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Hannah Kohler: As an author I felt like I'd gone from career woman to being at home like a Fifties wife

Hannah Kohler, author of this season's hottest debut The Outside Lands, says writing a novel is 'an endurance sport'

By Susannah Butter

Published 28/07/2016

US influences: Hannah Kohler
US influences: Hannah Kohler
Her new book The Outside Lands

When Hannah Kohler was writing The Outside Lands, this summer's hot debut novel, she watched a lot of American TV.

Her book is set in Sixties California but she lives in East Finchley, so had to find an authentic voice.

"Some of my better lines of dialogue are mined from the depths of US reality TV," she says, adding sheepishly that she might have watched Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

The Outside Lands tells the story of Jeannie and Kip, aged 19 and 14. Their mother has died in a accident, leaving them adrift, then the war in Vietnam sweeps them up in its violence.

Kohler, aged 36, is thrilled that it is being read. "I saw someone in Covent Garden who I thought was reading it, so walked past slowly to check," she says.

"Then I thought I was being creepy."

Writing the book, Kohler was "interested in how loss reverberates through the shape of a life, as well as the constraints and ambivalences that have stalked motherhood for decades."

After she resigned from her job in strategy at Channel 4 in 2011, Kohler says: "I went from being a career woman to feeling like a Fifties housewife. I wanted to explore the frustrations of being confined to the house with your children."

Her son and daughter are now five and seven.

Kohler is a twin and is interested in "the limits of responsibility we have towards siblings". "Jeannie is expected to become a mother figure to her brother," she says. "She feels suffocated by it which mixes uneasily with her feelings of protectiveness, and that leads to her making bad decisions."

She has a soft spot for Kip, "a vulnerable, swaggering, foul-mouthed boy".

"I think of him as a typical teenager making classic mistakes, except he is making his at a distressed time in history so the consequences are brutal," she says.

The Vietnam War has fascinated Kohler since "a charismatic teacher" brought its stories to life. At 25 she spent a month travelling there "on a terrifying motorbike".

It took 10 years for this to percolate into The Outside Lands. She spent a day with a forces veteran in California for research: "He bucked the stereotype of a haunted, regretful veteran and was proud of his service."

Are there parallels with Iraq? "There are similarities, questions about the ethics of reporting and the use of technology, issues of prosecuting wars abroad that are contested at home."

Dispatches, by Michael Herr, is one of her favourite books and Vietnam "still haunts America - you only need to look at political campaigning now to see".

She is "completely horrified by Trump but he's ahead in the polls and after Brexit you start believing these catastrophic things can happen".

Her husband is from California and the book is partly "a love story to San Francisco". They met at business school in Oxford: "He was going to stay for a year but he hasn't gone back yet."

The Outside Lands is dedicated to him, "for giving me the time and space to pursue a dream".

Kohler grew up on the south coast and her parents are doctors. Her twin, Mike Wozniak, is now a comedian. He is older by six minutes. "I was a shy girl and my brother is a funny extrovert so was a great ally."

She wrote her first book, which was for younger readers, while at Channel 4 but "the children's books market is competitive, I sent it to everyone and heard nothing back".

When her daughter was born she "decided to try being creative" and did a masters in creative writing at City University, working while her baby slept. Literary agent David Godwin, who represents Craig Raine and Vikram Seth, snapped up her book and sold it to Picador in a couple of weeks.

Like Jonathan Franzen, whose work she admires, she uses the Freedom app to disable the internet while she writes.

"It's been useful in the past few weeks with all the news," she says, referring to the post-Brexit turmoil.

"We've had enough news for six months," she says. London's Mayor presents a chink of hope. "I'm looking forward to seeing what Sadiq Khan does - I think that he'll be great for the city."

She writes at home, "close to the coffee machine". "After I've dropped the kids off I want to get on with it."

Now that her children are older, she says: "I need to be more disciplined - with the luxury of time you can become easily distracted. I edit as I go but rewrote the last third of The Outside Lands a lot."

For a while the success of Gone Girl loomed over all new literature. What's the next trend?

She laughs: "Nobody knows anything, what's that quote? People enjoy the ghost train of reading a book when surprises jump out and scare you."

This summer Kohler is speaking at the Durham and Edinburgh book festivals.

She's also working on her second novel, set in the gold-rush era: "It's a continuation in that it's about women at a time when a women's story isn't usually told."

She describes producing a novel as "an endurance sport". "The hardest thing is that writing is a giant act of faith.

"You hope you're going to make it to the end of a draft and maybe that one day someone is going to read it."

Independent News Service

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