Bainbridge Island novelist Kristin Hannah has been publishing books since the early ’90s, but her most-recent works have received much more commercial success.
One has already been adapted into a Netflix show, and a couple more in the works will hit the big screen in the near future.
Hannah has published 24 novels to date. Some of her notable books include Firefly Lane (2008), Home Front (2012), The Nightingale (2015), The Great Alone (2018), and her newest novel published this year, The Four Winds.
Firefly Lane premiered as a Netflix original show on Feb. 3, starring Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke. The Nightingale, Hannah’s best-seller, will be her first novel to hit the big screen set for Christmas of 2022 starring Elle and Dakota Fanning. The Great Alone is also in early development to become a movie. Homefront was originally scheduled to become a movie but not anymore.
Hannah was born in Garden Grove, CA, about 30 minutes outside of Los Angeles in Orange County. She doesn’t recall a lot of her early childhood since her family moved to Issaquah by the time she was 8. Growing up in the early ’70s, Hannah said the Seattle area was a lot different than it is now.
“It was a quiet spot. Even Seattle had a very smaller-town feel than it does now,” she said. “I’ve certainly seen a lot of growth in the years that I’ve been here.”
After attending the University of Washington and earning a degree in Communications, she worked at an advertising agency in Seattle. Hannah then received more education, graduating from the University of Puget Sound law school.
“I practiced in downtown Seattle at One Union Square in a small local law firm,” she said. “I think it was just one of those things where I was in the middle of getting an education and the law seemed like something that was very attractive to me, and it was. I really, really loved the law. But it wasn’t something I had been dreaming of doing. I just did it the way you sort of do things at 21.”
Hannah’s path to becoming an author didn’t begin until the end of her mother’s battle with breast cancer. At the time, she was still practicing law, often venting to her mom about her workload. One day in the hospital room, her mom gave her some advice and confidence to build off of.
“She said, ‘Oh, don’t worry. You’re going to be a writer anyway,’” Hannah recalled her mother saying. “Then, for whatever reason; kismet, fate, (we) decided to write a novel together. For the last few weeks of her life, we brainstormed the story, and I did all this research. I would spend every day after classes going to the library and xeroxing pages.”
Hannah said she never had any intention to publish the book. After her mother died, she put all of the work she did in a box and put it in a closet.
“It’s still in a box somewhere with a sign on it that says it can’t be published even after my death,” she said.
Hannah soon decided to go back to “real life.” A few years later, she became pregnant with her son. She said it was a difficult pregnancy that left her “bedridden for many months.” That became Hannah’s crossroad moment.
“I had really nothing to do,” she said. “I knew at that point that I would be very, very lucky to have my child. I really wanted to try being an at-home mom for a while. I thought I (would) try writing a book while I’m here. If I can write a book and sell it and be on my way by the time my son is in first grade, then it will be a great career. Otherwise, it will just be a great hobby. I just pulled out that box and got to work.”
Finding her footing
Hannah’s first published novel A Hand of Heaven was released in 1991. By the end of the 20th century, she had published eight books, but none garnered much commercial success, which is common for an author getting their start. Hannah said those early years taught her a lot about the process and what she needed to prioritize.
“For me, it was something I was doing while being a new mother,” she said. “I was learning what a novel is. I was learning the business of writing and beginning to make connections in the writing world.”
Hannah said she would often have to take advantage of her son’s naptimes in order to write.
“I’d put my son down for a nap and race to get to my computer to start working,” she said. “What those years taught me was a great deal of discipline; this realization that you have a very small amount of time to accomplish what you set out to accomplish. You really have to be dedicated and disciplined and use your time well.”
Through the help of another aspiring local author, Megan Chance, Hannah said they often came together as critique partners and focused “assiduously” on learning their craft.
“I think I learned early on that there wasn’t much point in having a big ego about your work or being aggressively unwilling to change things,” she said. “When you have to work very quickly and you have a short amount of time, you just can’t waste it with things that don’t matter. I learned very quickly to work hard.”
Recent run of hits
Firefly Lane was published 13 years ago in 2008 and was just recently adapted into a Netflix show – leading to more national interest. The novel, set partially on Bainbridge Island, is about two young girls on Firefly Lane who become inseparable friends throughout 30 years of ups and downs. Hannah said she has watched the show.
“It’s a fascinating and surreal experience,” she said of watching her book be turned into a TV series. “They took the book, and they expanded it just a little bit. I think they stuck with the core of the story and the core of the characters.
“They did a really excellent job with the female friendship that is the heart of the novel. Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke, the actresses who play Kate and Tully, just did an exceptional job… I basically got to sit in my living room, like everybody else, and watch the ten episodes and kind of become a fangirl of my own work.”
Hannah said she talked with some of the show’s staff during the process of making Firefly Lane but didn’t want to overindulge in order to let them make it their own.
“I talked to them extensively prior to casting…about my expectations and their expectations,” she said. “I read a couple of the scripts and were in conversation with the producers and the showrunner. But it’s very much their show. They’ve been incredibly welcoming, and I have loved working with them, but I’m very well aware that I’m a novelist. I don’t know that world particularly well so I let the people who know what they’re doing take the reins on that.”
Hannah’s biggest success to date, in terms of copies sold, would be The Nightingale, which came out in 2015. The premise involves two sisters during World War II and their struggle to survive and resist the German occupation of France. The novel is being adapted into a film.
“I think it’s the combination of the World War II setting, which so many people love, and France, which so many people love,” Hannah said about why so many readers were attracted to that book. “The story of female courage and resilience and strength; the return of women’s lost stories to the forefront. So much of women’s history has been marginalized or lost. I think people love being reminded of some of the great female stories that are out there.”
Hannah’s newest novel, The Four Winds, set in America during The Great Depression, is about a young woman trying to save her family farm and children during times of incredible hardships. Ultimately, she has to make a decision whether to stay on her drought-ridden Texas farm or move west to California in search of a better life.
“At this particular moment in time of the (COVID-19) pandemic, and because of all the things we are going through right now in the world, The Great Depression feels incredibly relevant and timely,” she said.
“Obviously, I didn’t know that when I started writing it four years ago, but I was definitely aware of the parallels in the world then and the world now; political divisiveness and the difficulties the country was facing. History has a lot of lessons to teach us, and I’m looking for time periods and stories from the past that have something relevant to say to today.”