When Kristin Hannah first thought about writing a novel, she tried her hand at a horror story. “It was really bad,” she told an audience of nearly 400 recently in North Caldwell, and it went nowhere. She moved on to romance, becoming prolific and successful, publishing some 20 novels so far.
But in her most recent book, The Nightingale, she revisited horror — real horror: World War II and the risk faced by people who chose to shelter Jews. Though not Jewish herself, Hannah was very clear: That kind of moral choice, she said, “needs to be brought into the national conversation,” especially with intolerance growing in Europe and the anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States.
Hannah asked herself what it would take for her, as a mother, to become a rescuer. She arrived at this answer: “I would risk my life and my son’s when I decided that I didn’t want him growing up in such a world” that allowed evil like that unleashed during the Holocaust.
Listening to her audience at the Green Brook Country Club Book Review Luncheon on Sept. 28, you might have thought a comedic novel was under discussion. The crowd laughed and applauded as Hannah described her initially rocky road to authorship.
In frank, self-deprecating terms she described how she turned away from studying law to give fiction a try at the suggestion of her mother, who was dying of cancer.
“You’re going to be a writer any way,” her mother said. They shared “really wonderful time together” plotting that first horror story, and Hannah had the first nine pages written when her mother passed away.
Initially, mourning the loss, she tossed the project aside. But when she returned to it, the writing came easily. “I didn’t cross out a single sentence. I thought, ‘I’m so good at this, who wouldn’t want this career?’” Unfortunately — or fortunately, she admitted — no one else shared that opinion. Hannah, who lives in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii, said it took meeting a fellow novice author, Megan Jance, who has been her writing buddy and chief encourager ever since, to progress to the next level. Hannah sold her first book when her son was two, and went on to do one after another as he grew up, step by step pushing herself — and pushed by good editors, she said — to become a better and more serious writer.
With The Nightingale, she plunged, as she put it, over a cliff. It took passionate motivation to tackle her grueling question, and to formulate a story around the answer. The result is a tale of two sisters caught in the maelstrom of the war. One — known in the French Underground as the Nightingale — helps people escape to Spain and is caught and imprisoned. The other — who takes a Jewish child under her wing and bears a child of her own after being raped by a Nazi soldier — survives and eventually settles in the United States.
The writer said, “It had to be a message I cared enough about to spend three years of my life on.” In so doing, she said, she also wanted to right a wrong: “the loss of female history. It is so important to keep this in the foreground.”
Hannah read extensively — as many as 300 nonfiction books about women and the war — and then did many interviews with people who had been hidden as children, and women in France who took care of such kids. Most had been reluctant to talk about their wartime heroism. “Almost to a person, they said they felt crushing guilt over the children they couldn’t save,” said Hannah. “They didn’t see themselves as heroic at all.”
The book, which came out in 2015, is a New York Times bestseller and has won a string of awards. It has been translated into 39 languages, and a movie version is in development. Her other works include Winter Garden, Night Road, and Firefly Lane.
As for her mother, her initial champion as an author, Hannah said she imagines her “holding a martini and a cigarette, and a red pen, watching and very proud.”