This past weekend we went to the Decatur Book Festival where we met both Hannah Pittard and Rebecca Makkai, who we recently featured on a Q&A, at a panel about communities experiencing collective grief. Have you ever wanted to be a fly on the wall and listen in on two intelligent woman talking about literature? That's what it felt like to hear Rebecca and Hannah's conversation about their novels. You can check out Rebecca Makkai's Q&A here, but today is all about Hannah Pittard's latest novel Visible Empire.
Visible Empire is based on a true event in 1962, when Air France Flight 007 crashed, killing many prominent citizens of Atlanta. What drew you to writing about this event?
I’ve always been in interested in the ways individuals and communities deal with sudden and unexpected loss. Almost everything I’ve written begins with something that’s gone missing. Sometimes the thing is tangible—in The Fates Will Find Their Way, a 16-year-girl goes missing—and sometimes the thing is more abstract—in Listen to Me, the one-time intimacy and respect of a committed marriage has dissipated into quiet resentment and feelings of insecurity. The crash that launches the events of Visible Empire afforded me the opportunity to write about a bigger community, about a more diverse group of individuals. I’ve always known I would write about it. I finally felt ready and compelled.
You could have taken a wide range of approaches to writing about the crash. What made you decide to write a story specifically about the impact of the crash on Atlanta?
I’m from Atlanta. It’s a city that I feel very close to and very far from. My childhood is 100% associated with that place. But so is a decade-long custody battle. So for personal reasons, I wanted to focus on Atlanta as a way to sort through some unexamined but lingering emotions I was feeling. I also wanted to write a book that wasn’t about New York or Chicago or LA—big cities that, to my mind, seem to get a little more screen time than southern cities like Atlanta.
You’ve mentioned elsewhere that your mom was the one who first told you about the crash and that she was deeply affected by it. How has it affected her and why do you think it made such an impact on her?
My mother was thirteen when the plane crashed. She didn’t know anyone assiociated the incident. But the terror of it—the randomness, the suddenness, the fact that it happened to a group of people who lived where she lived—loomed large. She has an intense fear of flying to this day, as do I, as do my brother and sister . . .
What was your research process like? Though Visible Empire is a work of fiction, are there any parts of it that are true to life?
I spent two years reading newspapers and magazines, both local and national, from that time period. I cut out advertisements, studied books of architecture, scoured ebay for out-of-print journals. I’ve tried very hard to caprtue the essense of the time while also telling a story that I think is highly relevant to the moment we’re living in now.
With its ensemble cast of characters, the story has no true protagonist. In fact, it seems like Atlanta is more of the protagonist. What inspired you to write about the city this way?
This question makes me happy. I initially thought the book would be narrated by the city itself. For many reasons, this proved too difficult and ultimately gimmicky to pull off. But I wanted to write about a community, and communities are made up of individuals. I guess it worked out that the collective voices of those characters allowed the city to emerge as the protagonist, if not the narrator.
Writing about, and in, the South has been a long-fraught tradition. How do you define Southern writing, and how are you finding a place in it?
It’s like the south itself: it just feels different, right?
Who are some of the Southern women writers who have inspired your writing?
Flannery O’Connor, Bobbie Ann Mason, Eudora Welty, Harper Lee, Carson McCullers, Zora Neal Hurston come immediately to mind. This summer I read novels by Crystal Wilkinson and Tayari Jones and was moved beyond belief.
Hannah Pittard is the author, most recently, of the novel VISIBLE EMPIRE, which was an Amazon Editors' Pick for Summer Fiction, an IndieNext List Pick, a New York Times "New and Noteworthy" Selection, an O Magazine Book of Summer, and one of Southern Living's Best New Books of Summer. Her previous novel, LISTEN TO ME, was a New York Times Editors' Choice, a Washington Post Best Summer Thriller, an Entertainment Weekly Seriously Scary Summer Read, a Millions Most Anticipated Book, a Lit Hub Buzz Book, and a Refinery 29 Best Books So Far. She directs the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Kentucky.