A spirited writer and a story with wings: A Q&A with novelist Roy Hoffman

“For whatever reason it is, my internal compass always swings to the Gulf Coast, to Mobile and Fairhope and this environment, when I sit down and begin to write imaginatively.”

Roy Hoffman, comfortable in a carefree shirt and mellow khakis, sunlight pouring in through the restaurant’s big window and bay breezes ruffling the pink blossoms soon to pop outside, is talking in a free and easy way about his Gulf Coast homeplace, his craft, his inspirations, and his new novel, “The Promise of the Pelican,” being released on Tuesday, March 15.

One of the state’s best-known writers, Hoffman has been spinning stories in his head, and committing them to paper, both as a novelist and a journalist, for more than 40 years. Along the way he has collected a Lillian Smith Book Award as well as a Clarence E. Cason Award in Nonfiction Writing from the University of Alabama College of Communication.

“The Promise of the Pelican” is Hoffman at his best: Adventurous, soulful, perceptive, tender, gutsy and wise. It’s both a literary crime novel set in Hoffman’s charming Fairhope, and a journey into a gritty world of immigrant people who can be found toiling and sweating in anonymity — roofers, cooks, housecleaners, field hands, landscapers — from one end of Alabama to the other.

Roy Hoffman’s “The Promise of the Pelican” is published by Simon & Schuster imprint Arcade Crimewise.Simon & Shuster

At 68, Hoffman has no intention of powering down and letting his keyboard collect dust; rather he suggests a determination to press ahead with deliberate speed to accomplish all manner of new projects. The possibilities are many, and, to hear him talk, invigorating.

On a recent day, Hoffman sat down for a question-and-answer session about his new novel, to tell how it came to be and what he hopes that readers will discover inside of it. The following presentation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: Where did you get the idea for this book?

Hoffmann: For many years now, I have been interested in the stories of newcomers to Alabama. My own grandparents were Eastern European Jews who ended up on Dauphin Street 100 years ago in downtown Mobile and I grew up with a strong sense of connection to that world.

In the case of my 2004 novel “Chicken Dreaming Corn,” it was very much inspired by the story of an old shopkeeper in Mobile, young when he began, and people here from Lebanon, Cuba, Poland and Greece, as a way of not only telling their stories but reflecting on the South and the America that they found.

In my 2014 novel, “Come Landfall,” I engaged characters who were from southeast Asia. Some of the characters were here and along the Gulf Coast because they were the Vietnamese boat people. They had come in the ’70s and ’80s after the wars.

Now, in these times we’re in, what could be more present and more pressing than the stories of people from Central America?

When I was young, in high school, there were two things that served me well, in addition to learning to read and write better. One was typing. The other was Spanish. And over the years I’ve traveled in Spanish-speaking countries, certainly down in Central America. And as I began to think about a new story to write, I wanted a tale that reflected, as best I could, something of the Latin American experience. I’m also of a background, being Jewish, being born and raised in this country, and having had a dad, Charles Hoffman, who practiced law in Mobile until he was 97 years old, to be very attuned to the experience of the Jewish community.

Roy Hoffman's

In October 1999, Roy Hoffman, then a journalist with the Press-Register in Mobile, traveled on assignment from his editors to Honduras, to explore and write about the tragic aftermath of the terrible Hurricane Mitch that had taken over 11,000 lives in Latin America a year earlier. That trip – and heartrending visits to ramshackle refugee camps such as the one in this photo – planted a seed in Hoffman’s mind that, two decades later, blossomed within his new novel, “The Promise of the Pelican.” Roy Hoffman, Press-Register archivesRoy Hoffman/Press-Register

So I began to develop two central characters: Hank, who is in his 80s when we meet him, raised in Selma, a graduate of the University of Alabama and its law school, who moved South to the Gulf Coast, raised his family, semi -retired to the Eastern Shore. And who was a child of the Holocaust in Amsterdam. And his counterpart, so to speak, an opposing force in the plot itself, is a young Honduran man, in his 20s, who works in groundskeeping and gardening in a fictional resort hotel along Mobile Bay, and who finds himself experiencing one afternoon something that will change his life dramatically.

Q: Fairhope is very familiar to you, obviously, as your home. Still, what led you to set your story in Fairhope?

Hoffmann: My wife Nancy and I love to travel. And I love to do travel writing and such. I have written about India and I have written about France. But for whatever reason it is, my internal compass always swings to the Gulf Coast, to Mobile and Fairhope and this environment, when I sit down and begin to write imaginatively.

I’m not of the conviction that I can only write about his place. But my instinct is to write about this place. Its sensuality, its tropical weather, its verve, its water, its hurricanes, its foliage, its rich atmosphere, its oppressive heat in the summer: I guess it gets not only into my skin, but my psyche.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?

Hoffmann: The most challenging aspect of this in terms of character was really to feel that I had done justice to a young Honduran man — I’m not of that culture. I’m not his age from him – and to his sister from him, who becomes an important character, integral to the plot. And one of the big debates that goes on now, in the United States, is about what’s called cultural appropriation. How far can you go out of your own orbit of experience to get into the experiences of people from other cultures? How authentic can you be? So to a large degree, it becomes a leap of faith. But I also created the characters. And I created Julio and his sister, Lupita, in a way that I began to feel that I understood them and what they were up against.

The other thing was keeping the plot moving. I had at least three storylines, and several characters, and 57 short chapters. One of the biggest challenges to a writer of fiction is to get the reader to get up out of his or her de ella or their reading chair de ella, and decide, in their mind de ella, to go with you. Because it’s really simple to close the book and move on to something else.

Q: What do you hope that readers take away, in their hearts, from this novel?

Hoffmann: I want them to think about what it means to consider people of different cultures, of different backgrounds. The South and much of America is caught between being the most welcoming place you can imagine – “Come on in! Have a seat!” — and a place that has been too often characterized by that term xenophobia, fear of the outsider – “Who are you? Get off my land! What are you doing here?

So I want readers to see people for who they are. To work toward peace, prosperity, and justice for all. To get to know “the other,” by that I mean people who are of different backgrounds, sensibilities, colors. And also to have a good read, to be transported by the story.

Q: What is your writing process like?

Hoffmann: In my back pocket I always keep a notebook. Wherever I am, if I’m sitting in a cafe or waiting in line at the store, or putting my feet up on my porch, I have my notebook right there, ready to compose. And to compose in a way that’s free and open. And to make notes along the way.

Roy Hoffman's

As the sunset turns the surface of Mobile Bay a brilliant orange, to the human eye, a solitary pelican takes off, its webbed feet pushing against the water to give it lift. The pelican, writes Roy Hoffman in an author’s note in his new novel, “The Promise of the Pelican,” has inspired the world’s people since long-ago times, being famed, by legend, for piercing his own breast for blood to feed starving girls. Press-Register archivesJon Hauge/Press-Register file

Take for example this book: If I have the intimation that there’s going to be a scene in which Hank, who loves to go and throw his net on Fairhope Pier, meets someone new there, then I might play out that dialogue in my notebook to see how that happens. Or if there’s going to be a recollection that Julio has about when he was a boy and Hurricane Mitch was coming, then I will kind of lose myself in a way that’s like daydreaming and put it all down. And then I’ll type it up.

I’ve made the mistake of waiting until I’d written like hundreds of pages of script, and then I’m like, “What did I mean here?” So I type it up and I begin to have a document, something that’s actual. It begins to feel real.

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Hoffmann: I have two sayings that I like to quote for writers. One is what Henry James said, “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.” Everything goes into the experience of becoming a writer. A good day, a bad day. To romance, to breakup. A success, a failure. Even some of the hardest experiences we have to deal with, sickness and loss. Not that you have to be there taking notes, but it’s all part of the human condition, the parade of humanity.

The other saying is “Everyone has a story to tell.” That’s very democratic, that’s very sustaining. If you are a writer or want to be a writer and you are sitting at your desk looking at your computer screen and you say, “I have nothing to write. I have nothing to say,” then turn the computer off, go out the door, go down to the Fairhope Pier, listen to the old guys talking about their lives. Or engage people that you know, older people in your own family, somebody who’s a war vet. People are just filled with stories. It doesn’t matter who they are, how accomplished or successful they are. Each person is a miracle and each person has a story to tell.

MEET ROY HOFFMAN

At least three upcoming author events are on the calendar in Alabama to celebrate Roy Hoffman and his new novel, “The Promise of the Pelican.” All are free and open to the public.

  • Tuesday, March 15, Alabama Booksmith in Homewood, 2626 19th Place South. Starts at 5 p.m.
  • Thursday, March 24, Page & Palette in Fairhope, 32 S. Section St. Hours: 6-8 pm
  • Tuesday, April 5, Mobile’s West Regional Library, 5555 Grelot Road. Hours: 6:30-8 p.m.

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