We last met writer Diane Hammond in these pages in February 2004, shortly after the publication of her debut novel, “Going to Bend.” At the time, she had just moved from Bend to Tacoma, Wash., and told The Bulletin that getting a book published “is just huge luck.”
With the publication three months ago of “Hannah’s Dream,” the tale of an elephant and the zookeeper who has lovingly cared for her for 41 years, we’re beginning to believe the 52-year-old Bend author about this luck business.
That’s not meant as a slight against Hammond, who seems as surprised as anyone that the third time really is a charm. “Hannah,” which she’ll discuss and sign next month in Bend (see “If you go” on Page E6) has already had four printings, for a total of 112,000 copies.
But along with lady luck, Hammond’s determination, not unlike that of the characters she brings to life in her books, must play a role as well.
“Going to Bend” was itself an uphill climb to complete. She’d begun writing the manuscript in 1994, then got sidetracked for several years beginning in 1995, when she became the Oregon Coast Aquarium’s spokesperson for Keiko, a killer whale and star of the film “Free Willy.” That same year, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
In 1998, along with her husband and daughter, Hammond moved to Bend, where she taught herself Web design and launched a new career. But on one wintry day, she unearthed that incomplete book, and, though she’d forgotten the characters’ names, got back to work.
She finished writing the rest of “Going to Bend” in just six months. She next sent it to a friend who had become the head of the William Morris Agency’s literary fiction division. The two had met years before, when that friend was an intern and Hammond was having some success writing short stories, landing in magazines such as Mademoiselle and Yankee.
Once William Morris agreed to represent Hammond, Doubleday snatched up “Going to Bend” three days later, offering her a two-book contract.
Upon publication, “Going to Bend,” received a lot of critical buzz, but sales were lukewarm. Hammond’s next book would be “Hannah’s Dream,” or so she thought until she sent the manuscript to her editor at Doubleday.
“She said, and I quote, ‘This isn’t your next book,’” recalls Hammond. “When you’ve written something that’s taken a year, it’s a lot of work to have someone say, ‘Nah. I don’t think so.’”
Ever the good sport, she wrote a different follow-up, “Homesick Creek.” Her editor loved that book, “though it was so dark,” Hammond says.
“Homesick” ended up being “a well-kept secret, to say the least,” she says. “We were living in L.A. then, and I did a little, tiny book tour, but I think what happened was that Doubleday lost a lot of money on ‘Going to Bend.’ It got great critical reviews, but it didn’t sell very well.”
Meanwhile, she hadn’t forgotten about “Hannah’s Dream.” Again, she rescued one of her books from a drawer.
Though one of its principle characters is an elephant, the story was “largely a result of the Keiko project,” she says.
“It’s a love story, and it was about the bond between animal and keeper, which I watched with the whole Keiko project, because of course I was on the top of that pool in bad weather for two years. It was one of the things that was at the heart of the project that was a wonderful thing to salvage.”
Further inspiration came when she caught TV footage of a man “unshackling for the last time the Asian elephant he had taken care of for 22 years,” she writes in the acknowledgments.
She sent the novel to her agent at the William Morris Agency, and Doubleday again turned it down. Hammond stuck to her guns, in part because of her husband, Nolan Harvey. Now the wildlife curator for the High Desert Museum, Harvey had been the head of rehab during the Keiko project and had a strong belief in “Hannah.”
“I felt obligated to him, too, to try to place this work somewhere,” Hammond says.
After a couple of months, her agent — who was lukewarm about the book — called about an offer from Harper Collins. At the same time she told Hammond, “You can shelve it.”
“I said, ‘Well, what’d everybody else say?’
“She said, ‘Diane, there was no one else. No one else wanted your book.’”
But “my one editor at this one publishing house said, ‘We really believe in this book. We think it’s beautiful. We think people are going to enjoy it.’”
Because of the tepid responses, Hammond didn’t think it would sell more than a few thousand copies. Released as a paperback original, “Hannah’s Dream” has, needless to say, exceeded expectations.
“I still find it dumbfounding. It’s amazing,” she says. “And there’s something to be said for having your first two books get critical acclaim, but not bought. What it means is that you’re much more humble going into the third book. You know what reality feels like, as opposed to thinking you’re going to be the next Dan Brown, or that your book is going to be the next ‘Secret Life of Bees.’
“The chances are excellent that not only will it not be, but none of your books ever will be.”
Meanwhile, “Hannah’s Dream” received a starred review from Booklist and is on the Pacific Northwest Booksellers’ Association’s best-seller list.
In part, she attributes its success to landing in mass-market stores such as Wal-Mart, which “actually outsell Barnes & Noble and Borders,” explains Hammond. “But it’s very hard to get a book into those stores, because they don’t have many titles, and the ones they do (carry), they face out. So you get great visibility.”
Hammond’s theory as to why “Hannah’s Dream” is doing well has to do with the subject matter. Her previous books were “very gritty and the language was pretty profane.” Further, “there were some pretty dark issues,” such as incest and AIDS.
Relative to those two tomes, “Hannah’s Dream” is a very sweet story, she says. It doesn’t hurt that “it’s an animal book, which are selling well now.”
Not that Hammond had any way of knowing this five years ago when she wrote the first manuscript for “Hannah’s Dream.”
She’s already written a couple of hundred pages of her fourth novel, which is set in Los Angeles. The deadline for a first draft is April 30.
When she signed the contract for it, she of course stuck with Harper Collins.
“When it came time to negotiate this contract, I had told my agent, ‘It’s going to take a lot for me to ever leave these guys.’”