A True Man of Letters

How do you find the universal in the particular?” asks Mobile Bay-area wordsmith Roy Hoffman while  we enjoy a relaxing lunch on the Causeway. In fact, the question nicely summarizes Hoffman’s literary ambition, pursued for nearly half a century through award-winning fiction and journalism. The author of three novels and two nonfiction collections, Hoffman is that rarest of writers – a true man of letters equally at home in the realms of the imaginative and the factual.

All of his work is characterized by a heartfelt sense of character, place and circumstance, but his fascination with these things doesn’t blind him to the broader currents that move us all.

“Our area provides a sense of juxtaposition, ” he says. “Great American questions: How do people honor their roots while living side by side with people in a collective? How do you maintain a sense of inclusiveness? What do we still have that’s different from everywhere else?”

Most readers will best know Hoffman from his 17 years at the Mobile Press-Register, first as writer-in-residence, then as a staff reporter and finally as religion reporter, before he was let go last fall during the paper’s drastic downsizing. His articles, collected and published by the University of Alabama Press in “Back Home: Journeys Through Mobile” in 2001 and “Alabama Afternoons: Profiles and Conversations” in 2011, are notable for their care, craft and attention to story. Indeed, Hoffman is a master of long-form journalism, but the time it takes to properly fathom a subject, get to know the people involved, and weigh the material before writing it all down is sadly denied in today’s digitized, rushed and dumbed-down media world. While Hoffman certainly laments this trend and its consequences for American culture, he is philosophical about its effect on him personally. “The life of a true artist is always subject to shifts and changes, ” he says. 

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Born and bred Jewish in mostly Christian Mobile, Hoffman feels like both a native and an outsider. This simultaneous detachment from and connection to the broader local culture has allowed Hoffman to develop deep and sympathetic insight into the sensibilities and experiences of Mobile’s diverse communities, including Asian Americans, Indians, Africatown residents, Holocaust survivors and various religious groups. He is a practiced and caring listener with a gift for communicating feeling and motivation. Again and again in the pages of the Press-Register, Hoffman proved himself to be alert to the voices and distinctive shapes that local history has given to these communities.

“Our area provides a sense of juxtaposition, ” he says. …
“How do people honor their roots while living side by side with people in a collective?”

Hoffman learned the mechanics of journalism early, while working on his university newspaper, The Tulane Hullabaloo. He quickly appreciated the entree that “a pen and a pad” provided. Reportage came easily to him, and in talking with people, he realized the importance of character to any narrative form. After college, Hoffman worked in New York City for 20 years as a journalist, speechwriter and teacher. He gloried in the Big Apple and maintains a quite active connection to the city through regular visits and the occasional pieces he produces for The New York Times.

In 1996, he moved back to Mobile with his wife, Nancy, and daughter, Meredith, for what he calls “act two” of his career. Even as he wore out shoe leather for the Press-Register, Hoffman kept up his fiction writing, composing with a pen and notebook in the mornings when the house was still quiet. While some writers might chafe at the seemingly disparate demands of fiction and journalism, Hoffman sees them as two sides of the same coin. “They’re both pleasurable experiences, ” he says, “a kind of bifurcation of the mind. Each allows me to go different places with my writing.” 

Hoffman’s two published novels, “Almost Family” (1983) and “Chicken Dreaming Corn” (2004), nicely exhibit his talent for using locally centered fiction to plumb big issues. The first is about “civil rights from the kitchen, ” and the latter examines “immigration from a store” (inspired by Hoffman’s grandfather, a Dauphin Street merchant during the early 1900s). Continuing this trend, Hoffman has written a third novel, “Come Landfall, ” that explores wars past and present from the home-front perspective of a small Southern family. It will be published by the University of Alabama Press in spring 2014.

Now poised on the cusp of age 60, Hoffman sees himself on a new professional threshold, “act three, which I am just now exploring, ” and he’s energized at the prospect. “Reconfiguring and revisioning is an aspect of being alive, ” he says. He continues to draw strength and heart from his Deep South roots and from his faith. “I call myself a Southern Jewish writer, ” he explains. “I feel heir to two of the great traditions in American letters.”

John S. Sledge is the author of “Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart.”

text by John S. Sledge • photo by Jeff and Meggan Haller

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