Motivated by sound
Novelist Hannah Pittard reads her work aloud to establish a graceful rhythm and evocative mood
Published: August 26, 2011
Hannah Pittard is determined and talented, and if she continues to craft stories in the vein of her haunting debut novel, The Fates Will Find Their Way, she should enjoy a long literary career. In fact, determination is a key ingredient in her success so far. When she sent a short story to the popular literary magazine McSweeney’s and received a rejection letter, she decided to continue submitting stories to the journal until it accepted one. Eventually, the editors published “There Is No Real Name for Where We Live,” and honored her with the 2006 Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award, a biennial grant given to a promising female writer under 32.
Photo by Joe Wigdahl
Pittard, who graduated with an MFA from the University of Virginia and now teaches fiction at DePaul University in Chicago, has also seen her stories in the pages of prominent literary journals such as The Oxford American, The Mississippi Review, Nimrod and Narrative magazine. Earlier this year Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, published The Fates Will Find Their Way, which Time magazine called “a dreamlike cross between The Virgin Suicides and The Lovely Bones.” Told in the first-person plural, the narrative follows a group of teenage boys distressed by the disappearance of a girl in their close-knit circle of friends. Even as they get older, marry and have children, they can’t fully move past the tragic event and instead imagine various scenarios of what could have happened to the missing girl. Pittard’s graceful prose evokes an atmosphere of nostalgia, and the novel’s vague sense of place leaves readers sympathetic to the unsettledness her characters grapple with.
Above all, she’s devoted to the sound of language, the rhythm of words. “Some things were certain; they were undeniable, inarguable,” Fates begins. “Nora Lindell was gone, for one thing. There was no doubt about that. For another, it was Halloween when she went missing, which only served to compound the eeriness, the mysteriousness of her disappearance.”The Writer caught up with Pittard before a recent book-tour stop at Boswell Book Company, where she charmed a group of Milwaukee-area residents with her humor and candor.
You mention that you wrote a lot of letters in college. Do you keep a journal?
Even when I was very young, ... I did not understand what the point of writing it down [in a journal] was if it wasn’t for an audience. ... I would tell stories in my journals, and then nobody would read them. And I would get disappointed. I’d go out of my way to pretend to hide them, but I didn’t really want to hide them. I wanted them read. And then I would go back a year later, and I would read something I had written, and I would think, “Well, this is just a lie. What was I thinking?” But I think very early on, even without understanding it, my goal was to entertain. ... I would write anyway, but I definitely want [my writing] read.Do you have a reader in mind when you’re writing, or is it that once you’re done you want to share your work?
It’s once I’m done. There’s nobody in mind, except that I would love someone like my mother or my brother or my sister to enjoy it. I would like an intelligent reader to connect with it. ... To imagine anything more specific would probably stifle me pretty quickly. ... The first thing that I’m after is to entertain myself, to break my own heart, and then the theory is that if I can break my own heart, if I can make myself cry, then I have a shot at breaking someone else’s heart or making them feel a similar amount of emotion, which is ultimately what I’m after.Does the rhythm of your sentences come naturally to you, or do you revise for rhythm? Is it a little of both?
It’s probably a little of both. ... The way that I write is how I hear it in my head, and my form of revision, what I am able to do on my own ... is on the line level, at the sentence level. And I will spend a day on a sentence. Ideally, I don’t have to. Last night I couldn’t sleep ... and I started three different stories. And one of them is five single-spaced pages already, and there was very little going back.
But once I do have a story, I will go back and reread every single sentence. And I luck out a lot, and 90 percent of them are right where I want them. But I read it aloud. Nothing that I have ever published has ever not been read aloud a million times by me before anyone’s ever read it. So, yeah, I work at it, but I think I’m lucky that the bones and the skeleton of it get down there easily.When might you spend a day reworking a sentence?
After I have a good amount of material. Because I think I am intimidated by the blank page and by the not-very-full page. So when I’m willing to spend many, many hours on a sentence, it is after I know where [the story’s] headed, I know what I’m after, I know what the feeling is that I’m after. And it’s usually when I see a sentence and I think this sentence, it’s just, it’s not beautiful, it’s not keeping up. I can see too much that it’s just carrying the plot along, and that always disappoints me. ... I am definitely motivated by the sound first, and the voice first, and then plot.Where do you get your story ideas, and how do you develop them?
Often from a line. A single sentence will come to me, and I’ll think, “I can make that person come to life, at least for a couple pages.” And so I’ll write the couple pages, and within two or three pages, if a problem presents itself, then I have a story. ... So it’s just about figuring out whose sentence is that and why. What does it mean? ...
With this book, I was really struggling halfway through. I didn’t quite know where to go or what to do. ... And then one day, I sat up, and I just knew how to end it. And I went to my computer, and it’s that line, “At the end of the day ...” that gets repeated. And I could just hear it in my head. ... And then once I had the ending, it was not easy, but it became much easier to get from the middle to the end, because I had that final line. I knew the feeling, I knew the mood, and it was just, all I had to do was build a ladder to get me there, or the bridge to get us across. And then it became almost fun.Where did you get the idea for your novel, The Fates Will Find Their Way?
Part of it was the mood that I was in. I had written a novella that had been on the market with a different agent for about six months. ... I found out that she was taking the book off the market; it just wasn’t selling. And so I was feeling a familiar depression again. ... It was October. It was the time change in real life, and it felt like there was this mood of gloom amongst everyone I knew—you know, everyone in their late 20s sort of staring 30 in the face. ... I felt like I was just a part of this very strange microcosm of people wanting and striving for meaning and not knowing where to get it. ...
How did you decide to write it in first-person plural?
One day, sort of very nonchalantly, I told my boyfriend about having gone to school with a girl whose older sister was kidnapped. ... And I told him how I used to go over to her house, because she was a good friend, and there would be these fliers. I just remembered there’d be fliers, always new fliers set to go up. ... I wanted to talk about obsession. I wanted to talk about men. I wanted to talk about men being unable to let images and women and experiences go. And having a girl go missing just seemed like an easy place to start. ... [Pittard later learned that the girl’s body was found a few years after she went missing in the Atlanta area.]
Looking at all of my stories that led up to this, I think almost every one of them starts with something missing—if it’s a father, if it’s a dog, if it’s a baby. For me, I think there’s a formula in [that] if something is missing, if something has changed, then you have a plot, because you have to readjust. ... I really enjoy looking at the way that we have to readjust when something dramatic changes abruptly, and it was just as simple as realizing that a [missing] girl worked.
I knew right away that it was first-person plural. What I did not know right away—even as I knew that I would be talking about obsession, and sexuality, and children becoming adults—I did not immediately know that I would only be focusing on the men. So when I started the first couple pages, it was a collective, gender-neutral voice. It was supposed to be all the kids that went to school with her, because I thought then I could talk about what it was like for me, I could talk about what I thought it was like for boys.
And then I hit somewhere along page 5 when the boys are all together in one of the basements, and they’re fantasizing about how could [Nora] shave her legs, and I thought, “Well, I have tapped into something here.” Because I thought, “I bet boys do wonder, ‘How do girls learn to shave their legs?’ ” ... When I got that moment, I thought, “It’s the boys.” I just sort of fell in love with them, and the voice. I wrote it very quickly. ... I just felt they spoke to me the whole time, and, you know, very noisily.The reader gets to know individuals in the group bit by bit, and the narrators refer to events that happen years later even as they’re telling a story from their teenage years. How did you keep track of characters and events?
When I started, I never thought the boys would become individuals. [In] the first 50 or so pages, I would just feel a name out. Once I had six or seven names, I realized I needed to start keeping track. So I had a tiny little Word document that had the boys’ names and then their features, you know: acne, suicidal mother, potential rapist. ... And I would just go back and make sure. Then somewhere along, like page 75, I realized that I wasn’t even consulting the little document that I had. I just knew. The boys had become individuals.
[As for] the timeline, I wrote [the novel] as if I were telling anecdotes, in the way that I think people talk about their lives. You know, sometimes when I’m telling an anecdote, I’ll mention something that I know nobody understands because they weren’t there, but I also see that it adds texture to the anecdote, and it makes people even more intrigued. And they pay attention a little more keenly. And I guess I was just banking on people’s ability to take how they listen to people in everyday life and apply it to a book. ...
Towards the very end, when I was rearranging chapters, because each chapter was its own Word document, I did print everything out and put them down. And I spent a couple hours rearranging and making sure that something doesn’t get mentioned prematurely, or if it gets mentioned, it gets resolved fairly soon. So that was the most effort I had to put into it, and I waited until the end.What drives you to write?
I love entertaining. I love telling stories. I like being the center of attention sometimes. I like the sound of my voice. And I like the feeling that I get when I am creating something by myself. I like the isolation, even as I, when I’m not currently doing it, I’m able to see, “Ooh, maybe that’s not a good thing.” Which is probably sometimes why I back off from writing, like I sort of have to pony up to the computer, and pounce on it. ... Because if I think too much about it, I’ll think, “Ooh, I’m not sure I quite want to go into isolation-land right now.”
But once I’m there, it’s just, it’s such a high, it’s exhilarating, and it’s just the best feeling in the world, and I think it’s that simple. It’s the love of language, and wanting and needing to create something. I don’t think I’ll have children ... but I do want meaning, and I want something, a reason for being around. And I find a certain sort of satisfaction and peace in thinking that creating, being creative, is a reason to be here.What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Read everything aloud. If it doesn’t sound good aloud, it does not sound good when we read it at home alone. I cannot stress that enough to my students, and I can tell, the ones who are reading it aloud, and the ones who aren’t. ... Don’t give up. I think half of it’s ambition, half of it is wanting it so much. ...
I would also say—and this is where I have gotten into arguments with other friends and other writers—I would say don’t quit your day job. I know that I waited tables. I essentially didn’t take a [professional] day job, because I believed so ardently and adamantly that I could make it. But I look around and, again, I see so many people who haven’t made it, and I think it’s all luck. Sometimes I think it is 90 percent luck and 10 percent talent. ...
I have a hard time saying, “You gotta give up everything and focus on this. You know, don’t take a real job.” Because I think ... if you’re gonna write—you can have a real job; you’re gonna write. If you don’t want to be lazy, if you want to get the writing done, you will find a way. You will absolutely find a way.
The Hannah Pittard File
- Hannah Pittard, the youngest of three children, grew up in Georgia and admired Southern writers Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. Contemporary writers who have influenced her include Stephen Dixon, Lorrie Moore and Tim O’Brien.
- She attended Deerfield Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts, where she studied with Peter Fallon and developed a love for Irish poetry.
- She received a BA in English from The University of Chicago and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Virginia, where she took classes with Ann Beattie.
- She has worked as a newspaper reporter and waited tables. Today she teaches fiction writing at DePaul University in Chicago.
- Of rejection, she asks, “Why not find a way to make it work for you?” She keeps her rejection letters and uses them as motivation: “If I get a bad critique, it just makes me want to go and write something better, and prove to [an editor] that I’ve earned it.”
What exactly is ‘first-person plural’?
Think "we," "us" and “our” instead of “I,” “me” and “mine.” In Hannah Pittard’s The Fates Will Find Their Way, a group of boys tells the story of Nora Lindell’s disappearance and its lingering effects on each of them. Here, for example, they compare notes shortly after she goes missing:
We interrogated each other for information, eager to be the one to discover the truth. As it turned out, we’d all seen Nora the day before, but seen her in different places doing different things—we’d seen her at the swing sets, at the riverbank, in the shopping mall. We’d seen her making phone calls in the telephone booth outside the liquor store, inside the train station, behind the dollar store. We’d seen her in her field hockey sweats, in her jean jacket, in her uniform. We saw her smoking a cigarette, sucking a lollipop, eating a hot dog. Surely she’d gone to the midnight thriller trilogy with us all (we called it the midnight show, though it was over by ten, just in time for curfew), and yet when we questioned each other—asked who had gotten to sit next to her, to share popcorn with her, to scare her when she was least expecting it—none of us could take credit.
Writers seldom choose this tricky point of view, with good reason. “Modern readers find collective first-person narrators unsettling; the contemporary mind keeps searching for the familiarity of an individual point of view, since it seems impossible that a group could think and feel, let alone act, as one,” wrote book critic Laura Miller in a 2004 article for The New York Times. Still, if a writer can pull it off, the device can have a striking effect, she suggested.
In recent years, novelists have given us well-written first-person-plural accounts such as The Virgin Suicides (Jeffrey Eugenides), The Jane Austen Book Club (Karen Joy Fowler), Then We Came to the End (Joshua Ferris) and We, the Drowned (Carsten Jensen).
Sarah C. Lange is associate editor at The Writer.||