Stephen Kiernan’s first novel, “The Curiosity,” was a modern-day “Frankenstein,” the story of a 19th-century judge who was frozen in the Arctic and thawed out (and lived!) in modern times. His new novel, “The Hummingbird,” heads down a very different road. Told in the first person by a hospice nurse named Deborah Birch, it follows two tracks: Deborah’s end-of-life care for a prickly academic, and her struggles at home with her husband, who has returned from his third tour of military duty suffering from PTSD.
Kiernan is also a journalist, and he says his years in the news biz taught him about the “hammer and nail” business of writing. He will speak at the Walker Library in Minneapolis on Sept. 14. Here he talks about writers’ block (or not), the “dessert” of the Internet, and the challenges of writing from many points of view.
Q: Your career path is interesting — an MFA from Iowa, followed by years as a journalist. How did that happen?
A: While I was at Iowa I began writing for the local newspaper, and I became addicted to being in print. It also looked like a fulfilling way to make a living while I continued to work on fiction. The news business turned out to be incredibly compelling — and a terrific education in both the hammer and nail business of writing sentences, and in the passions and ironies of human society. My fiction apprenticeship took a long time, and journalism helped enormously.
Q: The protagonist of “The Hummingbird” is a hospice nurse, and the scenes are written with a lot of detail. What kind of research did you have to do to get that kind of authority?
A: My first book (“Last Rights”) was a nonfiction examination of end-of-life medical treatment, and I learned about hospice for that project. After its publication, thousands of people told me the stories of the care their loved ones had received in their final days — most of it painful, futile, expensive and unwanted.
Hospice was the opposite: pain-free, concerned with the patient’s emotional and spiritual well-being, and interested in comfort when a cure is no longer possible. That work was the foundation on which I built the character of Deborah Birch, whose humane medical care grew to become a means of even wider healing.
Q: “The Hummingbird” also deals with PTSD and its effect on returning soldiers and their families. Why did you decide to pair these two extremely weighty themes together — end of life and PTSD?
A: This book is actually not about those themes. It is about compassion, courage and loyalty in love. It is about a woman with a strong heart who is trying to help two men heal from their wounds in life and war. Her work as a nurse enables her to help one of the men. Her compassionate nature enables her to help the other one. Also, each man has things to aid the other on his path.
In a larger sense, I believe our nation continues to suffer from the trauma of 9/11 and its aftermath. Since then we have seen what fragmentation and polarization can accomplish. This novel asks the question: What if we tried compassion instead?
Q: Why did you decide to write from the point of view of a woman? And what conundrums did that raise while you were working?
A: This story belongs to Deborah Birch, and the power of her unique perspective. She is the only one who could have told it.
Naturally, I was apprehensive about writing in the voice of another gender. But I made sure lots of women friends saw early drafts, so they could steer me away from quicksand. My agent, editor and marketing director are all women — smart and strong ones at that. They would not hesitate to let me know if I wrote something that would embarrass me in print.
But really, every narrative voice is a result of an act of imagination. My first novel was told in part by a man born in the late 1800s, and in part by a high-level cell science researcher. Both of those voices required every bit as much imagination and care — in language, in perspective — as writing in the voice of Deborah.
Q: What is your writing strategy — do you have rituals that you maintain?
A: I work best in the early hours, before the world is awake and the phone rings. I write with a guitar leaning against my desk. If I begin to feel tired, a few minutes of music will send me back to work refreshed.
Q: How do you get past writer’s block (or the distraction of the Internet)?
A: I have been lucky enough never to have suffered from a block. My malady is not having enough time to write all the ideas that occur to me. I save the Internet for later, like dessert.
Q: Do you have a favorite book from childhood?
A: “Black Beauty” was the first book that made me weep. “Treasure Island” made me imagine. “A Wrinkle in Time” kept me up late.
Q: What’s on your desk?
A: Maps for my next novel. Many musical CDs. Pictures of my sons. Hair from my cat. Pieces of redwood that I picked up on an Oregon beach while researching “The Hummingbird.” A button a reader gave me after she finished my first novel.
Q: What are you reading right now?
An advance galley of “Symphony for the City of the Dead,” by M.T. Anderson. It’s about Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, which he wrote during the Siege of Leningrad. Also, French diaries from the 1940s. Also, I just finished “Go Set a Watchman.”
Q: What authors have inspired you?
A: Too many to name. I would say I have received most of my education in writing via reading.