The new novel by Alice Hoffman will break your heart from its very first pages, but it’ll spend the rest of its chapters helping you put it back together.
In The World That We Knew, the New York Times bestselling author of more than 30 books — including Practical Magic and its prequel, The Rules of Magic —tells the harrowing story of Lea, Ava and Ettie. Each of the girls’ life stories threads through the others as they work to navigate the horrors of France and Germany during World War II, fighting to survive.
Hoffman’s book doesn’t shy away from the historical truth of the violence and evil of the Holocaust, but it’s interwoven with a beautiful magical realism that elevates the story almost to the realm of myth. It also reminds readers that enough small goodnesses in the face of tyranny can become their own revolution.
Hoffman will discuss The World That We Knew on November 10 as part of the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta’s annual book festival. She spoke to ArtsATL about writing, fairy tales and the importance of keeping our histories close.
ArtsATL: You’ve said that writing fiction takes you to this place that feels very similar to dreaming. Did it feel that way when you were writing The World That We Knew?
Alice Hoffman: Very much. I feel like I go into kind of an altered state. It is a lot like dreaming because it’s coming from a subconscious level.
ArtsATL: Why was this story such an important one for you to tell? What about it was so compelling to you?
Hoffman: I usually start a book with a question, and I felt like it was a dark time here. I felt like I didn’t understand how people go through what they go through. And I’m always kind of in awe of survivors. So, I decided I wanted to talk to Holocaust survivors. I had this experience meeting a woman [who was a Holocaust survivor] many years ago who wanted me to write her story, and I said that I couldn’t because I didn’t feel like I had the right to. When I started to meet Holocaust survivors, I felt like the conversations were mother-daughter conversations or grandmother-granddaughter conversations, and it felt close to me. Then I felt like I could write the book.
ArtsATL: The book is about the Holocaust and the lives of the people in France and Germany during World War II. Why did you think that this time period and this particular place were the best settings for your main characters’ story? Did you have the time and place first, and build your characters around that?
Hoffman: I knew the time that I wanted to write, and the characters just kind of walked in the door. I think if you create the world, the characters just appear, and that’s sort of what happened. I had outlines. I had ideas. But I find that things arrive through the writing of the first draft.
ArtsATL: There are such specific, beautifully wrought details in The World That We Knew, from the foods the characters ate to the way they wore their hair and how they would’ve cooked, even the plants that would’ve been around them. What was the research process like for you for such an intricately woven novel?
Hoffman: I did an enormous amount of reading because I knew nothing. I knew nothing about the war. I knew nothing about France. Then I started to talk to survivors in Massachusetts that I met through an organization called Facing History and Ourselves. I [also] decided to go to France. Usually I don’t want to meet anybody, and I don’t want to go to the place, but I felt like I really wanted to go there. So, I went to France, and I traveled with a historian, who was fantastic. We went to all of the children’s chateaus, where parents and children were separated. That was kind of an amazing experience because I met one incredible survivor there. He had been with his brother — I think they were six and eight. They’d been sent from Berlin by their mother, who they never saw again. I went to the chateau where they had stayed.
I was thinking a lot about what’s going on in our world today. And as I was writing the book, more and more stuff that was happening felt similar. It’s not the same. It’s not the Holocaust, but it felt like true hatred growing, and that is so dangerous.
ArtsATL: Was drawing those parallels between history and the present day something intentional or something that revealed itself to you as you were writing the book?
Hoffman: It really revealed itself to me, and also it was happening as I was writing. When I started writing, I don’t think I was aware of the border as some great issue. It was a talking point, but nothing was actually happening to the extent it is now. And then it was happening as I was writing the book, which was really a bizarre echo for me — to have it happening in my book and happening in real life. You see women sleeping in what looks like a dog kennel with nothing. I was visiting the prisons in France where 150 people were stuck in a cell meant for three people.
ArtsATL: In your book, you write, “That was how evil spoke. It made its own corrupt sense; it swore that the good were evil, and that the evil had come to save mankind. It brought up ancient fears and scattered them on the street like pearls.” It’s the idea of evil and oppression presenting itself as ordinary so as to make it seem normal.
Hoffman: Right. I think that’s really true. I think that’s what happens. The funny thing for me is I knew I was going to write about World War II, so I knew I was going to find horrible things, evil things. What I didn’t know [is] I was also going to find incredible people — villages that saved thousands of Jews, people that acted with real goodness.
ArtsATL: One of the striking things about your work is your ability to weave the magical into the everyday. You enchant the ordinary. Can you speak a bit about that and what draws you to those tableaus?
Hoffman: I grew up reading fairy tales, and fairy tales are told in an ordinary way. It’s a matter-of-fact way. You go with the story and you believe that there’s a wolf at the door. And I think that writers in their writing are really influenced by what they’ve read as a child. It stays with you in such an incredibly deep way. It becomes part of who you are, and I think that’s what happened to me. Those were the stories told to me by my grandmother.
ArtsATL: The core of this book is really the story of mothers and daughters. It’s about the ties that keep families together, that keep women together. What was it about this powerful relationship that you thought made the best catalyst for the story?
Hoffman: I think what happened for me with this book is that I was really, in a way, writing about losing my grandmother and my mother. Within writing about these other characters, this other situation, this other time, that’s what I was really writing about. I’ve written more and more about Jewish topics since the death of my grandmother because I miss her.
ArtsATL: The World That We Knew is a truly harrowing book that doesn’t shy away from the violence that its characters went through, but it’s also a beautiful story of love and resilience in the face of tyranny. Beyond those things, what’s your hope for this book? What do you hope readers take away from the story?
Hoffman: The woman that I met in the parking lot who asked me to write her life, what she wanted was for people to remember. And I feel like that kind of became what it was for me, too, that I wanted people to remember what can happen in a place that’s filled with hatred. It’s dangerous, and it could happen anywhere at any time.