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Author Interview

LibraryThing is pleased to sit down this month with bestselling author Kristin Hannah, who has had twenty-four novels published from 1991 through 2021. Trained as a lawyer, she practiced law in Seattle for a time before devoting herself to writing full time. Her best-selling book, The Nightingale (2015) has sold more than 4.5 million copies globally, and has been translated into 45 languages, while her 2008 Firefly Lane was adapted in a popular 2021 Netflix series of the same name. Hannah’s twenty-fifth novel, The Women, which chronicles the lives of women coming of age during the 1960s, is due out from Macmillan this month.

Your new book follows the story of a young woman who joins the Army Nurse Corps, and follows her brother to Vietnam. How did the story first come to you? Did it start with the character of Frankie, or was it the idea of a woman living through these events that came first?

This is actually a book I have wanted to write for more than twenty years. I grew up during the Vietnam era, and even though I was in elementary school, the war cast a huge shadow across my life. A very close girlfriend’s father was a pilot who served and was shot down and was Missing In Action. In those days, we wore silver prisoner of war bracelets that commemorated a missing serviceman. The idea was to wear the bracelet until he came home. Well, my friend’s father never did come home and I wore that bracelet for years, and was reminded of him and his service and war each day. I was a young teenager when the war ended, and I remembered how the veterans were treated when they returned home after their service. It was a shameful time in America and that, too, cast a long shadow. For years, I wanted to write about the turbulence and chaos and division of the times, but it wasn’t until the pandemic, when I was on lockdown in Seattle, confined to my home essentially, and watching our nurses and doctors serving on the front lines of the pandemic, becoming exhausted amid the political division of the time that it all came together for me. That’s when I knew I was ready to write about the women who served in the war and were forgotten at home.

The 1960s was a time of great change and social upheaval, and has been written about extensively, as has the war. What does The Women bring to the table? Do you feel it offers a new perspective, and if so, why is that important?

Honestly, for years and years, the Vietnam War was kind of a taboo subject. The American mood seemed to be that when the war finally ended, no one wanted to talk about it, so I actually think there are a lot of stories out there that need to be told. I hope The Women will encourage other stories. And yes, the novel adds an important element to the war narrative—its the story of the women who served and how they dealt with that service when they came home. It’s about their lost and forgotten service. The nurses who served in Vietnam were tough, resilient, courageous. Their story is one to be remembered.

Tell us a little bit about your process, writing the book. Did you have to do a great deal of research? What are some of the most interesting things you learned about the period? Was there anything you found particularly difficult to write about?

I love doing a deep, deep dive into a time and place, and certainly this time in America and in Vietnam were a daunting task to try and understand. That’s one of the reasons that I focused on my character of Frankie McGrath; I was able to tell a big, epic story in a very intimate way. The most difficult part of this book, in the writing, was the fear I felt that veterans of the war would be reading it, and the seriousness of my ambition to do right by them, to tell their story in an honest, accurate, and unflinching way. I am proud to say that the word of mouth on the book from Vietnam veterans has been the highlight of my long career. I am so proud to shine a light on their service.

Your story centers female friendship, even as it depicts characters whose wartime experiences are suppressed and disregarded, in part because they are women. What is it about this tension, between the private and public lives of women, that makes for such a powerful story?

We are lucky to be living in a time when forgotten and marginalized stories are being celebrated. I think when it comes to women’s stories, it’s just important to put us back in the historical narrative. All too often our service and courage and grit have been overlooked by the people who wrote the history books and taught the classes. I want to ensure that the women coming of age now, and their daughters and sons, will know and appreciate the importance of women’s roles in history. And yes, The Women definitely is a novel that highlights female friendship. For years, we have seen and read about men’s friendships that are forged in the fire of battle, and women are no different. So many women keep up those friendships, lean on them, for the whole of their lives, and I love to show that. The beating heart of The Women, for all it’s wartime drama and peacetime conflict, is really the friendship of the female combat vets.

Tell us about your library. What’s on your own shelves?

Like any book lover, my house is crowded with books on shelves. They are everywhere! I have fiction shelves and non fiction shelves galore. But I do have some enduring favorites that I always recommend: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón; One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez; The Witching Hour by Anne Rice; and The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy.

What have you been reading lately, and what would you recommend to other readers?

Well, at the moment, I am trying to come up with a new idea, which is surprisingly difficult to do. Following The Women will not be easy. My favorite recent reads are: The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, All the Colors of the Dark, Demon Copperhead, and The Good Left Undone. Also, there are several Vietnam nurse memoirs that I read in researching The Women that I think are amazing: Healing Wounds: A Vietnam War Combat Nurse’s 10-Year Fight to Win Women a Place of Honor in Washington, D.C. by Diane Carlson Evans; American Daughter Gone to War: On the Front Lines With an Army Nurse in Vietnam by Winnie Smith; and Home Before Morning: The Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam by Linda Van Devanter.