Interview: April 25, 2013
FLY AWAY, the highly anticipated follow-up to Kristin Hannah’s FIREFLY LANE, finally has been released. In this emotionally complex and often heart-wrenching novel, Hannah focuses on the characters of Tully, Johnny, Dorothy and Marah, and the stories and relationships that have made them who they are. Told with vibrant flashbacks, the book paints a portrait of growth, redemption, and what it means to be a woman. In this interview, conducted by Bookreporter.com’s Norah Piehl, Hannah discusses grief, motherhood, and our misunderstandings of the people closest to us. She also talks about the craft and struggle of writing with flashbacks, and what led her to return to the world of FIREFLY LANE five years after its publication.
Bookreporter.com: What inspired you to return to the world of Tully and Kate, five years after publishing FIREFLY LANE?
Kristin Hannah: I always knew that someday I would return to the world of FIREFLY LANE. It is the only book I've ever written where I knew that there was more to the story. Over the years, the characters nagged at me. Every once in a while, I would find myself turning over story ideas and asking the classic writer-question, "What if?" I just had to know why Dorothy was the kind of person she was and how Tully and Marah would survive without Kate. Because I lost my own mother when I was much too young, I know intimately that one person can sometimes hold an entire family together, and the loss of that person is devastating. It can take you years to get back on your feet. That's really the theme of FLY AWAY --- how to let go of someone you love and go on.
BRC: What have you heard from readers about their connection to these characters? What about Tully and Kate speaks particularly to them?
KH: Tully and Kate have become almost iconic among my readers. I think that's because they seemed so real, and they waged so many of the battles that we women face --- work versus motherhood and the challenges of growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. They were the best of friends, and that's a powerful bond, but they also weren't perfect. They had to fight sometimes to stay friends, and that's really how it works. Nothing worth having comes easily…friendship included.
BRC: What unanswered questions did you feel you or your readers still had that you hoped to answer in FLY AWAY?
KH: The biggest question that came from FIREFLY LANE concerned Tully's mom, Dorothy. She was a really screwed-up character and a terrible mother. My readers wanted to know why, and so did I. In a very real way, the answer to this question is why I wrote the book.
BRC: FLY AWAY focuses in large part on Kate's husband, Johnny, who is still struggling to cope with his wife's death. What was it like to give this secondary character a more primary role in the book?
KH: Actually, that was the greatest thing about writing FLY AWAY. Three characters who were secondary characters in FIREFLY LANE get to be center stage in this novel. We find out more about Johnny, Dorothy and Marah. I really loved being able to look back on some of the pivotal scenes in FIREFLY LANE and give them a fresh perspective. These new characters' voices, and their viewpoints, allowed me to achieve my greatest goal in FLY AWAY. You don't have to read FIREFLY LANE to appreciate and understand the story in FLY AWAY because it was really important to me that this novel truly stand on its own.
BRC: Your novel indicates the various ways grief might manifest itself in people's lives. Have you seen or experienced these various forms of grief in yourself or in others close to you?
KH: As I mentioned previously, I lost my mother when I was in law school, and so yes, I have known grief up close and personal. In a way, it has shaped my whole world view and my life. It's no surprise that I write so often about coming to terms with loss and finding a way to remember your loved ones and still let them go.
BRC: Kate's loss seems to bring many of Tully's abandonment issues and her complicated relationship with her own mother back to the forefront of her mind. Why do you think the loss of her friend opens up these old wounds?
KH: One of the most interesting parts of FIREFLY LANE, to me, was the duality in Tully's nature. Part of her was tough as nails and driven to succeed at all costs, but on a deeper level, she was always profoundly broken, as I think is often the case of children who believe they are unloved. When she met Kate, Tully found her soul mate in a way, and when Tully took hold of something or someone, she didn't know how to let go. Thus, the loss of Kate upended Tully and really weakened her. She no longer had anyone to hold onto and no one to love her. Once Tully begins to feel her grief, it opens up the sense of abandonment and loss that has always been just below the surface. Despite her best efforts and her lioness strength, she can't find her way back to an even keel.
BRC: We get to learn a lot more about Tully's mother's story in FLY AWAY. Why did you think it was important to tell a portion of the story from her perspective?
KH: Honestly, Dorothy's story is my favorite part of FLY AWAY. I think it's unexpected and interesting, and illustrative of the truth that we often don't know the people closest to us. Dorothy reveals herself to be a tragic character, and more importantly, she redeems herself. Both of these elements were important to me, and because readers tended to really dislike Dorothy in FIREFLY LANE, I had my work cut out for me to create a credible character you could root for.
BRC: What is it about Tully's personality or background that makes her a particularly strong ally for Kate's grieving teenage daughter, Marah? Did you anticipate the parallels between these two complicated characters before you started writing the book?
KH: I always knew that Marah and Tully shared some personality traits, and I knew that Tully was unprepared for any version of a motherhood role. As Tully says in the book, she doesn't know anything about motherhood because she never really had a mother. What surprised me in the writing was how pivotal the idea of motherhood became in the story. I knew FLY AWAY was going to be about friendship and loss and dealing with grief; what I didn't see in the beginning was how profoundly all three of these female characters were affected by losing --- or not having --- a mother.
BRC: Much of the novel is told in flashbacks. Did you write these in chronological order, or did you intersperse them as you went along, as they appear in the final version? What was particularly challenging or rewarding about telling the story this way?
KH: It was a real horror to write this book given the structural framework I chose. All throughout the writing, I kept toying with the idea of simplifying it all and writing the novel chronologically, but the truth was that this was the story that challenged and engaged me. I didn't want to make it easier or more straightforward because I knew I was taking a risk, but sometimes you have to make that choice as a writer. The payoff for this structure is how well you know these characters by the end of the novel and how deeply you feel their pain and their joy.
BRC: Parts of the novel --- at least the portions narrated by Tully --- could be read as a near-death experience. Do you believe in these kinds of experiences? In researching your story, did you talk with people who have been in comas to understand what it was like for them?
KH: I absolutely believe in near-death experiences. I have written about comas before, so I had a great amount of knowledge before I began. Readers can interpret this part of the story in whatever way they choose --- as a dream, a near-death experience, or the ever-popular reaction to serious medications. What matters ultimately is not whether the reader believes it happened but that Tully believes it.
BRC: Now that you've written two novels about this group of characters, do you see yourself returning for a third helping, or is their story done?
KH: At the moment, I would say their story is done. Writing a "sequel" was the hardest thing I've done, and I do not relish the idea of trying it again. That being said, I do wonder what happens to Marah...
BRC: Have you considered writing a follow-up to any of your other novels?
KH: Not really, although I do get asked for sequels all the time. I used to think that it meant there was a problem with my endings, but over time I came to understand that readers just love my characters and want to read more about them. So I take it as a compliment, but generally, when I'm done with a story, I'm done.
BRC: What are you currently working on?
KH: I am leaving for a research trip in about two weeks, and I should have a better answer to this question when I get home. At the moment, it's a novel about two sisters who end up coming together to fight something really dangerous and terrible.