Interview with Kristin Hannah

Posted by Goodreads on February 28, 2011
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Novelist Kristin Hannah claims she never sets out to write a tearjerker, but her fans count on the fact that her stories pack an emotional wallop. Frequent favorites among book clubs, Hannah's 19 novels plumb the deep relationships shared by families and especially women, such as the diverging lives of best friends in Firefly Lane or the quest of two sisters to understand their unloving mother's painful past in Winter Garden. In her latest book, Night Road, three teens navigate the pleasures and dangers of their senior year of high school, with worried parents looking on. Hannah, an ex-lawyer who now splits her time between the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii, chatted with Goodreads about helicopter moms and writing on the beach.

Goodreads: The parents in Night Road use a wide variety of strategies to guide their teenage children. What did you want to explore about the theme of parenting when writing this book?

Kristin Hannah: My son has just graduated from college, so I've had a couple of years to have perspective on senior year [of high school]. Of course, before you're a parent, senior year seems like the grail—the best year of high school, the most fun you had. And then suddenly you're a parent, and it becomes one of the scariest years in parenting. It took me a while to realize how stressed out I had been, how difficult it was to be a good parent at this time when challenges and dangers are coming at your child from every angle—with the drinking and the driving and the sex, with the getting into college and all the stresses that are on the kids. And you're trying to keep them safe, and they're trying to spread their wings and outsmart you. And as smart as you think you are, they do tend to outsmart you.

I began to look back and ask myself, "What had I done right, what had I done wrong, and what was the 'A' answer." When writing a book, if I can research something enough, I can formulate my opinion. For Night Road my answer is that there is no "A" answer. It's kid specific, parent specific, community specific. The only thing I come away feeling certain about is that communication is the most important factor.

GR: The character of Jude Farraday, mother to twins Mia and Zach, hovers over every aspect of her children's lives. In Night Road's dedication you describe yourself as a "helicopter mom." How would you now advise a fellow parent of a teenager?

KH: I was really concerned, perhaps overly concerned, committed. I talked [to my son], perhaps ad nauseam, about all this stuff. And what I have realized since is that he heard everything I said. At the time I really genuinely thought he wasn't listening, so I said it again. But the fact is they are really smart, and if you've raised them well, they'll make good choices. And they will stumble and they will fall; that's an important part of life, and you can't stop that, you can only help them get back up.

GR: As a teenager, what was your own senior year of high school like?

KH: It was a very different world back then. A lot freer, a lot easier, a lot less pressure on us to be perfect. It was easier to get into the stress level was much lower for me as a kid. The partying was still there—obviously the sex was still there—the allure of partying and breaking the law and sneaking out, the challenges of learning to grow up and be on your own. And there was a big drunk driving accident my senior year that killed one of my classmates the week of graduation. Too many people have stories like that.

GR: Mia and Zach befriend a teen named Lexi Baill who has grown up in and out of foster care due to her drug-addicted mother. How did you develop this character?

KH: What I wanted was somebody who needed to be enfolded into a family. And I wanted to juxtapose [Jude's] overparenting with a complete lack of parenting, a lack of role models. I thought it made a kind of statement that kids and people are who they are—you can come out of a great environment and be troubled, or you can come out of a troubled environment and be great. A lot of it is perspective and point of view.

Also, this idea of a trio of best friends. Everything in the teen years is so intense. Friendship is so intense, love is so intense, and those emotions can really put kids at war. I wanted [Mia, Zach, and Lexi] to deal with that layer in their senior year.

GR: Lexi and the Farraday family face a great tragedy with severe emotional and legal consequences, but it is unclear where to place blame. As a former lawyer, do you believe there is inequality in the justice system?

KH: Let's just say that the justice system has real class and money issues. Those with power and money have better access and likelihood to receive justice than the poor and the disenfranchised. But it's also true that Lexi made a choice. That choice was sort of rooted in her innate goodness and her own personal sense of right and wrong. I was intrigued by Jude's idea that the justice system could actually help in her recovery. That's something that she and [her husband] Miles disagreed about, and that happens in a lot of families who suffer a tragedy.

I really wanted it to be a book about consequences, about choices. And that really falls on all the characters. They all make at least one tragically wrong choice in this book and end up paying the consequences. Ultimately the question is, How do you redeem yourself, how do you forgive the people you love? How do you get back to your life when you've done something so wrong?

GR: Goodreads member Lisa says, "I would be curious to know how Kristin picks the topics she writes about. Is she inspired by something in the news? Personal experience?"

KH: Ideas are the most magical part of the process for me. It takes me over a year to write a book, so I really need to love everything about what I'm writing. So it becomes this search for the one thing that starts it all. In Night Road it was this looking back on senior year of high school and asking myself, "How do you be the best parent you can be in this dangerous scenario?" In Winter Garden I started with, "What if your mother had a secret life about which you knew nothing?" It's usually one sentence like that—the heart and theme of the novel—that intrigues me enough that I can go and search for the answers.

GR: Goodreads member Jenni has read four of your books, and she asks, "Every book I have read so far has simply made me cry my eyes out. So my question is, How are you able to write these stories with such raw emotion?"

KH: I think I'm a funny person! I don't honestly know—I've never in my career set out to write a tearjerker. What I set out to write are stories about women facing probably the most difficult moment in their life—that's what my books are at their very heart when you strip everything else away. I guess it's a depth-of-character question. I think I'm often lucky enough to create characters whom the reader invests in and identifies with, and so they're moved by the journey. They don't usually make me cry, for the record.

GR: Along that line, Goodreads member Michelle asks, "How does your writing impact you emotionally?"

KH: The only book to date that has actually made me cry while reading it was Winter Garden. Firefly Lane was a very difficult and very personal book, but it never blindsided me emotionally the way Winter Garden did. I went into Firefly Lane knowing how difficult the topic was going to be for me and guarding against it, whereas Winter Garden crept under my skin.

GR: Michelle also asks, "Which character has been the most challenging or the most fun for you to write about?

KH: The most challenging was probably Anya in Winter Garden, because I just kept wanting to shake her and say, "Snap out of it, treat your children better." It was very difficult for me to create a mother who kept her children at arms' length.

The most fun to write was a character called Alice in Magic Hour. She's a feral child raised in the backwoods who has never really seen people. So I was able to get inside the head of a being of purity and try to figure out how she saw the world and how she learned to come into our world.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

KH: As a former lawyer, I am a very disciplined and dedicated person. When I write, I write at least a good eight- to ten-hour day. I actually love writing, it's probably my favorite thing to do in the world. And because I write longhand, I write a lot of my books sitting on the beach in Hawaii.

I have an assistant who takes my yellow legal pads written with my certain little perfect pen, and she magically transforms my terrible handwriting into beautiful typewritten pages. The first draft is all longhand. Drafts two through six are usually a combination of editing on hard copy and inserted new material written on the yellow legal pads, and then the final drafts are completely on hard copy. By the time I've gotten to the point where I don't need to add a bunch of scenes, I work directly on the hard copy.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

KH: The book that has influenced me most in the last couple of years is The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. That was a fairly direct inspiration for Winter Garden, because it was a combination of contemporary and historical stories. I love the dual narrative of that book—that's a recent influence. For all time I love the big, epic, commercial-slash-literary-type books—things like The Prince of Tides.

GR: Any particular authors?

KH: I have an eclectic reading taste, but among my favorites are Stephen King, Pat Conroy, Michael Connelly, Alice Hoffman, Anita Shreve, and Harlan Coben.

GR: Your reading taste spans many genres. Have you ever considered trying your hand at other genres?

KH: If I were to do something off-the-wall, it would probably be epic fantasy. I'm a geek girl at heart.

GR: What are you reading now?

KH: I am reading stacks and stacks and stacks of research books, because I'm dead in the middle of the book for 2012.

GR: Can you share anything about it?

KH: Not yet! It is so up in the air [laughs]. I'm trying to nail it down, but it is giving me some trouble.

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by Kathy (new)

Kathy I have so thoroughly enjoyed all of Ms. Hannah's books however, I think I was really 'hooked' when I read "Winter Garden." Thank you for giving us readers so much pleasure.

message 2: by Inglath (new)

Inglath Cooper Longtime fan - off to download Night Road from!!

message 3: by Meaux (new)

Meaux Hathaway my question for Kristin Hannah would be How do you develop a character; for instance Nora Bridge in "Summer Island"? You are way to young to know what you know. It fascinates me to read your books and think she(you) haven't had these experiences but Know the emotions so intricately and express them so articulately. What is this process for you?

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