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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

When does that come out of your own head?

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The thought of reading more about 19th-century rabbis or Zionist leaders than you have ever read before fills Gil Hoffman’s heart with dread.

That fear was for not only he himself but also audiences. When he began to tour behind “Recurring Idols,” his new short fiction collection of short stories about Jewish American life and culture, he consciously hoped to move beyond the genre’s stale treatment.

When it was complete, he thought, he was satisfied. He hadn’t come up with anything to mar the work. But he had a terrible feeling. What had happened? He hadn’t read anywhere, he recalled, but “I had only read my own book.” He said that was enough to give him pause.

He, like many other writers over time, said his most fearful thoughts came during the post-book tour.

“I found myself thinking, ‘Wait a minute, where’s this going?’ And then I thought, ‘Really? Not everything?’ It was the logical fear I usually had during a book tour.”

“Recurring Idols” presents 36 short stories that find Hoffman and his fictional alter ego, Ben Rivers, presenting readers with a picture of what Jewish life in America must have been like during the mid-20th century. This world, he emphasizes, didn’t exist in a vacuum, as the failure of this history to be told to his generation took many by surprise. After all, growing up in Northern California, a writers’ community, he went to events that offered “real scholars” to critique his work — artists such as St. Paul Hubka, Norman Owen and Louis Sachar.

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“I was never told, even in the beginning, what they were up to,” Hoffman said.

As for his short stories, Hoffman, 59, often said he was fascinated by “what appears in the night,” a quality that he said echoed Kafka’s use of night and day in the “Trilogy of Death.”

The kind of character who reads his fiction is something that is simultaneously supremely fearless and intellectually honest. The courage is something Hoffman said he learned from Saul Bellow when he was a student at Williams College.

“I knew his books as an author,” Hoffman said. “But I didn’t know, ‘Oh yeah, I should go talk to that guy.’ He would take a minute to introduce himself and he would walk over and sit down. He was such a master, and the language is what really said, ‘This is kind of great, trust me.’ ”

As for the writing? He needed no patience to teach himself what he needed to make it, or what would be made. The hardest thing for him to find was a muse.

“There wasn’t a muse — I don’t think there is,” he said. “I think all writers feel that. I didn’t have that feeling, not until a book like ‘The Old World,’ for which I was given all these fantastic materials and I had so much trepidation because I had never written about the Middle East.”

Hoffman, who since his early 20s has written about fiction, believes he still needs time to find his muse. He told a story about traveling to Berlin when he was 25, where he met the producer of an Oscar-winning movie about P. G. Wodehouse, a friend of Charles Foster Kane. The producer, as Hoffman remembers, had spent all this time searching for the line that would make everyone see a moral flaw in Kane, but had yet to find the one — until on the day of the party, with everyone clapping, his wife reads a poem by a man called W.B. Yeats that had inspired his producing of the film.

“I read Yeats at a party, but I never repeated the poem. It was all or nothing,” Hoffman said. “In a writer’s room, that’s the way it is. I think you don’t learn that until you’re at least 30 years old.”

For Hoffman, this new book is less about his past than it is about a new chapter, no matter how powerful that chapter may be.

“The characters are actually living. They are not dead people. They are not talking to one another, or who they think they are talking to,” he said. “I think that really is interesting for a writer.”

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