To call novelist Kristin Hannah simply a women’s fiction writer is an understatement. She is the author of New York Times bestsellers such as True Colors, Firefly Lane, and, most recently Winter Garden. However, to dismiss Hannah’s writing as “women’s fiction” or “book club” fiction – and let’s face it, thanks to gender politics, this is not improbable — is to underestimate her personal mission. In her own words: “The hallmark of my books is the relationships that define women’s lives…I find our lives endlessly interesting and endlessly entertaining. We women as glue for the family lead lives that are important and conflicted. What we women choose to give up for our families is important and valid.”
Kristin Hannah knows something of family relationships, of loss, sacrifice, and perseverance. Once a practicing attorney, Hannah faced the terminal illness of her mother during her final year of law school. At the time, Hannah all but dismissed her mother’s assertion that Kristin was “going to be a writer.” However, the two did begin working on a novel together; a novel that took second place to Hannah’s legal career until she was forced into bed rest during pregnancy. Desperate for something to while away the hours, she unearthed the manuscript and began to write.
The act of writing morphed from a hobby to a career and into an obsession. When asked about her habit of writing longhand rather than on a computer, Kristin Hannah had a response both practical and idyllic. “I can be a little OCD when it comes to my writing. I love to write. I discovered early on that my body couldn’t take sitting at the desk for the house that I wanted to write…So, A) It was better on my body. B) It was more convenient. C) It was more immediate in terms of tapping into my creative mind. Writing longhand made me a faster, braver, better writer. And, also, it allows me to sit on the beach, which is important. I do a lot of beach sitting.”
Kristin Hannah’s writing is shaped by her geography. When asked about living in Washington State, she enthused. “I am such a Pacific Northwest girl. When I was young, my dad was kind of an adventurer…he liked to move a lot. I was born in California, but by the time I was in third grade, the state was filling too fast. It was a long trip in a VW bus; we kept moving place to place. Most places that I write about are places that I have lived.”
This first hand knowledge shapes her writing. “If you know a place and live there, you can bring something special to the table.” Even unexpected geographical connections make it into her novels. She describes a family “trip of a lifetime to Africa” and the knowledge that she “had to bring some of that back.” She found that connection in the writing of Winter Garden. “When I needed a place for Nina [the younger of the two sisters, a photojournalist] to be unreachable, I knew the perfect place.”
An exploration of the relationships between women necessitates an exploration of family dynamics. This exploration forms a core theme of Winter Garden, and the relationship between the two sisters, Meredith, the hyper-responsible eldest, and Nina, the world-traveling, commitment-phobic youngest, resonated strongly with me. I couldn’t help commenting during the interview that Hannah had nailed the sister-dynamic. This got a chuckle at the other end of the line. “Oh, are you an oldest princess? [A reference to the fairytales that permeate Winter Garden.]” I admitted that I was – by six years. Hannah laughed again. “Oh my gosh, I was talking to a friend and she told me that when Nina took her [Anya, the mother] out of the nursing home she almost stopped reading.”
When asked where she falls in the sibling lineup – her website shows a photo with her brother and sister, she replied “I’m Meredith also… Don’t they look a little more carefree?” “I learned with Firefly Lane that women’s experience is more universal than we think. We’re all living some version of the same life…I’m able to explore that universal experience.” She added, “I’m the oldest; I love resolving conflict, so writing is the perfect career.”
However, that discomfort with conflict occasionally causes difficulties during the writing process, in the exploration of emotionally difficult material. When asked about the very specific dynamics to Winter Garden and how the writing of that family differed from the writing of other relationships in her novels, she replied that “Anya was particularly challenging to me as a writer/mother. It was difficult to create someone who could be that cold and distant toward her daughters. In the early drafts, I had a lot of hints of what lay underneath. I can’t stand conflict, so I tried to resolve it too early. It was hard to create someone so emotionally shut down…I tend to create characters that are somewhat shut down but still function. Characters more like Meredith – damaged, but you know in there, there is a good person, but she’s lost.”
Kristin Hannah is definitely not lost. A perusal of her website reveals a person with very specific tastes and interests from Dungeness crab to well … I had to ask, "Are you a closet geek?"
“Oh, no," she replied. "I’m out there – not in the closet. It started at 13 with Lord of the Rings and I’ve never gone back. Now, particularly in Y.A., there’s excellent Sci-fi out there.”
Does she ever have any inclinations to experiment with sci-fi or fantasy? “I have not gone the sci-fi/fantasy route. Early in my career, I wrote some strange books, though. I don’t think I understood the arc of my career until I started looking back. The second romance novel I wrote dealt with Indian mysticism, the third … heaven… reincarnation…The fourth was really weird …time travel.
“My assistant will tell you that even with my women’s fiction, there’s a paranormal element in every first draft…then I take it away.
“Someday I probably will write a Y.A. fantasy.” And, yes, Kristin Hannah, too, has succumbed to the charms of a certain young wizard. “The final Harry Potter…you could see all the pieces from the other books falling together…what a mind. I kneel before you, J.K.”
Even in women’s fiction, Hannah has not abandoned “world building.” Winter Garden weaves two stories, that of a modern American family, and “fairy tales” that become an evocative depiction of the siege of Leningrad during WWII. When asked about her choice of this obscure, to most Americans, segment of Russian history, Hannah readily admitted, “I didn’t know anything about it, and I studied Russian history in college.
“I wanted to write a story about women triumphing over insurmountable odds. I wanted a time in history when women were challenged that we haven’t already read about. A friend mentioned women in Russia in WWII. When I came to the sentence ‘Leningrad became a city of women’ I knew I had something. I’m drawn to the power of women, to the power of motherhood.”
Regarding her research into this period, Hannah said that “I researched it like I research everything. I start with the big, general books …and funnel down to the location. When I have a sense of it globally, then I start reading memoirs of the period – that’s where the useful stuff comes from.”
The world building came into play in Anya’s revelation of her past to her daughters through “fairy tales.” “That was the last piece of the puzzle to fall into place. I had done two or three drafts before that. Until I stumbled across the fairy tales, it felt like two books. I needed one piece. It provided the link from the past to the girls’ lives, and it showed that Anya had been trying to tell them.”
The writing of the fairy tales “wasn’t a different process, but there was a voice that came out of the research. I wanted it to be moody and dreamlike, and it was in this voice that this place came alive. Surprisingly it was the easiest part of the book to write. History took over and the book followed that arc. The fairytales had to feel different, so that as children, they [Meredith and Nina] didn’t assume there was more to the story.”
But, of course, there was more to the story. Through her “fairy tales,” Anya communicates the tragedy of her past to her daughters in the only way she can.
Toward the end of her story, Anya says “But I am not a lucky woman.” She is referencing what she perceives as her failure to die during the war. “I thought that was the critical foundation of Anya. She saw herself as a terrible mother who had failed to save her children…She’s the kind of woman who can’t give up…she can’t give up her children, she can’t give up on life. She sees that as a failing. I saw that as an unimaginable strength. I loved that at the beginning, Jeff says to Meredith ‘you’re just like your mother’ and it’s an insult, but by the end it’s a compliment. But I’m not sure that at the end Anya understood it.”
I was tickled by the notion that Anya’s creator was unsure as to the awareness of her character. “Sometimes characters really do take on lives of their own. Not every question has to be answered. Some things can be left open.”