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Sigma Nu Alum Explores the Journey of Adoption in Debut Novel

Jeff Hoffmann clearly remembers the moment lightning struck in the winter of 2020.

After years of living on the edges of professional writing - filling notebooks with ideas and short stories, seeing a handful appear in print, and getting enough rejections letters to wallpaper his office - someone on the other end of the phone was saying “yes.”

Hoffmann’s debut novel, “Other People’s Children,” had been accepted by a publisher. And not just ANY publisher. Hoffmann’s book was being published by Simon & Schuster – the A-team of publishing houses with a stable of authors including Steven King and Bob Woodward.

"It was a moment of pure joy,” recalls Hoffmann, a 1991 graduate of Bradley University (Peoria, IL) who now lives in the Chicago area. “I told my wife that moment would be the best part.”

A year later he was holding the finished novel with his name splashed across the cover. 

"I was so happy to be published, but it was wonderful to see the book in print after three or four years of working on it,” Hoffmann explains.

“Other People’s Children” tells the story of how families come together and fall apart from the perspective of multiple characters involved in the adoption process. Although he and his wife, Sara, who is also a Bradley graduate, have two adopted children, Hoffmann says the story is not autobiographical. 

He does, however, understand the emotional spin cycle of parents going through the adoption process, which helped him develop his character.

The journey to bona fide author began during Hoffmann’s childhood in St. Louis. He grew up “devouring” books, developing plot lines, and dreaming of one day seeing his own stories between the hardback covers. But writing was a hobby, not a diploma, so Hoffmann majored in finance at Bradley.

Becoming a writer, he said, was like becoming an astronaut or professional athlete—something to fantasize about, but not practical enough for serious consideration.

"I loved reading, but I didn't think writing would pay the bills,” Hoffmann says, noting his only English class at Bradley was a basic course that served to check the box to graduate.

He pledged Sigma Nu his freshman year, forging relationships that would last well beyond graduation. He and a fellow pledge brother, Bob Knott, became business partners after graduating in 1991. The two started a small IT consulting firm, nurtured its growth, then sold it in 1998. 

It was the hiatus before his next business venture when Hoffmann began to entertain thoughts of serious writing.

"I took a few years off, traveled, worked for a non-profit, and adopted children. I wrote some short stories and a really bad draft of a novel in between playing with my kids,” he says, summing up his years outside the corporate boardrooms.

In 2005, Knott and Hoffmann joined forces a second time, buying a 35-person consulting company, and serious writing was put back on the shelf. 

As the company flourished – growing to more than 200 people over the next decade – Hoffmann continued to feel the stirring of the novel inside him that needed to be written. As he approached 50, he knew it was now or never.

So Hoffmann quit his job and enrolled at Columbia College Chicago. He pursued his Master of Fine Arts full-time over the next two years, laser-focused on becoming an author.

"I treated school and the writing as my full-time job,” Hoffmann said. “And I probably put more effort into each semester at Columbia than I put into my entire undergrad at Bradley.”

He never had to experience the “starving artist” phase that many writers and artists endure before breaking through…or giving up.

“Much of the safety net was built with the help of Bob before I started [my master’s degree],” Hoffmann explains, “And Sara supported my decision to quit and scratch this itch…and never wavered.”

A short story assignment at Columbia established the seed of what would become the novel “Other People’s Children.” The story, “The Binder,” focused on a couple grieving the loss of their adopted daughter after she was reclaimed by the birth mother.

When it was selected as the winner of the prestigious Madison Review’s 2018 Chris O’Malley Prize in Fiction, Hoffmann knew it would become his first novel.

"The short story was largely about experiencing and grieving a loss,” he said, “But I learned it’s tough to coax 375 pages from that…so the story grew more complex.”

The novel shifts away from the sole point of view of the husband and expands to include the mothers. As he crafted the story and completed the novel, Hoffmann also learned writing is a lonely pursuit.

"Writing fiction boils down to many hours in a room alone, long waits, and boatloads of rejection,” he said. During the last six months of his MFA program, he pitched the novel to 45 agents, only seven of whom responded. After reading it, six took a pass on the novel, but one stepped forward and became his agent.

"I assumed that would mark the start of the next phase of uncertainty and waiting, but a week after he took me on, my novel [was sold] to Simon & Schuster,” Hoffmann said.

In April 2021, "Other People's Children" was released to positive reviews. Goodreads included Hoffmann on their list of “75 Debut Novels to Discover in 2021”. The novel also landed on Barnes & Noble’s list of “Most Buzzed About Books of 2021.”

Hoffmann recently finished a second book about four boys and a lifelong secret and is at work on a third. Although it took him nearly five decades, he has arrived as an author.

Storytelling is about pulling a thread, regardless of how random, and not being afraid of where it leads. Changing directions is always an option. So is quitting.

"Quitting is exciting and creates opportunity,” explains Hoffmann of quitting two careers to take on a third. “But I never quit to escape… I always quit toward something.”

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