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The Probable Future


The Probable Future Cover

ISBN13: 9780345455918
ISBN10: 0345455916
Condition: Standard
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Author Q & A

A Conversation with Alice Hoffman

Jennifer Morgan Gray is a writer and editor who lives in New York City.

Jennifer Morgan Gray: The title The Probable Future has many possible meanings. What did you hope to convey about the permanence—and changeability—of destiny by choosing this title? Were there any others you considered and then discarded during the writing process?

Alice Hoffman: Finding the right title is much like being givena gift. The title arrived during the writing of the novel. I realized in the process that “seeing the future” is impossible. There are thousands of possible futures all dependent on

choice and circumstance.

JMG: Did you begin the novel with a particular image, situation, or idea in mind? Or was there one character in particular that sparked your imagination for this book?

AH: The novel began with the image of a young girl who awakes on her thirteenth birthday with a “gift”—the ability to see the way some people will die. The impact of such a gift interested me. I wrote the novel after a period in which I lost many people I loved, including my mother, and I was trying to make some sense out of how unpredictable life and death are.

JMG: I was struck by the significance of names in the book, including Stella, Sparrow, and Unity, to name just a few. Did you write the book with these names already in place, or did you choose them later as the story unfolded?

AH: Names most often come with the character for me. If I ever have to change a name for any reason (repetition, another character in another book with the same name) I’m completely thrown—it’s almost as if characters are “born” with their names.

JMG: The town of Unity is as vivid a character as any of the people in the story. Did you base Unity on an actual town, or was it in some ways an amalgam of what a small New England town should be? In which ways is it idyllic? What flaws does it possess?

AH: The town of Unity was named in much the same way as the characters—it arrived along with the place—and of course it is ironic, as the town is torn in two. There is an official history and an unofficial history. One excludes the contributions

of women, such as the Sparrows. That’s the history I’m interested in.

JMG: Many of your novels are rooted in the tradition of magic. In writing The Probable Future, how did you manage to blur the lines between fantasy and reality but still make the plot events seem plausible? How do you trust your readers to

make that leap and still identify with—and relate to—your characters?

AH: I feel that the tradition of literature, of storytelling, is rooted in magic. Realism seems to me a newer, less interesting tradition. I grew up reading fairy tales, science fiction, fantasy. As far as making the leap to belief, as soon as a reader opens a

book he or she must suspend belief—marks on paper become a real world. The next leap, to identify and relate with fantastical occurrences, seems easy to me. The sort of magic I write about is that which is rooted in the real world—the probable and the possible.

JMG: Stella veers from being a recalcitrant thirteen-year-old to a young woman who is wise far beyond her years. How did you strike that balance in evoking her personality, and how did writing her character pose a challenge? Why do you think that many people in Unity are drawn to her, despite her troubled past and notorious family history?

AH: I’ve always felt that adolescence is what makes the person. That time is the most intense, the most difficult, the most amazing time in a person’s life. In the beginning of the novel Stella is a child; by the end we can see the woman she will

become. I think we are drawn to her because she’s true to herself, she’s fearless in an emotional sense.

JMG: This story is told from many points of view. What made you decide to employ this method? Who do you feel is the most reliable narrator of the story? Is there one person who you feel forms the “heart” of The Probable Future?

AH: I’m not sure the writer chooses the story. I think it’s more that the story chooses the writer. I think the heart of The Probable Future comes in thirteen parts—all of the Sparrow women. Because the novel is the story of a town, there are many points of view, all of which flow together into one history.

JMG: It has “additions added on like frosting,” you write of Cake House. This statement also could be a description of the multilayered aspects of the novel. Did you envision Cake House as a physical embodiment of the novel’s shape while

you were writing? How does the house function as a symbol— both good and bad—to the Sparrow women and to the inhabitants of Unity?

AH: I think Cake House is symbolic of history and the way history is told. Story upon story, fact upon fact. The novel is an “anti-history,” if you will, taking history apart and examining the pieces that make up the town of Unity’s past.

JMG: A theme that threads through the book is the strong links of family—and how those bonds can be created by more than blood ties alone. Was there one relationship that you found the most compelling to create? Which was the most

frustrating to write?

AH: Because I began the book soon after my mother died, I was thinking about the complicated and amazing relationship between mother and daughter. It seemed to me that motherdaughter relationships are in constant motion—the way you feel about your mother at sixteen can be radically different from the way you feel about

her at sixty. I was always interested in the importance of grandmothers

and how they enrich one’s life. I was extremely close with my grandmother Lillie. She was the intermediary between me and my mother for many years, and I think girls often feel close to their grandmothers in a way they can’t in a mother-daughter relationship. There’s a freedom, an easing up, a friendship. Those of us who have or had such relationships with a grandmother know how lucky we


JMG: In interviews, you’ve said that your own experiences with illness affected your rendering of Elinor and her battle with cancer. How did your own experience shape her character? How does Elinor learn to live with illness? In which ways does being sick open her mind and her heart, especially in her relationships with her family and with Brock Stewart?

AH: I feel that illness can define you. In illness one has the opportunity to try to spend the rest of one’s life as the person he or she wants to become. Sometimes, of course, this isn’t possible—pain, circumstance, violence can be forced upon someone. But sometimes it is possible to let your illness lead you to an understanding of the world you didn’t have, and couldn’t have, before your illness. I think my experiences with those I loved in times of dire illness and dying, although filled with sorrow and pain, have been the experiences that have taught me the most about what it means to be human. As for my own illness, as a breast cancer survivor I have met amazing women, those who survived and those who didn’t, who have enriched my life in ways I could not have imagined. I’m in awe of these women, including many of my readers whom I’ve met when on book tours. The character of Elinor revealed her illness to me during my writing of the book, and I think she saw her dying as a chance to right some of the wrongs in her life, to throw off pride and ego, and get to the heart of her life: those she loved. Her family and friends.

JMG: This book is steeped in history, especially that of Unity itself. Did the story of the town come first, or did the tales of the present-day characters? Along the same lines, how did you create the history of the thirteen generations of Sparrow

women, and that of Rebecca Sparrow in particular? Did you extensively research the era of the Salem witch trials in order to effectively convey her story?

AH: Stella Sparrow came to me first, in the here and now. But no character comes unencumbered by a personal history— just as no person does. The ghosts we carry with us, the ideas and experience of our ancestors, reverberate in the present. The theme of witches and witchcraft for me often has more to do with women’s history than with spells and magic. That women have drawn strength from controlling health—medical issues, birth issues—has also made them threatening. The same is true for “witches”—strong women in touch with the natural world. Women who can’t be controlled are often viewed as dangerous. I always find it amusing to see, even still, how many little girls dress up as witches on Halloween. There’s a pull to “our” history: brave, mysterious, powerful.

JMG: Each of the Sparrow women becomes embroiled in a romance of sorts that she wouldn’t normally have considered. How do the men who surround Elinor, Jenny, and Stella—including Will, Matt, Brock, Jimmy, and Hap—act as foils to

them? How do they complement them? How does the women’s choice of men affect their evolution as characters? Or do you think that they really have a choice in the matter?

AH: I thought of The Probable Future as my own version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—everyone is with the “wrong” person, who at first seemed “right.” The mystery of love, who you fall in love with, and why, is endlessly fascinating. I think behind all these pairings in The Probable Future is the sense that love is not only blind, it’s dumb! The choices you make can be based on what you“think” you should want, who you “think” you should be. That’s what some of the characters in the novel discover, thankfully, before it’s too late.

JMG: At the end of the novel, Jenny and Stella are grappling with death, yet they seem both truly alive and in tune with each other. Did you picture this hopeful conclusion from the outset? How do you envision their continued development,

both in relation to the outside world and to one another?

AH:When I begin a novel I don’t predict a conclusion. That isthe fun of fiction for me—the journey of discovering who the characters are and how their lives will turn out. They often surprise me and start to make their own decisions. That’s how I know the writing is going well. But I do think that by the end of the novel Stella and her mother, Jenny, are amazed to find that they can view each other as “people,” not just as extensions of one another as “mother” or “daughter” but as complex and fascinating women.

JMG: Is there a particular subject or topic that’s currently piquing your interest and imagination? What can readers look forward to reading next from you?

AH: I’ve just finished Blackbird House, interrelated fictions that all take place in the same house at the edge of Cape Cod from the late 1700s until the present. I have a little farm out on the Cape, which people said was haunted. In fact it stood empty and abandoned for several years, perhaps because of this. In my fiction, houses are often characters—they matter, they define the action and the people who live inside them. I realized that houses are indeed haunted—by their own pasts, by the lives that have been led in the same rooms you now live in, by the stories left behind. So I invented a history for my house. It was great fun for me to write and, in the end,

I love and appreciate my house even more than I did before.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 3 comments:

sentina, June 4, 2012 (view all comments by sentina)
I wrote about this before, and now I have more to say:

I was stunned by the deep insight into the minds of both men and women in this book, and I loved the way the author makes the current teen with her special power a very modern and realistic teenager.

The way Hoffman explores the challenging relationships between grandmother, mother, daughter, and the men in their lives, is quite moving and sometimes sad, especially when it isn't expressed until the end of someone's life.

These women all have exceptional and unique talents that they acquire upon their 13th birthdays, such as smelling a lie, seeing other people's dreams, and seeing how people will die. How they live with these in society is part of the challenge of their lives, as is figuring out how to use their powers for good.

The book also explores the "unofficial history" vs the official history of the town, looking at the ways these women affect the community beyond just facts, including the history of the persecution of "witches," one of the women's ancestors being one who died as one.

Set in New England where witch hunting was severe, this story is completely believable in that respect. Hoffman's descriptions of the environment are poetic and vivid, and you can almost feel the ghosts of persecuted "witches" in the air.

Hoffman says that she was trying to make some sense out of how unpredictable life and death are, to write about magic in the real world -- the possible and the probable future.

I thought it was wonderful, and it made me want to heal the female relationships in my family, as well as nurture and express my own unique insights and abilities.
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Sentina, January 23, 2012 (view all comments by Sentina)
Alice Hoffman has some of the most intriguing ways of using words and presenting images that I have ever read. For example, "... how it would end, with snow and silence on a brilliant afternoon," and "... the truth... once again melting in Will's mouth... so that every word came out twisted in an odd, untrustworthy shape." Sometimes I keep going back and reading such phrases over and over, they are so gripping to me.

The story takes place in current time, but goes back through several generations of the female side of the family, all the way back to when the first one was killed as a "witch," where each of the girls acquires a supernatural power on her 13th birthday, each one unique to that girl. In the story, there is only one girl born to each family, and for unexplained reasons, they apparently all keep the same matriarchal last name of Sparrow.

This book has something of a thoughtful, dreamy quality, with interesting and vivid descriptions of the Boston area in both historical and present contexts, in environment, weather, buildings, people, flowers, and sky. Marie Claire magazine is quoted as saying, "Hoffman's ethereal tale of a family of women with supernatural gifts is a magical escape, grounded in the complex relationships between mothers and daughters." Forth Worth Star-Telegram says that Hoffman has "... a beautiful sense of sentence construction, an intriguing imagination, and the ability to create compelling, complex characters that readers care about." I can't say it any better.

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(1 of 1 readers found this comment helpful)
tattoo_dancer, October 22, 2006 (view all comments by tattoo_dancer)
I love this book..even though I havn't finished it yet, it is really good. It's full of reality and enchantments...a must read!
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(12 of 22 readers found this comment helpful)
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Product Details

Hoffman, Alice
Ballantine Books
Mothers and daughters
Domestic fiction
General Fiction
Popular Fiction-Suspense
fiction;magical realism;fantasy;magic;new england;family;massachusetts;supernatural;witches;mothers and daughters;women;novel;contemporary fiction;love;literary fiction;romance;clairvoyance;american fiction;psychics;daughters;mothers;relationships;generat
fiction;magical realism;fantasy;magic;new england;family;massachusetts;supernatural;witches;mothers and daughters;women;novel;contemporary fiction;love;literary fiction;romance;clairvoyance;american fiction;psychics;daughters;mothers;relationships;generat
fiction;magical realism;fantasy;magic;new england;family;massachusetts;supernatural;witches;mothers and daughters;women;novel;contemporary fiction;love;literary fiction;romance;clairvoyance;american fiction;psychics;daughters;mothers;relationships;generat
fiction;magical realism;fantasy;magic;new england;family;massachusetts;supernatural;witches;mothers and daughters;women;novel;contemporary fiction;love;literary fiction;romance;clairvoyance;american fiction;psychics;daughters;mothers;relationships;generat
Edition Number:
Reprint ed.
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Ballantine Reader's Circle
Publication Date:
June 1, 2004
Grade Level:
8 x 5.15 x .69 in .625 lb

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Related Subjects

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The Probable Future Used Trade Paper
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Product details 352 pages Ballantine Books - English 9780345455918 Reviews:
"Review A Day" by , "At her best, Hoffman uses small miracles to signify a secular state of grace: in one particularly lovely passage, a doctor remembers coming to terms with death. But The Probable Future is mostly not Alice Hoffman at her best. Things are out of balance: too much magic, not enough realism." (read the entire TLS review)
"Review" by , "Hoffman's ethereal prose reflects the magic of her tale....Ultimately, the fantastic Swallow legend is utterly believable, even though you know it's only the magic of a gifted writer in her prime."
"Review" by , "By Part II, The Probable Future becomes The Predictable Novel. The charm wears off, despite Hoffman's continuous, vigorous crafting of imagery and casting of lyrical phrases."
"Review" by , "[S]himmering....[A] soft and dreamy tale of mothers and daughters, love and fate, that easily envelopes us in its enchanted realm....[T]here's no arguing with Hoffman's storytelling skills, the lyrical writing, the beautifully pieced plot."
"Review" by , "[O]verstuffed, ungainly, improbably absorbing....Enough stylish invention here for several novels, but this one's center cannot hold."
"Review" by , "The book could be an episode of Oprah: 'Good Witches Who Love the Wrong Men.' But fortunately, Hoffman is saved by her characters, who are nearly as complicated as their relationships with one another."
"Review" by , "Hoffman gives us another over-the-top yet thoroughly appealing fictional confection, with themes and settings that recall her Practical Magic....Filled with vivid (if sometimes sketchy) characters and cinematic descriptions of New England landscapes, this book will be a hit wherever Hoffman is in demand."
"Review" by , "Complexly constructed, with intertwined plots, memorable settings, and intriguing characters, this is a magnificent novel."
"Synopsis" by , By turns chilling and enchanting The Probable Future chronicles the Sparrows' legacy as young Stella struggles to cope with her disturbing clairvoyance. Culminating in an exquisite ending, this story showcases the lavish literary gifts that have made Hoffman one of America's most treasured writers.
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