Kristin Hannah: Ordinary Women in Extraordinary Times
Kristin Hannah is the New York Times bestselling author of 21 novels, including the blockbuster Firefly Lane and #1 bestsellers Night Road and Home Front. She is a former lawyer turned writer and is the mother of one son. She lives in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii with her husband. Kristin recently talked with us about love, war and life as an uber-geek.
Why is it important to tell stories about women who get left at home during wartime?
I didn't realize for a lot of my life how fascinated I have been by the stories of women, especially women in combat. I think a big part of it is that women's stories are so often overlooked, forgotten or overshadowed by men's stories, and we as women have just as many heroic, courageous stories to tell. Sometimes it's more courageous to stay at home and try to keep your children safe, and to make the choices that need to be made in pursuit of that. It's important that we remember the contributions that women make.
Where do you feel this story fits in with the rest of your work?
Interestingly enough, this book is both part and parcel of what I do, and also a huge departure. I have for years been writing about women's issues, women's struggles, the arc of women during the course of their lives and extraordinary women, so to that extent, it falls in line with what I've done. But to take on World War II France is a real departure, and to have the bulk of the book be set in France during the war is a pretty substantial undertaking on my part. Just imagining this world was a big departure for me.
How did you handle the research?
It was daunting on so many levels, because this book covered the entire war from the beginning of France's involvement until the very end. I went about it the way I go about all research, which is to go from general to specific. You go from reading the treatises about Europe and Britain and the beginning of World War II, to France and the French perception and experience in World War II, and then the more specific individual things--the Resistance, the women, the memoirs, the concentration camps. It's from the specific books, the memoirs, that I tend to draw most of the experiences my characters go through. My books are about ordinary women in extraordinary times and, fortunately in this particular situation, there were a lot of memoirs written by women exactly like that.
Tell me about character development.
Putting the book together was difficult, but the biggest challenge was taking the armature of war, the timeline of what happened, and the truth of what was going on and still creating characters that were mine, that felt like they were real, that didn't feel like they were simply reacting to the war. I wrote a lot of different versions. There was a version where Isabelle and Vianne were best friends, but I realized that because of what I wanted to say about the two paths that women took during the war, these two women had to have conflict in their lives apart from the war. That was where I came up with the 10-year age difference, the difference in their past histories and the difference in their personalities.
How did you keep Vianne sympathetic even as she tries to get along with the Nazis?
We have so much information now. But what about when you didn't have all of this information and you didn't know how dark and dangerous and ugly this was all going to get? And you're just a woman who's trying to keep her head down, thinking that if I can just not draw attention to myself, we can get through this. I think that's a very human response. Vianne is representative of a lot of people, male and female, who at some point reach the bottom and have to face their conscience and say, "At what point do I risk my child's life for a stranger?" To me, that was such a powerful moment, the moment that Vianne would have to make a decision that she thinks she's incapable of making. I was constantly thinking of myself and my own son, and I never underestimated how difficult that situation would be for a mother.
Would you say being a parent heavily influences your writing?
I would say very often. Fear and hope are inextricably woven into parenthood, and those two emotions are so powerful. We want so much to do the best for our children, and we are consistently afraid that we are not doing our best, and that the world is just such a dangerous place. I'm constantly interested in how women respond to dark times and how motherhood makes them stronger, like those stories about how women can move a car to save their child. There are few things in the world other than motherhood that can make you that powerful in an instant, and I find that fascinating.
A recurring theme in The Nightingale is family members who distance themselves from each other.
I think the human condition is to be afraid of judgment, and with our parents, our siblings, our friends, there's always a part of ourselves we hold back because we are ashamed, or think that they'll be disappointed, or that we won't be well received, or there's something innately wrong with us. And yes, we have given each other the tools to talk about this, but I still think that there are deep secrets that people keep until they feel safe. It is incredibly easy to misjudge your parents and your siblings in moments that are important. You go forward your whole life reacting to them inappropriately because you don't quite understand what that moment meant.
You've said previously that all your novels start out with mystical elements. Is that still true?
I am an uber-geek. I read a lot of YA, I read a lot of spiritual stuff, mystical stuff, magical stuff, fantasy stuff. They are my favorite movies by far, they are among my favorite books, and so that is my default setting. I always begin with some woo-woo element, and it generally does fall by the wayside. Actually, the book I'm working on now for 2015 has a strong weirdness element, and I think it will stay, but we'll see. Nightingale is one of the few where I knew going in that what was happening was serious business, that this war was serious business, and I knew not to go in the supernatural direction with this one.
Do you think you'll ever write a YA fantasy novel?
Oh, I dream about it all the time. I would've done it three years ago; the only problem is now it feels like so much has already been done. So I feel like I need to take a breather and wait a while to come up with a story that hasn't already been done, because there's so much out there. There's just so much great YA.
Interview by Jaclyn Fulwood. Reproduced with permission of the publisher, St Martin's Press. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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