The lawyer churning out hit novels makes her biggest splash yet

Kristin Hannah is the award-winning and bestselling author of more than 20 novels including the international blockbuster, The Nightingale. (Photo: Author website/Kevin Lynch)
Kristin Hannah is the award-winning and bestselling author of more than 20 novels including the international blockbuster, The Nightingale. (Photo: Author website/Kevin Lynch)

Summary

For Kristin Hannah, working as a lawyer shaped her approach to writing; ‘The Women’ makes Bill Gates’s summer reading list

Novelist Kristin Hannah was an associate at a Seattle law firm and on bed rest during a difficult pregnancy when she decided to try her hand at writing a novel. Until then, she had never written as much as a short story.

She applied what she describes as “the persuasive writing skills" she had learned in law school. “That’s what I’m trying to do as a novelist, to persuade you to enter my world and be changed by it," says Hannah, who is 63.

That was 25 books ago.

Her latest, “The Women," has sold 2 million copies including print, ebooks, and audiobooks since it was published in February. This week it landed as the only novel on Bill Gates’s much-anticipated short summer reading and viewing list.

Gates described it as “a beautifully written tribute to a group of veterans who deserve more appreciation for the incredible sacrifices they made."

“The Women" revolves around a young nurse who impulsively enlists in the Vietnam War and later returns home a changed woman. It is a challenging book set during an era many Americans have tried to forget. It is also, by far, her most successful novel in a career that has spanned more than three decades.

Hannah was born in Huntington Beach, Calif., and experienced drama at an early age. When she was eight her father decided the Los Angeles area was overcrowded and loaded his wife, their three children, two friends, and the family dog into a VW bus and went in search of a new home.

They ended up in the Pacific Northwest, where they were consistently on the move. Hannah attended three junior high schools and three different high schools before enrolling in the University of Washington.

“What I took away from my father was his ability to craft a career from the life he wanted to live," says Hannah. “I did the same."

Her parents helped found the Great Alaska Adventure Lodge in Sterling, Alaska, which her father and brother helped run for decades.

Although Hannah’s first effort—a historical romance set in 18th century Scotland that she began to write when she was 26—ultimately didn’t work, she finished it and thought she’d learned enough to try again. She wanted a career, but one that fit her schedule. She had recently lost her mother and intended to spend as much time as possible with her own child.

Hannah initially sold historical romance novels that were published as mass paperback originals.

“I wrote in the carpool lane, late at night, early in the morning, and when my son was napping," she says. “What it gave me was dedication and discipline, two of the most important hallmarks of writing. It is, after all, a job."

Her career changed after she published “Firefly Lane" in 2008 with Macmillan’s St. Martin’s Press. The novel was first published in hardcover and then as a trade paperback, signaling its serious intent to independent booksellers and readers as suitable for book clubs and discussion groups.

Her novels have told of female friendships in France during the Nazi occupation in World War II, in Texas during the Great Depression and in Alaska during the 1970s, among other settings.

Of the 10 titles she has written for her current publisher, St. Martin’s Press, seven are historical fiction and three are contemporary, including “Home Front," “Night Road," and “True Colors."

Her formula is that “she writes about ordinary women thrust into extraordinary circumstances," says Jennifer Enderlin, her editor and president and publisher of Macmillan’s St. Martin’s Publishing Group. “Then, when you think it can’t get much worse, it does."

Hannah first tried to sell a novel about the Vietnam War much earlier in her career. Her best friend’s father, a pilot, had been shot down over Vietnam and was missing. In fourth grade, she began to wear a POW bracelet with the belief that she would take it off when he came home. He never did, and she wore it for many years.

Her editor at the time said that the American public wasn’t ready to read such a book, and advised she might not be ready to write it. “Live more and come back at a better time," she says the editor told her.

In 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic, Hannah thought the moment was right. She saw how divided America was politically, as it had been during the Vietnam War, and she saw how much the nurses and doctors were sacrificing for their fellow Americans.

“I wanted to shine a light on the nurses and women who had served and then returned to a different America from the one they had left," she says.

She interviewed Vietnam War veterans and spent time with a former Army nurse who founded the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation. She read their memoirs and other historical works.

It took a year to research the book and develop the plot and characters. She then spent another year writing, followed by a full year of editing. With “The Women," she decided to rewrite the last section to reflect what happened after her main protagonist returns from Vietnam.

What most struck her as she did her research was the lack of attention given to women who had served, she says. “They’d come home and there was no help for them. The country didn’t want to hear about their service. That’s when I realized that experience was as important as going to war."

Today there are 1.75 million copies of “The Women" in print. The book is No. 1 on the New York Times hardcover fiction list dated June 2.

Write to Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg at Jeffrey.Trachtenberg@wsj.com

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