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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Kristin Hannah knows what women want in fiction

BETHESDA, Md. – With her best-selling novels about strong women facing down whatever life throws at them, Kristin Hannah makes her fans cry. And they love her for it.

Kristin Hannah's new novel, 'Home Front,' follows an Army helicopter pilot who must consider her duties to her family when she is deployed to Iraq. Toby Jorrin, for USA TODAY

Kristin Hannah's new novel, 'Home Front,' follows an Army helicopter pilot who must consider her duties to her family when she is deployed to Iraq.

Toby Jorrin, for USA TODAY

Kristin Hannah's new novel, 'Home Front,' follows an Army helicopter pilot who must consider her duties to her family when she is deployed to Iraq.

"Her writing literally makes me bawl," says Christy Enchelmaier, 29, a first-grade teacher in suburban Maryland. Hannah is one of Enchelmaier's favorite authors because "she doesn't sugarcoat things; she's very realistic."

On a recent frosty night in this Washington suburb, Hannah, 51, draws a crowd of nearly 100 like-minded women, hungry for the novelist's dramatic, issue-driven fiction, to a Barnes & Noble. It's the same female readership that has made Jodi Picoult a publishing superstar. Though there was the occasional husband in the audience, the crowd was overwhelmingly female and fanatic about Hannah, the author of 19 novels.

In her latest, Home Front (St. Martin's Press, $27.99), Hannah offers a heart-wrenching tale about a female Army helicopter pilot deployed to Iraq. The heroine, Jolene, is torn between her duty as a soldier and her obligations to her husband and their two young daughters.

Home Front made its debut last week at No. 7 on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list, the first time Hannah has cracked the top 10. (This week, the novel drops to No. 25. Hannah's last novel, Night Road, about teen drinking and a tragic car accident, reached No. 13 on USA TODAY's list.)

Mother is always right

During her 2½-hour presentation and book signing, Hannah alternately charmed, amused and moved her audience. She made them laugh when she described how she didn't change a word in the first draft of the first novel she attempted. In one of the many rejection letters she received, one editor wrote Hannah, "You may have talent, but frankly, I can't tell."

She answered questions about how she writes: longhand on a yellow legal pad, often sitting in a lawn chair near the water. (She and her husband split their time between an island near Seattle and Hawaii.)

She also described how her decision to write fiction emerged from tragedy.

When she was 25, she was spending her days in law school and her nights in a Seattle hospital where her mother, then 46, was dying of breast cancer. To pass the hours, they decided to collaborate on a romance novel — a genre her mother adored.

The story, set in 18th-century Scotland, was just awful, Hannah says. But what she saw as a distraction for a dying woman, her mother saw as a vocation for her daughter. "She said I would become a writer."

After her mother's death, Hannah put the unfinished novel away. Two years later, it was Hannah's husband who suggested she make another attempt at writing fiction.

By then an attorney in Seattle, Hannah was put on bed rest for five months while she was pregnant.

Her growing fixation on daytime TV shows such as The Price Is Right made her husband desperate, Hannah says. After her son was born, Hannah knew two things: "I wanted to be a stay-at-home mother, and I needed to write." (Today, their grown son works in Hollywood.)

Hannah eventually did publish a historical romance novel in 1991, A Handful of Heaven, set in the Yukon Territory in the 19th century.

But she says she truly found her creative footing once she moved into contemporary women's fiction with 1999's On Mystic Lake. Her best-selling novels include Firefly Lane, which revolves around two best friends, and Winter Garden, about a Russian woman who hides her painful past from her daughters.

'Much more patriotic' now

Later, over dinner, Hannah expands on why she told the audience earlier that Home Front changed her more than any other book. "I was woefully uninformed about the daily sacrifices people in the military make," she says. Spending time with a female Army helicopter pilot in Washington state left her "much more patriotic."

But while it explores hot-button topics such as mothers in combat and post-traumatic stress disorder, the novel puts its real focus on the heroine and the emotional bonds she makes and breaks — as a daughter, a wife, a mother, a friend and a soldier.

Says Hannah, "I'm endlessly fascinated by the relationships that define us."

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