Freezing rain warnings, slush and even the wrong location did not stop Kim and I from meeting Kristin Hannah. Despite the weather, the room was full of avid readers, keen to hear her speak about her newest novel, The Great Alone.
After reading The Nightingale, I was keen to learn more about The Great Alone. She shared that being influenced by binge watching Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones she realized that “she could throw bad things at” her characters and “see how they survive” . This has helped her grow as a writer and a woman and she has changed the focus of her last two novels to more serious topics.
The Great Alone has glimpses of Hannah’s childhood represented by the setting of Alaska. When Ernt lost another job, the Albright family drove their Volkswagen bus North and attempted to escape the demons of Ernt’s PTSD. His wife Cora and daughter Leni, travelled with him and hoped to leave their challenges behind. They later realized how isolating an Alaskan winter, with 18 hours of darkness each day, could be.
“My family has had a long history in Alaska. My parents joined with a local Alaskan homesteading family to found the Great Alaska Adventure Lodge on the rugged banks of the Kenai River. Three generations of my family have worked there, and over the last twenty years I have spent a lot of time up there. Every time I land in that majestic, otherworldly landscape, I fall in love all over again” (https://kristinhannah.com/newsletter/january-2018/) .
The strength and resilience of the women of the North was a key theme. Many women followed men to the North, only to remain when the men fled back South. Hannah laughed that she had heard “it’s easy to find a man in Alaska, the odds are good but the goods are odd”! She notes that writing is like therapy and that the character of Leni had some similarities to her life – not the domestic abuse but the moving around, changing schools and a lack of cool clothes.
“the way I got through that was books”
Hannah referred to herself as a “recovering lawyer”. She was a 25 year old student, when her mother was dying of cancer. As she grumbled about her corporate law class, her mom told her not to worry, she would be a writer anyways. As she spent time with her mom, they worked on ideas for a book. Years later while practicing law, Hannah went into labour at 14 weeks leaving her on bedrest for the remainder of her pregnancy. Her husband pulled out the materials from the book she had attempted to write with her mom which inspired her to write. Two years after her son was born, she published her first novel.
Having only read The Nightingale, I had not realized that her earlier books were historical romances. The Nightingale was a fabulous historical fiction novel set in WWII France. She shared how difficult it was to write a book worrying that would follow the success of The Nightingale. She decided to write a book that could not be compared. It was a domestic thriller, set in Alaska and needed to be thrown out. All that she kept was the Alaskan setting and a few of the characters involved in a completely new plot to form The Great Alone.
Hannah described her writing as a collaborative process. She writes, shares with her writing partner and trusted others to brainstorm and discuss. She wants to learn the strengths and weaknesses and keeps starting over, rewriting and making changes. At present, she admitted to being 25 pages into a novel that would be relating to the strength and durability of women with stories at risk of disappearing as the women die taking their memories with them. She spoke of the importance of capturing these stories since so much of history is written from a male perspective. The audience laughed when she said she wanted to “remind people how badass we are”!
It was amusing to learn that she writes long hand on yellow legal pads, writing chronologically. She shared that it is “like watching a movie in my head and transcribing it”. She does not worry if the writing is “good” but just gets her thoughts down as you “can always fix something that is written, I can’t fix something that isn’t there” – this is good advice which I need to consider when I start writing with perfectionist tendencies.
It is always great to learn what authors are reading. The audience learned that Hannah is a “Stephen King Girl” and loves J.K. Rowling books. The Shadow of the Wind and Gentleman in Moscow are her recent favourites.
Kristin Hannah was inspiring and I am looking forward to reading The Great Alone and her future books. After an adventurous trip, the weather ended up being fine and we had a great literary afternoon!