Mobile native Roy Hoffman is the author of the new novel, “The Promise of the Pelican,” three previous novels, “Come Landfall,” “Chicken Dreaming Corn,” and “Almost Family,” and the nonfiction books “Alabama Afternoons” and “Back Home.” His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, and he was a journalist and speechwriter in New York before returning south, residing in Fairhope and writing for the Mobile Press-Register and other publications. For Mobile Bay Magazine, he talks with Frye Gaillard, writer in residence at the University of South Alabama, about “The Promise of the Pelican,” released this month by Arcade Publishing and distributed by Simon & Schuster.
“The Promise of the Pelican” is your latest book, and I think it might be your best. To me, that’s a high bar. How are you feeling as it prepares to make its way in the world?
I’ve been writing since I was a teenager, and each piece I compose, whatever its form, is part of my ongoing literary journey. Ideally, as with any artist, I take on bigger challenges as the journey unfolds. That was the case, indeed, with this new novel, the interwoven stories of several characters over the course of 57 short, taut chapters. I strive for prose that’s both lyrical and accessible, painterly and dynamic, and characters with rich interior lives facing unexpected twists and turns. That takes intense months of composing — I tend to create longhand, pen on paper — then, typing it up, countless hours of revision on the screen. It’s been alive in my head; now it belongs to readers to make it come alive in theirs. I welcome all reactions.
Tell us a bit of the basic premise. No need to spoil the ending, of course. But tell us about this extraordinary cast of characters you have created. The book, to me, is a character-driven page-turner.
An 82-year-old retired criminal defense attorney, Hank Weinberg, is happy to cast his mullet net on Fairhope Pier and commune with other old-timers. One day a young Honduran man, Julio Blanco, a gardener at a coastal resort hotel, is accused of a violent crime. Julio’s sister, Lupita, who takes care of Hank’s grandson, entreats the aged lawyer to defend Julio. Will Hank take on Julio’s case?
This central plot is complicated by subplots, above all the story of Hank’s attorney daughter, Vanessa, a single mom dealing with alcoholism, on her own chaotic journey. The story lines are fictional, taking place from fall 2018 to winter 2020, pre-COVID, and set on the Alabama coast with flashbacks of faraway. Hank is a child Holocaust survivor from Amsterdam, rescued in 1943 and brought to America, raised in Alabama. Julio was a child in Honduras when his village was demolished by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Years later he travels to the U.S. on a work visa, hired by a hotel chain. If he overstays his work papers he becomes undocumented. Does the heightened focus on immigrants during the time period of the novel, the anxiety, the recurrent fear of newcomers, complicate the way forward for the young Honduran when accused of a heinous act?
Hank and Julio, displaced as children, arriving as outsiders, of different generations, languages, religions, and contrasting worlds, meet up because of a catastrophic event — a crime takes place. Can justice be served?
“The Promise of the Pelican” is being marketed by your publisher as a crime novel. It is that. But do you think of it as something else, as more?
I wrote my novel following the characters and story where they took me. Is “To Kill a Mockingbird” a crime novel? “The Promise of the Pelican” isn’t a genre novel either. But I’m happy if readers intrigued by crime pick up my novel, along with those drawn to fiction that’s literary, Southern, Jewish, legal, concerned with social justice. My ambition is to fuse all those elements, to create an organic whole that, like any good book, transports you into the world the author has created. That begins with the book cover, a dramatic Mobile Bay skyline, photographed by Fairhope artist JD Crowe.
Much of your writing, both fiction and non, explores the world of immigrants; of multiple cultures sharing the same time and place. Partly, I know from previous conversations, this stems from your own family’s experiences. Its history — the Hoffmans’ early years in Mobile. Talk about that. About life on Dauphin Street back in the day.
My 2004 novel, “Chicken Dreaming Corn,” praised by Harper Lee, was a fictional retelling of my Romanian Jewish grandparents’ sojourn from Eastern Europe to the American South, making their home on Mobile’s Dauphin Street. The world they found on the mercantile blocks of the early 1900s echoed with voices Lebanese, German, Polish, Romanian, Yiddish, Spanish, Greek, Southern drawls and Irish brogues. My dad, Charles Hoffman, was born over the Hoffman family store on Dauphin in 1909 and was a vigorous attorney in Mobile until his last days in 2006, at age 97. Dad made that world of newly arrived Americans vivid to me. Even now, when I walk downtown streets, I feel the immediacy of that long-ago polyglot, multicultural world. When I lived in New York City from 1975 to 1996, I saw the immigrant story writ large at every turn. It’s no wonder that the immigrant experience imprinted itself on my outlook. My 2014 novel, “Come Landfall,” for example, swept in the vicissitudes of Southeast Asian refugees rooting into the Gulf Coast. “The Promise of the Pelican” is very much bound up in what I’ve learned of the Latin American journey north, in all its complexity.
Stories of new Americans, or those seeking to become Americans, can be double-edged, too. Hospitality versus stigmatizing the outsider. Welcoming the stranger versus fear of the other. This polarity is central to many stories of our time.
But I’m not writing sociology. I’m creating characters. How do we come together across differences? How does our history, which shapes us, impact the experience of where we live? What is the South, or any part of the nation, seen through new eyes?
You write fiction and nonfiction. Do the two forms complement each other? Or are they separate disciplines?
I’ve long worked as a journalist and essayist as well as fiction writer. While many nonfiction pieces are self-contained, some feed my imagination far beyond. My stories on Holocaust survivors when I wrote for the Mobile Press-Register helped me focus my fictional protagonist, Hank, in “The Promise of the Pelican.” Similarly, stories I did on migrant workers in coastal Alabama gave me ideas for Julio. But those journalistic efforts were only part of the process. Walking Amsterdam streets, traveling in Central America, countless hours with my father hearing his law stories, lingering among the fishermen on Fairhope Pier — myriad impressions go into a fictional work. Mix it all together, daydream, invent, let the characters, and story, take on a life of their own.
As indeed they do.
“The Promise of the Pelican,” is available for purchase this month at your local bookstore and online. Join Hoffman for his first Mobile Bay area author event at Page & Palette, March 24, at 6 p.m. Keep up with Roy’s writing at royhoffmanwriter.com.