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In 1960s New York, Witchy Women Learn 'The Rules Of Magic'

Two witchy sisters, a family curse on love and lots of potions and hexes: author Alice Hoffman is returning to the story of the Owens family.

She introduced the fictional family in the 1995 novel Practical Magic, which was turned into a film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. Now, in The Rules Of Magic, we go backward in time to learn the histories of the aunts in that saga.

"I'm just interested in what makes a family, and going back in history to see," Hoffman says. "I always feel like you can never really know certain people in your family – your mother, your father, your aunts – because you didn't know them when they were young."

Hoffman locates the Owens clan in the New York City of the 1960s, where sisters Francis and Jet come of age alongside their brother Vincent – and learn that they might have magical powers.

Interview Highlights

On introducing the character Vincent, who did not appear in Practical Magic

It wasn't really my choice, you know? I think sometimes you're writing and all of a sudden it just happens. And Vincent just arrived, with some secrets of his own ... It's interesting, because it's about finding out about yourself, and he didn't know some things about himself, and I didn't know certain things. So we discovered it together as writer and character.

It was not planned at all. I never knew [the Owens aunts] had a brother.

On the prevalent belief in magic in early New York City

I didn't really realize that in colonial America, and in colonial New York, magic was rampant. There were astrologists ... There was so much magic going on in early New York, and you kind of never hear that.

It's always the secret history, because it's the history of women. It isn't written down — it's just told. It's an oral tradition. That's true.

On setting the story in 1960s New York

Well, for one thing, I didn't realize it at the time – I always feel like the writer is last to know pretty much anything — but I really feel there's this kinship between the '60s and right now. Going back in time, I had a lot of the same feelings that I have right now. I think it's really an important thing to go back and look at what we did in the '60s, how the world changed: how it changed for women, how it changed for gays and lesbians, how people work to make it change.

But for me, you know, that was the time period when I was young. I lived through it, and I actually remember a lot of it. And I think it's just an amazing time in our history.

On witches as feminist icons

When I was doing the research about what had happened during the Salem witch trials, it was very interesting that so many of the women who were arrested, who were persecuted, were either single or they owned real estate. They were independent, mostly. They weren't poor. They were women who kind of lived on their own, but they lived on kind of the fringes.

Witches appeal, still appeal to little girls who dress up for Halloween. There's something about the power that witches have – the power and also kind of the knowledge, and the storytelling. And I think what a witch is has been really twisted – witches really were healers throughout time.

Camilo Garzón and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

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Lulu Garcia-Navarro
Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.