“Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.”
~ Nora Ephron
Books. Magazines. Blogs. I am captivated by beautifully written prose, anywhere. Although I am interested in facts, I relate more to writings that elicit an emotional response; which isn’t to say that emotions aren’t factual! Maybe the word I am looking for is “dry.” I am not going to get engaged by dry writing or overtly-analytical writing. For me, emotional, human-centered stories are most enjoyable. With facts woven in, they are very appealing. In this sense, historical fiction fits the bill perfectly.
Reading is such a love for me that I remember my older brother practicing words with me, out of my First Dictionary. We were relatively poor, growing up, so I didn’t ask for much. To nourish my soul, it was always books I wanted. I devoured Encyclopedia Brown, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, and Black Beauty. These days, I have an interesting collection strewn about. Everything from Sherlock Holmes, to Tales of a Female Nomad, to The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Harry Potter, of course. Definitely not Twilight. And an assortment of books by Kristin Hannah.
As a reader who consumes with an eye toward writing, I have read a lot of excellent writing, with a narrative that might or might not be well-developed. I have read terrifically bad writing – writing that was clearly not edited very closely, and whose errors distract me from what might have been an enjoyable narrative. Then there is the writing that stands out to me as perfect. As I read, I find myself thinking, Yes! This is how I would like to write! As the story progresses, I find myself noticing the remaining pages getting narrower – a reminder that the story will end soon, so I read less frequently in an effort to draw the story out.
The first book I read by Kristin Hannah was Firefly Lane: a novel about two unlikely friends. They are characters with very different personalities that connect in youth, take different paths, and quietly judge each other in adulthood. Female relationships can be incredibly difficult, but also so rewarding. The sorrow when one loses a friendship like that is real and heartbreaking, as we can see in this quote from the novel:
Best friends forever.
They’d believed it would last, that vow, that someday they’d be old women, sitting in their rocking chairs on a creaking deck, talking about the times of their lives, and laughing.
Now she knew better, of course. For more than a year she’d been telling herself it was okay, that she could go on without a best friend. Sometimes she even believed it.
~ Kristin Hannah, Firefly Lane
True Colors is a story about sisters. With only a brother, I have cultivated friendships with female friends that I have loved, and, unfortunately, occasionally hated. True Colors was beautiful and spoke to the very essence of intimate female relationships. A quote from this story that perfectly expresses the frustration, in one word: waltz, that one woman can feel toward another:
Dad paused just long enough to prove his anger, but not long enough to show a schism in the family. “You’re late,” he said, thrusting the cash box at her.
And just like that, Vivi Ann moved back into her place….
Winona couldn’t believe it. All of that––the sex, the lying, the slap––and
still Vivi Ann could waltz back into Water’s Edge and be welcomed.
~ Kristin Hannah, True Colors
The novel that cemented Kristin Hannah as an influence for my own writing is Winter Garden. This is a magical story. Even now, seeing its cover, I fall under a spell. I cannot recall a story, once finished, that stayed with me the way that this one did.
Winter Garden’s historical reference and primary plot is war-torn Leningrad during World War II – a war that, prior to reading this book, I didn’t know much about. The second plot of the narrative is excellent, so that the entire story is a master-class in how to write the perfect novel. I was haunted by this story for weeks after I turned the final page, and I found myself wondering about the characters as though they were people I could check in with. A quote that captures the direction of this gorgeous narrative:
Meredith nodded. How was it that her whole life could be distilled down to that simple truth? Words mattered. Her life had been defined by things said and unsaid, and now her marriage was being undermined by silence. “She’s not who we thought she was, Jeff. My mom, I mean. Sometimes, when she’s telling a story, it’s like…I don’t know. She melts into this other woman. I’m almost afraid of finding out the truth, but I can’t stop. I need to know who she is. Maybe then I’ll know who I am.”
* * * * *
Bombs fall like raindrops; in their wake, puffs of smoke and flashes of fire.
A plane is overhead….
…. Leningrad is isolated now, cut off from all help. September drips into October and disappears. The belye nochi is gone, replaced by a cold, dark winter. Vera still works in the library, but it is for show––and ration cards. Few people visit the library or the museums or theaters anymore, and those who do come are looking for heat. In these darkening weeks, when winter’s icy breath is always blowing on the back of your neck, there is nothing except the search for food.
~ Kristin Hannah, Winter Garden
The last book of Hannah’s that I had time to read was The Nightingale. Like the women at Graceful Grit, it is evident that Kristin Hannah has a special affection for the strength of women. This narrative centers on the Nazi Occupation of France and the true, courageous, and very dangerous efforts of a young woman involved with the French Resistance. An exchange between the story’s character and her father:
“They had a meeting today,” her father said. “High-ranking Nazis. The SS was there. I heard the word ‘Nightingale’.”
“We’re careful,” she said quietly. “And you are taking more risk than I am, stealing the blank identity papers.”
“I am an old man. They don’t even see me. You should take a break, maybe. Let someone else do your mountain trips.”
She gave him a pointed look. Did people say things like this to men? Women were integral to the Resistance. Why couldn’t men see that?
~ Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale
As I near the end of the attainment of a Writing degree, I have learned that I may not have an incredible fictional story in me to write. However,
I have also learned that fiction is not the only acceptable capsule available for written expression.
Wherever, and however, I decide to publish my words, I will absolutely refer to Kristin Hannah’s writing-style in her novels in an effort to improve my own storytelling.
On a side note, although this is an article on female authors who have influenced us, I feel obligated to share that I have recently discovered a male author whose writing I adore and whom I will also refer to: Amor Towles. His word choices, his pace, and the narratives themselves that he has woven, in my opinion, leave zero room for improvement. Between him and Hannah, I have quintessential writing manuals at my fingertips. In closing, a quote (and astute observation!) from Mr. Towles:
“It is a lovely oddity of human nature that a person is more inclined to interrupt two people in conversation than one person alone with a book.”
~ Amor Towles, Rules of Civility