'The Great Alone' Writer Kristin Hannah on What Turned a Failed Draft into a Hit

The best-selling author talks about the book's 1970s setting, the Alaska frontier and what it's like to have her female-centered books being developed as movies in the Time's Up era.
Courtesy of St. Martin's Press

Kristin Hannah’s newest novel, The Great Alone, has landed atop just about every best-seller list since its publication in February, including The New York Times’ hardcover fiction list. The success of The Great Alone, Hannah’s 23rd novel, continues a recent run that has seen her jump from being a successful writer into the type of brand-name author whose name alone guarantees a spot on the best-seller list. And that success has attracted Hollywood’s attention. Four of her books in development, including 2015’s mega-hit The Nightingale, which is on a fast track at TriStar. Before publication, Sony Pictures snapped up the rights to The Great Alone with Elizabeth Cantillon attached to produce it (she's also producing The Nightingale).

Hannah, 57, talked with The Hollywood Reporter as her national book tour for The Great Alone was wrapping up and she was about to head off with her husband for a vacation in the Pacific. The mother of one (her grown son is an aspiring screenwriter here in Hollywood) and former attorney who lives on Puget Sound opened up about the inspiration for The Great Alone, how it connects to her own childhood, the earlier version of the novel she abandoned and what it’s like in the Time’s Up era to have an all-female team making The Nightingale.

Set in 1974, The Great Alone follows the Allbright family as they move to remote Alaska to get a new start on life. Ernt Allbright is a former Vietnam War POW suffering from PTSD and struggling to stay employed. After losing yet another job, he moves his family to Alaska to live off the grid. Leni is his 13-year-old daughter, who is caught up in her parent’s stormy marriage, a victim of Ernt's volatile mood swings and a young girl trying to find her place in the world. The Allbrights wildly underestimate the harshness of their new home and struggle to survive, leaning on their fiercely independent neighbors for help.

Hannah told THR about the multiple strands that influenced the novel. One, of course,  was political. “I find it interesting that at the moment, the '70s are everywhere, sort of in popular culture,” she said. “A lot of us a couple of years ago realized how turbulent our own world is right now, and it made the '70s interesting again.” Despite coming of age in the 1970s herself and wearing a POW bracelet for a friend’s father, Hannah admitted that looking back on the period surprised her. “I remember Patty Hearst, of course, and I remember the Vietnam War. But I didn’t realize how politically turbulent the time was until I started researching it for the book.”

Another influence was the cultural pull of Alaska for Americans looking for a fresh start. Hannah, whose parents founded an adventure lodge in Alaska, was familiar with the state but found this period of its history fascinating. “I was really surprised that you could still literally homestead in the 1970s in Alaska. What you’re looking at and what this is about is this portrait of American pioneers 100 years later than you'd expect them. They’re going to the ends of the earth, and they’re trying to survive a world they can’t really imagine. And it’s so romantic.” But the romance is an illusion: “You always think, ‘Oh, if I could just get away.’ People, especially troubled people, think, 'If I could just get away from this, I’d be happy.’”

The harshness of the land literally separates the family from the world and Ernt, his wife Cora, and Leni from one another, hence the multiple meanings of the title. “He goes up there thinking that it's going to make the family better, and...he couldn’t have picked a worse place to try to reboot his life,” she said.

In fact, Hannah revealed that it was only when she hit on the 1970s setting and the idea of Alaska as the last great American frontier that she was able to crack the novel. She had written a whole draft of a present-day set thriller with the same characters trying to unravel a crime that had taken place in the past. But that version wasn’t working, and she knew it. (It was the first time she’d ever abandoned a novel after writing a whole draft.) The one thing she felt worked was the Alaska setting, so she poked around with that idea and became fascinated with the state’s earlier history. “When the '70s piece clicked in, the homesteading piece clicked in, and so I just sat down and started writing a first-person point-of-view novel from the teenage narrator,” she told THR. “From the moment I started writing this character Leni, I thought that she was remarkable, resilient, that she was fully capable of carrying a book.”

Now Hannah is out promoting the finished product, and she said that’s been the biggest change in her career over the last few years. “When I was writing early on and not selling quite as well, there was a lot more freedom and a lot less people asking me to do things, go places, social media, talk, all those things. But as you know, the job of writer has changed a lot. It’s not enough to sit in your garret and write your books and disappear. It’s now — there’s a whole other side to this career. And that has been probably the most difficult waters for me to navigate.” A big part of that is just mastering social media. “I think this is true, actually, of my whole generation, no matter what you do, no matter what your life is — this idea that in the world now, you’re never unplugged. You’re never off the clock. And I find that somewhat difficult to deal with. I sort of like weekends.” (Hannah said all this with a self-aware laugh, chuckling that her son is always reminding her about “first world problems.”)

And she knows the benefits more than outweigh the burdens: getting to see The Nightingale, about a teen girl fighting with the French Resistance in World War II, on the fast track to the big screen with TV director Michelle MacLaren (Game of Thrones) directing her first feature, Ann Peacock writing and Cantillon producing for TriStar. Hannah said she’s been following the Time’s Up drama while on her book tour, and she’s been impressed by how the debate about Hollywood gender equity has penetrated far and wide, noting she’s seen the impact at book tour events, where she draws a predominantly female audience. “When I say I have this all-female team, they just gasp and burst into applause. It’s time for a movie like this.”

And while we didn't talk casting, Hannah, a TV and film buff (some current favorites: Stranger ThingsThe Shape of Water, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and Orphan Black), has an opinion about what she wants the movie to look like: films “where the setting is the character. These films where you’re immersed in a world that is alien,” noting The Revenant and The Martian as examples. Still, she's mostly happy to sit back and observe the movie-making process. “I’m just excited as a woman, as a film fan, that movies like The Great Alone and The Nightingale with strong female women surviving in landscapes that are sort of predominantly considered to be male are getting made,” she said.