Kristin Hannah has written 20 novels and had never once been moved to write a sequel.
“I have a fairly short attention span and can only retain so much information in my head,” jokes the bestselling author of such novels as Home Front, Night Road and True Colors. “When I’m finished with characters, I tend to be finished with them.”
But in Fly Away (St. Martin’s, $27.99), Hannah — who appears Saturday at Books & Books in Coral Gables — returns to the family at the heart of her novel Firefly Lane, which follows the friendship between shy Kate and popular but troubled Tully from their teenage years through adulthood.
“The book was so personal to me,” says Hannah, who lives with her husband on Bainbridge Island off Seattle in Washington state, where the books take place. “I ended up very invested in the characters, and I always knew there was more. I guess I always knew I would come back to it. I didn’t think it would be five years later, but it took me awhile to find the story.”
Spoiler alert: Firefly Lane is guaranteed to make you teary, because one of the main characters dies. Fly Away picks up in the wreckage that follows, with the survivors struggling to regain emotional equilibrium. Still, with its flashbacks and strong character sketches, Fly Away works as a standalone novel even if you haven’t read its predecessor.
“ Firefly Lane had a natural ending, so creating a new story arc that referred to the happenings but didn’t require them was a challenge,” Hannah says. “The way I went about doing it was using characters who were secondary in Firefly. Dorothy [Tully’s drugged-out, neglectful hippie mother] is why I knew there was more to the story. She was such a terrible mother and so hated and deservedly so, but I had to know how she became one. I knew something terrible had happened to her, but I didn’t know what it was. That’s what took me five years. I was trying to figure out her story and whether she would be redeemed in this one.”
Q. As a writer, is it hard to kill off a character you love?
It was particularly hard to kill off Kate. I think because she was me. I always saw myself first and foremost as a stay-at-home mom who happened to work. And so much of Firefly Lane comes from my personal history. The book was a look at my mom’s life. My mom died of breast cancer, and it took me a long time to find the strength to go back and look at that topic. But what the book allowed me to do was to write essentially from my mother’s perspective, and I felt like it brought me closer to her.
Q. You wrote you consider “Firefly Lane” to be a career-altering book — why?
The game-changing moment for me was for the first time in 15 books writing a novel that was solely from the female viewpoint, where it was the women and the women’s journey that was the sole focus. That’s what changed my career and my understanding of what I had to say as a novelist. I discovered that I just really am drawn to women’s life experiences. What I ended up creating was a friendship between two women that lasted their whole lives and suggested that your girlfriends could be your soulmates as much as your husband. It turned out to be a novel that spoke to a lot of women.
Q. Why does that subject inspire you?
It’s important especially as we get older. It was crucial for me personally, especially as a mother. I don’t know if I could have survived it or been the mother I wanted to be if I hadn’t had my friends to vent with and ask for advice. Motherhood can be especially tough through the teen years; they’re so difficult! Obviously my husband is a partner, but I still really needed my girlfriends during that time.
Q. Authors like Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner have said they feel novels by women are too often dismissed or ignored by critics. What’s your take?
It’s certainly on the front burner at the moment; a lot of women have written about this issue eloquently, and I don’t disagree with them. But from my personal perspective I guess I am just more concerned with writing my books and keeping myself on an even keel. I certainly want to support women and want us to be treated equally. ... and I do think it’s true in popular culture across the board, in movies or novels too, that stories grounded in emotion are often less respected.
Q. Would you ever write another sequel?
Never say never, but I cannot foresee writing another sequel. ... The trick is not disappointing your readers. There’s a heavy burden when you go back examining the future lives of characters they’ve invested in.