Interview with Hannah PittardBy Jason Chambers, Jonathan Evison, Dennis Haritou, & Jason Rice
November 11, 2010
Jason Rice: For those of you who don’t know about it yet, read my review of The Fates Will Find Their Way, here. I came across this book earlier this fall and absolutely fell in love with it. This is a wonderful debut novel that goes on sale at the end of January 2011. I’m sure everyone at Ecco is tired of hearing about it from me…meanwhile; Hannah Pittard has been kind enough to answer a few questions.
JR: Fates has a really unique narrator, can you describe it for us?
Hannah Pittard: It’s an intimate first person plural, and the idea is that either it’s the collective subconscious of this specific group of boys or it’s simply an unidentified member of the group. What appealed to me about the voice was that I would get to speak anecdotally to my audience; I would get to speak intimately, as if the people reading were already familiar with the events.
JR: Is there really a Nora Lindell? I mean there is, but is she really there? Or is she just something that is simply conjured by your narrator? Everyone in the book talks about her, and she has a sister, the spooky Sissy, but is this just a story of how a town is affected by a lost teenager? Some of the mothers in the book repeat over and over that she’s dead, and no one needs to worry about her…so what’s the reality?
HP: So many people have asked me about what really happened? Which is funny. What happened is what’s on the page. The point is, what actually happened doesn’t matter because what matters is the boys and what the boys believe happened. What matters is that this group of boys focused their entire lives on someone else rather than on themselves…
JR: I’m sure this book has been compared to The Virgin Suicides, which is also an equally impressive debut novel, but with Fates you take it to a much higher level and reveal all of the characters, slowly, sliding back and forth across time, over the course of their lives, but you never really solve the main themes of the book. What were your initial intentions with this story? Where did it set out to be, and how did you get to where it is now?
HP: I’m not sure I agree that The Fates reaches a higher level than The Virgin Suicides, though I thank you for the compliment. That book, to me, is absolute perfection. It was one of those books where I just kept thinking, Oh man, I didn’t know you could do that…
It’s hard to talk about what my initial intentions were with The Fates. I write without ever really knowing where anything is going. More, there is a feeling, an essence that I’m usually after, or there’s a line that’s triggered the entire event. But I do think I’ve mostly captured what I was initially after, albeit an amorphous feeling. That said, I also remember there was a day when I looked up – some where close to halfway through – and I thought, oh, it’s a love story. And once I’d made that realization, things got a lot easier. I will also say that when I first sat down, the voice was meant to be bi-gender. I’d originally thought to tell it from the perspective of all the kids who had grown up with Nora – the boys and the girls. But somewhere very early on – page ten or so – the boys just took over. I think it was when they were in Trey Stephens’ basement trying to imagine Nora Lindell shaving. I don’t know why, but that image was like a gift to me, and I knew after that that it had to be about the boys’ longings, because so much of what I wanted to write about was going to deal with sexuality, which I also didn’t fully realize until I got to that moment in the basement.
JR: You capture small town life and small town aspirations quite well with almost all of the cast, but in some respects your characters long to be well traveled, read, and well spoken. But somehow they all stay put. What do you think is holding them back? And which characters did you love the most, and which ones did you hate?
HP: What holds them back is what holds anyone back, maybe: Comfort, contentedness, familiarity. I don’t want these men to be thought of as having pointless lives. More it’s that I want them not to see that they have perfectly wonderful lives, it’s just that nothing is ever enough – whether you get away from where you started or not. In which case, maybe one of the points I’m making is that we’re all always being held back to a certain degree. Or there’s always the argument to be made. Because as long as we aren’t moving forward or doing something different, then it’s hard to stop ourselves from imagining – even if we don’t want to, even if we believe we’re really happy – something a little bit more, a little bit better. Ugh, it’s exhausting just thinking about it.
Well, I love Mundo, the Mexican, because what’s not to love? Sissy and Danny were also favorites. That’s probably obvious. I don’t know really how to answer this question, because there’s a soft spot for everyone of the them. That’s why I wish I could just make a career writing about these characters for the rest of my life. In some ways, they are all my Rabbit. Except that I’m not Updike, and I’m not ever going to write about these boys again…
JR: Sex plays a focal point for everyone in the book. It’s either a rite of passage that must be achieved, or it’s a pot hole that some characters wished they’d avoided. The parents of Nora and Sissy are normal, until one day they’re not. The main events of the story conspire against them. At the same time you describe the extra marital affairs going among the parents, presenting a series of character flaws that embellish to story. How difficult was it to etch these characters? They all seem like they could walk out into the world, or I would run into them at the corner store.
HP: I think quite a few of my characters originated as stereotypes – you know, the hot mom, the crazy mom, the charming dad that doesn’t know when to quit – but the exercise was to take the stereotype and make it unique, make it believable, like maybe here could be the person who started the stereotype.
I’m glad these characters seem real. They became very real in my head, and after a while, their attitudes just presented themselves to me – especially with regard to the boys. When I first started writing the book, I didn’t necessarily understand that the boys would each have personalities of their own. More, I assumed that they would stay a sort of gelatinous mass with the occasional individual name thrown out here and there for good measure. But after awhile – and after I thought I’d maxed out how many different names a reader could possibly keep up with – I started going back, finding a name I’d already used, and saying Okay, the kid who picks his face is probably also the kid who takes pills, maybe he’s also the kid with the suicidal mom. And once I’d done this enough times, I suddenly realized that I had these very distinct personalities on the page. And then, once I realized that, I realized that the story – in some ways – was about the individuating of these boys all along.
JR: While you were writing Fates was there a favorite novel you kept on your desk that you gleaned inspiration from?
HP: I can tell you that I deliberately stayed far away from The Virgin Suicides. Like I said earlier, I adore that book. But it had been years since I read it, and I wanted it to remain an idea rather than something to be imitated. Once, when I hit a particularly dry spell, I picked up a Donald Antrim novel. Then I had to read them all. Another time I picked up Bright Lights, Big City, and I swear to god I was so inspired by that book that I finished my own probably within a month of finishing McInerny. I also read Gate at the Stairs while I was working on The Fates. And from this book I realized that occasionally the ending is what makes everything worth it. I think I wrote the ending to my book the same day I finished Moore’s book, and I was only halfway through mine at the time. Sometimes just touching Lolita or Anagrams or The Sun Also Rises is enough to get me writing again. Sometimes listening to John Prine or Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits. Sometimes I walk around the room like a character from a Whit Stillman movie and read poems from the Norton Anthology of Poetry aloud, but this is as much about wasting time and listening to my own voice as it is about anything else. Sometimes I need my brain to go dead in order to write my way through a scene, so I’ll sit with my boyfriend while he’s watching a basketball game, which drives him crazy, but provides enough of a distraction for me to get through the hard parts.
JR: Are you writing anything new?
HP: Yes, and I’m really in with love the narrator, and also very terrified to talk about it. When I finished The Fates, all I wanted to do was write another book in the same vein. Maybe The Fates Are Still Waiting to Find Their Way. But it’s probably good that I go away from that voice – or that style – for a little while; it’s probably good that I not get comfortable in my small town and forget that there’s more to be had.
JR: Do you think what happens to everyone in your story is fate? Or it just happened? And it happened to happen to them? You and I have talked about the ending, and how perfect it is. When did you decide that was how you were going to end it? At the end of the day its all about telling a good story, one that you want to think about for a long time, and Fates achieves that in spades.
HP: So, right, I think I’m going to intentionally ignore certain parts of this question! I wrote the ending when I was about halfway through with the book. I’d been reading Lorrie Moore’s new book – not that they have anything in common – and I think I was stalled about where to go with some integral plot point, and so I decided to write the end. In some ways, this shows my hand as a writer. I get bored or I get intimidated by writing, and the only way for me to keep going is to know that there’s an end in sight. Once I had the ending, that would mean all I had to do was match up two points. At least that’s how I sold it to myself. I remember one afternoon just looking up from my computer and saying to my boyfriend, “Well, I’ve just written the ending,” and I think he shook his head, half in disgust and half in amusement. He’s always telling me that I can’t just sit down and make things up. And I’m always saying, but that’s exactly what I can do. At any rate, once I had that ending, things did just sort of fall into place. It’s like I finally understood what the book was about – it’s about regret, adulthood, childhood; it’s about the choices we make as children, the choices that will inform the rest of our lives, and how unfair, but also how inescapable, that is. It’s also about that terrible ability we all have to imagine that what we don’t have, what we didn’t get, must be better than what we do have or what we did get. I’ve heard so many people reminisce about a woman or a man they once saw on an escalator, in a bar, at the tennis court. And how there was this insanely intimate moment shared between them, and how if only they could go back and be with that person. But, of course, what makes that person perfect is precisely the fact that they are relegated to memory. If they were alive, in front of us, for real, they would be disappointing. Everything is always disappointing, or rather, nothing is ever as good as we think we deserve. God, I sound like such a pessimist! I’m not. I swear it. That’s why this subject fascinates me. I see so many people living vicariously through their fantasies or at least coping with life by tapping into their memories on a daily basis, and I think, How can they possibly go on? It’s too much.
JR: Thank you for the time Hannah.
HP: Thank you, Jason. You are officially my first interview regarding The Fates. Now watch as my answers change over time!
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