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A quarter century after Practical Magic was first published, Alice Hoffman has written the final volume in her series.Alyssa Peek/Handout

When Alice Hoffman sat down to write a book about two sisters from a family with a genetic predisposition for magic, she had no inkling of the spell Practical Magic would cast over readers. “I thought it was just going to be a single book,” the author says over the phone from her home in Boston. “If I had known it was going to be a series, I would maybe have done a big outline. Although maybe it would have been less interesting that way.”

A quarter century after it was published – and two further instalments of the Owens’ story tracing subsequent generations’ paths, plus a prequel, later – Hoffman has written the final volume in the series, The Book of Magic.

If ever there was a series of books to devour in the spookily liminal days around Halloween, when they say the veil between worlds is particularly thin, this is it. The Book of Magic plus a rainy October night when the wind is howling? Deliciously spine-tingling, goose-bumping heaven.

“If I had written all the books over five years when I was younger, I don’t think they would have been the same,” Hoffman, 69, says of the decades-long creative arc. “I’ve gotten to have a fuller picture of the family, at these different ages. It’s also been nice to have them in my life for so long.”

This beguiling, moving final book begins with Jet (one of those aunts, now a woman in her 70s) hearing the death-watch beetle in her library, a sign every witch knows means someone has just seven days to live. Miles away, her great-niece Kylie realizes she’s fallen in love with her college boyfriend, unwittingly triggering the curse that has plagued the Owens women for three hundred years: To love someone is to lose them.

When Kylie, whose mother concealed her heritage from her to protect her, understands what she’s done, she’s determined to do whatever she must to save the man she loves – even if it means losing herself to dark magic in the process. For the rest of the Owens women, their mission is to save Kylie, which ultimately means breaking the curse that has seen tragedy repeat itself over and over in their own lives. In this, however, we see that love must also involve loss.

“I cried a lot while writing it, and again while reading it,” says Hoffman, whose conversation is as filled with warmth and wit as her books. Still, it felt right to end the series where she did. And unlike readers, she has the author’s privilege of holding this entire universe in her imagination. “For me, it’s the closure of the story, but not the characters’ lives,” she explains. “It’s like saying goodbye to friends that are moving away. It’s not like you’ll never hear from them again.”

Handout

Of the three generations of the Owens family, was there a character who challenged you the most? In writing them, or understanding them?

I did not have that at all with that series. I’ve certainly had that at other times, but with this, from the minute I started writing they just walked in and they were themselves.

A lot of writers talk about that thing of characters just “coming to you,” fully formed. What does that actually look like for you?

I don’t see a physical form. It’s hard to explain this, but it’s a bit like what you do as a reader. You imagine the person. You don’t see them standing in front of you. You’re feeling their feelings. I’m not seeing my characters so much as I’m feeling them. I’m writing them from the inside out.

Sisterhood is a thread running through these stories. Each generation – Jet and Franny, Sally and Gillian, Kylie and Antonia – has a pair of sisters who have to learn to relate to each other.

I don’t have a sister, so it was a great writing experience to figure out what it was like to have a sister. I can’t explain how I do that other than that it’s magic. That’s kind of what writing fiction is all about, being able to imagine yourself in different circumstances and in a different life. It’s also what being a reader is about. When you read a book and a character is not like you, you’re able to see the you inside of them, and you can relate to them by reading about them.

That’s why reading is so great – we all bring different things to that reading experience. What I see in my imagination will look so different to what you might.

It’s half the writer, half the reader, and the book is nothing without either. It’s the only art form that’s really like that, which is why it was so attractive to me when I was a young reader.

The Practical Magic series has a passionate readership. Did you think about them at all when you were crafting this ending?

Usually, I don’t think about that. I only think about the book, and I don’t think about anyone reading it in the future. This time, it started because the readers asked for more books. I didn’t think about them when I was doing the actual writing, but in thinking about starting to write it, I thought a lot about the readers and their connection with the characters. Not necessarily what they would want, but what would feel right and feel good to read.

Did that make you self-conscious as you wrote?

No. I’m self-conscious in the real world, not the writing world. [laughs]

We say goodbye to a few characters, which many readers will mourn. Did those losses just have to happen?

Well, I think it happens in life. This book is the life of the Owens family, and you have happy things and sad things, and losses and gains. I just followed their real lives, even though they’re fictional.

Speaking of “real life,” the magic in these books is quite literally “practical magic,” used for rather quotidian things like healing potions. The series never escalates into some kind of saga of “witches versus vampires” in the way that other books with magic in them tend to. You could imagine the Owens really could live next door.

I wanted it to feel like everyday magic, like the things that are magical are also things like falling in love, or sisterhood, or faith. It’s not just magic as spells and herbs.

There’s a growing interest in magic and witchcraft, particularly in places on the Internet like #Witchtok. Why do you think there’s still such a pull toward it?

It’s an ongoing line from the beginning of time. Very often, women find strength in the mythic figure of the witch, who is a female character with power. Now, more than ever, I think that would be attractive to people.

There is just something compelling in this idea that as women we might have some secret power available to us.

And the power may be the ability to have deep relationships, or give birth, or help someone heal. That’s all part of that sense of what a witch is.

These books are filled with so many wonderful details about how a witch might live, like the fact that they wear red shoes, or always carry something blue for protection. Where did you collect those nuggets?

They’re things that I’ve researched. I read a lot, I have a lot of magic books. I try to keep it as “real” as possible, meaning based on some actual spell or was used in some place. I also try to never put anything in there that’s dangerous.

Do you subscribe to any of those superstitions yourself? Like, do you think those magic books you use for research have something more to them than your average book?

A lot of what The Book of Magic is about is that words are magic, and books are magic. Words are the strongest magic of all. I felt that pretty strongly when I was writing Magic Lessons [the story of the Owens’ 17th-century ancestor, Maria] when I found out that 95 per cent of women at that time were illiterate. The idea of words having power, and being literate giving you power, is really important. Even chants and incantations and spoken spells – it’s all about words. For me, as somebody who loves words and writing, that feels real.

You’ve written over 30 books. What have you learned about writing over that time?

People who make things are driven to make them. You have to want to take something and create something out of something horrible or loss or whatever. When I was starting out, I learned that if you want to write, you have to write. That’s the basic part. If you don’t do it, it can’t happen.

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