Kristin Hannah Writes an American Epic

Posted by Cybil on February 1, 2021
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When Kristin Hannah, the bestselling author of The Nightingale, began her new historical epic centered on the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, she had no idea how timely it would feel amid the dark days of the current pandemic and economic downturn.
 
The Four Winds depicts an America crippled by economic and environmental disaster with millions jobless, terrified, and struggling to survive, eerie parallels to what much of the country faces today.
 
In 1934, on a farm in the Texas Panhandle, blistering drought and dust storms have transformed the once fertile land, rendering life all but unlivable for Elsa Martinelli and her children. All around people are fleeing to California, but the farm is the only place Elsa–rejected by her parents–has ever felt safe. Leaving could break her heart. But staying could kill them.
 
When at last she heads west, Elsa faces ever-evolving dangers and a hostile California apparently bent on grinding “Okies” into their graves via grueling labor, squatter camps, and starvation-level pay. Can she fight to secure a better life for her family or will hardship and cruelty crush them?
 
The book, Hannah’s 24th, maintains the focus on strong women facing unimaginable challenges central to The Nightingale, the international bestseller about two sisters in Nazi-occupied France, and 2018’s The Great Alone, in which a mother and daughter struggle to survive in Alaska. The Four Winds aims for the same “emotional knockout punch,” Hannah says, while paying homage to the Greatest Generation and reflecting on the American dream as well as the ways the country tears itself apart.
 
Hannah, a former lawyer, tells interviewer Catherine Elsworth how Elsa muscled her way from a minor, background role to become the author’s “favorite character of all time”; what drives her to write–“I need something powerful to say”; and why women and women’s stories are at the center of her work.

Goodreads: Can you talk about the origins of this book, because I imagine when you started you had no idea how timely it would prove to be, given everything that has happened in the last year.

Kristin Hannah: No, I certainly did not see any of this coming. This was an interesting endeavor for me. I started roughly three and a half, four years ago. And I think it really began years before that, when I was touring with The Nightingale, my book that's set in World War II France. And talking to readers, I started to get a feeling for how much that book meant to readers and the emotional knockout punch that it offered. And I began to want to write a book like that set in America, a totally American epic that really put women and women's struggles and triumphs at the forefront of the story. And so I set out to write an American epic, which led me to the Great Depression because, of course, it was a time of such hardship and struggle. And that's really the era that created the Greatest Generation. And I wanted to pay homage to those people and that time period.

And once I started looking at the Great Depression, I began researching the Dust Bowl. And as someone who had gone to school on the West Coast, I didn't know very much about the Dust Bowl. I knew the headlines, but I had no idea of the tragedy of it, the scale and the magnitude. And so once I put those two pieces together, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, I felt like I had an automatic story. And then it was just trying to find the characters who would best inhabit the story.

GR: And how did you come up with Elsa?

KH: Interestingly enough, after all of these books, she has really emerged as my favorite character of all time. I think what it is about her, and what I so fell in love with, was this woman who had such low self-esteem and grew up feeling unloved and unvalued and yet continued to wake up every morning and give everything her best effort. And when she becomes a wife and becomes a mother, she doesn't automatically become a powerful woman, because I think the things that you hear in childhood and you internalize about yourself stay with you.

So ultimately, this book is the story of one woman going from almost no self-worth to ultimately having enough self-esteem not only to stand up and fight for herself and her children, but to fight for people who are weak and being oppressed. And I just love that journey.

GR: The book is told from the points of view of Elsa and her daughter, Loreda. Did you always know that you wanted to have two narrators?

KH: Well, when I originally conceived the book and pitched it to my publishers and did all the research, it was Loreda's story and Elsa wasn't really even in the book. She was Rafe's wife, and in that version of the book that made her Loreda's sister-in-law. And so she started as this unimportant, non-viewpoint character. But when I wrote that scene when her father drops her off at the farm and says, "She's been ruined, and she's yours now," there was just something about her from the very beginning that attached to my heart.

And I ignored it for a while, but finally I realized that I had inadvertently created a really remarkable character and I needed to give the book to her. So it meant throwing away everything that I had done before and making them mother-daughter and letting Elsa be the star of the piece.

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GR: That's amazing. How far had you got when you realized you needed to do that?

KH: I had been working on it for two years when I finally decided that, so yeah, it was a long time. She had been a presence in the book, it just wasn't her book. So once I had her and once I had this complex mother-daughter relationship, then the book really came into its own. It became a book about motherhood on a lot of levels, because I loved the Elsa/Rosa (Elsa’s mother-in-law) relationship and Loreda and her mother, and then Elsa and her mother. So I just loved the layers that that story brought.

GR: There are such specific details in your descriptions of the dust storms, such as the family cowering beneath tables draped with wet sheets and one character suffering “dust pneumonia”; it’s powerful and terrifying. What kind of research did you do?

KH: It really was. And as you can imagine, it took a lot of research. I'm not from that area, so it took a lot of geographical research as well as historical stuff, but I was very lucky. Compared to some of my other settings and time periods, there was really a wealth of information about this one.

There are so many wonderful books written about it and a lot of really great memoirs, which is where I tend to get a lot of those details, like the centipedes coming out the walls. That kind of thing was mostly documented by women who lived it.

GR: I read that you toured the Weedpatch Camp, the federal government camp that housed migrant workers fleeing the Dust Bowl. Did that inspire the Welty farm camp where Elsa and her children end up living?

KH: I did visit it. That camp is still outside of Bakersfield, California. My camp is a fictional one, and the Weedpatch Camp was a Farm Security Administration camp and so much better than the grower camp that I imagined at Welty.
But that Weedpatch Camp is basically the one John Steinbeck used in The Grapes of Wrath. And a couple of the little cabins are left, and the post office and the community hall. Then every year they do a Dust Bowl Days celebration, and people who lived in the camp, or whose parents lived in the camp, come back, and it's a really great event.

GR: How conscious were you of Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath when you were writing this book?

KH: It's impossible to take on this story and this era without the ghost of Steinbeck looking on, because The Grapes of Wrath is such a seminal work, and I think most people have read it. But there's obviously a lot more to the story. And I was really interested primarily in the female perspective and what it was like for a woman in that time period.

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GR: That seems to be something that drives your writing, your career, this desire to tell women's stories and women's history that have been lost or at least not documented extensively.

KH: Yeah. It really has become a passion of mine in the last few years. This idea, as I've gotten older, this understanding of how much of women's history has been lost or marginalized or overlooked. And I just love the idea of being able to remind people of women's history and how powerful and triumphant women have been throughout history and how important.

GR: Yes, because in this book, and also The Nightingale and The Great Alone, you seem to push your characters to the absolute brink of endurance.

KH: And my readers!

GR: Yes! And reading it, you realize how little these characters had to survive on and how amazing it is they survived at all.

KH: It really is. I mean, that was one of the things that was so revealing to me. Although the book doesn't take place over a long period of time, these Dust Bowl years went on and on, and the Great Depression lasted a decade. And here we are in, what, month nine of the pandemic, and it really sort of puts everything into perspective. And I think there are lessons to be learned from the Greatest Generation and from the Great Depression about the resilience of the human spirit and the strength of the American people. And I think that's a really important lesson right now.

GR: I was struck by the many echoes between this time period and our own, such as the hostility the migrants face from Californians who “feared who Americans always fear: the outsider,” as one character puts it. Some of these seem to ring true today.

KH: Well, I think, again, that's the importance of history, of the whole idea that what is past is prologue and that what we have done, we have done over and over, and we will do again, unless we learn the lessons of history.

GR: There's also a lot of talk in the book about what America is and isn't and the American dream. As you were writing, did you reflect on America's track record on liberty and justice and looking after its citizens?

KH: Yeah, absolutely. I think America at our best is an ideal to reach for. It is a way of life, a way of being. It's more than simply a governmental form. It's an idea. And I think that that idea sort of essentially includes justice and caring for others and fundamental fairness.

GR: Were you always intending to take on the labor movement and have Elsa eventually fight alongside Jack, a Communist, in trying to unite the farmworkers?

KH: I knew that it was a really interesting part of what was going on in that time period. And I felt that historically, I tend to look at my characters and ask myself over and over as a woman, as a human, as a wife, as a mother: What would I do? And as I was reading about the way the migrants were treated in California at that time, it seemed to me that I would have been very invested in unionization and using collective bargaining to help myself and my fellow Americans who were in the same boat that I was. So both historically and from a human standpoint, I just found the unionism part of the story really compelling.

GR: Were you worried about introducing Communism into the book, given that it provokes such strong reactions?

KH: You know, that's simply part of the historical record. I think nowadays we are at a moment in time where everything is politically fraught and it's easy to be afraid of all kinds of issues in writing. I think the important thing is that I'm telling a historical story, and this is the way it was.

I really try, in both my historical and my contemporary fiction, to simply illuminate the world as I see it and the issues as I see them. And I allow people to then bring their own values and morals and judgments into the story.

GR: Do you see this book as a companion piece to The Great Alone and The Nightingale, because it's so much about personal growth and physical endurance and triumph?

KH: Yes, absolutely. And then I think what this book adds into is, in a way, the American ideal, the American dream and exploration of who we are and what we want to be, who we are at our best and who we are at our worst.

I think that like The Nightingale, The Four Winds is ultimately about two strong women finding their voice and struggling to make a better life for themselves and stay safe and not only take care of each other, but striving to do what is right as well.

GR: Often in your work, you see the landscape as a character. Here we see it changing overnight with the dramatic storms and then devastating floods in California.

KH: This is very much a book that is as much about man against nature as anything else. So, it's man against man, but it's also man against nature. And I think I discovered really with The Great Alone the power of the physical world and the natural world as being a character in the book.

GR: Have you found echoes with today’s discussion about climate change and the recent fires on the West Coast?

KH: Yes. It was really interesting, during the writing of this book, the wildfires were going crazy in California. I've got family in California, and I was constantly aware of the climate in general and the devastation that the natural world can inflict.

The Dust Bowl is the greatest environmental disaster in American history. 
It wasn’t caused by man entirely, of course, but farming methods definitely impacted [it]. And I think that's important to recognize.

GR: You’ve said that you always have the story mapped out and an ending in your head when you begin a book. Was that true with this?

KH: Well, no, actually, because this wasn't the book I set out to write. So once I changed it to Elsa and gave her the book, then there was a much more natural story arc. So I had to rethink what the ending was going to be when it became her story.

But I don't begin unless I can see the whole book and I know the ending. The problem is that when I begin writing, I'm a very analytical person, and I tend to look at my own work the same way I look at a movie or somebody else's book. And if I see a way that something could have been done better, then I am compelled to follow that. And that has led me to throwing out a lot of words, a lot of themes, a lot of story lines, a lot of characters as I pare down and try to find the best expression of what it is I was trying to say.
 
And what I was trying to say in this book was really a commentary on the strength and resilience of the human spirit to endure and to not just endure, but to survive and ultimately thrive. And one of the things I found so fascinating in my research was that the vast majority of the farmers who lived in this Dust Bowl area stayed. They stuck it out. They didn't go somewhere else. Their land and the way of life that it offered them was deeply embedded in their sense of who they are and who they wanted to be. And they were a tough, independent group of people. And they stayed and survived and thrived afterwards.

GR: Mother-daughter relationships have been featured in many of your books. Do you now consider them a central part of your fiction?

KH: I think they always have been. Even before I really knew what I was doing in writing, I have always been deeply drawn to family and friendship relationships. I'm just really interested in the way families work and the way families don't work and how your family impacts your life and your choices. And of course to me, the mother-daughter bond is especially powerful. I lost my own mom when I was 25 years old. And so I spend, I think, a lot of time in my fiction uncovering and exploring the mother-daughter relationship almost in a way to bring me close to my own mom.

GR: Can you share some books that you've read recently and enjoyed?

KH: Let's see. What have I read? I really liked This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger. I am in the middle of and loving The Cold Millions by Jess Walter. And I just read Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose and really love that.

GR: Who are some of the writers who inspire you the most?

KH: I adore Stephen King and Pat Conroy, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, JK Rowling, Alice Hoffmann. Those are the ones who come to mind off the top of my head.

GR: You write in longhand. Do you write the whole manuscript in longhand before you turn to the computer?

KH: I do. It's crazy, I know. And I think what I find most compelling about it for me personally is there's no delete key. When I did work on a computer, I spent a lot of time writing a sentence and deleting it, writing a sentence and deleting it. And I find that with my style of writing, the way I work best is to simply write a rough draft and then edit what I know is going to be in the book and not spend hours on a sentence and a paragraph that may not even make it past the day.

GR: Do you find being fairly isolated—you live in the Pacific Northwesthelps you write, or could you write anywhere?

KH: I can write anywhere. I mean, that's one of the reasons also that I write longhand. I can write sitting on a beach, sitting in my backyard, on an airplane. I'm not a really precious writer. I'm a very sort of workman-like writer. I sit down to write, and I write.

GR: Saying that, how has this year been in terms of writing?

KH: Well, I finished The Four Winds just as the lockdown started. So I'm not writing right now. It is time to begin to think about a new book.

GR: What’s happening with the film of The Nightingale, which will star Elle and Dakota Fanning? And the Netflix adaptation of Firefly Lane?

KH: The Netflix series is coming February 3, and it's just great, so that's very exciting. And The Nightingale had to shut down filming because of the pandemic. So we're hoping to start filming again, I believe in the summer.

GR: Are there other genres you’d like to embrace or is historical fiction where you like to be most?

KH: I'm sure I will go back to contemporary fiction at some time. I seem to like the fluidity of historical sometimes and contemporary sometimes. It's really all about the story I have to tell and what I have to say.

GR: Yes, because you’ve said that the story has to revolve around a central question, and once you've got that, you can run with it.

KH: Yes, I just need something powerful to say and something that I am fascinated enough in and has enough depth to spend three years all day, every day exploring it.

GR: Your first novel, A Handful of Heaven, was published in 1991. How do you think you've changed as a writer since then?

KH: Gosh, well, I hope I've gotten a lot better. I don't know. I mean, I think I’m deeper and richer and a better writer now, but I've always written books that elicited a deeply emotional connection in readers. So I think that's the throughline that has stayed.
 
Kristin Hannah's The Four Winds will be available in the U.S. on February 2. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-49 of 49 (49 new)

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message 1: by Gail (new)

Gail Hollingsworth Enjoyed the interview!


message 2: by Ahana (new)

Ahana Lovely interview, can't wait to read!


message 3: by Alyssa (new)

Alyssa Really looking forward to reading it!


message 4: by Joan (new)

Joan Thank you! Looking forward to reading the book. I have to take this opportunity to tell you; The Nighingale is one of my top three favorite books. ❤️📖


message 5: by Juliet (new)

Juliet Estrada-hoban Love learning more about you❤️The Nightingale, The Winter Garden and The Great Alone are my favs. Looking forward to reading your newest book!


message 6: by Hayley (new)

Hayley Love the additional insight into the book and I especially loved your last comment about how you think you have evolved/improved as a writer and completely agree. I can’t wait to read my copy of this book.


message 7: by Sue (new)

Sue J Looking forward to reading the new book.


message 8: by Donna (new)

Donna Campbell I enjoyed this interview and look forward to reading the book. Although every book I’ve read by KH has been great, WINTER GARDEN is one of my all-time favorite books.


message 9: by Jill (new)

Jill Hennessy So interesting to read about your process of writing! Thank you for sharing. And of course, I love your books and excited to read The Four Winds.


message 10: by Askaline (new)

Askaline I was so looking forward to The Four Winds that I had planned an extra long breakfast time for the day it came out (which was today). I downloaded it as the coffee percolated and now, I can't wait for my work day to be over to get back to it.
Great interview. How Elsa made it into the book is amazing and I had wondered for months what an impact the Grapes of wrath had on The four winds.
Please please keep on writing !


message 11: by Sandy (new)

Sandy Whitmore mcnichol excited to read this book


message 12: by Kimm (new)

Kimm Wesley One of my favorite authors, thank you for the interview and deeper insight into the book. Look forward to reading it.


message 13: by Marilyn (new)

Marilyn Parkinson Also read or listen to audiobook of Timothy Egan’s “The Worst Hard Time.”


message 14: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Ketchell Our book club is reading this later this year. Sounds like there will be lots to discuss


message 15: by Becky (new)

Becky Thank you for this interview. I enjoyed the insight into the development of the book and your writing style, Kristin Hannah. Can't wait to read it.


message 16: by Laura (new)

Laura Thomas Thanks so much for the interview... I can't wait to devour this book!


message 17: by Allison (new)

Allison Thanks for this interview. The Nightingale is a tremendous book. Took my breath away. I look forward to reading more of Ms. Hannah's books.


message 18: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl Hendricks I love your books, The Nightingale and The Great Alone are my favorite books. I am reading Firefly Lane now.


message 19: by Faith (new)

Faith Asdell Thanks for the interview. The Four Winds has been added to my TBR list!


message 20: by Eileen (new)

Eileen Keane Your books are wonderful; your characters so real. I love reading them and I hate when they end.


message 21: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer Dejong Thank you for the opportunity to learn more about the book. I ordered it already and patiently, or not so patiently, waiting for it to arrive. I love so many of your books Ms. Hannah. Love to see you bring these characters and the events to life.


message 22: by Lordell (new)

Lordell My book club has discussed three of your books. The Nightingale, Winter Garden and The Great Alone. All were excellent reviews. The Four Winds sounds like another great book. Love your writing.


message 23: by Kathi (new)

Kathi Have just recently stumbled across the Nightingale and The Great Alone. What great books for all the reasons you presented. Looking forward to finding more to read.


message 24: by Rona (new)

Rona Love all your books and I don’t want them to end!
I fell in love with the characters in all your books especially the two sisters in The Nightingale!
I’ve already placed a hold at my library, for your new book. I Enjoyed the interview very much!
Can’t wait to read it!
I’m looking forward to watching Firefly lane on Netflix. I hope Netflix will continue with the sequel Fly Away!


message 25: by Genevieve (new)

Genevieve Long Loving firefly lane its my first book of kirstin hannah


bookswithpaulette Brilliant I loved this interview. The book is another amazing KH story. Keep them coming please 😊


message 27: by vic (new)

vic  Favia I thoroughly enjoyed the interview.It's really great when we ,the readers, get some insight into the lives of the authors we love to read. Thanks Cybil for making this happen and thank you Kristin for taking the time for the interview.I really do love your writing style and all your books--- Vic Favia


message 28: by Beth (new)

Beth Lechman I have not read a lot of Kristin Hannah books but The Nightingale was my first. A very powerful read that brought me to tears. I am sure this book will be just as powerful and look forward to reading.


message 29: by Emi (new)

Emi Gómez Rodríguez A fantastic interview, you want me to translate it into Spanish.
Looking forward to reading it.


message 30: by Linda (new)

Linda Loved the interview. Sure will be buying this book. Loved The Nightingale and I have The Great Alone not read yet. But....hope to read it soon. I have a large collection of books not read yet. Can't resist buying books when there is an excellent rating. Check out all books first before buying. Looking forward to getting your new book. Linda/Vancouver/BC/Canada


message 31: by Lori (new)

Lori Johnson Since I've read all of Kristen Hannah's books it seems like such a long wait for the next! I can't wait to read this.
Starting from Winter Garden, I have loved the historical aspect of her books though I liked the simple fiction relationship books written prior to Winter Garden, very much as well.


message 32: by Dywane (new)

Dywane I Love This book?


message 33: by Vicky (new)

Vicky Dywane wrote: "I Love This book?"

I thought the book was so poignant & relevant to the current issues facing our great country today! I loved how you approached each aspect in the book from her families coldness, to the immigrant family that accepted her, the rocky relationship, the Depression, the Farmers Dilemma, the Migrants treatment no matter skin color! The book was written with such expressive emotions that you could feel the dust and sand in your mouth!
I had an advanced copy and I loved it from the beginning to the end!
I definitely enjoyed this interview!,,
Three Dogs & a Book


message 34: by Colette (new)

Colette McCormick Great interview and I loved the book.


message 35: by Caryn (new)

Caryn Thank you for the insight into your writing process. I am especially grateful for fabulous books at this time. The Grapes of Wrath was torture in high school and an astonishing gift to rediscover as an adult. I am delighted for the Netflix offering and ordering The Four Winds as soon as I log off GoodReads. Thanks, Kristin Hannah!


message 36: by Tracey (new)

Tracey Wonderful interview! Thank you, Goodreads, for sharing it! I am looking forward to reading Ms. Hannah's novel.


message 37: by Katherine (new)

Katherine Great interview! I just finished listening to the audio and it was fantastic! I enjoyed the narration and the story will stay with me for a long time!


message 38: by Nancy (new)

Nancy Hurst I pre-ordered the book. Couldn't wait to start it. Got to the 26th chapter and the pages were mixed up, out of order, repeated and missing. I couldn't even finish it . Very disappointed.


message 39: by menna (new)

menna hafez She's an amazing author, i love her books so much 😘😘😘❤️


message 40: by Sue (new)

Sue Edgerton I really enjoyed reading this interview! My Book Club and I loved THE NIGHTINGALE and now I am looking forward to reading more books by Miss Hannah, especially THE FOUR WINDS.


message 41: by Donna (new)

Donna Just finished Four Winds. Couldn't put it down. I definitely see a sequel to it, involving Loreda and Rafe--even Valen--and their ties, if any, to California and the farm in Lonesome Tree, TX.


message 42: by Emily (new)

Emily Nancy wrote: "I pre-ordered the book. Couldn't wait to start it. Got to the 26th chapter and the pages were mixed up, out of order, repeated and missing. I couldn't even finish it . Very disappointed."

You should let them know (wherever you ordered it from) so that they can send you a new copy.


message 43: by Kim (new)

Kim B (Our Charming Bookshelf) The Four Winds was OUtSTaNDING!! I’m so glad I didn’t wait to read it!


message 44: by Linda (new)

Linda Excellent interview! Have bought the book but may not start it right away. Have so many books to catch up with. Looking forward to reading this book. Already know that it's "Exceptional".
Linda/Vancouver/BC/Canada


message 45: by Hilde (new)

Hilde I just finished The Four Winds and loved it. At the end of the book, Kristin Hannah says there is a reading list for more information about the Dust Bowl years and the migrant experience in California. I couldn't find that list. Could somebody point me to it please?


message 46: by Barbara (new)

Barbara Hughes I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED this book. It has to be my most favorite book of all time. It starts out In Dalhart, TX where I have a personal connection to ancestors who lived through the experiences in this book. My grandparents lived there and subsequently moved to an area near Bakersfield where Elsa ended up when she came to CA. I live here now and I still have family in Dalhart. If you like historical fiction this book is a MUST READ!!!


message 47: by Linda (new)

Linda Hartley Yes I shall be looking for this once it becomes available in the UK. Encouraged to read more of KH especially as The Nightingale was exceptional and look forward to reading more from her.


message 48: by Hprenick (new)

Hprenick Loved the book Ad look forward to your next book


message 49: by Fredericka (new)

Fredericka Deberry I enjoyed the interview very much. One of the best books on the Dust Bowl that I have ever read is the nonfiction The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. I highly recommend it. I look forward to reading The Four Winds. As a native-born Texan, the Dust Bowl has always interested me.


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