Arts & Culture

‘Nightingale’ author Kristin Hannah writes of extraordinary women in extraordinary times

Author Kristin Hannah will appear at Clover Park Technical College on Saturday for Pierce County Reads.
Author Kristin Hannah will appear at Clover Park Technical College on Saturday for Pierce County Reads. Kevin Lynch

Kristin Hannah writes novels that resonate with her readers.

“I am known for deep exploration of emotion,” Hannah said during a phone interview with The News Tribune earlier this week. “For really understanding the difficult choices women face and how we resolve to rise to the challenges of our lives.”

Her 2018 novel, “The Great Alone,” is the 2019 title for Pierce County Library System’s Pierce County Reads. The annual event picks a book that can be read and discussed as a community.

To kick off the event, Hannah will appear at Clover Park Technical College on Saturday for a live discussion about the book and her career with News Tribune publisher Rebecca Poynter.

For 2019, the library system has expanded the program into “A Year of Reading.” The program will include personal reading shoppers in libraries, reading recommendations and other events and services to engage the public with reading.

Hannah, 58, lives on Bainbridge Island and has written more than 20 novels covering a wide variety of themes. There are commonalities to her work.

“The common core would definitely be women coming in to their own and extraordinary women surviving extraordinary circumstances,” she said.

Hannah started writing at 26, published her first book at 30 and eventually gave up a career as an attorney to write full time. During the years since, her female characters have evolved. That, she said, reflects more of her own life changes than current events.

“My books reflect my changing life, my changing perspective, my maturing view on the world,” she said. “In the earlier days, I wrote much more about women who were like me.”

In her first novels, characters were focused on careers and family.

“As I’ve gotten older and my world view has expanded, I’m much more interested in placing women’s stories in historical context and reminding the world what amazing things women have in difficult situations,” she said.


As with “The Great Alone” which is set in Seattle and Alaska, most of Hannah’s work takes place in the Pacific Northwest.

“We have a really vibrant writers community in the Pacific Northwest,” she said. “It’s a supportive community to be part of.”

She partially attribute’s the Northwest’s book culture to the weather.

Earlier in the week, Hannah was marooned in her home during the region’s snowstorm.

“We’re all stuck in the snow, and it’s a great time to write books and a great time to read books,” she said.

Hannah took a break from her Northwest settings to write her 2015 novel, “The Nightingale.” It’s set in World War II France.

“It may be the most successful book I ever have,” she said.

The novel spent 20 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list. It has been optioned for a movie by TriStar Pictures.

“Going to a bigger, broader, more universal canvas, which is World War II, I think is what really propelled that book forward,” she said. “There had not been that many stories about the women of World War II when I wrote ‘The Nightingale’.”


Hannah won the Goodreads Choice Award for Historical Fiction in 2015 for “The Nightingale.” She repeated the award in 2018 for “The Great Alone’.”

“The Great Alone” is set in the wilderness of Alaska in the 1970s. It follows a Vietnam War vet who has undiagnosed post traumatic stress disorder.

“To save his family and himself he needs to go live off the grid in the wilds of Alaska,” Hannah said. “As he’s up there and the darkness comes, he begins to lose it.”

The story is informed by both Hannah’s coming of age during the Vietnam War and her family’s history in Alaska.

“My family owned a sport fishing lodge on the Kenai River in Alaska,” she said. “We’ve been going as a family to Alaska since the early ‘80s. I’ve always been in love with the landscape up there. It’s beautiful and terrifying at the same time. I was looking for a story to set there.”

It took longer than it usually does for Hannah to come up with a framework for the story.

“All I really knew is that I wanted to write about Alaska,” she said. “The setting alone isn’t a book. It took me quite a while to come up with the plot and characters.”


“I’m not one of those people who has a ton of ideas,” Hannah said of her creative process. “It really is a continual search just for things that fascinate me — issues, topics, settings, characters that I”m willing to spend two to three years of my life reading about and studying.”

Hannah writes as many as 10 drafts of her novels before she’s satisfied.

“I just keep writing and throwing stuff away,” she said. “Until I’m left with a story that keeps me interested for the whole time.”

By that time, only a core storyline and handful of characters remain from the first draft.

“Picture a big block of marble,” she said. “You know something is in there, and you start peeling stuff away until you glimpse something that is worthwhile.”

Hannah is currently working on another historical novel she describes as, “formidable women finding their way in changing times.”

Pierce County Reads

Who: Kristin Hannah

When: 1 p.m. Saturday, (Feb. 16).

Where: McGavick Conference Center, Clover Park Technical College, 4500 Steilacoom Blvd. SW, Lakewood.

Admission: Free. First come, first seated.

Sponsor: Pierce County Library System


Book discussions:

Craig Sailor has worked for The News Tribune for 20 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He previously worked at The Olympian and at other newspapers in Nevada and California.