We’re huge fans of Alice Hoffman and Practical Magic here, and we were thrilled to do a whole Practical Magic–themed issue two years ago to celebrate Hoffman’s prequel Rules of Magic, which came out in autumn 2018 and told the backstory of everyone’s favorite magical aunts. We shared an excerpt from the book and all manner of Hoffman-esque wonders, including recipes for tipsy chocolate cake and midnight margaritas, a checklist for living like the aunts, an original fairy tale by Hoffman with accompanying knitting pattern by Lisa Hoffman, a broom tutorial, and, of course, many many spells. Plus Hoffman celebrated the witch generally and how “mythic stories and fairy tales remind us of a time when women refused to conform to society’s ideas of what they should be. The witch is not a mother or a daughter or a queen, but she’s our sister, a soul sister who resides deep inside each of us.” Yes!
Now she’s penned a third novel in the Owens universe—Magic Lessons, out in October 2020—this time going back to the day of the clan’s matriarch, Maria Owens, who was charged with witchery in Salem for loving the wrong man back in 1680. Below we ask Hoffman a few questions about the book and afterward share the opening pages.
Enchanted Living: When you wrote Practical Magic, did you plan to do a series?
Alice Hoffman: I never planned to write a series. My readers are the ones who suggested it to me, and I thought it was a great idea.
EL: What was the inspiration for Magic Lessons?
AH: I was interested in the way the family began, and so I went back to tell Maria’s story in the 1600s, a dangerous time to be a woman and a witch.
EL: How did you research the book?
AH: I have a great magic library. I’ve been collecting magic books over the years, and it’s now one of my treasures.
EL: What are some of the magic lessons in the book?
AH: There are remedies and cures of all sort, based on folk magic around the world. And then there are also lessons about how to live your life that the characters learn over time.
EL: Do you believe in magic and incorporate magic into your life?
AH: The big magic in my life is reading. That’s the way that I’ve escaped and traveled to other worlds.
EL: Who is Maria Owens to you? You’ve lived with her for so long.
AH: I’ve been writing about the Owens family for twenty-five years. I very much identify with Maria, and I only wish I was as strong as she, and as brave.
EL: Do you have more books planned?
AH: Yes, I’m actually working on the fourth and probably final book that takes place
in the here and now and follows Sally and Gillian, along with Sally’s daughters.
EL: You’ve talked to us about witches before. Can you talk a bit more about them and how your perspective might have strengthened or shifted?
AH: If anything, writing about Maria and her experiences during the time of the Salem trials has strengthened my tie to the tradition of the Nameless Art.
EL: The theme of this issue is “natural magic.” What does that mean to you?
AH: For me, natural magic means folk magic, green magic, using the natural world around us to affect health and change.
EL: Do you have any spells or rituals?
AH: I definitely have rituals, especially around writing. Wake up early and drink Courage tea.
EL: How do you stay enchanted?
AH: Reading is the best enchantment.
She was found on a January day in a field where the junipers grew, wound in a blue blanket with her name carefully stitched along the border with silk thread. There was a foot of snow on the ground, but the sun was strong and whoever had named the child Maria had most assuredly loved her, for the wool of the blanket was of a very fine grade, certain to keep her warm, and she’d been well cared for, not lacking for comfort or food. She was a quiet baby, but as the day passed she began to fuss and then, at last, to cry, doing so unfailingly and with great effort, until at last a crow came to perch on her basket, peering at her with its quick black eyes.
That was how the old woman discovered the abandoned child, staring at a bird nearly as large as herself, fearless and wide-eyed from the start. Maria was a beautiful baby, with pitch-black hair and pale grey eyes, a silvery shade so unusual the old woman wondered if she wasn’t a changeling, for this low-country in England was a place where strange things happened and fate could be a friend or a foe. Changeling or not, Hannah Owens carried the baby back into the woods, singing as they went, the first human words the baby would remember.
The water is wide I cannot get oe’r it
And neither have I wings to fly
Give me a boat that will carry two
And I shall row, my Love and I.
O down in the meadows the other day
Agathering flowers both fine and gay
Agathering flowers, both red and blue,
I little thought of what love could do.
In the child’s first days at Hannah’s cottage, the insistent bird beat his wings against the cloudy, pitted glass window, doing his best to be let in. He could not be chased off with pails of vinegar and water nor with shouts and threats. One could hardly toss stones at such a loyal, insistent creature. The crow had been allowed to stay and was called Cadin, a named derived from Maria’s baby talk name of Cawcaw. Whenever the weather turned foul, he settled onto the wooden perch kept beside the sooty fire. There he cleaned his gleaming feathers and kept a sharp eye on Maria “I suppose he’s yours,” Hannah had said to the baby in her basket when seven days had passed and the crow had not left his post on the fence surrounding the garden, not even to eat or drink. “Or perhaps you’re his.”
Hannah knew full well that you do not chose a familiar, it chooses you, bonding with you in a way no other creature can. Hannah, herself, had long ago made a pet of a she-cat that had followed her everywhere, a pretty marmalade colored tabby with lovely markings, a beloved familiar that was in tune with her thoughts and desires. On the day Hannah was let out of prison, she found the cat nailed to the door of her house in the village. That’s what her neighbors had done while she’d been imprisoned, as well as robbing her of the few belongings she’d had, a feather mattress, some pots and pans, a quill pen the nuns had given her when she left the convent. Hannah carried the cat with her into the woods, and buried it in the green hollow where she had camped before her cottage was built, a glade she called Devotion Field where bluebells grew in the spring and celedine shone through the last of the winter frost in a carpet of white and yellow stars. The beauty of that meadow reminded Hannah of the reasons to live in the world, and the reasons to mistrust those who saw wickedness in others, but never in themselves. The natural world was at the heart of her craft, what grew in the woods could harm or heal, and it was her obligation to know the difference. It was part of old Norse tradition, Seidhr, that had been brought to England in the ancient times. This was green magic, visionary in nature, blending the soul of the individual with the soul of the earth.
Holly should be burned to announce the end of winter. Rowan, sacred to witches for protection for making spindles and spinning wheels.
Hazel will lead to water.
Willow is sacred magic, transporting the soul.
Yew signifies life, death and rebirth, used for bows. Beware: the seeds are poisonous.
Ash is sacred and healing, the leaves make a tonic for horses. Apple is the key to magic and is used for medicine, love spells Birch, write spells on strips of bark and they will reach their intended.
Pine tree sap is a salve for pox and spotted fever.
The leaves of the larch tree boiled as an ointment for wounds and cuts.
Hemlock will cure swellings and sores.
It was indeed good fortune that the child had been found by Hannah and not by another, for there were many in Essex county that would have disposed of an unwanted baby as easily as they’d have drowned a cat. Hannah was a kind and generous soul, and she didn’t think twice before giving the baby a home and, as it turned out, a great deal more. She stitched a blue dress for the child, for good fortune and protection and tied a strand of blue wool around her ankle.
Visit Alice Hoffman online at alicehoffman.com. Find Magic Lessons wherever books are sold.