Kristin Hannah, THE WOMEN

Kristin Hannah, THE WOMEN

#1 New York Times bestselling author Kristin Hannah joins Zibby to discuss THE WOMEN, a novel of searing insight and lyric beauty about a young nurse whose life is changed by the Vietnam War. Kristin dives into the nuances of writing and publishing, touching on the impact of social media and the industry’s unpredictability. Then, she discusses her newest novel, touching on the personal significance of the story, the extensive research that went into its creation, and the themes of love, loss, and friendship that it explores. After speaking passionately about the female nurses who served in Vietnam, she concludes with advice for aspiring authors.


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

Kristin Hannah: Thank you. I’m so excited to be here. It’s fabulous to see you again. I just want to say we just saw each other actually not too long ago in LA. How fun was that? I’m excited to sit down and talk to you about the next book. Congratulations. I just saw that Burst made the Joyce Carol Oates longlist. Congratulations on that. That’s very exciting.

Zibby: It did. I know, so exciting. I’m so happy for Mary. She really deserves that. It was so lovely. This whole publishing — you know. It’s so unpredictable. You just never know what’s going to happen next, something good, something bad, what you expected, what you didn’t expect. You’ve been through this.

Kristin: I’ve been through this for a couple of decades. There’s all the drama that goes around with it. Social media has both helped us and I think, in some ways, hurt us in terms of getting the message out and what the messaging is and how we as publishers and authors are able to control our own narrative. The most important thing and what lasts day in, day in, year in, year out is the content. If you publish a book you believe in or you write a book you believe in, sometimes it works when it comes out. Sometimes it works ten years later. You never know, so I think the important thing is to just keep putting the message and the stories that you want out into the world.

Zibby: That is really good advice. I saw a post yesterday or two days ago from Ann Napolitano, who’s releasing this book that she wrote. Did you see that?

Kristin: Uh-huh.

Zibby: I’m like, see, you just don’t know. You have a book come out, and then twenty years later, you become a huge thing. Then out comes the book.

Kristin: Sometimes you’re just, honestly, ahead of the market, ahead of your time, or you haven’t quite found your voice. Look at Rebecca Yarros and the Fourth Wing and now all of her backlist coming back in. That’s the most important thing I say to young writers. Just don’t give up. As long as you stay in the game and keep writing, you have a really good shot at some day, getting some version of what you dream of.

Zibby: You’ve had a unique career of longevity, big hits, TV, it’s amazing, all the things, and going through various ebbs and flows of your own. Pretty flow, but still.

Kristin: You don’t do this for as long as I have without sort of getting through all of it. I guess that’s life, right?

Zibby: I think people would think that someone like you, it’s easy, that you don’t have to worry, that you don’t worry about new books coming out. I remember we were emailing, and you’re like, “Do you like it?” I’m like, is she really wondering if I’m liking her book? Seriously? Of course, yes. It doesn’t go away.

Kristin: No. I think, too, you find a core group of people. Yes, you really want to hear what readers have to say, but I came of age in a time when you never heard. For twenty years, I didn’t know what anyone thought except a handful of reviewers and whatever readers I met in bookstores. You develop a group of core readers. When I meet someone like you who I think not only has their finger on the pulse of what the market is doing and what people are looking for and is out talking to people who are generally my readers, it is important for me to know what you think of it, even though I know that it’s really difficult to say, well, I didn’t like this one. It’s a difficult conversation sometimes.

Zibby: I was actually just talking to my team about your book at lunch before I came up here to talk to you. I started reading this whenever it was that I got — I couldn’t wait to start. I’m like, every scene is still etched in my brain. That’s a unique skill. I can picture the whole thing, from before the war to when she got to the first bed to when they went to the, not the wilderness, the deeper jungle, so to speak. All of these are such scenes so imprinted. You don’t always get that. You can get a feeling from looking at a book, but you don’t always get the movie of it so clearly. That’s because that’s the way you write. You teleport the scenes so brilliantly into someone else’s mind.

Kristin: That’s actually something I work really hard at and try to do. I think it is a byproduct of my geek youth and my, still, bent towards fantasy and epic. I really love worldbuilding. One of the reasons I think I went to historical after years of writing contemporaries was I wanted to be able to recreate a time and place that was sort of outside the realms of my everyday life. That’s just really important because as you know, the point of my books, and this book more than most because I had kind of an agenda here, the point is to make you feel something, to learn something and to feel something. I don’t think readers can really feel things that they can’t envision. One of the things I’ve done, really, since Nightingale particularly, I’m trying to, in my own small way, create empathy to get readers to stand in someone else’s shoes and think about life or hardship a little bit differently, a little more personally. I think that’s one of the great gifts that fiction offers us. We need that now more than ever.

Zibby: A hundred percent. You’re absolutely right. The Women itself, for those who don’t know what The Women is about, now that we’ve sort of reversed this whole conversation, Kristin, what is The Women about?

Kristin: The Women is about the nurses, the young women in the 1960s who volunteered to serve in the Vietnam War. It’s their story of both going to war and coming home and what it was like. Interestingly enough, I first pitched this book to my editor in 1997. My then very smart editor said, “You aren’t old enough, and you aren’t good enough. Come back when you are.” She was a Vietnam era — she went to Berkeley during that time period, so I really took that to heart. She was absolutely right. It took me a long time to come back and to feel that the world was ready for a book about Vietnam and that a book was ready for the women of Vietnam. This whole era is so much a part of my childhood. I came of age during this time when the US was just broken in half. Everybody was angry. All of this was going on. In large part, Americans did not embrace the Vietnam vets when they came home. I watched all of this as someone who was the age of the kids whose dads went to Vietnam.

Zibby: Wow. How did you know you were ready to do it now?

Kristin: Interestingly enough, I turned The Four Winds in, final, all done, put to bed, in March of 2020, so the very start of the pandemic. I actually, following that, wrote a synopsis for another book and turned it in and sold it and sat down to write it. I don’t know if it was the claustrophobia, the way we all felt when we were locked down — here in Seattle, we were full-on locked down for quite some time. One day, I was talking to my girlfriend. I was complaining saying I don’t want to write the book I just sold. She said, “You’ve been waiting twenty years for Vietnam. Why don’t you do it?” I thought, this is the moment. I can’t do anything else. I can’t leave. I can immerse myself in the level of research that was, frankly, frightening, but it came at a very good time. It sort of is what helped me survive the pandemic because like The Four Winds, I was reading about these women who had survived so much. Then there was the corollary too. They were nurses, and I was watching the nurses in the pandemic be exhausted and overrun and underappreciated. It just all seemed to be the moment to come back to this.

Zibby: After your deep dive into nursing and all of it, what do you feel like you didn’t know before that really, whether you’re doing it in wartime — the scenes that you depict are sometimes quite graphic, detailed, very visual, as I said. As you said, books that make you feel, this one, you’re almost holding your stomach in some of the scenes because it’s like, oh, my gosh, there’s a lot of blood there. That’s good. I like books that make you feel. For someone who is not trained as a nurse or a doctor or in the medical field, what have you come away with? Are you just ready to throw your arms around every nurse you meet and give them a huge hug? What is it like for you?

Kristin: Yes. It is even bigger than that because when you’re talking about these particular women, the nurses who went to Vietnam, you’re talking about women, as you know from reading the book, who are nineteen, twenty, twenty-one in 1965 just following the conformity of the fifties and the expectation that there’s one course for women, but also, many of them, the children of proud World War II veterans. They had grown up on stories of military service in their family. These young nurses with no training go off into war thinking that it will be one way, of course, and then finding that war is not something easily contained. Like my heroine, many of these women are out in the jungle. They’re in MASH units. They’re in combat units. After they get all that experience and they become these exceptional nurses, they come back home to a country that doesn’t welcome them and to a male-driven medical system that doesn’t value their new experience. It feels like it’s not just about nursing. It’s about women. It’s about how we are treated in the larger context. That was particularly interesting to see. It’s a longer story, but I was so honored to be able to go to Washington, DC, this year for the thirtieth anniversary of the Women’s Vietnam War Memorial. I met a lot of these nurses. What a remarkable group of women. The things that they have accomplished upon coming home, even with dealing with all of the psychological trauma and aftermath of war, was so amazing. I’m just really excited for this book to come out and for people to be more aware of their service and to include them and to thank them. Every time I look at anything that’s going on for Veteran’s Day, year after year after year, it’s the men, the men, the men. I think it’s just time that we start remembering the hundreds of thousands of female veterans as well.

Zibby: They played such a critical role. The doctors could not have done all of the things. It would’ve been impossible. The fact that, like you said, when they came back, their service didn’t translate, they had to go get recertified or certified to begin with, that blew my mind.

Kristin: It was shocking, wasn’t it?

Zibby: So unfair. Then of course, you also — I shouldn’t say of course. Then you also involve love and flirtation and devastation and loss and longing and all of those great human feelings that connect in a romantic way, so to speak.

Kristin: Of course. That is an “of course.” Yes.

Zibby: Tell me about that and the intensity — it’s almost like when you’re finishing a big project at work or school or something and you’re in it with someone. The proximity and intensity of the experience makes you that much closer, the way that your characters became in the book.

Kristin: I think that’s sort of two-pronged. I would argue that, in a way, the great love story of this book is the three women who become best of friends in the middle of all of this. This really is a book that has friendship as the beating heart of it, even though it’s about so much more. My main character, Frankie, she becomes friends with Barb and Ethel over in Vietnam. That’s a friendship that buoys and sustains Frankie for, really, the entirety of the book, more than her parents. She’s lost her brother. That is the fundamental relationship that keeps her going and picks her up and pushes her on the straight and narrow. Of course, Frankie has multiple love stories in this book. It was always really interesting to me as the writer to sort of throw out there, which of these is real? Which do you think is the real love story? Who loves her the way she deserves to love? Is she a good partner for some of these people? There are times when Frankie is dealing with the aftermath of war, and it’s actually breaking her down because she’s trying to do what society and her parents are telling her, which is, forget about this. Just go on. You’ll be fine. She finds that she can’t quite be fine. That really impacts. She falls in love with a doctor where she’s first stationed, and he’s married. Then she falls in love with another guy who has issues of his own. She just goes through trying to prove that she is loveable, that she can love. I think she is really looking for what we’re all looking for, which is that deep connection. She was raised to believe in motherhood and children and thinking that that’s the path her life should be.

Zibby: When you spend a day writing and you’re in one of these intense moments, pre-war, post-war, I’m always fascinated how you toggle between that and getting up to make coffee or something.

Kristin: Oh, real life, you mean?

Zibby: Yeah, real life.

Kristin: You must be the same way. For me, writing is a job. This is my career. This is what I do, so it’s like everything else. It’s about scheduling. It’s about, to the extent that you can, you maintain that schedule. When you’re in your work time, you work. I don’t light a bunch of candles. I don’t listen to a lot of music. I go, and I write. By the way, I write longhand on yellow legal pads, so whenever I am, I can write. What I tend to do in terms of the intensity and how it actually happens, I write really, really long, involved scenes. Any one of these scenes that you could pick in the hospital or later on, anything that’s really intense, a loss moment, it probably started out as a thirty-five-page scene that had everything in it. Then I slowly pare away every sentence that you don’t need. I still am somewhat repetitive, but I try not to be. I try to get rid of that because I think that for me, intensity comes from sharp, clear, concrete, specific moments. I try to have as many of those in a work as I can.

Zibby: I love that. The time now — you don’t have to really answer this. We are divided in a way, perhaps, the most like this period in your book than has happened since. It’s almost encouraging to know that that was a phase. Everything that happens, people are like, oh, no, that happened in the seventies. I’m like, no, no, don’t worry, that happened in the forties, and then this happened. This current environment of such bifurcation and hostility between groups and all of that, do you have a different outlook on it having recently been living in your head in this period of time again?

Kristin: I guess my biggest takeaway is the sadness and the sorrow I feel that we don’t learn and that history continues to teach us the same lessons. I had this same sense when I was writing The Nightingale. World War II felt a distant memory, and then all of a sudden, things in the world made me think, you know, this isn’t so far away anymore. We need to pay attention. That’s what I mean about, hopefully, this combination of something can create both awareness and empathy because where we’ve gotten now — I do think this is very close to where we were in the sixties, between the factions and people just stopped listening to each other. The difference is now I think all of that is on steroids because the media has changed. The trust in the media has changed. Social media is, in many ways, tearing us apart and marginalizing us into smaller and smaller groups. I guess my hope is that we as humans have always figured out a way to come back from this in some way. Hopefully, we are on the brink of that because we’re in trouble.

Zibby: Which time period are you going to go to next? Where are you going to take us? Where can I prepare to go in two years or something?

Kristin: If you’ve got an idea, raise your hand because I don’t know. The Women turns out to have been such a meaningful book for me and something that I’m so proud of, for a lot of the reasons that we’re talking about, mostly because I just think it speaks to so many things that are happening today that I think need to change on a lot of levels. I’m speaking to a crowd, especially the Vietnam veterans and their families, who we are losing. When I went to Vietnam, a lot of these nurses and a lot of the Vietnam-era vets are dying. There’s Agent Orange. There’s cancer. There’s suicide. There’s all of the things that go along with the trauma that comes from having been to war, which was then compounded by a society that did not value that service. When you take all that on and you write a book that you feel really sticks the landing, which is not common, I don’t think, to write a book that feels like, at least ninety percent, what you wanted it to be, it’s hard to find something — I’m like everybody else. Well, okay, the next book needs to be better. I can’t really figure out at the moment how to do that. Maybe I’ll go back to fantasy or horror.

Zibby: Maybe you need to write a memoir.

Kristin: You’ve done that. How is it?

Zibby: I found it much easier than writing fiction. It happened. Fiction, it’s endless possibilities. This could happen. That could happen. I don’t know. I can’t make up my mind. Can I even write this book? Should I write that book? It’s like, no, this is my life. This is what I have to choose from.

Kristin: That’s a good idea. You’re right. Okay, I’ll think about that.

Zibby: Give it a try. Experiment. Last thing. Advice for aspiring authors? I know you said some earlier in our conversation.

Kristin: I think we are living in such a great time for new voices. I think we are open in a way to debut authors and formally marginalized stories and stories from women in a way that we haven’t been in a long time. There are a lot of avenues for publication now, like you. There aren’t just the big five. There’s all kinds of ways to get your story out there. Given that, I think sometimes it’s really easy to think, well, anything can be published. The bottom line is that if this is what you want to do, then begin it. Begin writing. Set a routine. Start studying. Write all day every day. Commit to it. Understand when you go in that it may be years before it pays off. Even if nothing ever happens, the journey of writing itself is so cathartic and heart expanding that it’s a wonderful pursuit. Whether it’s a journal, a memoir, fiction, kids’ book, whatever, if you dream it, begin it.

Zibby: Love it. See, and you leave us on this inspiring note. You wrap it all up. It’s perfect. Well done.

Kristin: Thank you.

Zibby: Kristin, I’m really excited for you. Sticking the landing, that’s such a great way to think about — again, a visual. Look at that. We know exactly what you mean. It’s immersive and emotional. That’s why I felt like it’s so sweeping. I feel like it’s an impossible feat to do in just a couple of years. Congratulations. Really excited for you and for all the success to come and all of that.

Kristin: Thank you so much. This is my first real conversation about The Women. I’m delighted. Thanks for everything that you do for me and for all writers. Good luck to you as well.

Zibby: Thank you. Thank you. Bye, Kristin. Take care.

Kristin: Bye, Zibby. Take care.

Kristin Hannah, THE WOMEN

THE WOMEN by Kristin Hannah

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