Location: Seattle, WA
Marital Status: Married
Education: BA, University of Washington; JD, Seattle University School of Law
Kristin Hannah spends most of the year in Seattle with her husband Benjamin, and their 23-year old son, Tucker. But she finds inspiration for her bestselling novels in Hawaii, where she spends several months each year glued to her beach chair reading through a “giant” stack of books. A prodigious writer, Kristin has published over 20 novels and collections since her debut, A Handful of Heaven, came out in 1991. She sums up her books as all having the common thread of portraying “an ordinary woman who finds herself in an extraordinary time of her life.” In order to gain some insight into Hannah’s life and work, we asked her some ordinary questions and got some extraordinary answers.
How did you become a writer?
I never dreamed of being a writer. I was firmly on the lawyer track. There were two big events in my life that pushed me onto this road. First, my mom getting sick with cancer. Every day after law school, I’d go sit by her bedside and talk to her. One day I was complaining about law courses I was taking, and she said, ‘Don’t worry about it; you know you’re gonna be a writer anyway.’ That was pretty shocking at the time. And somewhat disturbing given that I was three years into law school! That’s when the two of us decided to write a book together.
So you’d never written anything before then?
I was a huge reader and I had a facility for words; papers, reports and that sort of thing came very easily for me. But I had not ever, to my knowledge, written even a short story. Not a single piece of fiction.
So where was your mom coming from?
I think she knew me incredibly well, and knew that I had this skill, and that I could potentially succeed at it. And perhaps she saw that the law, and the kind of corporate-ness of it, would ultimately not be the thing that made me happy. Also, it was her dream for herself. She was from a time when it was more difficult for women who had kids to pursue that kind of dream. I hope that one day I give my son as good a piece of advice about himself and his life. It was very lucky.
What happened after you and your mom decided to write together?
Being mother and daughter, we immediately came to blows about what kind of book we wanted to write. I wanted horror, and she wanted historical romance. Bottom line: she won. We both had a lot of interest in history, so we just started writing. In those days—pre-internet, of course—I’d go to the library after school and bring home information. We spent the last few months of her life devising characters, costuming them, and coming up with plots and locations—just the dreamy, fun part of writing. I wrote the first eight or nine pages the very night she died. She never got to read it, unfortunately. But that got me on the path of thinking about it. I had this huge box of material, but I put it all in a closet and went on with my other life. I started practicing entertainment law.
How did you circle back to writing?
It wasn’t until a few years later. I got pregnant with my son, and I ended up having a difficult pregnancy and being bedridden for six and a half months. That’s when I pulled out the big box of stuff—like a gift from my mom—and started writing. I thought, “This’ll be a great thing to do. I’d like to be an at-home mom for a few years, so this will give me a couple of years to see if I can do this.” And frankly, there was nothing else to do. I was in bed.
What’s a typical workday like for you?
I’m very disciplined, so it’s kind of like a workday for everyone else except I get to wear my sweats and be alone most of the day. Ordinarily, I work a solid eight-hour day. I also take a fair amount of ‘vacation’ days to sit on the beach and read other peoples’ books and see my girlfriends. Then when I’m working, I work pretty hard. Because I love writing. I find it a lot fun. But you’ve gotta treat it as if it’s a real job all the time. If I give myself a schedule and stick to it from day one, then I’m okay. It’s when you start thinking, ‘I don’t have to turn this book in for ages, I think I’ll go to the movies,’ that you get into trouble.
What are you working on currently?
I am about halfway through the first draft of my book for 2012.
What is it about?
So far I’m on the fifth draft, and it’s changed every single time. The one thing I can say is that, like most of my books, it’s about an ordinary woman who finds herself in an extraordinary time of her life.
How did that motif come about?
The theme is so much a part of who I am. Really, what I was doing, and what I continue to do, is follow the stories that interest me, and the plots that compel me—that I’m willing to spend a year and a half researching and writing and working on. Far and away, the hardest part of this career, for me, is coming up with an idea that I find compelling enough.
How do you do that?
It begins with the sheer desperation of having a deadline. When you sell multiple books upfront, like I do, you don’t have the luxury of spending six months trying to find an idea. So I usually begin scared to death that this is going to be the time I’m not gonna find something that interests me. Then one thing speaks to me. In Winter Garden, it was a glimpse into World War II Russian history that I didn’t know anything about. When I came up with the factual base, then it was a search to find the best story that will illustrate what I have to say about what happened in that place and time in history.
What about Night Road (due out in March)?
Night Road is a very personal book, drawn from my own life to a great extent. It’s about the difficulties that come with both being a senior in high school and raising seniors in high school. Because I remember that year in an idyllic, sort of, “That was the best year of high school” sort of way. Then I became a parent and I understood, ‘Wow, this is the worst year of high school.’ As a parent, I discovered that in that particular year, you end up making a lot of choices that you don’ know you’re gonna have to make. It’s very stressful.
What book would you recommend to the FOF community?
My favorite book of 2010 is Room by Emma Donoghue. It seems like a very dark and disturbing topic (inspired by true events, it’s narrated by a five-year-old boy who has spent his entire life in a room with his mother, who was kidnapped seven years prior and imprisoned there). But ultimately, I thought it was a beautiful and unique exploration of the power of motherhood.
What’s your favorite restaurant in Seattle?
A little Italian restaurant called Al Boccalino, by the waterfront, across from the Bainbridge Island Ferry.
Favorite place to shop?
The shopping experience here is the Pike Place Market.
The best thing you can get in Seattle is Dungeness crab, fresh from the market, cracked for you, eaten on a picnic table with a bunch of newspaper with your friends.
Who’s your favorite hairstylist?
Michelle Bostick at the Gary Manuel Salon.
Loretta Stanton at Island Fitness.
What is your most special place in Seattle?
At Canlis Restaurant, watching the Christmas boats go by.
How do you rejuvenate?
Massages and running.