Photograph of Neapolitan nativity figures dancing

Neapolitan Nativity scene in the Palau March Museum (2016) | Nick Richards / CC BY-SA 2.0

Ann Hood is the author of a dozen books of memoir and fiction, including the best-selling novels The Book That Matters Most and The Knitting Circle, establishing herself as a formidable voice in contemporary literature. She shares this wealth of knowledge as a professor of creative writing at The New School, helping students find their own writing voices. 

Hood’s latest novel, The Stolen Child, released this May with W. W. Norton. It takes readers on a journey through France and Italy, where an unlikely duo embarks on a quest to uncover the mysteries surrounding a child’s fate. Inspired by Neapolitan nativities, World War I, and a painting in the Musée d’Orsay, Hood’s narrative blends the visceral reality of wartime with the transformative power of art. She sat down with Emma Minor to discuss how the novel explores themes of finding and losing love, uncovering secrets, and the complexities of forgiveness.

Emma Minor: Where did the idea for The Stolen Child come from? Was the starting point a character, situation, or broader events in France and Italy? 

Ann Hood: I was feeling blue one day. I’m a very upbeat and optimistic person, but there are just days—it’s the anniversary of something that’s happened, or I hear a song—and it sends me into not a dark place but a blue place. I was in one, and this thought came to mind: How many tears have I cried in my life? Is it a million, a zillion? I should have collected them, I thought, all the way back to the first time I remember crying in my parents’ car on a road trip; I should have collected those tears and written down, “Car trip with my parents.” Then I had the idea: What if somebody did that and they had a museum—a “museum of tears”? That was the springboard, and my working title. With all my books, there are usually three or four threads that come together at the end. Each thread comes from a different direction.

Minor: Where were you when this idea came to you? 

Hood: I was in Providence. It was five years ago, almost six now. My son and I are both passionate about World War I. Before I had the idea for the book or the museum, he had turned me on to a National Geographic photographer, whom I mention in the acknowledgements, who discovered all this art in World War I trenches in France. I got so excited that I wrote to the photographer to ask if my son and I could go. He wrote back right away, or his assistant did, and said they’re too fragile to bring people in. But I had a vague idea for a soldier who was an artist in World War I, and I spent months researching. Then, I just needed someone to bridge those stories: I came up with the character Jenny.

Minor: The book unfolds like a mystery, beginning in France and the trenches in 1917 with Nick, one of the primary characters. Did you always have a firm narrative structure in mind? 

Hood: I sort of did. I feel like, being a writer, you are also kind of an architect building a house; I always try to think of how I’m building a story. It can change, but I do start with something, and if it could fall, I rearrange things. My last five books have been like doing a jigsaw puzzle. I have the border and need to figure out where all the pieces are going. But I know what the big picture looks like. I know all those things from the start.

Minor: A woman’s role in society, especially regarding motherhood, came into sharp focus in the story. Jenny wanted to travel and study but needed to pause those dreams after facing stigma for becoming pregnant while unwed. Can you speak to your inspiration for writing on this topic?

Hood: I grew up before Roe v. Wade, and I knew one woman who had to come to New York for a late-term abortion and another who didn’t have the means to do that. I’m never political in my writing, though I am in my life, but I felt it was important to spotlight what it’s like when we don’t have Roe v. Wade. I don’t know what Jenny would have chosen, but she didn’t have a choice. I’m also very interested in women artists and women writers of the early twentieth century because we hear mostly about men, such as Fitzgerald and Hemingway. But Willa Cather was writing then, and I love her books just as much, though she’s never included in the same dialogue. The same is true for visual artists: I love the Musée d’Orsay, but only two or three females are represented. It’s just the idea of what women had to do in this richly artistic time.

Minor: The novel isn’t historical fiction but takes place in the past. How did you keep the story grounded in the present day in ways readers can firmly connect with?

Hood: I try not to think too heavily about that, which is why I do all the world-building: to feel comfortable. For instance, when it rained so hard in Naples, that’s a fact—it was the rainiest time on record, so I put that scene in. I even found out that someone died because of a sinkhole. Similarly, the cholera outbreak was real: six people died. But to the historical fiction piece, I try not to have anachronisms, and I always want a story to read modern.

Minor: We spoke a little about this, but you don’t usually find the topic of art and war in the same sentence, let alone in the same stories. Could you discuss your idea for merging these two different parts of life into a fluid tale?

Hood: I knew I wanted a female artist, and for some reason, she was always pregnant. She just came to me that way. But I had been wanting for many years to write a book where there was a life-or-death decision. With this, I kept asking myself what life-or-death decision Nick would have. What’s more important than a baby? I thought. Well, someone’s art. So I made her an artist good enough for her work to be saved. I knew that he (Nick) was going to leave the baby. I’d decided that. And so: What did he save?  

Minor: Did any books inspire you to write this story? You’ve done extensive research, but do you also turn to novels or nonfiction books for ideas and context?

Hood: A book that I love is Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. It has many characters and real-life figures coming in and out of it, as I do with Sophia Loren and all those people in my story. It takes place in a little town in Italy. That was a book that did what I was trying to do. It’s weird because I always turn to a book that’s so different: The Joy Luck Club (by Amy Tan) manages several stories; I often think about how she did that. I’m influenced by so many things that I don’t feel weird not citing because, by reading, it’s all working when you’re a writer. You’re learning from it all.