Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Hannah McKinnon Interview - Message in the Sand

Photo Content from Chelsea Sedoti

Hannah McKinnon is the author of The Lake Season, Mystic Summer, The Summer House, Sailing Lessons, and The View from Here. She graduated from Connecticut College and the University of South Australia. She lives in Connecticut, with her family, a flock of chickens, and two rescue dogs.


Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
My most rewarding experience has been meeting readers and fellow authors along the way! Writing is a solitary practice. For months on end we are holed up in home offices or at our desks or dining room tables working away, page after page. For most of us our only workmates are our laptops and family pets. After a long year of solo work, there’s nothing more fun or refreshing than stepping out when your book is published and getting the chance to share it. Over the years I’ve met so many interesting and generous people who’ve inspired me, from indie bookstore owners who help me launch my novels to writer friends who commiserate and share advice to readers who encourage me and enrich my writing with questions and stories of their own. The book industry is full of clever, artistic, quirky, wonderful people and every time I meet one I consider myself lucky.

What inspired you to pen your first novel?
My hamster. In all seriousness, that applies to the first ‘book’ I ever wrote when I was an elementary school student. In the 3rd grade in Mrs. Meyer’s class it was announced that there would be a young author’s conference held in our state capital. I knew I wanted to go, so I picked the topic that I knew and loved best: my pets. (I did end up going. And I sat through what seemed like a never-ending story read by a third grade boy all about himself. To be fair, he sat through my hamster western: Rodents on the Ranch)

What inspired me to write my first published novel was my work as a public school fourth grade teacher. For ten years I taught, before I had my first daughter and published my first two novels. While I loved working with young people and found myself inspired every day by them, I especially loved being immersed in chidlren’a literature. There’s just so much of it out there! I had always dabbled in writing on the side, you know- as a ‘hobby’. After reading Kate di Camillo’s novel, Because of Winn Dixie, to my class and seeing the emotional impact it had during our book discussions, I knew it was what I wanted to do. I didn’t just want to; I had to.

After publishing my first two middle grade novels, Franny Parker and The Properties of Water, I wanted to segue into adult fiction. I was going through changes in my personal life, and so I wrote my way through them. That was how The Lake Season came about.

Tell us your latest news.
Message in the Sand is finding its way to readers, and I’m already half-way through my next novel, Haven, which will hopefully be published next summer, 2022. It’s another women’s fiction title, but for the first time I’m blending historical fiction in there, too. Haven is about the Great Hurricane of 1938 that swept up the New England coast one beautiful September afternoon and caught thousands of people unaware. Specifically, I focus on one of my favorite beach towns, Westerly Rhode Island.

Can you tell us when you started MESSAGE IN THE SAND, how that came about?
I’m a born and bred New Englander, and all of my novels incorporate New England towns into both the settings and sense of character. MITS was inspired by small towns in my neck of the woods in Connecticut. We live only an hour outside of New York City, but we are a world away tucked at the base of the beautiful Litchfield Hills and lake region. Small towns abound, and are home to a rich assortment of artists, actors, and city weekenders, as well as middle class and blue-collar families who’ve been here since the first brick was laid in the first town building. It’s an eclectic population. But what draws all of us to these towns is the natural beauty, the history, and the promise of Americana. Many people in this area are protective of their small towns; some don’t like change, and as such many also feel that way about newcomers. But it is the diverse backgrounds of all the people who make up these small towns that create such a rich tapestry against which we live alongside each other. I wanted to write a story about love: love of a place by a third-generation local who grew up there. Love of that same place by an urban family who, by comparison, only recently found their way there. And the complicated love between those very different people and their visions for that place.

The Lancasters were the perfect family to represent the urban out-of-town’ers that infiltrate Saybrook, bringing with them ideologies and a way of life that are not always shared by the locals. Wendell was the quintessential local; a man who grew up in Saybrook and found no reason to leave it, outside of a tour of duty with the National Guard. The son of the longest-serving former mayor who is intimately connected to both the people and the politics of Saybrook.

What do you hope for readers to be thinking when they read your novel?
Always, I want my readers to be connecting. To my characters. To my setting. To the struggles that my characters endure, the mistakes they make. My hope is that my books provide not so much an escape as a connection, so that readers walk away feeling inspired, understood, validated, satiated.

  • 1. It’s a love story. Love of a family. Love of a place. And finding love in the nooks and crannies between the two. What we need more than ever is more love.
  • 2. It’s asks hard questions. What would you do if you lost everything? Who would you turn to? Would you let someone from your past back in your life, even if it meant taking more risk?
  • 3. It takes you away to a beautiful region of New England: the lake region of western Connecticut in summer. Think weeping willows, starry nights, fireflies. All set on a beautiful family estate tucked away in the quiet forested hills of Connecticut.
  • 4. It juxtaposes two complete opposite characters and asks them to come together. Julia is an outspoken, smart and stubborn fifteen year old girl who has just fallen in love with the boy next door when tragedy strikes. She’s got a little sister to think of and a family home to preserve. Wendell is a soft-spoken, solace-seeker. A veteran of war who has lost everything and returned home to escape the memories that haunt him. As far as he is concerned, the best part of him is in his past and he simply wants to eek out an honest living and be left alone. Julia sees in him what he can’t see in himself; and she won’t let that happen.
  • 5. Family is everything. Whether it’s the one you’re born into, or the one you make up over the years. We all need someone, and there is a place for all of us. Message in the Sand explores what defines family and follows a traditional family and a loner through a summer of hope, heartbreak, and healing.
  • 6. There is true love. The early burst of love between two impassioned teenagers who think they’ve got it all figured out and won’t let anything or anyone get in their way. And there is love between two adults, who’ve experienced loss and heartbreak in ways the two teens have not, and therefore are all too familiar with the risks and rewards of finding it again.
  • 7. There is a villain! Someone from the past is forced to come forward and return to the place she grew up, a place she holds no affection for. While she has her own reasons for feeling this way, she ultimately presents a barrier to both Wendell and Julia, separating them from what they know, what they need, and what they have to figure out how to protect. Will this villain bring them together, or further tear them apart?
  • 8. White Pines. The setting of the story is a resplendent lakeside sanctuary owned by Julia Lancaster’s family. Not only is it home to Julia and her family, but also to shore birds and forest animals, to acres of sun-goldened wetlands. White Pines is a magical place to those lucky enough to live on it, and to Wendell, who has been lucky enough to work on it. What they will do to save it, remains to be seen.
  • 9. There is a turtle. Yes, a rare species of endangered turtle that, once discovered, holds a secret that promises to alter the future of the estate as well as those who love it!
  • 10. Message in the Sand is a story of hope. Even after tragedy befalls a family, and eventually a close-knit New England town, there is hope in the people who come together. Hope for the characters desperate to weave together a new family fabric that will sustain them all. In the end, what Julia, Wendell and White Pines most need is hope.
What was the most surprising thing you learned in creating Wendell?
That vulnerability came with strength. Throughout the course of writing this book, I fell in love with Wendell the more I fleshed out his character. He was complicated to work with, at first. Wendell is a traditional man. He’s a fourth-generation local in town, the son of the longest serving first selectman. He’s also a veteran soldier, who has suffered immeasurable loss during his tour of duty- the only time he lived away from Saybrook. The man who returned after his tour of duty was not the same man who’d gone away. Wendell suffers from PTSD, and as such he seeks solace and solitude from the memories that haunt him. But the Lancaster family will not hear of it; they are a tight-knit family with two vocal and curious daughters. Wendell doesn’t stand a chance against all that. Despite his best efforts to remain anonymous, a bit of a background dweller, the family pulls him out into the light. Something he is not comfortable with, and yet something he comes to realize he desperately needs. And then- one tragic summer night on the eve of the Lancaster’s annual gala- an accident occurs. An accident that thrusts both the Lancaster family and Wendell Combs into a new reality that none of them are prepared for. What spells a horrific ending is also a chance for a new beginning; if they can come together.

What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book?
The year of Covid. What a horrendous and altering year it has been, for so many.

I work from a home office just off my kitchen, so I am used to distraction and temptation. There’s always the basket un unfolded laundry. The dogs begging to go outside for a walk. Social media. And on bad writing days, the refrigerator in all its self-soothing glory. That’s the nature of the beast for those of us who work from home. But this year took all of that to a whole new level.

I had just written the first chapters of this book when everything we knew changed with the pandemic. Suddenly my daughters’ schools were closed and they were home with me, day in and day out, attempting to homeschool. That was a huge change for all of us, and one that was universal to so many parents struggling to work from home as well as help their children through their school year. As a single mom, it was a juggling act unlike any I’ve done, and any parent can tell you that the very nature of parenting is already full of juggling. I had to find ways to make sure the kids were staying on track and I was still able to carve out office time. When I think back to last spring, I think of plates. Running up and down the stairs in my house to the girls’ rooms where they were set up at their bedroom desks online learning, as I made breakfasts, snacks, lunches so they could stay in class and not get distracted. By the end of the day the kitchen sink was full of plates. Someone was missing a charge cord and their chromebook was about to die. Someone else needed to print something while I was writing in my office. It was barely sewn-together chaos for a long time. But everyone was enduring their own kind of it, so we did the best we could and muddled through.

Best date you've ever had?
The last one I went on. I met my fiancĂ©, John, on September 21st of 2016. It was a balmy Indian summer kind of evening, and I had a good feeling from our correspondences even though we’d never met. We agreed to meet at this fabulous little bistro on their outdoor deck by a waterfall. What was going to be an introductory drink turned in to appetizers. And then dinner. Dinner turned into a nightcap. By the time we parted ways, we had moved indoors because the sun had long ago set. We were the last two to leave the restaurant. And we have been together ever since.

If you could go back in time to one point in your life, where would you go?
I’ve been very fortunate; I’ve had an incredible childhood and grew up in a loving home with parents who were teachers. There was always literature, art, wild and wooly pets, and the noise of family. My parents sent my siblings and me to great schools. Later in life, I traveled and lived abroad. I’ve been blessed with a bevy of fantastic friends. And my children are my good reasons for just about everything I do these days. As much as I think it would be fun to go back to my 20’s when my face wasn’t lined and my energy was endless, or to my teens when I thought I was invincible, I honestly have to say I love where I am right now most of all. It’s been a journey. Sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes riddled with joy; but it all got me here. And I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Which incident in your life that totally changed the way you think today?
Becoming a mother has changed me more than anything else ever has, and I think, ever will.

I used to think that graduating from college and moving to Australia was a life-changing event. That getting published was everything I’d wanted. Certainly, the loss of beloved family members has changed me and the way I think. But set against all of that is one constant; I am responsible for growing two little people into adults. Not just the matter of growing them up safely and soundly, which is a whole lot of “pots and pans” work in itself, but helping them to become. To become their best selves. To become productive citizens. To become compassionate- so that they speak out and speak up against inhumanities. To become strong- so that they persevere when they face struggles. Helping my girls become the best versions of who they are, and not who I want them to be, has completely changed the way I look outward at the world and inward at myself.

What are 4 things you never leave home without?
  • 1. Okay, okay…as much as I hate to admit it, my darn phone. Which is a whole other distraction. But I need it and have so much important info on it. Plus, I have like ten thousand photos of my family on it. Along with those of the dogs. And several of the chickens. And of course, my books!
  • 2. Lip balm. Fair haired fair skinned girl=sensitive lips. Which is important, because I like to talk a lot and eat a lot and it’s hard to do either with chapped lips.
  • 3. Usually one or both of my kids or dogs. They don’t let me leave without them.
  • 4. A cup of coffee. I love a good latte. If I’m going somewhere, the coffee comes.
Where is the best place in the world you’ve been?
Australia. I lived there for a few years during graduate school. You can’t argue with a country that has healthcare and public education figured out, and also has koala bears. And the Great Barrier Reef! Do watch out for the spiders, however. And the snakes. And the crocs. And the Man o’ War jellyfish…But if you get the chance to go, jump at it. Amazing culture, environment, and people.

First Heartbreak?
Matthew Ahearn in second grade. The teacher wouldn’t let us sit together because we laughed too much. He had cornflower blue eyes and shaggy blonde hair and did tricks on his BMX bike, which he rode all the way to my house from the center of town- which was kind of a big deal at age eight. And then his father was transferred for work and he moved away.

Which would you choose, true love with a guarantee of a heart break or have never loved before?
Definitely true love. Look, life hurts. All the good stuff comes with some kind of scraped knee or bruised ego, or even falling completely flat on your face. If you love some one or some thing, take the chance. Even if they aren’t there in the end, you will be. And you’ll be a better person for it.

Wendell Combs is as local as they come. Born and raised in the small town of Saybrook, Connecticut, his venture into the larger world was met with heartbreak. Now, middle-aged and a confirmed bachelor, he seeks solitude from his tour of duty as a soldier back in his hometown, working as head caretaker for wealthy Alan Lancaster’s forty-acre estate, White Pines, a place he has come to love for its beauty, peace, and quiet.

Alan’s eldest daughter, fifteen-year-old Julia, also loves White Pines, but for very different reasons. She and her little sister spend their days riding horses, swimming in the lake, and painting landscapes inspired by the property they adore. While her parents prepare to host their annual summer gala fundraiser, Julia’s eyes are set to the simpler joys of summer: she’s fallen in love with the boy-next-door and longs for their next encounter.

But as the last guests leave on that magical summer night, a tragedy no one could have predicted suddenly occurs, shaking the entire town to its core. Wendell and Julianow face an uncertain future. At the height of their grief, two very different women return to Saybrook: Ginny Foster, Wendell’s first love, who cannot stay away any longer, and Candace Lancaster, Julia’s estranged aunt who wants nothing to do with the town or the family estate she escaped decades earlier. Now, the only familiar things Julia has to cling to are Wendell and White Pines, but it looks like she’s about to lose both...
You can purchase Message in the Sand at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you HANNAH MCKINNON for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of Message in the Sand by Hannah McKinnon.


  1. A gorgeous view of the mountains.

  2. Mine was a view too. A 3/4 wraparound view of the ocean from 7 floors up. Magnificent.

  3. A Civil War Chess Set from the Franklin Mint

  4. A water feature in between the kitchen and living area.

  5. An awesome indoor pool, between 9-12 feet deep.