Bainbridge Island author Kristin Hannah’s new novel “The Nightingale” is being praised as one of this spring’s picks for readers. She talks about her inspiration for her harrowing novel of two sisters in occupied France.
You write and write. And then you wait and hope.
Bainbridge Island novelist Kristin Hannah knows that routine very well, after 21 books spanning the categories of romance, women’s fiction and mainstream fiction. Now her newest novel, “The Nightingale” (St. Martin’s Press, 438 pp., $27.99), is out in the real and virtual bookstores, about a year after she finished writing it in the longhand cursive that has been her practice ever since she became an author more than a quarter-century ago.
Publishers Weekly made “The Nightingale” one of its top 10 literary fiction picks for the spring, and Amazon named it a top book for February. It’s number 4 this week on the Publishers Weekly hardbound nonfiction list.
The author of “The Nightingale” will appear at these area locations:
• 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 24, at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. Free (206-366-3333; ). She will also appear at
• 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 26, on The Chuckanut Radio Hour at the Crystal Ballroom at the Leopold, 1224 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham. Free — for information call Village Books at 360-671-2626 or go to villagebooks.com.
• 7 p.m. March 6 at Liberty Bay Books in Poulsbo. 360-779-5909; libertybaybooks.com.
“It’s getting a lot of great word-of-mouth now,” Hannah reports of “The Nightingale,” “and there has been some movie buzz. My job was done a long time ago — now it’s up to others to think and plan and work. There are certainly some great women’s roles here to work with.”
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Indeed there are. “The Nightingale,” which focuses on two strong but vulnerable sisters in occupied France during World War II, offers juicy opportunities for actresses. There’s passionate love, abject terror, alienation, determination, brutal domination, self-sacrifice, and decision after terrible decision to be made.
And there’s France, too: Hannah has collected photographs of some of the French locations that inspired her during the researching and writing process. (You can check them out on her website at kristinhannah.com).
The subject of “The Nightingale” was an outgrowth of research Hannah had done for her earlier novel “Winter Garden,” when she came across information about a Resistance heroine — the 19-year-old Belgian woman Andrée de Jongh. This brave teenager, inspired in turn by the earlier World War I heroine Edith Cavell, established the Comet Escape Line, a secret network of people who risked their lives to help Allied servicemen escape over the Pyrenees to Spain.
De Jongh’s story inspired Hannah to conduct further research into the French Resistance, finding stories about women who had put themselves and their children in peril by hiding Jewish families. And de Jongh became the model for Isabelle, the younger sister, who, as “the Nightingale,” personally led downed Allied pilots over the mountains to safety.
“I went to France to follow Isabelle’s route,” Hannah says. “I didn’t hike all the way over the Pyrenees, but I went up quite a ways. And unlike the novel, I did consume a lot of great food and wine!”
Isabelle and her sister Viann (“I think I made that name up — it’s a beautiful name”) undergo such privations and such frigid temperatures that other readers (like myself) may find themselves heading off to the kitchen for a nice hot coffee and a restorative snack. The dangers experienced by Hannah’s characters even made the author grip her pen and murmur “No, no, no” at crucial points.
The plot is one to make both author and reader ask some crucial questions. As Hannah puts it: “What would I be willing to do? Would I endanger my family by helping others? History has shown us so often that the majority of people look away. I wanted to show what could happen when they didn’t look away.”
The sisterly relationship between Viann and Isabelle is a tricky one, and Hannah wrote many drafts with different age spans and backgrounds before making the women “as real as they could be.” At about 300 pages into the novel, Hannah reached what she calls a turning point: “I thought, this could be the best thing I’ve ever done. I told my editor that I needed another year. I felt the magic in this story.
“Now, after 21 books, I have never seen advance buzz like this. I’ve been embraced as I never have been embraced before. The book is really striking a chord with people. All I can do is be grateful … and cross my fingers.”