Kristin Hannah has known for 20 years that she wanted to write a book set in Alaska—and that she wanted to use a haunting and powerful title inspired by a favorite poem: The Great Alone.
In the meantime, she wrote more than 20 other novels, including her 2015 runaway bestseller, The Nightingale, a novel about two sisters in German-occupied France during World War II. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the blockbuster success of The Nightingale made it a hard act to follow. “It did kind of mess with my mind,” Hannah admits, speaking on the phone from her home near Seattle. “You feel an immense pressure to follow it up.”
Determined to write something completely different, she says, “I decided—clearly after too much wine—to write a domestic thriller.”
The book was set in current-day Alaska. Hannah wrote for about a year and a half, only to come to a terrible conclusion: Her manuscript wasn’t working.
“I had already thrown everything I could think of at it, and I had failed,” Hannah says. It was a heartbreaking realization, but as much as she loves thrillers, “I realized that I wasn’t ultimately interested in what happened. I’m much more interested in why things happen and who people are. Not only was the book not good enough to follow The Nightingale, it wasn’t good enough to be a book with my name on it.”
Fortunately, there were a few shreds of hope to be salvaged: the Alaskan setting, which Hannah says “is just as special in its own way as World War II France,” and a cast of characters she liked. So she created a new story for the Allbright family, who in 1974 move off the grid to the fictional town of Kaneq, located near Homer, Alaska. They are propelled by their survivalist father, Ernt, a Vietnam vet with post-traumatic stress disorder who has inherited a cabin from an old army buddy. The isolation becomes a pressure cooker for his demons, with tragic results for his wife, Cora, and their 14-year-old daughter, Leni, the book’s narrator.
Once Hannah wrote an opening scene from Leni’s viewpoint, she immediately knew that “this is a girl worth following.” After 18 more months of writing, she had crafted a new—and very different—novel.
“It’s a much more intense read than I’ve done before,” Hannah concludes. “It’s very much about this girl coming of age in an incredibly dangerous environment, both inside her home and outside of it. I think I was able to bring to the reader a vision of Alaska that is different than what they’ve read before.”
The setting provides a mesmerizing look at the difficulties that face a homesteading family. Upon their arrival in Alaska, the Allbrights are warned by Large Marge, one of the book’s many marvelous characters, “Alaska herself can be Sleeping Beauty one minute and a bitch with a sawed-off shotgun the next. There’s a saying: Up here you can make one mistake. The second one will kill you.”
The Allbrights make a multitude of mistakes, which translate into page-turning, riveting, wee-hours of-the-night reading. Leni, a whip-smart, book-loving girl, becomes a rugged Alaskan outdoorswoman, forced to make agonizing decisions about the domestic violence that overtakes her family.
It’s clear that Alaska is embedded deep in the author’s heart, a special connection that began with her own family’s odyssey. When she was 8 years old, Hannah’s father loaded the family into a VW bus and traveled through 16 states, landing in the Pacific Northwest.
“He said we were looking for home,” Hannah recalls, “and we’ll know it when we see it. It was about 100 degrees in that bus, and all I remember is my mom and dad saying, ‘Will you stop reading your book and look at the scenery?’ ”
Hannah offers readers “a vision of Alaska that is different than what they’ve read before.”
From this journey blossomed Hannah’s interest in Alaska, and she started spending summers there, once working in a fish processing plant, an especially grueling summer job. “You don’t sleep for hours and hours on end,” she says. “It was gross.”
The book’s title, which Hannah held onto for so long, also comes from her father. It pays homage to poet Robert W. Service’s nickname for Alaska, from a poem called “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”: “Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear, / And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear . . .” During childhood camping trips, Hannah’s father used to recite Service’s poems to her and her siblings, who learned them by heart and later passed them on to their children.
Hannah’s mother inspired her as well and, in fact, launched her career. When she became terminally ill during Hannah’s last year of law school, Hannah’s mother invited her daughter to collaborate on a novel. She also predicted that her daughter would become a novelist, a notion that struck Hannah as absurd at the time.
“It’s taken me a long time to find my stride as a writer,” Hannah says. “The biggest part of that is finding my voice, and what I have to say. And it’s pretty clear that it’s about ordinary women banding together or on their own, fighting in extraordinary circumstances in an extraordinary time, and finding a way to both survive and thrive.”
As Hannah wrote The Nightingale, she pondered whether she would have risked her life to save a stranger in the circumstances that her characters faced. With The Great Alone, she contemplated a different essential question.
“I kept asking myself, ‘Could I survive here?’ ” she says. “And I can say with absolute certainty that I probably could not be an Alaskan pioneer. For me, interestingly enough, it’s not the weather and it’s not the dark. I think it’s the hard work and no reading time.”
Author photo by Kevin Lynch.