A Conversation with Kristin Hannah
Jennifer Morgan Gray is a writer and editor who lives in New York City.
Jennifer Morgan Gray: Did you begin On Mystic Lake with a particular image or idea—the title, perhaps—in mind? Was there a particular character that propelled the story forward?
Kristin Hannah: Often times the beginning of a book is an amorphous and easily forgotten thing, but in this case, I can remember distinctly how it all began. I saw a little girl who thought she was disappearing. Although Mystic did not ultimately turn out to be her story, I still feel that she’s the heart of everything; the catalyst that forces the other characters to change and grow. For me, the challenge was putting the little girl in context, wrapping a story around her, finding out why she thought she was vanishing slowly.
JMG: The passages from Izzy’s perspective are so vivid. How were you able to get inside the mind of this young, mixed-up girl? Was it difficult for you to achieve and sustain that distinct voice throughout the novel?
KH: Writing in a child’s voice is a special challenge. You begin with somewhat rigid constraints and disciples about acceptable word choices and syntax and descriptive capabilities. Ultimately, everything must be accurate for the child’s age and life experience. Then you have to find a way to fly within that framework, to be imaginative and almost other-worldly, to see everything and everyone through new and innocent eyes. I loved becoming a child again, and hopefully that passion found its way into Izzy’s voice.
JMG: Annie’s a reflection of many women in that she buries her own creative impulses—and her basic emotional needs—for the sake of her family. Was she based on anyone you knew? When writing this book, did you hope that a few people in the same boat as she, might pick up a pen, a paintbrush, or just make some time for themselves? Is writing that creative outlet for you, especially since you began writing after you became a stay-at-home mom?
KH: Annie could be based on so many of the women in my life—friends, neighbors, relatives. As I get older, I see so many Annies around me. Women who chose to get married and have children and loved every minute of it, but then somewhere along the way realized that they’d lost some essential part of themselves. Those of us who are caretakers—and I definitely put myself in this category— often put everyone else’s needs first. While this is understandable and even admirable, it can also be a blueprint for disaster. We need to take care of ourselves and our marriages, too. I think that’s the lesson Annie needed to learn. I hope that Mystic resonates with women who know how easy it is to lose sight of one’s own reflection. And yes,
writing is the outlet for my innermost self. When I sit down at my computer, I’m the girl I remember and the woman I want to be. I can close the door on my “real” life
and become, for a few precious moments, just me.
JMG: The shifting conception of what a family is plays a large part in the novel. Why does Annie have such a hard time tearing herself away from a traditional family framework? What does her “perfect life” initially represent to her? As a writer, what draws you to tell these stories of motherhood and family?
KH: Annie grew up motherless. That’s really the cornerstone of her personality. As a child, she was left to imagine her mother and, therefore, to guide herself into womanhood. Her father, although he loved her, was a man trapped by his own upbringing. He taught her what he knew of a woman’s place in the world. Because of that, Annie grew up believing that she could succeed in life only by being the perfect wife and mother. No one ever taught her that she should strive also for her best self, that she deserved a happiness of her own. Thus, when her marriage shatters and her child leaves home, she is utterly lost. It is then, when she is alone and confused and heartbroken, that she must finally come of age and choose the woman she will become. Now, Why do I write so often about motherhood? you ask. The easy answer is that it’s the cornerstone of my life. Writing is what I do; a mother is what I am. I write about women who are various incarnations and versions of me.
Annie, perhaps, is the me who never had the courage to begin writing that first novel all those years ago . . . or the me who grew up without a mother who believed I could achieve anything.
JMG: Annie characterizes herself as a “good little girl who never cried.” As a child and later as an adult, why does she muffle her sadness and grief? What other characters also bury their emotions, to detrimental effect?
KH:Annie has spent her whole life trying to be perfect for those whom she loved. First it was as a daughter. Her grieving father couldn’t stand her tears, so she learned to swallow them and keep smiling. Later, she tried to be a flawless wife and mother. An impossible quest as we all know, one that leads all too often to madness, medication, or denial. Annie has chosen denial as her coping mechanism. Over the years, she’s suppressed all her emotions to a greater or lesser extent—grief, loss, disappointment. She’s afraid that the expression of these dark emotions would lead to ruin, but in that suppression, she’s rendered herself mute. Each of the characters in the novel is grappling with the power and pain of big emotions and most are avoiding them in one way or another. Nick is numbing his grief with alcohol and swimming in his own guilt; Blake is using anonymous sex to bolster his flailing ego.
JMG: I love the way you parallel Izzy’s belief that she’s disappearing with Annie’s own realization that her personality and life have vanished. How does Izzy’s “disappearance” enable her to grapple with grief and connect with her mother? What compels Annie to figuratively “disappear”? How do both characters become fully formed again?
KH:The disappearance of some aspect of oneself is really the central theme of the novel. For Izzy, obviously, this loss of herself lies in the inability to understand her place in a new world, a world in which she is now a motherless child. She knows that in losing her mother, she has lost some essential piece of herself. The physical manifestation of this emotion is the belief that she’s disappearing. In her mind, she imagines that if she vanishes completely, shewill have access to the heaven or spirit world that her mother now inhabits. It is symbolic that she thinks she has
lost her hand first; for, when she finds a way to reach out to Annie and Nick for love, she will see her hand return. For Annie, the slow vanishing is more metaphorical.
She is grieving for the loss of her own dreams, for the end of her life as she always imagined it would be. I think this kind of quiet disappearing is common for women of a certain age who have given up too much of themselves in their quest to take care of others. Throughout the novel, Annie’s quest is to look past her own youthful expectations of what her life was supposed to be and to find the truth of her self. She must finally—as we all must—step up onto the stage of her life and be the heroine. Each of these characters will ultimately become whole again by accepting
life as it truly is and daring to love in spite of all the odds.
JMG: Both Blake and Nick turn to alcohol to numb themselves. Why did you choose to give them a similar outlet for their pain and frustration? Do you think that Blake’s issues with alcohol, if unchecked, could grow to the extent of Nick’s problem? Do they share other similarities?
KH: Nick and Blake both turn to the numbing comfort of alcohol because they share an essential weakness: Both want to run away from their problems. It is often true that people who have trouble with intimacy will look to outside sources for comfort. What separates these men and offers Nick hope for a better future is that he learns to change. He admits his problem and searches for an honest solution, even if it isn’t the easy one. Blake, on the other hand, sees his failings and elects to stay on the same self-destructive, alienated path. And yes, he is at great risk of becoming an
alcoholic. I always saw Blake as a truly tragic character. Because of his inability to love, he would wake up one day and realize that he is utterly alone.
JMG: You studied law before turning to writing—which makes the character of attorney Blake even more interesting. Did your experiences in the field inform your depiction of him? How did you develop him so he was a fleshed-out, multidimensional character, instead of just the cheating-husband caricature?
KH: It was critical to me that Blake be more than the clichéd stereotype of the cheating husband. One of the ways I humanized him was via his career. A career that I know quite well. He is a powerful, respected attorney—an isolated man in a field where emotions are marginalized and success is all that matters in the end. His focus on his career allowed him to become increasingly selfish and separate from his stay-at-home wife. But the fault is not his alone, and this, too, humanizes him. The way I saw it, there had perhaps been a time, years ago, when Annie could have demanded more of him, of their marriage, but she let that moment pass in silence. Her silent acceptance was every bit as ruinous to their marriage as his selfishness.
Together they created a dynamic that couldn’t succeed because it contained no honest intimacy or true parity. They’re both at fault, and that’s about as human as it
JMG: The actual places in the novel are every bit as colorful as the characters. How did you evoke this feeling, especially in comparing Southern California with Mystic,
Washington? What appeals to you about each place, both personally and in your writing?
KH:The easy answer is that I lived in Southern California during my early childhood and in Washington for all the years since. These are two places that I know well, and, obviously, the contrast between the brown heat of Los Angeles and the majestic quiet of Mystic Lake was a perfect representation of the two choices in Annie’s life. The really important thing, I think, is my deep connection to Washington
State. My stories lately seem rooted in this damp soil; I love giving readers my Northwest. The Olympic Rainforest, where Mystic is set, is particularly special to
me. In that damp and mythical place are some of my most
treasured memories of my mother.
JMG:Annie doesn’t think she’s a good role model for Natalie. How is she right, and how is she wrong? How do you imagine the woman that Natalie will grow up to be?
KH:Annie believes that she has failed to show her daughter courage and commitment and individuality. In looking back on her life and marriage, Annie realizes how much of herself she let go without a fight, what a doormat she had
become, and it shames her that she showed her daughter such weakness. But what mother doesn’t worry that she hasn’t done a good enough job, that she has somehow failed her children? What matters in the end, and what Annie comes to understand, is that she taught her daughter that love is worth fighting for, worth sacrificing for, worth risking everything for.
JMG: The book ends with Annie throwing caution to the wind and driving to Mystic to reunite with Nick. How does this show Annie’s evolution toward embracing herself
and her own needs? Did you ever consider actually writing a scene showing their reunion and ending the novel that way, with a happy ending? Or how is this that happy ending?
KH:Actually, I didn’t see the ending as “throwing caution to the wind and driving to Mystic to reunite with Nick.” To me, Annie was finally embracing her future and allowing her past to be part of who she would become. I saw her, this woman who had let herself be confined and held back, as driving toward her own self-determined future . . . and that Nick was the reward for that courageous choice,
rather than the reason for it. Not surprisingly, I did write the happy-ever-after reunion scene; it was in several versions of the novel. Ultimately, I decided against it. I thought it made the story seem smaller somehow. I preferred ending on the note that Annie had the whole world open to her and she was in the driver’s seat. She could go anywhere; to me, that was the happy ending. And let’s face it: We all know she ends up with Nick.
JMG: As the story unfolded, what did Annie do that most surprised you? Or did you always know exactly what her next step would be?
KH: I’m not often surprised by my characters. As a writer, I’m very in control. Perhaps it’s my legal background.That being said, however, I was shocked that Nick and Annie slept together on their first meeting. I knew there would be all the sparks of a long ago, never-quite-forgotten young love, but sex? I had no idea.
JMG: I’m sure that readers would love to see what happens with Annie, Nick, Blake, and the entire cast of characters in a sequel. Do you have any plans to write one? Or doyou feel that the arc of this story—and these characters—is complete?
KH: Of all the novels I’ve written, On Mystic Lake is the book that seems to demand a sequel. At least that’s whatmy readers tell me. To me, though, the story is complete. I’ve told all the story that’s mine to tell. They really do live happily ever after. I’ve learned never to say never, but I sure don’t see a sequel in the future.
JMG: Do you have any routines or rituals you adhere to while you’re writing, which facilitate the process and bring you inspiration and creativity? What are they?
KH: Like most working mothers, I have a pretty rigid schedule. For the most part, I write on school days during school hours. This allows me to take off a lot of time during the summer and winter breaks to be with my family. In a couple of years my son will be going off to college and then I imagine I’ll reassess this schedule, but for now it works beautifully. I get the best of both worlds: a career I love and the ability to be a stay-at-home mom. As for routines that inspire me and/or fuel my creativity,
I don’t really have any. I don’t light candles or burn incense or listen to music. For me, the best spur to creativity is living as full a life as I can—seeing and talking to
friends, hanging out with my family, traveling, going to the movies. The more I’m a part of the crazy madness of ordinary life, the more I have to write about.
JMG: You wrote this book several years ago. Does it differ from the novels that preceded it, and those that came after? If so, how?
KH: On Mystic Lake was truly a break out, path-changing book for me. Prior to it, I had been writing historical romances, and although I loved them, as I got older I found that I wanted to write bigger contemporary novels that reflected the world I saw around me. While many of my novels still feature love stories, they also now explore the myriad other relationships that touch and shape our lives. I have stayed on that path since Mystic. Most of my novels are centered on a woman’s coming of age—a thing that can happen at any time in life and always brings with it a host of unexpected choices and challenges.
JMG: Is there a particular story idea that’s currently sparking your imagination? What can readers expect next from you?
KH: Currently I am putting the finishing touches on TheThings We Do for Love. It’s the story of an unlikely friendship that forms between a woman who can’t have children and the troubled teenage girl who changes her life. It is an intensely emotional, deeply felt novel that journeys to thevery heart of what it means to be a family. After that, who knows? I guess I’ll have to start hanging out with my girlfriends and my family and live life to the fullest . . . and see
where it takes me.
From the Trade Paperback edition.