Kristin Hannah, THE FOUR WINDS

Kristin Hannah, THE FOUR WINDS

In this special weekend re-release, #1 New York Times bestselling author of more than 20 books, Kristin Hannah, joins Zibby to discuss The Four Winds, a powerful American epic about love, heroism, and hope, set during the Great Depression. Kristin talks with Zibby about her iterative writing process, a mother’s unconditional love, and the importance of female friendships.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kristin. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Kristin Hannah: Thank you. I am honored to be here.

Zibby: This is such a thrill. I have loved holding onto your book the last couple months. I feel like this is the major coup, was getting your book early. I was like, okay, I’ve made it. Congratulations on The Four Winds. Wow. How do you feel with this finally coming out? Oh, my gosh.

Kristin: It’s all sort of surreal because it’s Firefly Lane, the series, coming out the day after The Four Winds, the book. Gosh, it’s been fifteen years for Firefly Lane. I’ve been working on The Four Winds for almost four years. It’s just this amazing confluence of excitement all in one place.

Zibby: Everything coming together at the same time, it’s amazing. Let’s talk about Elsa, by the way. Did you know that the character in Frozen was named Elsa when you named your character Elsa?

Kristin: I must admit that I did, yes.

Zibby: Just wondering.

Kristin: I think it was before Frozen was quite the cultural phenomenon that it is now, but yeah.

Zibby: I just had to wonder. There is a part in The Four Winds — there are many parts where Elsa’s love of books pervade the entire narrative. There’s one quote I just wanted to read to you because I’m about to put it my bulletin board. “Books had always been her solace. Novels gave her the space to be bold, brave, beautiful, if only in her imagination.” I love that. Talk to me about books and how books have given you solace or how writing books have given other people solace, or you as well.

Kristin: I don’t think anyone gets to where I am, having written twenty-four novels, without being a voracious reader your whole life. That’s really the beginning. It doesn’t matter which of my books you read. You can read The Great Alone and Leni in the seventies or Firefly Lane and Kate in the seventies and eighties. Books are always the place that my characters go when the world bruises them or when they need to recharge or regroup and just to enjoy themselves. I think that’s because that is something that I understand because it’s a big part of my own life, but also, I think that it’s just important to show people reading as much as we can. A lot of these books, you can go through your life and say, these are the touchstone books. I was reading The Lord of the Rings when I was here. I was reading The Thorn Birds when I was here. These books are the mile markers of our lives. I love being able to remind readers of that.

Zibby: Very important and just amazing. I love how Elsa would always try to bring books with her and how leaving books behind when she traveled west was such an ordeal, and which books to bring from her parents’ house. I could just see her. How do you pick? There’s also, of course, this whole narrative of Elsa being a mother. What would a mother do for her child? which I think is also another theme of yours. There’s the one scene which has stayed with me so much when Elsa is pushing Ant to the hospital. The skin on her palms is gone. She’s about to collapse. She’s pushing this wheelbarrow. Then finally, her in-laws come to rescue her. She’s like, “I’m just…” Then her mother-in-law says, “A mother.” Everyone has their limitations. Tell me a little bit more about that scene.

Kristin: Elsa is, far and away, my favorite character I’ve ever created. She has a tough beginning. She’s one of those characters and represents one of those people who throw themselves all in for whatever it is they’re passionate about, whatever it is they love about. She doesn’t love a little. She loves deeply, dangerously, unreservedly. It is, of course, motherhood that teaches her that. I think for a lot of women, certainly for me, the moment they put your child in your arms, you understand that there’s a different dimension to love, that it can be bigger than you ever imagined. I’m very drawn to this idea of the mother who can lift a car to save her child and that kind of stuff. I really like to not only explore and dramatize that, but to remind people that it’s there and how important it is.

Zibby: Have you had a moment with your son, for instance, where you felt like you needed your superhuman strength?

Kristin: I don’t know about superhuman strength. There was a couple of years there where, trying to keep up with him skiing and being certain that I needed to keep him safe when clearly, he was out-skiing me, there was a lot of that sort of stuff. I don’t think I’ve ever needed superhuman strength. I have needed superhuman emotional strength to deal with the teen years, for sure.

Zibby: Yes. I feel like there’s not enough of that to go around, perhaps. We all need those regular doses. I’ve read that you depend on your morning run to workout. Is that still true?

Kristin: Yes. Since we’re in lockdown here — I’m in Washington State. I haven’t been able to travel much. Now my morning run is a little more difficult because it rains here a lot in the winter. Now I’m moving on to an elliptical. It’s pretty cool, actually. It allows me to watch all these movies — I’m currently watching Notting Hill — that I just haven’t sat down and watched for a long time. It’s fun.

Zibby: Excellent. I used to think that my workouts on the elliptical were a joke, but now I’m like, wow, if only I could get back there. That would be great. So much for that. Tell me a little bit more about your writing process and how you come up with the ideas for your main characters and then all the settings for what they go through. I know you’ve written over twenty books at this point.

Kristin: There’s a lot of books. My process has changed a lot. I can talk about, if you’re interested, the various stage of it and the various processes that I went through at the various times of my life. At this particular moment, the way it works is I come up with the bones of an idea. I then begin researching. For these historical novels, it takes about a year of research to both read everything I need to read and interview people and travel, hopefully, and then come up with the actual story and begin to write. In this particular book, I did all of that work. I started writing. I was about 350 pages in when Elsa appeared as a walk-on character. I felt this connection to her instantly. Interestingly, part of it was that she came as a reader. That was what she had brought into the Martinelli family originally. I kept working and kept writing and got to the end of that draft. By the end of it, I realized that I had mistaken what my plot needed to be and who my characters needed to be. I was writing this big, sweeping love story. What I really needed to be writing was about a woman’s resilience as she fights to stay alive in this environment. I basically threw all of that away and started over with Elsa as my viewpoint character. That’s when I think the book really came to life.

Zibby: What does that afternoon look like when you come to a realization like that?

Kristin: It’s not pretty. Let me tell you. It’s a lot of wine and whining with girlfriends, a lot of staring at the wall, a lot of thinking, no, I can fix it, I don’t have to go that far, and a lot of conversations with yourself about throwing the baby out with the bathwater. For me personally, once I not only see an error — it takes two things. I have to see a fundamental error, which is that I felt I was writing not the strongest book about the Depression and the Dust Bowl that I could, and I need to have real clarity on how to fix it. When I decided to make Elsa and Loreda mother and daughter and make this a book about motherhood, essentially, and the fight for survival, then once that occurs to me, I just can’t look away. I can try, but it’s all wasted time. I find that the most important thing for me for writing the book I ultimately publish is clarity of purpose. Sometimes that just takes a while. You have to write yourself to it. You can’t necessarily know it ahead, or I can’t.

Zibby: Wow. At least you’re sort of comfortable with that process.

Kristin: It’s not good.

Zibby: I feel like in this book, the descriptions are so vivid, especially the dust storms and that one black storm and the chickens lying there listless because it’s so hot. I have to say, I was reading it, and then I went in to make breakfast for the kids because I get up really early. Anyway, I was reading it, and I went to open up the egg cartoon to make eggs. I was holding each egg. I was like, I really need to appreciate these eggs. In the book, they were like, maybe one egg will pop out. You completely put the reader back in that framework of desperation and hopelessness and yet commitment to the land. Tell me about how you did that. You couldn’t possibly have put yourself in dust storms as research, right?

Kristin: No. That’s what I love, love, love about writing. Really, it’s our job to take all of the information that we can gather — here’s everything I can find out about the dust storms through the words of the people who lived through them, through the newspaper clippings, through old photographs, all of that sort of stuff. Then it’s my job to take all of that information and turn it into words that make you actually feel what’s happening as opposed to simply being aware of what’s happening. From a writing standpoint, it’s really mostly, for me, about specific detail and emotion. It’s important to me that the reader feel what it feels like to wake up in the morning and have your body covered with dust and outlined, when the dust hits and the centipedes come climbing out of the walls because they are trying to get away too, all of these things that you would never think of on your own, and then put you through that. Then I tend to add the extra layer, which is, and you’re responsible for another human life on top of it. It’s not just saving yourself. You have to save your children. I think it’s the best way to learn, whether it’s historically, the Dust Bowl, or whether it’s two broadcast journalists in the eighties. It doesn’t really matter when it is set. It’s about, again, clarity and how good I am at painting a word portrait.

Zibby: You are the Picasso of the word portrait. Not to just try to butter you up or anything. These were the most vivid description. I felt like I needed to take a long shower.

Kristin: I hear this a lot.

Zibby: You do? Oh, no, I hate saying things people hear a lot. Anyway, I felt like I needed a hot shower after this book. That’s okay. I feel like, having read The Great Alone before this book, you go from cold climate to hot climate. I’m wondering, where are we going to go next? I feel like I’m with you on all these different temperature zones.

Kristin: You know, I don’t know. For me as a writer, the hardest part of this process is the idea. I have a lot of friends who are writers, and they have file cabinets full of, oh, someday, I’m going to write this book and this book and this book. I don’t do that. I’m lucky to come up with one idea that I care enough about to spend two or three years on. I have to really love what I’m doing. During this pandemic, I’ve been, like a lot of people, not quite as productive as I’m used to being and not quite as creative. I am just as excited to see what I’m going to do next as anybody else.

Zibby: I always feel a little bad asking, what are you going to do? when you’ve just done something amazing. Forget that. I think I’m going to stop. Let’s say after you hand in a big book like this that’s taken you years to write and research and edits and two almost completely different books — you hand it in. You send it off to the publisher. Then what do you do? What is that night? What does that feel like?

Kristin: The way I work, which you may have gleaned from previous answers, I’m a very editorial writer, and I’m a very collaborative writer. I really like input. I really like fixing things and rewriting them. Between me turning the book in to my editor, which is at the moment when it’s as good as I think I can make it — however long that is, that’s when I turn the book in to my editor. She has learned and we have learned the way we work together best is to be not only brutally honest, but always forward-looking. I’m trying to figure out how to say this. She doesn’t necessarily only edit what’s on the page. She edits what she thinks could be on the page. For example, when I turned this book in the first time to her, Elsa and Loreda were sisters-in-law. The book went on for another three hundred pages after this end. It was this huge, sweeping epic that went through the forties. She said, “I don’t think this last three hundred works. I think that the dust storm and California, that is all so big that going on just diminishes that.” I gave that a lot of thought and tried to figure out how to focus on that part of that story. That was when it became Elsa and Loreda as mother and daughter. That’s then another six months while I’m doing that. Then finally when my editor says, “You’re done,” that is the champagne moment. That’s when I pop the cork. I mean, I pop the cork all the way through. I’m not going to lie. I’m constantly celebrating. Oh, that’s a good sentence. I need champagne. When she tells me I’m done, that’s when I really take a deep breath and to the best of my ability, walk away emotionally and stop obsessing about how to make it better.

Zibby: Then how does the film world work with your putting to bed of these titles when you have, now, adaptations in the mix and all of that?

Kristin: This week is my first — I’ve had a lot of things optioned. I’ve had a lot of things in development. Nightingale is supposed to start filming again this month or next month. Firefly Lane is the first thing that’s actually made it to the screen. This is my first experience with seeing something that is my world and someone else’s world at the same time. It’s kind of this merging of ideas. I have to say, I think that the friendship between Tully and Kate, which is the core of that novel — it is everything that that novel is about — I think they’ve done an amazing, amazing job with. I think Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke are just amazing. Their chemistry is great. All my girlfriends are in love with Ben Lawson, who plays Johnny. It’s very exciting. It’s exciting.

Zibby: It’s really awesome. I love hearing you talk about your girlfriends because you can tell how important they are. Even the relationship with Jean and Elsa in the book speaks to this bond of female friendship and what you wouldn’t do for the other person you love. You love them like family. Tell me about some close friends or how your friend group works, the importance of friendship in your life.

Kristin: Friendship is always important. I think we women have always formed, especially in our teen years, very intense, very bold friendships. I think if you’re lucky enough to make the kind of friend that can go through life, it means a lot of things. I think that a friendship, like a marriage, takes works. It isn’t always perfect. There are bumps in the road. It’s all about being honest, taking care of each other, loving each other, and getting each other through good times and bad times. I know that of all the times in my life, the two times I needed my friends the most were when my mother was dying of breast cancer when I was young and during my son’s teen years. He was a great kid. Yet still, that whole teenage thing, there were a lot of times when I called my girlfriends and said, “We got to have a glass of wine. Somebody has to tell me that this is normal, that we’re going to be okay.” That’s what we did for each other. I love it.

Zibby: Did your son get over that? For people who have teen sons right now, or teen daughters, and are despairing hearing your description of this, does it get better?

Kristin: To be fair, he was a boy. Girls, I think, are tougher on their moms than boys are, but maybe I’m wrong because I don’t have a daughter. I know I was tough on my mom. I do know that my son read Firefly Lane as an adult and called me when he finished. He said, “Wow, Mom. I’m really sorry for all those sleepless nights when I was trying to sneak out of the house or whatever.”

Zibby: What was it like giving your mom a hard time and then having to cope with her loss? They’re obviously themes that pervade this —

Kristin: — It’s in my work all the time. Not to be overly psychological about it or anything, but clearly — I lost my mom when I was twenty-four. That loss, it sort of permeates you. I had not grown up enough to be the daughter that I wanted to be, that I would want to be now. I was what she raised me to be, which is opinionated and powerful and strong. When that’s what you learn, the first person you turn that on is your mom. It’s just sort of a natural course of events. That’s probably the only regret in my life, is that we didn’t get tons of time after all of that. I know she is somewhere with a martini, and she is very happy and very proud of me.

Zibby: Is there anything you wish you could say?

Kristin: I would say I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I thought I knew everything in the world.

Zibby: Maybe you did.

Kristin: Pretty sure not.

Zibby: Let’s give you the benefit of the doubt. You never know. I’m so sorry for that loss at such a young age. It’s also such a tough time because it’s right in the crux of developing your adult identity too. There’s no good age, but I feel like that’s such an impressionable point where your life can go off in so many directions. What advice would you have to aspiring authors?

Kristin: I guess the bottom line is, I personally believe that this is learnable and it’s teachable. I’m not one of those people who believe that writing is magic and that you either have talent or you don’t. I believe that, like you can become a lawyer or an accountant or a pediatrician, you can learn to become a writer. It requires you to have a lot of belief in yourself even when the evidence tells you not to as you’re failing along the way. I think you have to really devote yourself to it. There’s a lot of people who want to write a novel and believe they’re talented but never actually get around to it. The key to being a writer is you have to write. You can’t think your way into becoming a novelist or to writing a book. You have to write your way there sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, year after year after year. The thing that’s amazing about that is you get better. It’s like anything else. You practice that, and you get better. I think you can learn, obviously, by reading. I think finding a really good, really honest critique partner, someone you can work back and forth with, is very important, and taking classes or conferences or anything like that that you can do. Then set goals for yourself. As a published novelist, you have to turn books in. One of the best ways to get to that stage is to set goals and meet them and learn how to write on a schedule.

Zibby: Excellent. All right, so a lot of calendar apps and things. With all of this excitement going on, what are some final thoughts of how you can take advantage of this? After all this work, you finally are getting to this place of having a moment. Not that you haven’t had it with The Nightingale and Great Alone and everything. Right now, you’re having a moment. Bottle that up for us.

Kristin: I don’t even really know quite how to process it. It’s so big. It’s so much bigger than anything I ever dreamed for, hoped for, wanted, expected. It’s this gift moment from the universe, is all I can say. I’ve been doing this for over thirty years. The really great part about all of it is not that I’m here at this moment, which is super exciting — we’re all having a lot of fun with it, but the real joy is that I have been lucky enough to be a working writer for thirty years, to be able to be the at-home mom that I wanted. Now I’m able to travel if I want to. What I really am most grateful for is just the life that writing has afforded me and given me.

Zibby: I’m grateful for you taking us into all these other lives. Each of your novels is just so immersive. You get all these different places and emotions and people and scenes. It’s all so visual and memorable. As you have spent thirty years writing away, we’ve all been on planes following you along around the world on our little travels. It’s such an honor to talk to you. Congratulations. Thank you for this amazing, immersive book. I will feel dirty forever. Even just holding it in my hands, I have to dust it off. Thank you for all of it.

Kristin: Thank you so, so much for your support of writers and our work. I’m assuming you’re a writer. Good luck with everything. Enjoy the journey.

Zibby: Thank you. I appreciate it. Thank you. Take care.

Kristin: Take care. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

THE FOUR WINDS by Kristin Hannah

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