Booksellers have selected The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (St. Martin’s Press) as their top Indie Next List pick for February. The action-packed tale from the author of Firefly Lane, Winter Garden, and Fly Away (all St. Martin’s Griffin) centers around two sisters in Nazi-occupied France: brash, free-spirited Isabelle, who aids the underground Resistance movement by smuggling downed British airmen across the Pyrenees into Spain, and timid Vianne, a wife and mother who demonstrates her own brand of bravery and sacrifice when her husband is sent to the frontlines.
“You will not forget the song of The Nightingale,” said Marnie Mamminga of Redbery Books in Cable, Wisconsin. “Filled with sacrifice, betrayal, suspense, courage, and, ultimately, forgiveness, The Nightingale offers a haunting glimpse of what it was like for women to survive during World War II.”
In an interview with Bookselling This Week, Hannah discusses the true story that inspired her to write the novel, her extensive research into World War II-era France, and why women deserve to be more than just a footnote in the war’s tragic history.
Bookselling This Week: In a note to readers, you said you were inspired to write this book after doing some research on World War II, and you mentioned one story in particular that captivated you: the story of a Belgian woman who created an escape route out of Nazi-occupied France. Can you tell readers a little more about the genesis of this book and about that original story?
Kristin Hannah: The idea for this novel came to me several years ago, when I was researching another of my books, Winter Garden, which was set in Russia during World War II. While reading women’s war stories, I came across the true story of a 19-year-old Belgian woman who created an escape route out of Nazi-occupied France. Her name was Andrée De Jongh and her story — one of heroism and loss and unbridled courage — inspired me to write The Nightingale.
Obviously I couldn’t use this research in my Russian novel, but from that moment on, I was hooked. Her story was magnificent, mesmerizing, and perhaps most importantly, I hadn’t read about it before. As a bona fide World War II buff, I had read countless novels set during the war, and yet I had never read this particular story; I didn’t know that downed airmen had hiked over the frozen peaks of the Pyrenees Mountains in boots that didn’t fit, in coats that were too small, with both German and Spanish patrols searching for them. I didn’t know about the ordinary French and Basque citizens who risked their lives to help the Allied soldiers on this dangerous, arduous journey. As I delved deeper into the research, I discovered a wealth of stories that spoke to me on a profound level. Quite simply, the heroism of the women of the French Resistance captured my imagination. For years, I collected their stories, read their accounts. Then I tossed the magic words into the mix — what if — and I was off and running.
BTW: In that same readers’ note, you said you originally did everything you could not to write this novel. In a video book trailer for The Nightingale, you called it your personal favorite of the books you have written. Can you explain your initial resistance to writing this book and why it ultimately turned out to be so rewarding?
KH: It’s true. As much as I fell in love with this story and as much as I adore the time period, I honestly did everything I could not to write The Nightingale. The very thought of it was terrifying. I knew that to tell the story as I wanted to, it would be a novel that was bigger and more epic than anything I had done. The research was daunting; even more daunting was the responsibility I felt toward the women of the Resistance. Many of them were like Isabelle, who chose to become spies and couriers. They were action-star heroes and their stories were full of danger and intrigue, but there were others, women with stories that were told in a quieter voice: women who hid Jewish children in their homes. These courageous women also put themselves directly in harm’s way to save others. Too many of them paid a terrible, unimaginable price for their heroism. They were, like so many women in wartime, largely forgotten after the war’s end. There were no parades for them, very few medals, and almost no mention in the history books. It felt like an oversight to me, something that needed to be corrected. These women had risked their lives at a time when the smallest mistake could get one killed.
So, even though I was anxious about writing this novel, I felt deeply that these women deserved to be understood and remembered. In the end, that’s what was so rewarding about this book, and why I love it. I am truly honored to have been able to be a small part of bringing their stories to life.
BTW: Is this the first historical novel you have written? Did you take a different approach to writing this than you usually do?
KH: As I mentioned, I wrote a novel a few years ago — Winter Garden — that was both historical and contemporary fiction. The novel was two parallel stories, one set in the ’90s in Washington State and one set in Russia during the terrible Siege of Leningrad during World War II. This novel was really transformative for me. After years of writing about modern life, I found it utterly compelling to turn my eye to historical events. I loved it so much it was only a matter of time — and finding the right historical story — to draw me back. For me, the great draw of the historical novel is the lure of extraordinary circumstances. Ordinary women surviving and triumphing in extraordinary times. That’s what I’m looking for.
The Nightingale was that story. Once the idea took root — and I accepted that I was actually going to take on the project — I began as I always do: with exhaustive research, reading book after book after book. I begin with the global story, the big picture. What was going on in the world before the war? What were the social mores and beliefs of the time? It’s really the research — in any novel — that informs the story. First I find out what has happened, and then I begin to imagine what could happen, and then I create a world that makes sense to me, an imaginary world firmly planted in truth. In this story, of course, the research was a daunting task. There was simply so much to know and understand. And there are so many history buffs out there who know an amazing amount about the war, and people who lived through it. So I felt an amazing pressure and responsibility to get it right.
I started with the historical background of the war in Europe and then began to narrow my focus. My best information always comes from memoirs — in this case, memoirs of women in the Resistance, and downed airmen who had escaped, and women who hid and rescued Jewish children.
Preparing for the Transition to EMV Chip Cards Next Fall
The U.S. credit card industry is in the midst of transitioning to a technology system called EMV — named for its developers, Europay, MasterCard, and Visa — in order to combat ever-increasing reports of fraud. By October 2015, retailers must be equipped with new, EMV-certified card terminals at their points of sale or potentially be held liable for fraudulent purchases.
The EMV system, common in Europe, Canada, and Mexico, ensures more secure purchasing methods as the microprocessor chips used in EMV cards — also called smart cards, integrated circuit cards, or chip-and-pin cards — store data uniquely after every transaction, unlike the traditional magnetic stripe used on credit cards.
The American Booksellers Association’s affiliate credit card processor, Bancard Systems, is calling participating stores to ensure booksellers are ready to migrate to the EMV system, said Vice President Jeffrey Gallo, especially in terms of acquiring the proper equipment.
Booksellers with standalone point-of-sale systems can upgrade now to an EMV-certified terminal, and Gallo recommended acting soon as prices have begun to rise. Booksellers working with a point-of-sale vendor will need to purchase the terminal that the vendor selects. Gallo noted that “once booksellers find out what that product is, they can buy it from their POS or from Bancard at cost.” Prices for the terminals, which include stand-alone terminals, wireless terminals, and pin pads, currently range from $200 to $700.
When a customer uses their new EMV chip card, it is placed in a slot on a certified terminal while the transaction is carried out. During the transaction, the customer will enter either a personal identification number (PIN) or will sign to confirm the purchase. EMV terminals must be certified by the credit card processors, and that is handled by the terminal maker. Some point-of-sale terminals will be contactless to accept mobile phone payment methods such as Google Wallet and Apple Pay. The transition to EMV chip cards does not affect online, mail, or phone orders, Gallo noted.
By October 2015, credit card issuers American Express, Discover, MasterCard, and Visa will have transitioned to EMV chip cards and will no longer be liable for fraudulent transactions if a chip card is used on a traditional credit card terminal.
As MasterCard’s Carolyn Balfany explained to the Wall Street Journal, the transition to EMV cards “shifts the focus of the liability for fraud onto the party with the lowest technology. For example, a retailer that does not have the equipment to process an EMV card transaction would be liable for any fraud; alternatively, a bank that fails to issue EMV cards, leaving clients with traditional swipe-and-sign cards, would bear the responsibility.”
Booksellers are encouraged to contact Jeffrey Gallo at Bancard or their point-of-sale vendor in order to learn more about the transition to EMV technology and to take the necessary steps to be prepared to accept EMV chip cards by October 2015. More information can be found from Independent We Stand, the Wall Street Journal, and from Chase Paymentech.
Of course I took a few liberties — it’s fiction, after all — but I did it all with an eye toward telling a story that felt as true as possible. I really felt a heavy burden to tell these stories well and honestly. Too many of them have been forgotten.
Surprisingly, the biggest challenge in writing this particular novel, with its epic scope and historical perspective, was not the research itself. It was taking all of that research and making it the backdrop. True events threatened every day to take over the story, but the war itself wasn’t my focus or my interest. My focus was the everyday lives of women. Thus, my challenge was — as it always is — to create real, believable, three-dimensional characters. I want them to act and react in a way that is both universal and specific to their time.
BTW: An interesting aspect of the book was its structure. What gave you the idea to break it up in the way that you did, both in terms of time and character?
KH: I originally intended this novel to be entirely historical. I expected to open the story in 1939 and to follow the course of the war in France. But when I sat down to write the first page, I found myself writing in the voice of an old, dying woman who was looking back on her life. Her voice compelled me, drew me in, and so I followed it. I knew that she was one of the strong women from the historical part of the novel — one of the survivors of the war, who carried great guilt and had suffered great loss — but I didn’t know who she was specifically. In fact, I did not know who she was until the end of the book, when I had to choose. This structure allowed the novel to move through time easily and focus on moments of great change.
BTW: Are you personally more like Vianne or Isabelle? Are these two characters based on real people?
KH: Well, there is really no doubt that I would fall in the Vianne category. As much as I would love to see myself as the daring, adventurous, hell-bent-for-leather Isabelle, it would be disingenuous to claim that. I am, first and foremost, a mother. I have no doubt that my focus in times of war would be to protect and defend children, to do whatever is necessary to keep them safe.
Isabelle was inspired by Andrée De Jongh, but there were other women whose stories inspired me in the creation of that character. I read about dozens of women — French, British, and American — who dared to help the Allies in a number of spy/courier kinds of roles. I also drew Vianne’s character from real women, but no single woman was the inspiration.
BTW: The book’s central question is how far would you go, or how much would you risk, to save a stranger, especially if those actions might put you or your loved ones at risk. “In love,” you wrote, “we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.” In your opinion, is it one of literature’s roles to raise such ethical questions for readers?
KH: That central question is really at the heart of The Nightingale. As I researched about the brave men and women of the Resistance, I found myself constantly thinking about that question. It is as relevant today as it was 70 years ago: When would I, as a wife and mother, risk my life — and more importantly, my child’s life — to save a stranger?
We all want to believe that we will be courageous and heroic in times of great danger. But the sad truth in war and in peace — we see it over and over again throughout history — is that far too many people are willing to look away from what is right. And so, yes, I believe deeply in the sentence that opens this novel — in love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are. I think we cannot know what we will do when put to such a terrible test. When would I put my child’s life at risk to save a stranger? I have contemplated this question on a daily basis for two years, and yet all I have is a theoretical — hopeful — answer. I pray that I will never be in such a situation, and that if I am, I rise to the challenge asked of me, that I show the courage and heroism of the women in World War II who risked their lives to save others.
Absolutely, it is one of the jobs of fiction to raise these ethical questions for readers. Not only does The Nightingale recreate for readers the dangerous, deadly everyday world of wartime France, it asks the very question we are talking about. What would you do? What would you risk to save a stranger? This is a profound and important question.
The novel reminds a reader of the sacrifices that were made by ordinary men and women in the face of exceptional evil. I believe it’s true that the more we know and understand our common history, the less likely we are to repeat it. Fiction can unite us, remind us how we are alike, and demand us to consider our values in a world that is increasingly focused on our differences. I hope that The Nightingale has this very effect — that it sparks the discussion among readers. What would you do?
BTW: Where do you usually buy your books? Do you have a favorite independent bookstore?
KH: I am a voracious reader. Like most of my kind, I have a huge to-be-read pile and my home has become a series of overflowing bookcases. I have met dozens of fabulous independent booksellers over the years; many of whom I look forward to seeing on every book tour. Honestly, there are too many to name. One of the best things about touring is this: I always finish the tour with a suitcase full of books that I have purchased based upon indie bookseller recommendations.
My favorite local book store is Liberty Bay Books in Poulsbo, Washington. The owner, Suzanne Droppert, is a champion of authors and books. I love her enthusiasm and support. When you walk into her lovely, small-town, independent store, you can see how much she and her employees love books. It’s like coming home.
BTW: What’s next for you in terms of your writing? Can you let eager readers in on what you’re currently working on?
KH: I am about 200 pages into the new novel, and honestly, I am not yet sure what it is going to be. My process is such that I never quite know what I am going to end up with. At the moment, it’s a story about a family that has survived a terrible tragedy and may or not be able to put the pieces back together. Stay tuned to see what it morphs into!