Writer Wayne Hoffman’s name will be familiar to readers of gay fiction, including those who enjoy an erotic edge to what they’re reading. His novels include “Hard,” “Sweet Like Sugar,” and “An Older Man.” Hoffman’s journalism career has also earned him a following via publications such as The Nation, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Billboard, and The Forward, as Tablet Magazine, where he is presently editor. For his new book, the non-fiction work “The End of Her: Racing Against Alzheimer’s to Solve a Murder” (Heliotrope Books, 2022), he called on his skills as a journalist and a storyteller, to unravel a family mystery, all the while coming to terms with his mother Susan’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and subsequent decline. The result is a kind of PBS’ “Finding Your Roots” crossed with Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.
Wayne, you’re known as both a journalist and a novelist. When thinking about writing your new book, “The End of Her: Racing Against Alzheimer’s to Solve a Murder,” did you always know that you would tell the story in a non-fiction format, or had you considered writing it as a novel?
I knew it’d be non-fiction because my goal was to find out the facts about what really happened to my great-grandmother — was she really murdered, and if so, by whom? I could have made up a story and turned it into a novel. But that’s what other relatives had basically already done, with the outlandish legends about her that they’d passed down as family lore. I wanted to focus instead on uncovering the truth, as much as possible.
After having written three novels, what impact did creating a work of nonfiction have on you as a journalist?
I’m used to daily and weekly journalism — reporting quickly, writing quickly, publishing quickly, and moving on quickly. And I’m used to writing novels — having years to write and revise. This was a new combination: I was reporting, but without any solid deadline. I could go back and rethink things, look for new sources, change conclusions, rewrite a thousand times. That’s a luxury journalists rarely get. If I hadn’t had that time — if I’d had to publish what I’d found after the first few weeks or months — I wouldn’t have understood what really happened.
How much did your time as an editor at the Forward and Tablet come in handy in your research?
Being a newspaper and magazine editor allowed me to imagine what I’d say if a writer turned in what I’d written, and see what pieces were still missing. But working specifically in the Jewish press — the Forward and now Tablet — for the past 20 years also gave me a broader understanding of the larger context around my great-grandmother’s murder: the waves of Yiddish-speaking immigrants coming to North America from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s, how they did and didn’t assimilate, how they tried to build not just families but larger communities, how they found new ways to make a living.
I’m glad you mentioned immigration because “The End of Her” is many things including an immigrant story, both American and Canadian, with an emphasis on Jews in Manitoba, a subject that may be new to many readers. What was it like exploring that, both on a personal and professional level?
It was fascinating because so much of the story was both unknown to me and unexpected. I knew there were plenty of Jews who immigrated to Manitoba — Winnipeg in particular, which is where my family settled and where my great-grandmother was murdered. But I couldn’t have imagined what their lives were like. My great-grandfather was basically a cowboy, riding horses and buying cattle on the prairies of Saskatchewan; his brothers were (almost certainly) bootleggers. Who knew? When I went to the tiny town of Canora, Saskatchewan, to dig into that slice of my family’s history, I had never imagined I’d end up there. But then I thought, I bet my great-grandfather, who grew up in Russia, thought the same thing when he arrived a hundred years ago!
Religion and religious traditions also figure prominently. What makes it unique is that they are written about from a gay perspective. In what ways do you think religion has made you the person you are today?
I grew up in a traditional Jewish home — I kept kosher, went to synagogue every week, went to Jewish summer camps, attended Hebrew school, and took classes at the Jewish Community Center. So, it certainly had a huge influence on who I am today. Coming out as a teenager — as gay and atheist — complicated all of that. Some things fell by the wayside: I don’t keep kosher or go to synagogue anymore. My brother is a rabbi, and he goes to synagogue enough for both of us [laughs]. But I’m still strongly culturally identified, and working in the Jewish press, I spend every day steeped in Jewish culture and the Jewish community — all of it as a very public, very open gay man. Yeesh! Look at my novels — there’s no way to pretend I’m not super-gay [laughs].
As you said earlier, “The End of Her” is about family lore and learning as much as possible about it while your mother — who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s — can both provide details and benefit from the solving of your great grandmother Sarah’s murder. Do you think this book may inspire others to clarify long standing family myths?
I hope so. We have so many tools now to help us understand our personal histories in terms of genetics and DNA. Those are things you can discover from a drop of blood, or a swab. But what about the parts of our history that aren’t stored in our blood or our genes, but in our memories? You can find out a lot from documents — whether they’re official documents like birth certificates or personal documents like letters. But some things you can only find out from relatives and friends who remember things. The more of those people you can contact — before it’s too late — the richer picture you can create of your family’s history, and your own. That might clear up mysteries and scandals, or it might reveal mysteries and scandals you didn’t know existed, which might even be more interesting.
In writing about your own, and your immediate family’s, experiences in dealing with your mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, you share heartbreaking and devastating details. For example, the frustration with physicians unable to comprehend the intricacies of treating an Alzheimer’s patient as in chapter 29. Was it your intention for the book to be a tool for others going through a version of something similar?
Definitely. There are a lot of resources for people trying to understand what someone with Alzheimer’s is going through — or will go through. But there aren’t enough stories for those same people trying to understand how the disease will affect them, too, as family members or friends, or caregivers. We have our own journey, and I hope that people who read what I went through, and how my family dealt with things — the parts we got right and wrong, and the choices we made — will understand a bit more about what they’re really facing.
Have you started thinking about or working on your next book project?
I have a few projects sketched out and even begun. At some point, I’ll sit down and spread them out on my desk, and one of them will (I hope) call out to me, “Me, me! I’m next [laughs]!”
An author’s reading followed by a Q&A will take place at Philly AIDS Thrift @ Giovanni’s Room at 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, April 9, 2022.