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The latest from bestselling The Nightingale author Kristin Hannah transports readers to remote 1970s Alaska. In this interview from the February 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest—including outtakes that didn't appear in the magazine—Hannah discusses the real-life influences that inspired The Great Alone, and preaches the power of a tight-knit writing circle.
For a great many years before she was a household name, Kristin Hannah’s fiction-writing career was an enviable kind of steady. In search of a more family-friendly pursuit than her law practice, as
a young mother she made her first sale (1991’s A Handful of Heaven, now out of print) and kept on selling—roughly a book a year, give or take a few, becoming a staple on the women’s fiction shelves and, eventually, on the bestseller lists.
It was a slow, modest burn, the kind of “breakout” success that is built over time and fed with ever-better writing, increasingly complex stories, and an eye for both the intimate and the universal. Her 2008 release, Firefly Lane, the story of a tight but tested friendship spanning three decades, sold more than 1.2 million copies—catching by surprise only those who hadn’t been paying attention.
Within a few years, she became one of the first authors to have two novels appear on five New York Times bestseller lists simultaneously, with 2011’s Night Road (the heartbreaking story of one bad decision’s consequences, and the capacity to forgive) and 2012’s Home Front (illuminating the toll of modern-day war on a military family). And then, more than 20 novels in, Hannah blew her deadline.
She was writing something different, something more research-intensive, more sweeping and more in-depth than anything she’d written before—a World War II–era tale of two French sisters with very diff erent approaches to living under Nazi occupation. But halfway through the manuscript, it became clear her usual timeline wasn’t going to cut it.
“I called my editor and told her that I thought I had a potentially special book, but that there was no way I could write it in the amount of time I had on my deadline,” Hannah says. “I asked her to roll the dice with me and give me another year to see if I couldn’t make this book as special as I felt it could be.”
The editor—Jennifer Enderlin at St. Martin’s Press—said yes. It was a good call. Leaping into the No. 1 spot on bestsellers lists across the board and making itself at home there, 2015’s The Nightingale moved readers worldwide. It was named a Best Book of the Year by The Wall Street Journal, Amazon, Goodreads, Library Journal, BuzzFeed and The Week, snagging the People’s Choice Award and Audiobook of the Year Award on the way. As of this writing, the novel has more than 35,000 customer reviews on Amazon with a full 5-star average, and a Hollywood adaptation is in development with TriStar Pictures.
Now comes the long-awaited follow-up. Hannah’s February release, The Great Alone, takes readers into the remote backcountry of Alaska in the wake of the Vietnam War, when a former prisoner of war takes his wife and daughter, young protagonist Leni, to restart their lives on the homestead of a fallen comrade. Hannah spoke with WD’s editor-at-large, fellow novelist Jessica Strawser, about the evolution of her process, waiting for the right story, and much more.
After a smash hit like The Nightingale, I would imagine there’s a lot of pressure surrounding what you’re going to write next. How did you land on this story, and were there others you considered in the meantime?
You know, that is an interesting thing, how you follow up a success like The Nightingale. The one thing I can say is, I feel so incredibly grateful that it happened two decades into my career—but even so, even with the fact that I had written a lot of books before and, you know, sort of learned how to handle the writing business—it still was difficult.
And I did put a lot of pressure on myself. My original thought was that I wanted to write something that couldn’t be compared to The Nightingale. Something completely diff erent, its own kind of book. That took me down a rabbit hole, and I ended up having to throw a book away aft er almost two years of working on it. Because not only did it not live up to The Nightingale, it just didn’t feel like it ever coalesced into a book that I believed in 110 percent.
You never know if a book is going to succeed or fail, so what matters ultimately is how you feel about it, and whether you, the author, are willing to bet the farm on this novel. And I just never quite was with that one.
So after I threw the first one away, I calmed down a bit and decided that what I needed to do was what I always do, which is simply take what I had learned from writing The Nightingale, and take what I felt were better skills and understanding of my strengths for writing powerful female characters, and let that be my guide.
I decided I wanted to sort of come home to America and write about something I knew pretty intimately. That led me to this novel set in the 1970s in Alaska, which is a time and place that I know very well and is, in its way, as much a secret world or an unusual world as anything I’ve ever done before.
Was that a difficult conversation with your publisher when you threw that first book away? Did you have to call them up and say, “That’s not happening?”
Yeah [laughs], that’s really what it comes down to. I’ve been lucky in my partnership with St. Martin’s. … I said, “Nobody wants me to publish this book. We don’t want this to be the next Kristin Hannah book because it’s just not good enough. And I don’t think working another year will make it good enough.” So I was really lucky that they trusted me and said, “OK, take the time that you need.” It helped, of course, that The Nightingale hadn’t even rolled over into paperback yet. [But] the whole team there, I just think they really care about their books from the top of the list to the bottom. As a writer, you can’t ask for much more than that.
You said that you knew the topic pretty well, but even so, The Great Alone reflects so much
meticulous detail about the time period, the homesteading life, Alaska’s seasons, the wildlife—how did you approach the research element of this project from the beginning?
Well, it was a lot of research. My family owns a sport fishing lodge up there, so we’ve been going to Alaska as a family since the early ’80s. My dad’s partner is a homesteading family. I know the geography, I know the people, I grew up and came of age at the same time that [Leni] did, and that helped a great deal.
But even though I had grown up during [the ’70s], because I was young and my parents kind of sheltered me, I didn’t really realize until I did the research what a turbulent time it was with the hijackings, and the kidnappings, and the bombings, and all of this. The more research I did about the ’70s, the more it felt relevant to today—like the world was as unsettled then as it sometimes feels now. That’s when I knew that I had a book—a fascinating look into a world that we haven’t read about a lot.
How long did it take you to write, once you hit on the new idea?
Well, the good news was the book that I threw away was set in modern-day Alaska, so a lot of that original research was able to be repurposed. But it took probably 18 months to write this second version. And I’m a very fast writer.
That does seem fast—it’s a large book!
I know. I ran out of words very quickly. I tend to throw literally hundreds of pages away.
What is your process for what gets left on the cutting room floor? With a story that spans so many years, I would assume it’s a challenge to decide what to keep in and what to leave out.
I have an eye that is drawn to the intimate. I’m interested in day-to-day happenings in my characters, and I tend to think that every moment in their lives is important. So in the first draft , I write a lot of scenes that are mostly me discovering who the character is, and what this world looks like on a very intimate level.
Then, once I’ve found the characters and found the story, the arc, then the job is to amp everything up, so that the conflict becomes hopefully almost unbearable, and then to cut away everything that isn’t absolutely necessary. That’s how I tend to find the pacing that I like,combined with the depth of characterization that I’m looking for. That’s the balance.
Your website says you typically do 10 drafts—is that still true?
Probably well more than that.
And I know you write longhand. At what point does a computer come into play? Are you revising in longhand too?
What happens is I write longhand on my yellow legal pad, and then that gets entered into the computer. Then I get a printout, and generally for the first five to seven draft s, the changes are so extensive that I’m still using the yellow pad. I’ll get to the end of a paragraph and say, “insert here,” and rewrite the book on the yellow legal pad, inserting the manuscript as it goes. When I’m getting closer to the end, it’s light enough that it can all be done on the printed pages from the computer.
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Is that how you’ve always worked?
In early days when my books were simpler and more straightforward, and I was just trying to learn the craft of writing, no—I would not have been able to do it this way, and I didn’t do it this way. In those days, I spent a lot of time doing outlines and character biographies, and escalations-of-scene kind of research, and then I sat down
and wrote the book that I intended to write. As the books have gotten bigger and more complex, they just require a messier process, I guess.
I have to say, I don’t find that comforting …
[Laughs.] Neither do I! I’m always saying to people, if anyone has a new process, I am definitely looking for it.
Right! The way I work is such a mess, too—what we all want to hear is that you can figure it out more easily with experience.
You know what? A lot of it does get easier. The problem is that while you become more adept at knowing what’s going to work in the beginning, and more adept at a sentence-by-sentence kind of thing and creating characters quickly, I think that as a writer, you also grow. As you grow, you ask more and more of yourself. And so you end up writing novels that you never imagined you’d be
capable of writing in the beginning. It’s just sort of a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other kind of process, where you never stop asking yourself to do more or be more.
Aside from the stories themselves being more ambitious, are there other things you can qualify where you feel your craft has improved or changed?
You know, I think that the single most important thing [has been] aging, and motherhood, and going through life and understanding what it is I have to say. When I started writing, I was young—my first book was published when I was 29, I think—so the biggest thing is knowing more about the world and being more confident, more fervent in my own opinions. I think that’s the biggest thing.
They talk about the evolution of voice as if it’s about sentences, and certainly it is—I believe that I’m a significantly better writer now than I was when I started. But I think it’s more about what I have to say now.
Everyone talks about The Nightingale being on a whole different level, but looking back at your career up to this point, what are the moments that stand out most to you?
Well, there’s nothing that really ever eclipses that first sale, that first year where you get the call. First you get an agent and then someone buys it and a year later you see it on the shelves and you realize that it’s possible: This job, this career, this passion can all come true. So, that still remains probably the biggest moment.
Then: I wrote Firefly Lane about 10 years ago, and thatwas probably the most personal of all of my novels. That changed the course of my career; that’s when I began to truly find my voice and what it was I had to say.
With The Nightingale, to see what the novel has meant to people—especially people who have lived through this or have family members who have lived through it and have told me what the novel means to them—that’s been a pretty special experience.
And it’s really still going on.
It is, yes. I guess next would be the movie—[which] is in production, so that’ll be a pretty amazing moment.
I saw an interview where you noted that a lot of times people don’t take newer writers seriously because they assume you’re going to give up—and that the important thing is just to stay with it. Perseverance is advice that you often hear for newer writers, but it seems like it’s good advice for any stage in a writing career.
You know, that’s what it’s all about. You have to believe in this career, you have to believe in yourself, and you have to move with great determination forward, because it doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to sell your first book or your 50th book, or you’re trying to redefine your career, or you’re trying to reinvent what it is you do, it’s always going to be difficult. There are always going to be naysayers, and it’s always going to be easier to either give up or follow the path of least resistance or write what appears to be the easy answer for success at that moment. Those skills that you develop as an unpublished writer—your discipline, your dedication—I think all of that holds you in really good stead as you continue forward and transition from a beginning writer to a working writer to a career novelist.
You’ve mentioned that you have a group of writer friends who you connected with early on, and you’ve all sort of come up together. How does it enrich your writing life, to have those connections with others who share it?
I actually think that it’s crucial that we have this artistic community that we can bounce ideas off of, and our frustrations, and celebrate our joys and just sort of be in the trenches together. Because it can be such a lonely pursuit, and your poor husband and kids don’t want to hear about it 24/7. It is important to have this group that holds you together.
In what ways did your own experiences influence The Great Alone?
Well, the easy answers to that are, of course, the Alaska setting [as my family bought a lodge there in the ’80s] and then there’s a lot of [my family’s] sort of wanderlust in the Albright family. Leni’s a girl who, like me, moved around a lot and went to a lot of schools, which makes it difficult to make friends and so you end up being kind of the bookworm. So that is very much in it.
We all tend to mine our lives and our emotions and our moralities and our feelings, but it’s all still very much fiction. Obviously, nothing about this novel is even close to from my life or true. But certainly, my life experiences are always brought to bear in everything.
You have to believe in this career, you have to believe in yourself, and you have to move with great determination forward, because it doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to sell your first book or your 50th book, or you’re trying to redefine your career, or you’re trying to reinvent what it is you do, it’s always going to be difficult. ... Those skills that you develop as an unpublished writer—your discipline, your dedication—I think all of that holds you in really good stead as you continue forward and transition from a beginning writer to a working writer to a career novelist.
How much has Alaska changed in the last few decades? Did you really have to dig back in your memory and in your research, or is it relatively unchanged? The book touches on the beginnings of the increased tourism industry.
Yes, it’s definitely changed and that is one of the push-and-pulls in the book: The growth of tourism in Alaska and how that has changed the state, and the fight for the soul of Alaska, which is the rugged individualist who wants it to stay wild forever, versus the new people coming in and cruise ships and hotels and all of that. That being said, interestingly enough, Alaska still feels very wild. Most of the state is still not covered by any roads at all. You still have to get to a lot of places by bush plane, by boat. So it remains very wild and remote in a lot of ways.
Does your family still own that lodge?
Yes, they do. We still go, and my dad and his wife and my brother and their partners now run it. My son has worked there and my nephew has worked there, my niece is working there this summer. So it’s still a big family endeavor.