Interview: June 18, 2004
June 18, 2004
Bookreporter.com Co-Founder Carol Fitzgerald talks to Kristin Hannah, author of THE THINGS WE DO FOR LOVE, about the challenge of writing her characters and how she conducts research for her books. Kristin also explains her fascination with women in fiction, what she loves (and does not love) about cooking and her plans for future writing.
BRC: THE THINGS WE DO FOR LOVE is the story of two women whose lives intersect as one woman desperately wants a child and another just as desperately longs for a home and a family. One has a supportive loving family while the other is on her own. Is one character easier to write for you than the other? Or does each have her own set of challenges?
KH: THE THINGS WE DO FOR LOVE is, in great part, a story about motherhood. I wanted to explore the many facets of it --- how it affects a woman who wants it and can't have it...and one who has it and doesn't want it...and finally, one who isn't ready for it. There are four key "mothers" in the story and each of them approaches the greatest job in the world in very different ways.
One of the many surprises for me in writing the book was how the various outlooks and characters presented themselves to me. I expected that Angie and Lauren, the two heroines, would be the easiest characters to write. This isn't how it turned out, however. Lauren was an absolute joy to write. From the moment I moved into her head, she came to me. I understood her sense of humor, her drive and ambition, her needs. Perhaps this is because I have a teenage son and am around his female friends all the time. But Angie wasn't so easy. She took literally dozens of drafts. I was constantly searching for the "core" of her. At first, I thought it was all going to be about her need to have a baby; in the end, that became a secondary consideration. The key to her character wasn't found in the lack in her life, it was found in her realization of what he'd been given and had inadvertently lost or overlooked. Maybe that's because we humans are apparently driven by what we don't have; but we're defined by how we deal with what do have. Angie had to learn that even though she hadn't been blessed by having a child, she could still be a mother.
BRC: You write with great familiarity about Italian-Americans and what it is like when these families gather --- lots of food (usually a table of family favorites) and much conversation. Is any of your heritage Italian or how did you research this aspect of the book?
KH: Actually, I come from a very small Welsh and English family. We're lucky to have ten people around a table at any given time. In addition to our small number, we're very non-traditional. Last year we celebrated Thanksgiving with a barbeque in Hawaii. The year before that, most of the family got together in Costa Rica for Thanksgiving. The highlight of that holiday was a jungle kayak ride with my Dad's great new wife. So, yes, the family in THE THINGS WE DO FOR LOVE took research and imagination. My family loved it because every time I needed a recipe for the restaurant, I went into my own kitchen and started cooking.
As to the big, meddling, loving Catholic Italian family, I quizzed two friends for all the details. The biggest stumbling block was Angie's relationship with her mother. Honestly, I didn't know what it was like to have a mother when you're a grown woman yourself. I wondered if she still hovered over you, and critiqued your wardrobe and makeup choices, and tried to tell you what to do. The overwhelming response from my friends was Yes! A mom is always a mom, no matter how old the daughter gets. It was a lot of fun and quite cathartic, actually, to write a healthy, happy mother-daughter relationship. It gave me a chance to imagine how my mom and I would have been.
BRC: THE THINGS WE DO FOR LOVE is filled with wonderful cooking. You can almost taste the lasagna and the Bolognese sauce from your descriptions. Tell us about your own cooking. Do you enjoy cooking or is it a chore?
KH: To me, there are two definitions of cooking. The first and most obvious is the daily grind of coming up with "what's for dinner, Mom?" You can tell by how I've phrased the answer, how I feel about that one. It started losing its glow for me a few years back. Okay, a decade or so. But cooking...ah, that's something else entirely. I love spending time in the kitchen, creating new and delicious dishes that make me and everyone at the table happy. And Italian cooking is my absolute favorite. Often, after a long and frustrating day at the computer, I will sneak into my kitchen, pull down one of my beloved cookbooks and make a multi-course dinner. I'm no psychiatrist, but I think I love the result-orientedness of the task. Unlike writing a book, which can go on forever and be a different thing every day, I can create a perfect plate of Chicken piccata. For all you similarly minded chefs out there, I recommend any cookbook by Biba. She's the greatest!
BRC: You write about the tension that women feel in their lives --- the pull between work and motherhood, between building a relationship and being strong on their own. This realistic look at the world is part of what draws your readers to your books and your characters. When you start writing a book, have you developed what "the tension" will be, or does this evolve as you write?
KH: You're right about what draws me to write these novels. I'm fascinated by the choices that face women. We are strong, vibrant people who feel the need to do everything well, and yet to take care of everyone else as we do it. Balancing these two needs is a constant struggle. Someone, somewhere, convinced us that we could "do it all" and "have it all." To a certain extent, we can, but all too often, the one person who is lost in all that rush to succeed is us. We do our jobs and take care of our families...and forget to take care of ourselves. I can't tell you how seldom I actually find the time to go see a movie with girlfriends, or get my hair cut and colored, or have a spa day.
And yes, my women are often in the same small boat. I often am drawn to the moment in their lives when all that forgetting comes to a head. The day we realize how much of ourselves we've lost and the subsequent journey of re-discovery. Usually, I begin a book knowing where the woman is on that journey, and where she will end up, but often the road itself is a mystery that I uncover on a day by day, word by word basis.
BRC: One of the tears in Angie and Conlan's relationship comes from her single-minded goal to become a mom. She does not see how that is fractionalizing her relationship with him or how much she has hurt him. It's interesting how you are able to draw readers to one side of the story and then show them the entire picture. After hearing from Conlan, a reader's perception of Angie may be changed. When you are writing, how far in advance do you plot ideas like this?
KH: On a good day, I've known that revelatory minute is coming and have worked toward it. Sadly, I don't have too many of those good days. The dynamics of the Angie-Conlan relationship in this book was one of the more fascinating angles of the novel to write. In the first several drafts, Conlan had a viewpoint; in other words, his story ran parallel to Angie's and was as important. I really spent a lot of time exploring a man's reaction to infertility and the way he felt about the resulting demise of their marriage. Somewhere along the way, however, I realized that this was a woman's quest book. His emotions were relevant primarily in how they affected hers.
Surprisingly, I discovered this on about the sixth draft of the book. It happened quite accidentally, while I was writing a scene about two-thirds of the way through the novel. In it, Angie visits his office when he isn't there. A mutual friend says something like: "Leave him alone. You've hurt him enough." The woman reveals that twice in the past year, she'd come into Conlan's office and found him crying. Angie had never seen her husband cry about their lost daughter. The entire dynamic came from that single sentence. In that moment, I realized that Angie had been so focused on her own needs that she'd been systematically excluding him from her life for years. Her whole character came to me then. I went back to the beginning of the novel, cut Conlan's viewpoint, and re-crafted Angie.
BRC: Is West End much like the town where you live?
KH: Well, most of Western Washington is like West End, in that it's beautiful and green and near a body of water, and all of those descriptions certainly match my hometown. However, West End was more of an idealized version of a coastal town in the southern part of the state, one of those towns hit hard by the loss of salmon runs and the diminished timber industry. In my mind, it's more like one of the towns I grew up in.
BRC: Your books capture the Pacific Northwest so vividly and really give readers such a feel for this part of the country that, I for one, want to visit there. Your descriptions enhance your work so much. I know you have mentioned that you love to write at the beach. When you are describing other locations, do you travel to them to do research or write from memory?
KH: In the early part of my career, I wrote books that were set all over the world. I did endless research, wrote thousands of notecards, and spent hours standing in the stacks at the graduate library. I loved imagining all these different settings. It wasn't until my first contemporary novel, HOME AGAIN, that I came home myself. That book was set in my own backyard, pretty much. I was surprised how much I enjoyed that, but it wasn't really until ON MYSTIC LAKE that I realized the depth of my affinity for this place. In that book --- and in all the books since --- the northwest truly became one of the characters. I discovered that I loved introducing readers to my special corner of the world. As to research, it now comes down to weekends with the family in different small towns along the coast. I still do a lot of fact-based research --- the local economy, the weather, the political history --- but all of that takes second seat to simply soaking in the scenery and feeling as if I belong there.
For my next novel, I'm heading back to the magnificent Olympic rainforest. I can't seem to stay away from that county for long. I guess I'm like the swordferns that grow in the black, loamy soil --- I need the rainfall to survive.
BRC: You enjoy spending time in Hawaii and part of BETWEEN SISTERS took place there. Are there any other locations that spark your interest like the Pacific Northwest?
KH: I didn't realize my connection to Hawaii for quite a while. I first went there with my family when I was about fifteen years old. Every time I went in the water, I heard the Jaws theme song in my head. I didn't spend much time in the water. I went back at 17, when I graduated from high school. Four girlfriends on their own. Unfortunately, I left all my clothes on top of the dryer and took an empty suitcase; then, when we got to Waikiki, we lathered up with baby oil and ran to the beach, where we proceeded to sunbathe for five hours. I spent the remainder of the vacation lying on my bed, trying not to move. I looked like a lobster. (We all did).
The next trip was to Kauai for my sister's wedding. Seven days in paradise with the whole family...during a tropical rainstorm. The wind was so hard the patio furniture often tumbled past our window, and the rain literally nailed you in place. The electricity went out almost every day, leaving my husband and me in a dark room with a two-year-old. Amazingly, we went back about five years later for the RWA national convention, and that's when my love affair with the island of Kauai started. I still love the rain of my hometown, but I've learned to love the tropical colors --- and yes, the sunshine --- of the Garden Island. As to other places I love, here's a quick list: Manhattan, London, the Big Sur coast, northern Idaho, the San Juan and Gulf Islands, and British Columbia. If I ever go to New Zealand, I'm sure I'll add that to the list, too. (Yes, I'm a Lord of the Rings geek. Matrix, too, if you're interested).
BRC: Your books wrap so nicely usually with all details pulled together. I wonder if you tuck them away in your head quite the same way. Do you or do your characters stay with you?
KH: In general, when I put a book to bed, I say goodnight to the characters and tuck them into bed, and there they stay. Only in very rare instances do characters "stay" with me. Ironically, the ones that seem to stick in my mind are often not the "stars" of the novels in which they appeared. Some of the characters who linger in my mind are: Selena from WAITING FOR THE MOON, Francis from HOME AGAIN, Izzy from ON MYSTIC LAKE, Julian from ANGEL FALLS, and Val from HOME AGAIN, ANGEL FALLS, and SUMMER ISLAND. I wouldn't be surprised to find that a character from my next novel, a girl named Alice, belongs on that list.
BRC: Have you ever been tempted to write a series?
KH: No. I think it's the Libra thing again. I like a beginning, a middle, and an end. I really like an end. I have written one spin off, and perhaps someday there will be another, but I really like finishing one project and then starting something else that's entirely new. That being said, however, I will say that Julian True from ANGEL FALLS has been on my mind of late. Maybe someday I'll stumble across his second chapter.
BRC: Your book ON MYSTIC LAKE is being re-released as a trade paperback this month. This is the one book that readers always ask if there will be a sequel to. I thought of another idea for this. Have you ever thought about writing a followup from the perspective of Isabella or Katie?
KH: I am continually asked about a sequel for this book, and frankly, it always surprises me. To me, the answer is clear: they live happily ever after. The idea of Izzy's story is new and interesting. Heaven knows I have plenty of years to figure out her future. I don't know honestly if I'd ever consider that --- who knows? --- but I would certainly not be surprised to "meet" Izzy again in a few years in another book, about another family, set in the same place.
BRC: What are you working on now and when can readers expect to see it?
KH: As I said before, I'm back in my beloved rainforest, writing about a girl who arrives unexpectedly in a small, isolated town. Her appearance will really shake up the community and change a lot of lives. I'm not sure yet of every twist and turn in the story, but I know that Alice has quite a story to tell. I'll check back in a few months from now, and let you all know how it's going.