This week, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscripts Library celebrated nine accomplished modern writers with the inaugural Windham-Campbell Prize. Among this year’s recipients is nonfiction author Adina Hoffman, who embraces her American and Jewish roots to write with a unique worldview. Harold Bloom called her most recent book, “Sacred Trash,” “a small masterpiece.” WEEKEND had the chance to meet up with Hoffman to discuss her work, her prize and what it means to write great nonfiction.
Q. Yesterday, you received the Windham-Campbell Prize for your nonfiction work. How does that feel?
A. Terrific, obviously! Period, full stop. Being a writer is often a very lonely job. You’re alone at your desk most of the day, and much of the time you have no idea if what you’re writing will be of any interest to anyone else at all, so it is wonderful to have this kind of affirmation and support.
Q. What do you believe makes a great nonfiction work?
A. That’s a very hard question to answer. There are all kinds of things that make a wonderful nonfiction work and not every wonderful work of nonfiction has those things. I would say first and foremost a rigorous attention both to fact and to language.
Q. What inspires you as a writer?
A. The world inspires me. I started my writing life as a fiction writer, but I quickly understood as a young writer that there was nothing I could make up that would be nearly as fascinating and rich as the world around me. I tend to write about the Middle East, and so it was my initial encounter with Jerusalem and the incredibly fascinating and surprising range of characters who lived on my street that made me want to write about real people, and not to attempt to make things up. I believe that the imagination works in all kinds of ways, and only one of those ways entails fabrication of plot and character wholesale. I’m much more interested in the depiction of reality as I encounter it.
Q. You’ve written many works concerning Jerusalem. You have a unique perspective as an author who has lived in both the United States and the Middle East. Is there a work that you are perhaps most proud of?
A. I’m proud of all my books in different ways. The book “My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness,” which is the life and times of the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, is one that I’m very proud of. It was a huge undertaking, and when I began, I did not realize just how huge of an undertaking it would be. I thought I was writing about one remarkable man and a remarkable writer, but it turned out that I was really writing about his whole world. He became the anchor for a much larger story about his village, which was destroyed in 1948, and about the world that he lived in after 1948. He remained in Israel but was a Palestinian, so I ended up writing about him as both an extraordinary figure and an ordinary figure.
Q. Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? What is it like to take these stories that you have experienced and researched and to bring them to life in a nonfiction work?
A. There is no recipe. Each project is different and it is hard to give a general answer. The book that I am writing now, which is about Jerusalem during the British mandate, has entailed a great deal of archival research, but that’s really just the beginning because once you have all this material in hand — all of these letters and diaries and photographs — you then need to figure out how to turn them into a compelling narrative, again not by making things up, but by really using the glue of your imagination to piece all the different parts together. It’s very hard to describe the writing process per se — you simply feel your way. You try to be extremely rigorous with yourself. You don’t take no for an answer, and you don’t settle for easy answers. I have to say that it’s not just the material itself that interests me; it’s really what is done with the material. To be a writer, a good writer, means to bear down on every single word and every single sentence and every single paragraph so that a work of art emerges. And I do believe that it is possible to write artful prose that is also documentary.
Q. What would your advice be to aspiring writers at Yale?
A. Work very hard, read a great deal, and be honest with yourself about what you want as a writer. There are all kinds of ways to be a writer. I think that often one thinks of certain forms as being more worthwhile or valuable than other forms, but that’s not true at all. One of the first questions you asked was about what makes a good work of nonfiction, and I think there are as many possible kinds of works of nonfiction as there are writers and the same is true of fiction, or of playwriting, or of poetry.
Q. The Windham-Campbell Prize comes with a $150,000 grant. Do you have a future project in mind or plans on what you’re going to do with the grant?
A. I’ll write this book that I’m writing now, which is about Jerusalem, and I will use it to live on and to write with. I’m not planning any expensive skiing vacations. This is money that will allow me to sit at my desk and work very hard. There are no guarantees, and winning a prize is wonderful, but it doesn’t mean that the next chapter will be any easier. It does take a certain pressure off financially. It also is a kind of confirmation that something you’ve done in the past has worked, but you’re still left alone with the page at the end of the day. Not to sound ungrateful — I’m incredibly grateful for this prize — but I think it’s necessary also to remain humble.