things," where I felt obligated to be true to a tragic historical event that is culturally significant. Here I stuck to the facts as much as I could, but it's really an imagined life, so I felt freer. Still, it's probably my last historical book -- they're so much work!