When Jerusalem fell in 70 AD, hundreds of Jews journeyed through the desert and settled in the haven of Masada. In what is now southern Israel, Masada was an old fortress of King Herod's that sits atop an enormous rock plateau surrounded by steep cliffs.
"When I was there, I felt so moved and so connected," author Alice Hoffman tells Laura Sullivan, guest host of weekends on All Things Considered.
Hoffman was so struck by the beauty of Masada's rocky terrain, she says, that she chose to make it the backdrop in her new novel, The Dovekeepers.
A Tragic Tale
Back home in Boston, Hoffman began to read about Masada and learned that only two women and five children survived when the Romans laid siege there in 72 A.D. Before the Romans could break through its defenses, the community killed itself.
"As soon as I heard that, I felt that I'd found my novel," she says.
Hoffman has written almost 30 novels and many have been compared to modern-day fairy tales. The Dovekeepers, which follows four women and their fight to survive after the fall of Jerusalem, is her first foray into fiction with a historic backdrop.
"Many of the things in the book are artifacts that are found in the Masada Museum," Hoffman says. For instance, there's a tartan plaid fabric that belongs to one of the characters. "When I saw the artifacts that belonged to the real people who lived there — you know, the makeup, the makeup palettes, the amulets, the shoes — it really felt alive to me."
One of the main characters, Revka, is a baker's wife who saw her daughter murdered and was left to care for her grandchildren. Hoffman says it was difficult to write about the violence and the trauma, but she knew it was a fundamental part of the story.
"Beginning a book about Masada was the first time I knew, in a way, what the ending would be," Hoffman says. "I knew 900 Jews would commit mass suicide, and, for me, I had to find the hope within that."
The inside story, Hoffman says, is one of forgiveness. Although each of the women in her novel has been hurt, they all find some sort of solace in Masada.
LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan.
When Jerusalem fell in 70 A.D., a group of Jews journeyed through the desert and settled in a placed called Masada. It's an ancient fortress atop an enormous rock plateau surrounded by steep cliffs, and what is now southern Israel.
ALICE HOFFMAN: (Reading) Although it was said that Masada could never fall and that God had made this mountain for the purpose of our rebellion, I wondered how long we could endure a siege should the Romans come. The storerooms of the king could not sustain us forever. Herod's oil and wine and lintels had fed us, but they were no more. Now, the rats rolled the storerooms. It was rumored they had been brought here by the Romans, purposely left behind in case our people ever took back this fortress so they might bring us disaster, devouring what little we had left.
SULLIVAN: That's author Alice Hoffman reading from her new book "The Dovekeepers." Hoffman has written almost 30 novels, and many have been compared to modern-day fairy tales. "The Dovekeepers" is her first foray into fiction with a historic backdrop. This book follows four women and their fight to survive after the fall of Jerusalem.
Alice Hoffman joins me in our Washington, D.C., studio. Alice, thank you so much for coming in.
HOFFMAN: Oh, thank you.
SULLIVAN: In your research for this book, I understand you visited the Masada excavation site in Israel. Did you know when you went there that you were going to write a book about what you saw there, or did it come to you when you were there?
HOFFMAN: It came to me when I was there. I felt so moved and so connected. And then when I got home, I started to read about Masada, and I read Josephus' account - it's the only account of the fortress. And he said that two women and five children survived, and they were the ones who told the story to the Romans and to the rest of the world. And as soon as I heard that, I felt that I'd found my novel.
SULLIVAN: Now, this is the first time that you've really based one of your novels in a historical event.
HOFFMAN: Yes. It is. I've written teen novels that are historical novels. I wrote one about The Inquisition, and I wrote another one that took place during the Bronze Age. But this was a huge undertaking, and I had never done anything like this.
SULLIVAN: Was it hard to do the research? I mean, was it a new experience in a lot of ways?
HOFFMAN: Well, it was really difficult for me because, you know, I'm not a historian. I've been a visiting scholar at Brandeis, but I'm not a historian. And what was really interesting is that there's almost nothing about women in the ancient world. There are no stories. So in a way, that was very freeing for me to use archaeological evidence and create my own stories.
SULLIVAN: What kind of research did you do to put this book together?
HOFFMAN: Well, I did a lot of reading and I really used a lot of archaeological evidence. I think one of the reasons is my son is an archaeology student, so I was pulled into that arena. And many, many of the things that are in the book are artifacts that are found in the Masada Museum. For instance, there's a tartan plaid fabric that belongs to one of the characters in "The Dovekeeper." There's also the hair and shoes of a character. When I saw the artifacts that belonged to the real people who lived there - you know, the makeup, the makeup palettes, the amulets, the shoes - it really felt alive to me.
SULLIVAN: When you go through the process of developing these characters, which are all four very strong women, how do you find four such distinct personalities and keep them all separate in your own mind?
HOFFMAN: Well, they felt very, very separate to me, and it was only after I finished writing the book that I really realized that they really all are parts of me, that if I divided myself into quarters, it would be these four women.
SULLIVAN: Even the witch?
HOFFMAN: Oh, yeah. Definitely.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SULLIVAN: One of those four characters was Revka, who just had been through an extraordinary amount of trauma. Tell me more about her.
HOFFMAN: Yeah. Well, she's kind of the older, wise woman of the group who leads a perfectly normal life at the time and then a tragedy comes to her, as it does to most of us at some point. And she loses both her husband and her daughter, and her whole world is shaken, her whole belief system, her faith, everything. The only really reason that she survives is because she has grandchildren, and there's no one to take care of them but her.
SULLIVAN: I mean, her daughter died a horrible death, and her children for a long time couldn't speak because of it. Was it hard to write about that kind of torture and trauma?
HOFFMAN: It was very hard to write about it. And, you know, the funny thing for me - beginning a book about Masada was the first time I knew, in a way, what the ending was going to be. I knew 900 Jews would commit mass suicide. And for me, I had to find hope within that, the inside story, and I think I did that with these women.
SULLIVAN: I'm speaking with Alice Hoffman about her new book "The Dovekeepers." It tells a story of four women fighting for their lives after the fall of Jerusalem.
Aziza was raised as a boy. And then she became a very skilled fighter in the book.
SULLIVAN: What was your inspiration for her?
HOFFMAN: Well, you know, I actually think - I've been thinking about this for a long time because I had written a book about colonial Massachusetts. And when I read about people signing up for Massachusetts for the Civil War, I read about a lot of women who would disguise themselves as men and go to war sometimes to take the place of a man. And I've been thinking a lot about women as warriors, so it just was a natural progression to write about that in "The Dovekeepers."
SULLIVAN: Well, there isn't a lot of historical document that we would have of women being such heroic fighters and skilled fighters. And it could have been possible...
HOFFMAN: It could have been possible.
SULLIVAN: ...but we simply just don't know. And it's certainly not what we're all stepped in the knowledge. We always have this vision of the men fighting, especially during this time period.
HOFFMAN: And that's so true, that the story didn't come down to us. You know one of the books that I wrote for teens called "The Foretelling" that takes place in the Bronze Age is about a group of women warriors. Based on archeological finds again, these women were found in caves buried with their weapons and their horses. So what the true story of women as warriors really is, is very difficult to know.
SULLIVAN: Each of the women in this book have been hurt in some significant way...
HOFFMAN: Mm. Yeah.
SULLIVAN: ...but they all seem to find a sense of solace in Masada, with each other and coming together, and even in the end, even though the end is not necessarily a happy ending.
SULLIVAN: Did you intent to do that?
HOFFMAN: You know, I think very often, a writer doesn't know what she intends to do. And I think that there's an outside story and an inside story. And as I was writing, I think I discovered the inside story was all about forgiveness and the ability to forgive, which I find very difficult to do. But I think that's really at the core of all of these women stories.
SULLIVAN: So you've written almost 30 books...
SULLIVAN: ...so far. How - I mean, you must be writing these very fast.
HOFFMAN: I am a fast writer. I go over in my writing. I write lots of different drafts, but my initial draft usually is very fast. And I think that's because when I started out, I had a short story published and a very famous editor wrote to me and asked me if I had a novel. And I wrote back that day and said, yes I do, and I started writing.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HOFFMAN: And I wrote as fast as I could, and in six months, I had a novel to send to him.
HOFFMAN: So I think that was my early training.
SULLIVAN: And then you go back, and it sounds like you're taking an axe to the original draft, not a scalpel.
HOFFMAN: Oh, an axe. I really believe that. I really believe it. Sometimes you have to get rid of the parts that you love the best about a book.
SULLIVAN: That's Alice Hoffman, author of the new novel "The Dovekeepers," and she joined me here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Alice, thank you so much for coming in.
HOFFMAN: Oh, it's a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.