The Penmen Profile: YA and Historical Fiction Author Han Nolan

by Rebecca LeBoeuf

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHan Nolan is the author of nine young adult fiction and historical fiction novels. Her first novel, “If I Should Die Before I Wake,” published in 2003, achieved the International Reading Association/​Children’s Book Council Book Award. In this book, Nolan unites the present with a dark part of history, the Holocaust.

Since then, Nolan has garnered many other awards for her work, including National Book Award Winner for “Dancing on the Edge,” National Book Award Finalist for “Send Me Down a Miracle,” and starred reviews in Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly and a School Library Journal for “A Face in Every Window.”

To learn more, visit her website.

Have you always written?
Yes, always. My mother claims I was making up stories before I could write. By the time I was eight I decided I wanted to be a writer living on Cape Cod when I grew up, which I did for a while. The first creative writing assignment I ever had in school was in sixth grade. I had written notebooks filled with stories and poems by then but nobody at school knew this. I wasn’t a good student in my elementary school years. So in sixth grade when we got the writing assignment and I wrote my little mystery about a light in the forest, all my teachers were amazed and my homeroom teacher notified my parents and told them to encourage my writing, which they were already doing. I started keeping a journal at a very young age as well, and still keep one.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
I start with a vague idea, just the merest hint of an idea, or a character that intrigues me, and I sit down and play around with this. Most of the time as I play around, I find there isn’t enough there to build a story with, or I’ve lost interest in it. If when I start writing, other characters step into the story, and ideas flood into my head about what might happen later, then I know I might be onto something.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?
Every time I get about 60 pages into a work, I realize there is something major that needs fixing, something that requires me to start all over again. This will happen on average about four times per book. The only thing to do is start over, but the good part is that with each rewrite I know the story and my characters so much better, and so I’m able to add new layers to the story. That’s really when the story starts to come alive for me, in these first 60 pages’ rewrites.

What has the road to publication been like for you? Dancing On the Edge with Medal
I had a major success quite early in my career which has its benefits: book contracts, and its hardships: pressure to do better, write better. I had written two mystery stories that never got published before I finally wrote “If I Should Die Before I Wake,” my first published novel. I think it took me a total of eight years from the very first time I said I wanted to write for publication, and the time of my first acceptance. In that time, I read a lot of books on how to write a book and how to get published, then wrote a lot, always searching for the types of stories I’d like to write. I started out writing short stories for magazines and then moved on to the two mysteries for middle grade, and finally to my first young adult novel and first publication.

How do you market your work? 
I’m terrible at self-marketing. I rely heavily on my agent and my publishing house, reviews, and my attendance at large conferences to help get the word out. I don’t write a blog, but I do use Facebook (very gently) as a way of publicizing my books.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
When I first started writing to get published I realized, more than I ever had, that writing was what I was meant to do. All the pieces of me fit together right, I had found my place in the world. What I didn’t know was that I could lose this feeling, this knowing. I didn’t realize that the daily stresses of life, and struggles with stories that just didn’t work, could make me doubt myself. What I needed to know was that it’s okay, to doubt is okay, it’s all still there. Just be patient and keep writing.

Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
I think southern authors have inspired me the most. Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Harper Lee, Annie Dillard, and others. I think they have inspired me because their works feel instantly familiar to me. Their voices sound right because they are southern voices. Their truth is a truth I understand. Reading their works even today frees me, and frees my writing, somehow. Ideas flow more easily when I write and think in the southern voice, the voice of my parents, and all my relatives.

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?  
The Bible, the Complete Works of Shakespeare, and Flannery O’Connor’s complete short stories. With these three I get the beauty of language and of thought. I get the greatest collection of stories, and the inspiration for creating my own stories, and a guide for living in faith.