We’re so lucky! Hannah McKinnon is here to answer some questions on her latest novel, Mystic Summer (June 7th) and her writing life. Hannah is the author of several books, both for adults (Mystic Summer, The Lake Season) and middle grade children (Franny Parker, The Properties of Water). It’s going to be a long hot summer so put some of these on your reading list! (also she’s having an epic launch party for Mystic Summer in Mystic, CT – if you’re local-ish, don’t miss it! Click here for details!)
Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing/etc. come from?
My love of storytelling came from an early love of reading and words. I just loved words. My parents were teachers, and our house was always full of books. Bedtime didn’t end without a read-aloud, so it was ingrained in me from a young age that books were a source of comfort, adventure, and escape. My father would read to me, giving each character a dramatic voice of its own. I remember my mother standing in the kitchen cooking dinner and quizzing me on first grade flashcards, turning back and forth between the stove and me, as my baby brothers crawled around. Education was important in our home, and in a busy family house with rather vocal twin baby brothers, I realized early on that language was a way to express yourself, to make yourself heard. I guess that’s why I talk so much, to this day!
My grandmother was the queen of storytelling in the family. She could sit on a beach or in the car or by your bed and spin stories from air. But it was her voice that made the story. The voice of character, the subtle intonations in describing something, the pause for breath at just the right moment- that’s a gift. Writer’s write, but the art of oral storytelling is a horse of a different color. When I’m writing I try to bear that in mind- I imagine someone reading my work, or I read a passage aloud to myself at my laptop to see how it sounds. I think that’s especially helpful technique with writing believable dialogue. A good story is so much more than print on page.
What do you think most characterizes your writing?
When I was in high school, one of the best writing teachers I’ve ever had told us that there are only three stories to tell: man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself. The one that stuck with me hardest was the last. I think my writing is best characterized by exploration of interpersonal relationships, be they family, marriage, friendship. I’ve always been fascinated by the dynamic of family, whether it’s the family you were born into or the family you create in different phases of your life. Life is messy. Relationships are complicated- but they are the very things that get us through the messes, even if they are also sometimes the causes of it.
I’m also quite in love with the idea of going home, whether it’s the physical return to your childhood hometown or the return you make to your true self. People are so consumed with doing and having these days. We’re all on the gerbil wheel, going, going, going. One of the fall-outs of that mindset is that we don’t allow ourselves time to reflect, often until we’re thrust into a situation that forces us to. As we grow up and grow away from our childhoods, there are bends and forks in the road that force us to slow down- sometimes to screech to a halt- and at those times, I think it’s a natural inclination for many to look back over their shoulder. For some of us, it’s for the first time. And I love that notion for the purity of it; looking back is like looking at your reflection. It raises big questions: how did I get here? Is this the direction in which I want to be going? Who have I become? To me, as a writer, these present some ‘ah ha’ moments for characters. Either they have to make a conscious change, or they succumb to change based on the nuances of their circumstances. Change is pretty terrifying, especially when it’s forced upon you. The subject matter ranges from all things pedestrian, such as love, loss, birth, death, divorce- the beauty in that simplicity being that every reader can relate and draw something from it. Those are the richest moments for writing, because a character, just like a person, can choose to either react or respond. The response is where the real evolution of character comes through.
What was the hardest part of writing this book?
Writing in the first person-present! I realized I don’t like it. In fact, I loathe it. Ha. As I was drafting this book I found myself lapsing into third person-past. And then I’d go back and re-read a section and catch myself, and have to rewrite it all over again.
There are benefits to first person, for sure. It makes the story more immediate for the reader; it thrusts them into action or dialogue as it’s naturally unfolding, which can be very satisfying to be drawn in in the moment. But for me, personally, it wasn’t my natural. Am I glad I did it? Yes. Do I recommend that writers continually stretch themselves and wade into new waters, yes! Will I do it again? Well- my next book is third person past. Old habits die hard, I guess.
Who are your favorite authors?
I have so many! Elizabeth Berg. Jodi Picoult. Anna Quindlen. Kate Morton. Elin Hilderbrand, just to name a few.
What is your favorite thing to do when not writing?
I have a young family, so my time is largely consumed with my kids, spent ferrying them to dance, cheering on the sidelines at games, and chasing chickens around our backyard garden. We spend a lot of time outside. We have nine hens and two big fluffy rescue dogs, who attempt to rule the rest of the roost. I also love to cook, to hike, to sketch, and bike. (Oh look- I rhymed!) There is rarely a quiet moment or a private moment, but I do try to remind myself to soak up every moment. Even the ones ripe with spilled juice and stray feathers!
What are you working on right now?
Right now I’m about halfway through my next novel, another summer story, set in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. This one is a family narrative that follows the grown Merrill children who have all returned to their parents’ seaside cottage under the auspice of celebrating their father, Richard’s, 75th birthday. However, as families go, no one comes home lugging just one bag. At least not the emotional kind! Family reunions are ripe for stories, conflict, setbacks, and hilarity. This one is no different.
How do you prefer readers get in touch with you?
I LOVE hearing from my readers! As private and solitary as writing can be, ultimately they are the reasons we do what we do. Readers can contact me directly through my website at www.hannahmckinnon.com I’m also on Facebook, at Hannah McKinnon, and on twitter @hannahmckinnon. Give me a shout! I always shout back.