Sunday, January 23, 2011

One Writer’s Process: Han Nolan

For as long as she can remember, Han Nolan has loved stories and recalls with great affection the bedtime stories– Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, B'rer Rabbit, and Bible stories (like her favorite, "Joseph and his Coat of Many Colors")– that her father used to tell her before she went to sleep each night.

“I loved to make up my own stories too. I didn't write them down until I was a little older, but I sure loved to make them up,” says Nolan, whose imagination since then has brought her such remarkable stories as Dancing on the Edge (a National Book Award winner), Send Me Down a Miracle (a National Book Award finalist), and If I Should Die Before I Wake (an IRA/CBC Book award winner).

Nolan says that she’s always loved writing stories, too. As a child, her love for Harriet the Spy compelled her to keep her own spy notebook, which led to a lifelong habit of keeping journals to write down thoughts, poems, and stories. But she claims she didn’t discover that she was “good” at writing until a sixth grade teacher gave Nolan her first creative writing assignment.

Today her ideas for stories can come not just from her rich imagination but from a variety of sources, such as local newspaper articles (about the resurgence of Neo-Nazis, which inspired If I Should Die Before I Wake), as well as favorite sites that she enjoys visiting (like the Cloisters Museum in New York, which inspired When We Were Saints), or a deep emotional longing for home (which inspired Send Me Down a Miracle).

“The idea for Born Blue,” writes Nolan, “began with a conversation I had with my sister.” The conversation included a suggestion that Nolan write something about teens and their passion for music. So, she began exploring the idea, even though she doesn’t usually accept suggestions for stories from other people. That’s because “the story, for me, has to come from within or I can't get through it.”

It’s the process of creating stories, Nolan says, that drives her to write. “I like the creative process. I like exploring lives so different from my own and I like the way I learn so much about these other worlds and about myself when I write,” she says.

For Nolan, her creative process always involves a search for the truth. And it’s the search for truth, Nolan says, which leads her to discover the characters and stories that emerge from her pen.

Recently, Nolan took a few minutes to share her thoughts on writing with wordswimmer.

Wordswimmer: If writing is like swimming... how do you get into the water each day?

Nolan: I jump right in. No easing into it for me or I'll never get around to it. I roll out of bed and into my chair and try to get three hours in (from 5 Am to 8Am) before I stop to go running. Then after a run, shower and breakfast, I'm back at it and only pause for a quick lunch and finally I stop at around five in the evening. I don't write every day. I take breaks in between books to actually have a life outside of my writing.

Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat...for short work? For longer work?

Nolan: My love of writing and my desire to find out what's going to happen in my story because I never really know.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Nolan: Dry spells or writer's block, I find, come from a focus on our ambitions rather than on just telling a story. The best way of getting over fear or the block is to just sit down and write--write anything, but write. Thinking about it doesn't count. Just do it!

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Nolan: Are we still taking about writing? The hardest part is getting the manuscript back from my editor with her suggestions for corrections. That first reading of her letter always sends a shot of anxiety through my body as I worry that I won't be able to deliver what she wants. I always set the letter aside for a day or two and then, after having slept on it, I'm able to figure out what's needed and I get back to work. The other hard part is self publicizing.

Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?

Nolan: I never swim alone. But, really, I go for a run or a walk, and think about the problems. One year when I was writing A Face In Every Window, I would go for three hour walks around a small pool in our back yard. The monotony of it helped--a sort of meditation.

Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?

Nolan: Freestyle! When I'm in the middle of the story and I know my characters and I know what they want and I understand what my story is about. Then I know that I'm going to finish this story. It's not one of the ones that goes flat and never makes it past page sixty.

For more information about Han Nolan, visit her website: as well as

And for more interviews with her, visit:

1 comment:

Sarah Allen said...

Thank you for this wonderful encouragement and advice. I appreciate it immensely :) All of us aspiring writers can use all the inspiration we can get.

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)