Interview with Kristin Hannah

Posted by Goodreads on February 3, 2015
It would seem Kristin Hannah did everything she could to not become a writer. She began her career at an advertising agency, then worked as a lawyer before fate, in the form of forced bed rest, pushed her to finish her first novel. Twenty-two novels later, the New York Times bestselling author tells the stories of ordinary women and the struggles that surround everything, from motherhood and fraught family dynamics to war.

Her latest novel, and her most epic undertaking yet, is the one she professed doing everything she could to not write. But the true story of a heroic young woman who led Allied soldiers out of occupied France was too compelling to forget, and soon Hannah was a year into her historical research. The Nightingale centers on Isabelle and Viann at the onset of World War II; the sisters face years of brutal challenges and heartbreaking choices before each finds her own path to bravery.

Interviewer Regan Stephens spoke with Kristin Hannah about the many faces of heroism, telling women's stories, and her obligatory research trip to France.

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Goodreads: You came up with the idea for The Nightingale while reading about a Belgian woman who created an escape route out of Nazi-occupied France. Can you elaborate on your inspiration and talk about why you were drawn to the stories of World War II?

Kristin Hannah: I wrote a book several years ago called Winter Garden, which was partly set in World War II Russia, and that was the first time I had really jumped into the research of World War II. I was reading memoirs about women in war, and one of the stories I came across was about Andrée de Jongh. Like you said, she was a 19-year-old Belgian girl, and she and her father really started the escape route that went over the Pyrenees to get the downed airmen out. I was so struck by this story. Given her age, and given the fact that I had never read this story before, I thought, "This is so powerful and amazing, and I feel like I should know this." I filed it away under "That's an amazing story, don't forget that."

And I couldn't forget it. I wrote several books after that, but her story stayed with me. And finally I thought, "I need to do a little more research. I'll go a little deeper and see if this story continues to haunt me." Once I got into it and read the fullness of it, her story very much inspired the character of Isabelle. Andrée and her dad started this escape route, and she personally led hundreds of downed airmen over this route and was caught, in actually much the same place Isabelle was caught in The Nightingale. She was sent to a concentration camp and survived. I believe she spent the rest of her life helping others in the Belgian Congo.

That was all incredibly heroic, and I thought "OK, I'm all in." I started doing deeper research and reading stories of the women of France and the women and men of the French Resistance. I realized this story could be bigger than that. What I really wanted to talk about was the daily heroics of the ordinary Frenchwomen in this terrible town. And as always I'm drawn to the stories of mothers protecting their children, and so that led me to Viann. My thought was, "I wish I could be Isabelle, the spy and the courier who saved all these people's lives at great risk." But really what I probably would have been doing was just trying to save my child and other children. It becomes the story of women in war, period. Our stories and our bravery are not acknowledged and talked about as much when it's over. Perhaps that's because women just come home and go back to their families and their ordinary lives and don't talk about it too much.

I don't want people to forget the heroism of ordinary people and the prices they were paying. The question of the novel that kept coming back to me was, "When would I do this? When would you be willing to risk your child's life as well as your own?"

GR: Is this a typical part of your writing process? Do you often write a novel with one central question in mind?

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KH: Every novel I write has a theme, and every novel has, on some level, a question that I'm interested in exploring. It's often an ethical question. For example, I wrote a book called Night Road that was about being a mother of senior high school-age kids and the specter of teen drinking and driving. How do you handle that as a mother? What's the best way? I had recently sent my son off to college, and I was consumed with thoughts of "Did I do this correctly? What should I have done?" If other women asked me for advice—"how did you survive this year?"—I want to have an answer. That's what led me to write that novel. So the answer is, often, but not always. But I do always try to raise an ethical question that affects, or could affect, ordinary women.

GR: Could you talk more about your research for this novel? How do you capture a time that's unlike anything we've seen in present-day America?

KH: The research starts for me in the same way. There's a question or issue or story or situation that intrigues me enough that I'm willing to spend the next year or two of my life on it. I think it's important, and I think it's something that needs to be explored. With WWII France of course, it was a much bigger topic than I'd ever taken on before. First of all, there are people alive who lived through it and who would know if I'm right or wrong. There are a lot of people who, if they're not scholars, are seriously committed to reading these stories. And given my sense that the women's stories had been forgotten, it was very important to me that I get it right. And so you sort of begin with the global research: What was going on in the world? What were the politics? What were the social mores? What was happening? Who were the people who lived in the world, and how did they think and feel and act?

And then I pared that down and went from the world to Europe to France. Then I studied France specifically very intensely, and then I focused on the memoirs, the people who have written down their stories. There were a lot of fascinating and compelling memoirs by women. Actually the hardest part of the novel was to take all that information, all that research, and distill it down and create characters who felt real. Characters who weren't just moving through history but were real, live three-dimensional characters you can relate to. The first couple of drafts of the novel were really just getting the historical event and historical timeline accurate. Then trying to, draft after draft, create the characters who were in the middle of this extraordinarily dangerous and difficult time but were still ordinary people with ordinary issues. There was one part in the book where I realized, with sisters, you could be in the middle of the war and still argue about unimportant things because you're sisters. And those were the kind of moments I wanted to capture.

GR: You've shared photos from Paris on your website—did you visit specifically to research for this novel?

KH: Interestingly enough I've written something like 20 novels, and I had done World War II Russia before, and I had never found myself in a situation where I felt that I absolutely needed to see these places, feel this country, and know more about it than I could get from research. And fortunately it was France! My husband and I did a one-month research trip. It was fabulous! We basically followed Isabelle's route.

GR: Were there things you thought you would include prior to your trip that didn't work, or vice versa?

KH: There were huge amounts of what the Resistance did, and how they fought and where they fought, that was absolutely fascinating and worth having in the novel, but I was really careful because I wanted it to feel real and ordinary. I didn't want Isabelle to become a superhero, effectively, who was in every corner of the war. I really had to pare it down and focus on these two women and what they did in the war. And they are representative of a lot of other women, but there were a lot of other amazing stories that I couldn't include.

GR: You wrote, "In truth, I did everything I could not to write this novel." Why is that?

KH: It comes back to the epic scope of it. I knew that it was a really big undertaking. I knew that it would take me a full year of research and many drafts. And I had this fear that I couldn't get it on paper the way that I had it in my head. It was just a large undertaking. Ultimately I couldn't walk away from this story.

GR: Many of your novels, including The Nightingale, are emotional reads. Is it personally draining for you?

KH: It's interesting, I hear that a lot. Don't read my books on airplanes or any place you're going to be seen. I don't actually intend to make people cry. I don't intend to write sad situations, but I do write about ordinary women, in usually what is the worst year or time or experience of their life. And I create characters who feel real enough to be with your friends, so when bad things happen to them, it's emotional for the reader. And in the book we're talking about the big kahuna of bad things. The challenge in this book was to not have it be depressing. I was constantly trying to balance the dark times with the more ordinary, uplifting times. It's a big part of why I structured the book with the old woman going back. I always knew going in that I wanted to end this book with the moment of the woman standing in front of the families of the men who had been saved. I thought it was so powerful and uplifting. But of course it's also sad.

GR: Goodreads member Sari asks, "What was your most difficult book to write? What made it so challenging?"

KH: The Nightingale is the most difficult book I've ever written. And again the challenge was balancing the scope with the individual. Making it a story that a. you hadn't read before, and b. touched you as a human being and made you see something that you've read about a lot of times in a new way.

GR: The two heroines of The Nightingale—sisters—are very different characters. One strives to be brave, and the other is seemingly anxious and meek. Why was this juxtaposition important to the story?

KH: For two reasons: One was the whole idea of sisters doing things differently, so there was the conflict of judgment between the two sisters. That gave me a really nice human layer and allowed them to function as individuals and sisters. The other reason was that I really wanted to show that there isn't just one way to be a hero. Not everyone becomes a hero in the same way or at the same time or for the same reasons.

GR: How do you create your characters? Is it difficult to fill in the small details of a personality when you're writing about characters who lived 70 years ago?

KH: Honestly, I didn't feel that in the creation of characters there was much difference between a historical novel or a contemporary novel. In other words, people are still people. The motivating factors might be different, the social mores might be different, the pressures on them might be different, but I still believe that people are people. It's no different than if I'm creating an apple orchard in Wenatchee in 1999 versus a farmer's wife in France in 1949. They still are people trying to survive in the world they're living in. You just try to get as many truth points as you can, and make sure their actions and reactions match the time period and their mind-set.

GR: Goodreads member Fran Allen asks, "Will you do a sequel to any other of your books? I'd love to have more time to spend with your characters."

KH: That is a question that I have gotten my entire career in every single book I've written. Everyone wants a sequel to everything. I think it's because I create these characters you invest in, and people want to know what happens next. But when I finish a novel, by and large, I have said everything I have to say about those characters. In my mind the sequel is "and they lived happily ever after" [laughs] because they worked for it. I never say never. But sequels and series, as much as I love to read them, are not the kinds of stories that appeal to me [as a writer].

GR: The story jumps between the present and the past. What purpose did this serve?

KH: I sat down to write a purely historical novel. I had no intention of writing a contemporary framing for it at all. I had done all my research. I had everything ready to go. I was ready to sit down and open the book in France in 1939, and the next thing I knew, I was writing in the voice of an old woman looking back on her life. And I thought, "First of all, who is she?" Because I didn't know, I had not planned that at all. I loved her voice so much, I just allowed myself to follow it. And what it did for me as an author was allow me to move through the war. If you've read Nightingale, you know I'm pretty much interested in every single moment that happens to my characters. But when you're talking about five years and a war, this would have been a 1,200-page novel. The framing allowed me to step back and talk about what happened in the present and then go back to a different time in the war. And so for an author, that was really great. And additionally, I did not decide who the old woman was until I wrote the final scene.

GR: Wow, really?

KH: Yes! It kept me interested, and I wrote it as if it could be both of the sisters. Actually, a third one. I considered Rachel as well. I wasn't sure who this woman was. When I decided who it was, I went back and edited everything to make sure that it was her. That part of it was really fun and intriguing.

GR: For me, it was fascinating to think of the elderly heroine in modern-day America, so far removed from the atrocities of WWII. I loved to hear her story in both the present and the past.

KH: You'll find that a theme in my books is trying to know your mother deeply and know her story. I lost my mom when I was 26. I am keenly aware that your mother has stories that you're often too busy to listen to when you should. I find that a compelling element. Here's this woman, and her son believes he knows her. The fact is he doesn't know the most important facets of her life because we protect our children from anything that is ugly or dark or we fear will put us in a bad light.

GR: Goodreads member Tabatha asks, "Your books always tend to lead me in a different direction than I anticipate. Do you find you generally stick to a plot you have decided on? Or do you sometimes end up with a different story than anticipated?"

KH: I always end up with the story I intended to tell. I just didn't know that was the story when I started. I do change a lot. There were many versions in which Isabelle and Viann were different. There was a version where they were best friends, a version where they were twins, a version where they were very close in age. So it's a constant recalibration of how to tell the best story and say what I have to say in a way that is universal and original and fresh. The answer is: I always know close to where I'm going, I generally know where I'm going to end up, but I take a lot of different paths to get there. There's a lot of throwing away. Hundreds of pages thrown away.

GR: Can you describe your writing process? Do you have any sort of ritual you follow?

KH: No, I'm not a ritual gal. I'm a former lawyer—I'm research- and planning-intensive. I try to write a certain number of pages a day, and then every 200 pages I essentially pick what's working and start over and throw away what's not working. I reimagine the story and follow it in a new way.

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GR: Have you read anything you've really enjoyed lately?

KH: My favorite book of the last year is, not surprisingly, The Goldfinch. I thought Donna Tartt's novel was amazing. It's actually a fast read, it's really compelling. I also loved All the Light We Cannot See. I just read that recently. Another set in France during World War II. I really enjoyed [Anthony Doerr]'s perspective.

GR: What authors or books have influenced you?

KH: You might be surprised, but I'm often inspired by Stephen King. He is an amazing storyteller. I follow him into all kinds of weird nooks and dark places, and I always love his characters. I love the way he writes. A very influential book I read recently is The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. That was a phenomenal book.

GR: Are you working on your next book now?

KH: I am! I'm 200 pages into my next book. I know what it's starting out as, but I don't know what it's going to be.

Interview by Regan Stephens for Goodreads. Regan lives in Brooklyn and contributes to

Learn more about Regan and follow what she's reading.

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Comments Showing 1-37 of 37 (37 new)

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message 1: by Marcy (new)

Marcy Just a wonderful interview. My favorite book to read is Historical fiction. Marrying the history with fiction is just wonderful. Thank you

message 2: by Nazeer (new)

Nazeer Khan My favorite writer's excellent interview. What prompted you to write history fiction "Nightingale"

message 3: by Julie (new)

Julie Greene I am half way through the Nightingale, I am loving the characters and the story. I love to read Historical Fiction. Excellent Story

message 4: by Marilyn (new)

Marilyn Connolly This was a very insightful interview and has compelled me to read this book because I'm so interested in her process for place, character and time...additionally, she has chosen the same three books that I read and loved; therefore, she has good taste!!!!!

message 5: by John (new)

John Nevola Be glad to send you an autographed copy of my World War II historical fiction novel, The Last Jump. I just need an address.

message 6: by Linda (new)

Linda Mcadams Winter Garden has been my favorite of all her books and historical fiction in general, which is my preferred genre. I preordered Nightingale and am excited to begin reading it as soon as I have completed the three I am currently reading.
Thanks for sharing this wonderful interview with us.

message 7: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer I have this book sitting in front of me and I'm scared to open it. I want to savor the moments that it'll bring. To never finish, yet always eager to know what happens. Hannah's books always touch me in a way no one can. I treasure each one.

message 8: by Dominique (last edited Feb 06, 2015 04:37AM) (new)

Dominique That route through the Pyrenees was already established by the Basque smugglers since the 1500's when the country of Navarre was divided and became France and Spain. It was a commercial route used in the Basque country by "busineesmen/sheepfarmers/fisherman/women" for many, many years prior to the division/political boundaries of the 2 countries. Once the "route" became 2 countries these businessmen became known as smugglers. Andrée de Jongh did NOT develop the route through the Pyrenees, it existed for many years due to OTHER brave men and women...they shared their knowledge. I have personally interviewed someone who smuggled over 2000 people during WW11. His was a family tradition of several hundred years beginning with the Spanish Inquisition, through Spain's Civil wars, world wars, etc.

message 9: by Louie (new)

Louie Saenz This is a great book by a great lady. I had the opportunity to visit with her on the day of the books release and she is very personable and easy to talk to. I would also recommend her other books especially my favorites Home Front and Fire Fly lane.

message 10: by Mary (new)

Mary Lou I have read everyone of her books and WAIT eagerly for the next one. Thank you for this time to be able to say Thank you to our author for all she has done. Sincerely, Mary Lou Secor

message 11: by Carol (new)

Carol Kretzinger Thank you Kristan for all your books but especially The Nightingale!! This book is WONDERFUL!!! Stayed up all night reading it and did not want it to end.Thank you so much!!!

message 12: by Sharlene (new)

Sharlene Is there a discussion group somewhere?

message 13: by Cindrella (new)

Cindrella Evens Thank you I love reading your books !

message 14: by Linda (new)

Linda Easily the best book I've read this year --- even though it was a six tissue ugly cry ending. Thankfully I was home alone for that. Can't recommend this book enough --- it was that great.

Erin *Proud Book Hoarder* I haven't tried her work yet but after reading the synopsis for this - and a few others - I'm definitely curious now.

message 16: by Marilyn (new)

Marilyn Connolly Just finished reading "The Nightingale" which I had commented on earlier as being prompted to read after reading the interview with Kristen Hannah (whom I was not familiar with)--the book was a great read -- can't recommend it highly enough--Thank you Ms. Hannah for allowing me to become a witness to the effect women had on the events during WWII...heroines EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM!!!!!!

message 17: by Amy (new)

Amy I have read both Winter Garden and Night Road and thought that they were fantastic. I always find myself relating to either the situation or at least one character. I look forward to reading The Nightingale.

message 18: by Gordon (new)

Gordon Diver Great interview Regan. Nice to see attention being paid to this topic.

Looking forward to reading Ms. Hannah's work.

message 19: by Kathleen (new)

Kathleen Gray I LOVED this book.

message 20: by Barbara (new)

Barbara Wonderful interview. Now I am very anxious to read "The Nightingale" as well as your other books.

message 21: by Narin (new)

Narin thats fantastic interviw i enjoy a lot

message 22: by A.K. (new)

A.K. White My husband marched over to Chapters and picked up a hard cover copy of The Nightingale for me because he knows how much Kristin Hannah's books mean to me. I am half way through the book now and wonder if it can stand up to The Winter Garden, one of my all time favorites. I'll know soon enough!
Thanks for the great interview.

message 23: by Taungare (new)

Taungare Biita Good story

message 24: by Taungare (new)

Taungare Biita Good story

message 25: by Judith (new)

Judith Just finished reading " The Nightingale". what I called a very motivated and wonderful book. thanks Mrs. Hannah.
Regan..Tumps up interview. Thanks.

message 26: by Susan (new)

Susan This was very different from any other book of yours that I have read and I absolutely loved it!! I continue to recommend it to all my"bookworm" friends...I did read Winter Garden as well and loved it, but this was much deeper into the tragedies and cruelties of war...very compelling read!
I can't wait for your next one!

message 27: by deborah eden (new)

deborah eden perfidio this is in my queue for reading and I cannot wait!! Heard many good things about it - however being one of the few people on the earth that hasn't read Harry Potter I am going to read all 7 books for my son....then I'll return to my regularly scheduled programming.

message 28: by Mahee (new)

Mahee Ferlini What a great interview - thank you for sharing!

message 29: by Linda (new)

Linda Mcadams This is scheduled book for my book club to review on October 15, 2015. It will be a great discussion book and I will share my comments at that time.

message 30: by Carolyn (new)

Carolyn Hinderliter Since I just finished reading The Nightingale, this interview was fascinating to me, and answered some of the questions I
had about the characters and the history of the Resistance.
This is a book that I will continue to think about for a long time and believe it would be a good choice for book clubs to read and discuss. We need to know both the good and horrible truths about heroes who risked everything!

message 31: by Nancy (new)

Nancy Hausladen I read this The Nightingale and enjoyed it. I would recommend it to anyone

message 32: by Augustina (new)

Augustina Runfola I finished reading The Nightingale and I have to say it was probably the best book I have ever read. It is historical fiction, which I love and took place during WWII - my favorite era. I used to get up an hour early each morning to have time to read before work. I plan to read it again. I could not put it down. The characters were so real to me. Thank you Kristen Hannah!

message 33: by Joanne (new)

Joanne Galasso Kristin Hannah's latest book,The Nightengale,lived up to expectations. I have read and enjoyed all of her books, and this is the best one yet! can't wait for her next one!

message 34: by Linton (new)

Linton Awesome

message 35: by Ronaldo (new)

Ronaldo Carneiro Mrs Grace Tessi - excuse me but hear is not a place to post this kind of thing. Success

message 36: by Mary (new)

Mary Stag I have read most of Kristin Hannah's books and enjoyed them all. The Nightingale Is my favorite. I have given it to many of my friend to read.

message 37: by Linda (new)

Linda Mcadams What a memorable book. Learning of these happenings from the perspective of the French was something I had not read in the same vein as your book. Two sisters, quite different but yet the same in their endurance and accomplishments to something more than just a cause. They had the same father but did not really know the real him until the near end of his life.
The changes that death creates is paramount to the three of them but in a way it created in them what was needed to allow them to endure
And then there is love, however invisible it may have seemed to them at times. Yes, a strong thread indeed.

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