A Conversation with Kristin Hannah
Jennifer Morgan Gray is a writer and editor who lives in Washington, D.C.
Jennifer Morgan Gray: Did you begin Angel Falls with a particular image, character, or situation in mind? Did you choose the title of the book in the initial stages of the creative process, or did it come later?
Kristin Hannah: As with most of my work, Angel Falls evolved from a collection of ideas in between books. I tend to gather ideas that interest me; then I wait for several of them to coalesce into a story. This time, I’d been waiting to do a “coma” book for a long time. Somewhere along the way in my personal reading, I had discovered that people who fall into lengthy comas often wake up “different.” Once I knew that, I was hooked. Then came the writer’s greatest tool: What if? What if you’d been hiding a great love, nursing its memory throughout your life—and then you had a chance to touch it again? What if your memories had turned that love into more than it had been? And if you’re always looking backwards, regretting, can you ever really look forward and appreciate what’s around you? Another key component in the initial creation of this novel was celebrity. I wanted to look at the personal cost of celebrity—not just the lack of privacy, but the things we often overlook, like the cost to your psyche, your relationships, and your family. I wondered what kind of person was drawn to a largerthanlife career, what they’re willing to give up to succeed in the rarefied world of Hollywood, and what happens when they get everything they want? Who pays the price? My husband is in the movie business, so I’ve been on the perimeter of the Hollywood world for a while. I am captivated by the dark side of celebrity. Nothing can mess with a person’s mind like success. Finally, I wanted to delve into the mind of a supposedly ordinary man and show how easy it is to be extraordinary in life, especially in the context of parenthood, and how the sacrifices we make for love change us. The title came to me at the final stages of writing the novel.
JMG: This novel contains a great deal of medical information. Before writing, did you conduct research into comas and comatose patients? What interested you the most about this state of suspended animation; sort of bad dream between life and death?
KH: My friends and family often tease me that I was a doctor in another life. I absolutely adore doing medical research. Over the course of my career, I’ve written about a lot of medical crises—heart transplant, cancer, coma, aphasia, stroke, infertility, etc. For this book, I began reading memoirs of former coma patients. The most fascinating angle was the uncertainty. Obviously, the human brain is a remarkable organ. Each injury is different and each outcome unpredictable. The mind can quite simply play tricks on us, and a brain injury can alter the fundamental tenets of a person’s personality. How fascinating is that? You can live your whole life as person A, with a collection of morals and memories and ideologies, and wake up after a long sleep to find that you don’t remember that person at all. Now you’re person B, with a different moral code, a different sense of humor, a changed sensibility. That’s catnip to a writer. Do you still love the same people, even if you can’t remember falling in love?
JMG: You begin Angel Falls with an epigraph by T. S. Eliot that reads, in part, “Footfalls echo in the memory/ Down the passage which we did not take/Towards the door that never opened . . .” Why did you choose these words to set the tone of the book? In what ways is this novel an exploration of lives that might have been?
KH: First of all, I love T. S. Eliot. I could find a quote from his work to begin every book I write. Specifically, in this book, I am exploring the road not taken, the door not opened. Because Mikaela has spent a lifetime idealizing her first love/first marriage, she never really appreciated the man she married next, Liam. And Liam, knowing he never had his wife’s fullest love, allowed himself to be content with that. He let it be okay that she held back a part of her heart; thus, he stayed firmly on the wrong side of the door—a man unwilling to reach for what he’s afraid he can’t attain. Finally, there’s superstar Julian True. Of all the characters, Julian is the one who has lost the most in his life, and he doesn’t know it. There’s a whole world that he knows nothing about—love, family, commitment; he’s turned his back on all the true things in life and chosen to skate on the surface instead, to take bright lights instead of warmth. His journey in this novel is to finally see the life he could have chosen— perhaps can still choose—and how changed he could have been by love.
JMG: How does the character of Mikaela compare with that of Kayla? How are the two names emblematic of two very different individuals? At the end of the novel, what elements of Kayla’s personality do you think Mikaela might reclaim after she emerges from the coma? How is the woman at the end of the novel a fusion of her past, present, and future?
KH: Kayla is the younger, freer, more optimistic version of the woman Mikaela becomes. In a way, Kayla is the young woman we all were once—full of fire and passion. When Kayla divorces Julian True and moves to Washington State to start over, it is symbolic that she changes her name. Kayla will always be Julian’s adoring young wife; Mikaela is a woman who will sacrifice anything—including her own happiness—to make certain that her daughter is happy. While Michaela’s journey in this novel is to discover her truest self (ironically, while she’s sleeping), I would not say that she reclaims the part of her that was Kayla. I think, rather, that Mikaela grows up enough to realize that Kayla was wrong, that in her naïveté, she mistook passion for love. More important, the newly awakened Mikaela discovers that even if she could, she would no longer trade places with her younger self. How often have we all thought, If only I had another chance to do that again, to be my younger self again, and to make a different choice?
Mikaela gets that chance in a very real way, and in choosing the present over the past, she finally finds herself.
JMG: In what ways is Liam powerful at the beginning of the novel? In what ways is he passive? How does the revelation of Mikaela’s past life with Julian affect him, for good and for bad? Why does he invite Julian into his life?
KH: In my opinion, Liam is the strongest, most powerful character in the novel, from beginning to end. The only person who doesn’t know that is Liam himself. Because he is quiet and caring and self-sacrificing, it’s easy to see him as weak. Easy for both the reader and the characters in the novel, but I never saw him that way. I never saw him as passive, either, except in regards to the marriage he’s settled for. He has let Mikaela love him halfway; because of his troubled childhood, he felt he was lucky to get even that. Liam’s journey in this novel is to seize hold of his selfworth and accept his own value, to see himself as the hero he is. Even though he is terrified of losing Mikaela, he isn’t guided by that fear. It would have been easy to turn away from the facts about Julian, to pretend it was all in the past, but Liam is far too innately heroic for that. Once he understands that Mikaela might be awakened because of another man’s love, Liam is bold enough to go to that man for help.
JMG: “I have slept through my life,” Mikaela’s mother, Rosa, says. How is Rosa in some ways a cautionary tale for her daughter, and how is she a role model? In which ways does the accident awaken the entire family?
KH: Rosa is entirely a cautionary tale for her daughter. A woman who loved the wrong man and stayed
bound to that obsessive love for most of her life, Rosa highlights the dark places love can take us, and how ruined we can be by the purest emotions. She allowed herself to be used and humiliated in the name of love. She also put her daughter second in some ways. Even though Rosa’s “bad love” paid the bills, it taught Mikaela all the wrong lessons. It was no wonder that she ran out of town the first chance she got. Her own father wouldn’t have anything to do with her, and her mother seemed impossibly weak in the face of socalled love. In the end, however, we see Rosa as bent but not broken by her bad love. She is redeemed and she, in turn, helps to redeem her daughter. She reminds Mikaela of the difference between good and bad love; the difference between Julian’s passion and Liam’s purity. It is precisely Rosa’s dark past that allows her to see the light of her daughter’s future. Yes, the accident definitely wakes up the adults in the family. Liam realizes how little he’s settled for and determines to change. Mikaela, too, realizes that she’s really been asleep for most of her life. The coma gives her another chance to become the woman she wants to be. And Rosa, who taught her daughter all the wrong lessons about life and love, gets the opportunity to see her daughter not follow in her footsteps.
JMG: “The measure of a man comes down to moments,” you write. What are the most pivotal moments for Liam during both the course of his life and the course of the novel? Do you think that Julian shares similar turning points? If so, what are they? How is Julian’s name significant—and ironic?
KH: I think it’s inevitably true in life that we are the sum of our choices. Who we are is defined and
sculpted by what we say and do. What we think tells us who we want to be; what we do is the measure of who we truly are. Liam’s whole world is crushed by the accident. When Mikaela goes into the coma, Liam becomes the solitary heart of his family. It falls on him to hold his grieving, frightened children together, to keep their family intact. Additionally, he comes to the discovery of Mikaela’s first husband—and the magnitude of her love for Julian True. This is truly the darkest hour for Liam, and he knows it. He must choose: Do I risk losing Mikaela’s love in order to save her? Or do I hold on to her, keep her as mine, and ignore the other man who might be able to awaken her? Like all of us when placed in crucial situations, his character will be defined by the generosity or selfishness of the choice he makes.
As to Julian’s name, it is entirely significant. After all, he gave it to himself, chose it. When he was a young man with big dreams, he needed a name to match those dreams. The last name—True—represents the man he wanted to become in his youth, the idealized version of himself. Ironically, he could not have fallen further afield of his own dreams. He has grown into an untruthful, unloving, self-obsessed man. He is the most pathetic character in the piece; by the end of the novel, he knows and understands his shortcomings, and what those shortcomings have cost him, but he can’t change. He can’t give up the bright lights of fame; not even for love. And certainly not for truth.
JMG: You set many of your novels in Washington State and highlight its idyllic nature with that of bigcity
life (in this case, Hollywood). What about Washington speaks to you? How does the city of Last Bend play an important role in the novel? What draws Liam and Mikaela toward it—and away from it?
KH: I was born in southern California and raised in Washington State, so these are two places I know
well. I often choose them as settings because I can breathe life into these regions, show readers an intimate glimpse of how the locals live. In all of my novels, and none more so than Angel Falls, the setting is virtually another character. Last Bend is very much an idealized version of the small, mountain town I lived in during high school. It’s significant because it became a safe place for young Mikaela and her baby daughter, and at a time in her life when she longed for safety. Following her poor, semi-itinerant youth, the stability and friendliness of Last Bend really taught her the meaning of “home.” Like all of us, Mikaela is drawn to the seductive lure of safety that a small town offers, even as she feels trapped by it. It is a fundamental human truth that sometimes we long for what we can’t have. Those in the big city long for quiet tree-lined streets and friendly neighbors. Small-town girls itch to test their mettle in high-rises and on big stages. For Mikaela and Liam, the point is acceptance. Both have to realize that
they’ve made choices, turned away from opportunities and settled for a quiet, loving life in Last Bend. And that, if given the opportunity again—which Mikaela is—they’d make the same choices.
JMG: Liam constantly refers to himself as an “ordinary” man. How accurate is this assessment? In which ways is he extraordinary? What is it about Mikaela that is so compelling to him?
KH: Liam believes he is ordinary, perhaps even slightly less than that. The truth is, of course, that he’s extraordinary; heroic, even. He is a selfless individual who feels love keenly and is willing to make any personal sacrifice necessary to protect his loved ones. To my mind, all he needs is a cape and tights and he could have his own comic book. To him, Mikaela is the impossible dream, the woman who he’d always imagined as beyond his reach. The head cheerleader as seen by the president of the computer club. Liam sees himself as unworthy of her. That’s why he accepts her lessthan love—he never thought a woman like her could love a man like him. By the end of the novel, however, he has come to understand his worth, and he makes some changes. He is no longer willing to accept less than all of Mikaela. In demanding all or nothing, Liam is risking the woman he loves in order to become the very man she can believe in.
JMG: What made you decide to interweave science and faith throughout the narrative of Angel Falls?
What about faith guides the characters to the story’s resolution? Do you think divine intervention helps
Mikaela recover her memories? How do Rosa, a representation of faith, and Liam, a disciple of science, relate to each other through the course of the novel?
KH: I am always fascinated by the push-pull of science and faith, especially when it comes to medical questions. We all know that medical science has limits; faith does not. In this novel, I was interested in discovering how quickly a man of science would turn to faith when medicine failed him. The underpinning of the entire novel is Liam’s faith. I never thought it was divine intervention that allowed Mikaela to recover her memories—that was simply luck of the draw. Brain injuries can go either way on memories, but the overwhelming number of patients do not become permanent amnesiacs. I do think, however, that there was certainly the touch of divinity in her recovery, as there always is in a “medical miracle” case.
JMG: You write, “Julian caught a glimpse of his own empty soul.” To what do you attribute his moment of clarity? Why has his life grown meaningless? What do you think happens to Julian after he leaves Last Bend? Do you believe that he’s become more capable of love, or do you see him as reverting to his Hollywood persona?
KH: I always saw Julian as a brilliant man in a big hurry. He’s been running so hard and so fast and so
long, that he hasn’t stopped to notice that he’s reached his destination and it’s an empty place.Hollywood, as lived in by Julian, is a cold place—the perfect reflection of his own empty soul. Until he sees real life in Last Bend and the woman he loved and the child he lost, he doesn’t really understand the lack in his life. In Last Bend, he finally slows down enough to see the truth: He’s alone. It doesn’t matter that he has friends and bodyguards and agents and sycophants around him all the time. In the end, he is alone, and he knows that the only way to stop being alone is to reach out to someone else, to change who he is; and he can’t do it. His life has grown meaningless because he hasn’t looked for meaning, hasn’t bothered to care about anything but his own carnal and physical pleasures. Ironically, in caring only about himself, he has rendered himself meaningless. At the end of the novel, I believe that he thinks he’s grown more capable of love because of Jacey and Mikaela, but it’s yet another selfdelusion. Julian will return to Hollywood and merge into the Ferrari-fast traffic of his old life. Someday, when his star dims, he will see the cost of the life he’s chosen, and by then it will truly be too late.
JMG: The word “forever” sounds a constant refrain in this book. Was this a word you returned to often as you were writing? What does “forever” mean to Mike and Liam at the beginning of their lives together, and how has their definition of the concept changed by the novel’s end? What does “forever” mean to you?
KH: Obviously, “forever” is about the future, and in a novel where the future is so uncertain, tomorrow becomes the life ring that Liam and the children hang onto. More importantly, I think that “forever” is the
representation of idealized love. In a world where so many marriages end in divorce, it’s important to remind people, and ourselves, that love can in fact last a lifetime, and that sometimes, if we’re very careful and lucky, we can stay in love with the same person or the whole of our lives. That’s the crux of this novel: Mikaela and Liam realize that their vows really were built to last, as was their love. This time, when Mikaela looks up at Liam and says “forever,” she means it from the bottom of her soul, with no reservations. To me, there’s nothing more romantic than the idea of re-falling in love with your own husband. And I absolutely, completely believe in the kind of love that lasts forever. But it doesn’t come easily. That’s the real secret; true love takes hard work.
JMG: The Liam and Mikaela pictured at the beginning of the book are markedly different from the couple at its conclusion. Why did their life seem so idyllic before Mikaela falls from her horse? What do you think would have happened to their relationship had she not had the accident?
KH: The answer to your question lies in the word “seem.” That was the point of the opening of the novel. Liam and Mikaela seemed to have a perfect marriage. Someone on the outside, looking in, would have said that they were perfect for each other. The truth was, they were hidden to each other, trapped in a quiet bubble of mutual pretense. Mikaela respected and cared for Liam; he adored and revered her. Neither one truly loved the other in the unconditional way that leads to the possibility of forever. I believe that without the accident, Liam would have passively adored Mikaela for the rest of his life—and someday she would have left him, either physically or spiritually. They didn’t have a true marriage before the accident. They had a family. There can be a difference. Their journey together is that of falling in love, really for the first time. Previously, the bulk of their relationship was about Liam “saving” Mikaela and her thanking him.
JMG: Are there any writers or books that you were drawn to while writing this novel? (Did you reread
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, perhaps?) Which authors are the greatest influences on you and your writing?
KH: Hmm. I’m not sure which authors are the greatest influence on my writing, but I can certainly tell you
a few of my favorite authors and favorite books. First and foremost, I’m a Pat Conroy fan. I kneel at the
altar of his words, his wit, and his insight. His books take me from laughing out loud one minute to sobbing the next. It’s my very favorite kind of read. Also, I’m a huge fan of Stephen King. I’ve been reading him since high school and he just knocks it out of the park sometimes. No one is better at reminding us of how it felt to be a kid. I have to mention Alice Hoffman, too. Pure magic. Additionally, in no particular order, I adore: Anne Rivers Siddons, Judith McNaught, Anne Rice, Dean Koontz, Megan Chance, Ann Hood, Jacquelyn Mitchard, LaVyrle Spencer, Harlan Coben, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Sue Miller, Ann Tyler, and Anita Shreve.
JMG: Do you have any special routines that stoke your creative juices while you’re writing—or a system that works best for you while putting together a book? What are they?
KH: My special routine is panic. Oh, no, what now? is always my first thought when I have to start a new
book. I’m always certain that the well has run dry and I won’t find another good story. Then, miraculously, I do. Once I’ve got the idea, I do have a routine of sorts. I write longhand on yellow legal pads with a certain kind of pen. I let the book blossom for me at this point, following the characters wherever they lead. At some point, I take control again and start whipping everyone into shape. This editing phase usually lasts about six months and is my favorite part of the process. I guess I don’t particularly like mining for the diamond, but I really enjoy cutting it into a gem.
JMG: Is there a particular story idea that’s currently sparking your imagination? What can readers expect on the shelves next from you?
KH: Actually, this is a big year for me. I have a Christmas novella with a powerhouse of a twist, coming out in November, and a full-length novel (currently titled The Magic Hour coming out in the spring of 2006. Of all the novels I’ve written, I am most proud of The Magic Hour. It’s an extraordinary story about a girl with no name who simply appears one day in a small Washington town. The quest to find out who she is— and where she belongs—will consume the town and change everyone who meets her.