Kristin Hannah is the bestselling, award-winning author of more than 20 beloved stories, including international sensations The Nightingale, The Great Alone and The Four Winds. And her newest novel The Women, out now, delivers one of her most powerful stories yet.
Set during the Vietnam era, the story follows 20-year-old nursing student Frances “Frankie” McGrath. It’s 1965 when Frankie hears four words that change her life: Women can be heroes. After her brother Finley ships out to serve, she joins the Army Nurse Corps and follows his path. Even after the treacherous day-to-day of the war, the real challenge Frankie faces is coming home to a changed America. And although The Women is Hannah’s newest novel, it’s also one of her oldest stories…because the idea has been with her for more than 20 years.
Woman’s World caught up with Kristin Hannah to discuss The Women and what she hopes readers will take away from the story. She also shared how she “stumbled on” becoming an author, who inspired her to write and her favorite part of the writing process. (Hint: It’s not technically the writing part!)
A lawyer-turned-writer, Hannah’s career as a #1 New York Times bestselling author was not in her original plans. But millions of readers around the world are grateful Hannah found her talent for masterfully crafting beautiful, emotionally rich stories about courageous characters.
Here, Hannah gives Woman’s World a peek inside her research and writing process, the long-held inspiration behind The Women and how, ultimately, it’s a story about the soul-healing power of female friendship.
Woman’s World: Did you always know you wanted to become an author? What — or who — initially inspired you?
Kristin Hannah: I was not one of those people who always wanted to be a writer. I was a huge reader of course. I was that kid on every family vacation who had their nose in a book and my family would be like “Hey, look at the Grand Canyon on your left!”
Then, when I was in law school my mother was losing her battle with breast cancer. One day in the hospital, I was complaining about my classes and she turned to me and said, “Don’t worry, you’re going to be a writer anyway.” It was the most stunning moment because I literally had shown no interest in that — no fiction writing classes, no anything.
From there, we decided to start writing a novel together. We decided on a historical romance because that was her passion. Every day after classes, I would go to the library and Xerox pages and pages of research information. In the evenings, we’d spend time imagining this book I would someday write. From the plot to the characters, we really had a lot of fun with it. I wrote the opening scene the day before she died. And so she didn’t get to read anything, unfortunately, but I did get to whisper to her: “I started that book of ours.”
WW: Was this the start of your first book?
Hannah: Well, after my mother passed away, I just put it all in a box and put it in my closet and went on with the path I was on in life, which was to be a lawyer. And so I became a lawyer — I passed the bar and I started practicing.
A few years later, I was pregnant with my son and I had a difficult pregnancy. I was bedridden from 14 weeks on and there was nothing to do. So my husband said: “Hey, what about that book you and your mom were going to write?” That was the beginning of it all. That’s when I took the pages out of the closet and thought, “Well, I’ll write a book. How hard can it be? I have nothing but time.”
I had no actual skill yet, but I had a lot of time and I was good at writing and expressing myself. By the time my son was born, I wanted to be an at-home mom. And so I thought to myself, “Okay, I’m going to try to become a writer and if I can do it before he’s in first grade, then I’ll be a writer and if not, I’ll go back and be a lawyer.” I never sold the book I worked on with my mom, but I did sell my first book when my son was 2 years old and I’ve been doing it ever since.
WW: What drew you to the Vietnam era for The Women?
Hannah: I have wanted to write this book for about 20 years! I think it’s because I was a young girl during the Vietnam war. I was in elementary school and junior high and I watched it from the sidelines. We were a generation removed from it.
But the father of one of my close girlfriends served in Vietnam. He was shot down and was missing in action. So I was about 10 when I got my own prisoner of war bracelet — which I talk about in the book. The idea was that the bracelet had the serviceman’s name and you wore it until he came home. I wore this thing for years and years and years and he never came home. In fact, when the internet first happened, one of the first things I did was look him up to see if he had come home. His name was just seared into my memory. And this time in America was seared into my memory, too.
I remember the protests, the marches, the anger, the division about the war and I remember how the Vietnam vets were treated when they came home. It made a big impact on me and it was always something I wanted to go back and examine. But I never knew exactly how to do it. It was such a big story. I originally came up with the idea 20 years ago about a nurse, but it was more of a love story. It was a very different novel. I kept putting it aside and putting it aside and coming back to it.
WW: 20 years is a long time! When did you actually start writing the story?
Hannah: In early 2020, Seattle went into lockdown and we were in the throes of COVID. I was trapped in my house on a small island where there is nothing to do in the best of circumstances and I needed a new idea. I had just turned in the The Four Winds and I was watching the healthcare workers who were on the front lines for the pandemic and I was seeing how exhausted they were and how much stress and pressure was on them. I felt they deserved more respect and more attention.
That’s when the idea of nurses on the front line and Vietnam all came together. The country was divided again so it felt familiar. It all felt Vietnam era-esque and I thought “Okay, it’s time. This is the book. I’m finally ready to write it.” I’m excited to shine a light on the Vietnam nurses and the Vietnam vets and their service and get the country talking about that and remembering to thank them — it’s something I’m happy to be a part of.
WW: Your books are always so well researched and that’s evident in The Women. Can you share a bit about your research process?
Hannah: I researched everything. I researched the era, the politics, the landscape, what was going on, picking the place where my setting is. Obviously I chose Vietnam during the war, but that’s only half the book. So I had to figure out where Frankie was in the beginning and the end. And then the real pay dirt of research were these memoirs that had been written by Vietnam vets, male and female, but primarily the nurses’ memoirs. The ones that I found especially illuminating are listed in the back of the book.
After I research, my job is to take all of this information, synthesize it and create this world for the reader that is based on fact, but is also in the realm of my imagination. And that was both the fun and the frightening part because once I finished the first draft, I realized that for the first time, I was writing a historical novel where a lot of my readers will have either lived through it or knew someone who had.
WW: Did you speak to veterans during this time?
Hannah: Yes. These vets were so important to me. It was important that I be honest and truthful to the extent that I could within the confines of a novel, so I went in search of people who could tell me where I was right and where I was wrong. I was so fortunate to connect with a woman named Diane Carlson Evans, who wrote a book called Healing Wounds.
She’s a Vietnam vet and the founder of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial — she was an invaluable resource and a true inspiration. She helped connect me to a helicopter pilot, a surgical nurse, a doctor and some other people to read different moments in the book. But, in a way, Diane was the Godmother of this book.
WW: Do you have a favorite phase when writing a novel?
Hannah: I think almost all writers love research. You’re just like, “Oh, I’m reading all this really interesting stuff and I’m sure a book will come of that.” So it’s very stress-free and fun because we’re readers and we love reading.
So yes, I love the research. It’s very easy to keep researching long after the moment that you should start writing. But what I love the most is editing. I love finishing a book, getting it to the end and then breaking it apart, breaking it down and asking myself what’s working and reimagining it in a different way. So that’s my favorite process.
My least favorite part is coming up with an idea and actually rallying and being like “Okay, this is what I’m going to spend three years of my life on.” That’s the hardest part.
WW: Do you have any writing rituals? We’d love a peek into your process!
Hannah: I actually write longhand on a yellow legal pad. I do this because I can do it anywhere. I can write on the back deck, I can write on the beach, I can write anywhere — and there’s also something about not having a delete key that I find very freeing. It’s just a more direct current from idea to on the page when I’m writing longhand.
As far as rituals, I will say it’s very much a job for me. I work job hours. I find that inspiration doesn’t just strike — you have to go in search of it. So if you’re sitting down at the computer or legal pad at 8 o’clock in the morning and you decide to write, you’re a lot more likely to become inspired. The old adage that you can edit a written page, but not a blank page is so important. During the early days — during my first five books — I wrote at nap time. I would have an hour and a half and then boom!
I learned to write on demand and I didn’t have as much time to rethink and edit. So as my son grew and as my time expanded, my process would change. Now I have the opposite. I have all the time in the world to write so I have to be very vigilant to protect family time, girlfriend time, vacation time. I don’t want to let myself spend all my time writing just because I have it.
WW: Let’s take a minute to appreciate Frankie! She is such a special character. Where did you get the inspiration for her?
Hannah: There is no actual real-life Frankie, but Frankie’s character does come from 5 or 6 nurses whom I read about. She is representative of them in so many ways. Most of the women came from patriotic families and were really young when they went over there — just like Frankie. Most of them had very little nursing training and so it was just me creating the nurse who would tell the story best and would represent the change that occurred in America during that 10 to 15 year period.
WW: What do you hope readers take away from Frankie’s story? And the story of Frankie’s friends Barb and Ethel?
Hannah: First and foremost, I love Frankie. Of all the characters I’ve created she just experiences more growth than almost anyone. Frankie’s journey is about finding her voice in this tumultuous time and her sense of peace and her own confidence. She chooses who she wants to be and once she finds that strength, she then finds the further strength to go out and help other women who are on this same journey of self recovery. I loved that.
WW: What do you think the message of The Women is?
Hannah: If there is a message in the book, it’s two-pronged: It is to be true to yourself and it is the importance of girlfriends. You have Frankie, and Barb and Ethel — they are the soulmates who keep each other together day in and day out. These three very different women probably would not have been friends otherwise and yet, in a way, they are the great love story of this novel.
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