Hannah Pittard on the Complexity and Messiness of Life
Hannah Pittard’s sweeping Visible Empire focuses on the aftermath of a real-life plane crash in 1961, which claimed the lives of over 100 Atlantans traveling home after an extended art tour of Paris. Pittard employs her formidable skills to focus on how the crash affects four Atlantans: Robert Tucker, a middle-aged newspaper editor whose mistress was on the plane; his wife, Lily, who is eight months pregnant with their first child; Piedmont Dobbs, a teenager who was recently denied the chance of being one of the first African-American students to integrate Atlanta’s Public Schools; and Anastasia Rivers, a calculating grifter who uses the crash as a springboard to a better life. Selected as an IndieList Next Pick, Visible Empire has been widely praised by critics. Shelf Awareness called it “a dizzying yet compelling, dramatic read” and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution stated, “Pittard shoulders the burden of history with responsibility and resolve, and a brave imagination.” Pittard spoke to Brendan Dowling via telephone on May 21st, 2018.
How did you first hear about the crash?
My parents both lived in Atlanta. I was born there and then lived there until I went to boarding school in Massachusetts. When the crash happened, my mom was thirteen and my dad was twenty. They both had different responses to the crash, but my mom’s took the form of a really intense fear of flying. She didn’t know anybody involved in the incident, but she was obviously aware of it, so she developed this incredible fear of flying that exists to this day and that she managed to pass down to all three of her children. We are all afraid of flying as well. Although, it’s kind of funny, after my parents got divorced my dad got his private pilot’s license, and both my sister and my brother, who are older than I am, also got their private pilot’s license. Their fear of flying has developed later in life, but mine has been since I was a child. I think part of it was from hearing these stories from my mom. The book is dedicated to her in part because she taught me how to write—she taught me a love of language, caring for the sentence, and caring for the words—but it’s also because I know she is the one who first told me about this crash and told me about it often. It loomed large in my imagination as a child. It was something that she definitely, for better or for worse, handed down to me as a bit of an obsession.
The book takes a panoramic view of how the crash has affected various members of the city. What was appealing to you about writing on such a large scale?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I’m a classic insomniac—I really don’t sleep. Last night I was thinking about this book and the three books that came before. I was realizing that every single book, and obviously I had known this to an extent, was about abrupt and immediate loss and the ways that people who are left behind have to navigate that loss.
My first book is about a girl who goes missing, but that’s not really what the book is about. It’s about the aftermath. It’s about the pain and loss that this small group of boys feels and endures over the next thirty or forty years. My second book begins with a suicide, but the book isn’t about suicide, it’s about the aftermath of this suicide and the way that one individual has to navigate this loss. It concentrates on the four days after this suicide. So the first book was forty years, the second book looks at four days. We move from the path of boys to an individual woman who’s dealing with this loss. The impetus behind my third book is this mugging that occurs and the PTSD that results in this woman, and it’s about a marriage that’s falling apart, but it’s also about this woman’s relationship to this traumatic event and the safety that was taken away from her. Her loss is more intangible in some ways.
In the same way that Graham Greene wrote about suicide, alcohol, and Catholicism and yet every book is completely different, I have my themes: abrupt loss, the ways that communities come back together, the way that we reconstruct our lives. But it’s also really important to me as an author that I try new things. For me, the newness here was the scope. It was trying to bring in so many perspectives. I really enjoyed the challenge of having very different types of people respond to this same incident. We have the people who are truly and immediately impacted because their lovers have died or because their parents have died, and then you have an up-and-coming con artist who is affected only because she sees an opportunity for her own potential advantage. She sees a way to take advantage of other people’s loss. We have a young African-American man who’s watching the footage on television and thinking, “This has nothing to do with me,” and for a brief second he thinks the city has it coming. I really enjoyed the challenge of trying to put those perspectives in as honest a way I could imagine them into into one book. I was just ready for that challenge.
The book dips in and out of a host of characters’ lives and they’re all from wildly from different backgrounds. Which character did you start with as the jumping off point to your story?
There were three origin stories. I wrote them all over the same summer. It was an interesting accidental exercise—their chapters were about the same number of words. I wrote Anastasia, Robert, and Piedmont. Anastasia is a character I’ve been thinking of for as long as I have been writing. I didn’t know she was going to be right for this book, but I knew that I wanted to write at some point about a person who was interested in catastrophe and even saw a kind of sexiness in catastrophe, who felt an envy at other people’s pain because what she saw in their pain was a chance for attention. For a long time, I’ve been wanting to write a character like that.
I’d been reading a book of non-fiction about the crash. One of the details that stood out to me was that it was 1961 when Atlanta’s Public School system decided to begin to attempt to integrate, but they decided to start with twelfth grade and twelfth grade only. 132 people applied to be the first African Americans to integrate the public school system. When I read that detail, I thought, “Oh my gosh. It would be so irresponsible not to write about race in 1962 Atlanta and then a missed opportunity not to try to write a story about one of those young people who was applying to help integrate Atlanta’s schools.” I remember when I was thinking about Piedmont, there was a moment when I thought, “Maybe he’s one one of the ten kids chosen to help integrate.” And I thought, “No, there were so many more who weren’t chosen, and I’m a lot more interested in looking at what the crash might mean to somebody who had missed out on what he viewed as a really big opportunity.”
For Robert Tucker, I grew up in Atlanta and I grew up reading the Atlanta Journal. I spent my early twenties working for a very small college newspaper at Savannah College of Art and Design. I thought it would be a fun opportunity to tap into that. I liked the complexity of a man who had a lover who was far too young for him while he also had a wife who was far too young for him. His situation is laughable in so many ways. Again, I like the idea of exploring moments when people make the bad decision to luxuriate in their misery. His wife is about to give birth, but he focuses on his lover’s death and he uses this as an excuse to behave really poorly. That’s always interesting to me, the complexity and messiness of life.
You see him making wrong choice after wrong choice, but I found myself still rooting for him because he’s so sympathetic.
I appreciate that. It’s been pretty funny and enjoyable as the writer of this book to hear responses from people. You can’t ever expect which reader is going to like which character more. It’s been very fun and gratifying to talk to some booksellers and some critics who have read it early just to see how many people really like Anastasia. Adam Ross is a friend of mine and he just loves Anastasia. I have another friend who thinks Piedmont Dobbs is just the best character in the world, and somebody else who thinks Robert is wonderful. Adam Ross thinks that Robert Tucker is the worst person in the world. It’s like a litmus test. When I finished Listen to Me, which was the last book, it was funny talking to friends as they finished the book. It seemed like a fifty-fifty split. People either thought the end of that book was very, very hopeful, or they thought it was really, really depressing. It was hard for me not to think what’s going on in their own lives that they’re able to see this ending as hopeful or they’re able to see it as pessimistic.
The music of Don Shirley plays a big part in the book. What made him the perfect musician for your story?
I love Don Shirley and I love Don Shirley because both my mom and my dad love Don Shirley. I grew up listening to him. My dad and my mom both still have the records. I find the covers and his face and those eyes are just so mesmerizing. The music is gorgeous.
We put so much of ourselves into our writing and I think part of me wanted to pay homage to this incredibly talented musician who both my mom and my dad love. They’ve both been divorced since I was six, but they’ve later in life become friends again which is also very satisfying as a child. It was a way for me to pay homage to this thing that they both loved and that they gave me that I love and which they both still love.
It was a little bit nostalgic and kind of romantic. In many ways Don Shirley was a starting place for Lily for me, because when I originally conceived of Lily, as the writer I found her very unlikeable and unsympathetic. I realized that wasn’t going to be useful to my story, and it wasn’t going to be useful for me. I needed to find a way to make her more engaging and for me to want to relate to her and engage with her. Don Shirley was the pathway in for me.
Lily seems absolutely a product of her time, but as the book went on, I realized there was a lot more going on than I originally thought.
She went through many iterations too. There was a draft in which it almost went into a “Yellow Wallpaper” direction. My editor has been working on this book with me since the very beginning, and this is my third book with her, so I trust her like nobody’s business. She kept saying, “I don’t know what is right, but I just know that this isn’t right.” It was nice once I finally came up with a way to give her volition and came up with a way to, exactly as you say, make her a genuine product of that time, but to also make her susceptible to the choices and desires that she does have.
You just mentioned The Yellow Wallpaper and you talked earlier about Graham Greene. Who have been the authors that have been influential to you?
In my quote unquote formative years, you couldn’t have found somebody more steeped in Faulkner, O’Connor, and Baldwin. I grew up loving Southern Literature and reading the Gothics. The darker and the more lurid, the better for me, especially as a teenager. I used to live in Chicago, and when one of my favorite bookstores, Powell’s bookstore, went out of business, I bought about twenty New York Review of Book books, the beautiful edition that they put out. I was reading a lot of those while I was beginning work on this. Stephen Benatar’s Wish Her Safe At Home, which, in a way, is a kind of Gothic. Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Sick, which does this amazing somersault through time and space that I really really admire. From there I made the leap to Doris Lessing, who I discovered later in my reading life.
As I’m writing novels, the books that are most useful to me are the ones least like what I’m writing. When I first sat down to write this book, in the back of my mind I had As The Great World Spins. I even thought I would be moving in an out of time periods and possibly coming closer to where we are now. I loved that book and I read it several times when it came out—I was just blown away by it. Obviously now that I’ve finished this book I see that my novel is nothing like that at all, but somehow that was in the back of my mind as I was writing it. I think that we see these different perspectives and they all sort of tumble together. I think in that way you can see where that book might have been influential on me as a writer, but not so much on this book specifically.
It may not be cool to say, but I really enjoy Franzen. I couldn’t help but stink of The Corrections as I was going back and forth between characters, but again, those are not books I looked at while I was writing it. I think if you’ve got books in mind that are useful to you, and you look at them as you’re writing or working on your own material, there’s too strong a temptation to flat-out mimic. Instead I’d like to be in conversation with them.
I love Muriel Spark too. She’s someone who isn’t Gothic, but is just creepy and uncomfortable. Obviously The Invisible Man has had a profound effect on me as a person and a writer, and that was in the back of my mind as well. I recently reread it and I can’t believe how relevant it is today. In some ways it’s just grotesquely relevant. It’s one of the most beautiful books ever written. I’m a big Roth fan. One day I’d love to write a book that’s in response to American Pastoral, a 21st century female point of view.
And finally, what role has the public library played in your life?
Every city I’ve ever moved to, the first thing I do is get my public library card. It might be a cliché, but since I’ve entered adulthood it has been such a joy. I remember when I moved to Chicago and got my Chicago Public Library card, that’s what made me feel like an adult, having that card. When I was little, my mom took me to the Atlanta Public Library. My boyfriend has a seven-year-old daughter and it makes me so happy how often library trips are involved, and also to see how public libraries have changed and how much you can do there. I don’t know if you can tell that I’m smiling when I talk about this. (laughs) I love when libraries invite me to read. They’re one of my favorite events. It’s funny because people outside the business often say, “Isn’t that bad? Don’t you want people to buy your book?” And I think, “No, I want libraries to want my book!” It’s a great feeling to walk into a library and see my book there. It just feels like satisfaction, relevance, and a job well done.
Tags: Hannah Pittard