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Hannah Pittard: The Interview

We are seriously smitten with Hannah Pittard.

Her debut novel, The Fates Will Find Their Way, is an eerie, perfectly pitched recounting of adolescence that skillfully captures the blurred line between the tangible and the imaginedan eerie, perfectly pitched recounting of adolescence that skillfully captures the blurred line between the tangible and the imagined. The story is told from the collective perspective of a group of neighborhood boys who obsess over their missing 16-year-old classmate, Nora Lindell. Fixated on the mystique of her absence, they reimagine the past and can't help but factor her void into their own lives, willfully allowing it to define the men they grow up to be.

It's one of those books that gets passed around the office, talked about at meetings, and enthusiastically recommended to anyone loitering around the shelf of advance reader copies. It had the makings of a perfect Indiespensable title, and we're thrilled to feature a signed and slipcased edition of the book in Volume 24.

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Megan Zabel: Where did this story come from?

Hannah Pittard: I think it's been a long time brewing. I don't think of myself as old at all — I'm 32 — but certainly the older I get the more I marvel at the things I did when I was young and how they've affected where I am today. The more crotchety I get, I think, "Why didn't someone stop me? Why didn't my mom say, 'No, don't do that, ' or my dad say, 'No, don't do that'?" And, of course, they did say it the whole time. It's just that we can't learn it until we've done it ourselves. Now, I look at my nieces, and I look at these children that I teach, and I think, "You're making such mistakes. Don't do that. Don't do that." I guess that's just what life is.

Often I start writing about something that goes missing, or something that's lost. There's an automatic story there. Something has to change. In my short stories, a father will go missing or die, or a dog will go missing, and thus a story is born. I like to see how characters react when something is taken away from them, and, in this case, it was this girl.

I did go to school with a girl whose older sister had been kidnappedI did go to school with a girl whose older sister had been kidnapped, in middle school, so long ago. I was telling my boyfriend that story about two years ago, and he said, "That's the weirdest thing I've ever heard. I've never known anyone who's known anyone who's been kidnapped." I started thinking about that, and I thought, you know, it's true. We see it on the news all the time, but I don't know anybody else who knew somebody who was kidnapped. It's a strange thing to have grown up with.

I kept thinking about how we treated that girl when we were young — the one whose sister had been kidnapped — and we were wicked to her, like it was something that was catching. That was definitely in the back of my mind.

Megan: How did you arrive at a first-person-plural point of view?

Pittard: When I first started it, I wrote 10 pages that are almost identical to the 10 pages that are the first 10 pages now, the very first chapter.

Megan: It's a great first chapter.

Pittard: Thank you. It was the first thing that I'd written in a long time. I'd taken about a year off after writing a very bad novella that didn't sell. And then I thought, "Well, you know, I'm going to shit or get off the pot here, and I'm going to write something or I'm not going to write something." And I wrote those 10 pages. Originally, I thought of the narrator as a collective of children, of boys and girls. I thought of myself being in that school with that girl whose sister had been kidnapped, and I thought, "Well, I want to be a part of this story that gets told," sort of like an apology or something.

And, almost by the second or third page — it was that moment when the boys are thinking about Nora shaving her legs — I realized, no, this is going to be so sexually charged that it has to be the boys. I didn't know how to do a double-gender sexuality. I just knew how to focus on the boys.

But it never even occurred to me, I don't think, to tell it from a single first person. I think I was scared that if I did my voice would come out too much and I wouldn't be able to really be a man or tell this story the way that it needed to be told.

Megan: I'm so impressed with writers who seem to effortlessly put themselves back in adolescence. It's so hard for me to channel what I thought about and what I was like then. How did you get there? How did you put yourself in that place?

Pittard: [Laughter] I'm laughing because my siblings, who are older than me and still make fun of me ruthlessly, would say, "Oh, my God, it's because you are still a child so it's not very hard for you at all." And I think that's probably what my boyfriend and my mom would both say, as well. They would be dying of laughter hearing that question.

This book was bid on, so I got to talk to a lot of editors, and it was just the most ridiculously wonderful experience ever. And one of the editors said that the vocabulary was so simple and really accessible, and I started laughing then, too. I said, "If my siblings were here, they would tell you it wasn't an effort: 'She just has a simple vocabulary.'"

I'm constantly thinking about what I did when I was a child and how terrible I was to other children, and I've always been fascinated by just those things — the dynamics of children.I'm constantly thinking about what I did when I was a child and how terrible I was to other children, and I've always been fascinated by just those things — the dynamics of children. I also had a couple friends who were wicked, wicked little girls who did and said terrible things to me. I think that's always in the back of my mind. So, whenever I go back to adolescence for my writing, it's so simple, because I never left it behind. I have a hard time letting things go. So, it's just there.

Megan: You mentioned a scene that I'd like to ask you about. At the beginning of the book, one of the boys describes how Nora shaved her legs in front of him, and the other boys beg for details, but deep down they really don't want to know. They want it vague, so they can create their own versions.

Pittard: Yes.

Megan: That scene kind of sets the stage for the rest of the book. Did you know what this book was going to be about after writing that section?

Pittard: Oh, man. No. I really didn't. I'm sure that the book will get this sort of criticism from people, but I don't know how to plot to save my life. I don't know how to sit down and say this is where I'm going. I'm really driven by a feeling and by a voice in almost everything I write. And where I'm lucky is that the feeling that those boys had at the beginning, that jealousy, it just stayed with me the whole time.

I believe that all of us feel this sort of jealousy for other people's pain because their pain makes them seem so interesting. But, also, that feeling at the beginning, of wanting to keep the fantasy their own because they control it, and they don't want to know the details because then it's not theirs anymore — I think that's something that we all struggle with. Or at least I certainly do. I struggle with that still. So I was lucky to just have that in my brain the whole time. That feeling never abandoned me, and as long as I had that feeling and that voice, the scene just stayed throughout.

And you're right. It did end up being a staging for the rest of what follows. I really stumbled very luckily into that. I wish I could say it was deliberate, and I'm the smartest person in the world. But I'm so far from that. I'm lucky. I'm just very, very lucky.

Megan: Don't sell yourself short.

Pittard: Don't worry, my ego is huge. [Laughter] And I'm incredibly vain. But, again, I think having some older siblings kept me in line all my childhood. They're my biggest fans, but they're also my biggest critics, right there with my boyfriend. They all keep me feeling very brilliant and also very dumb. It's a good balancing act.

Megan: I usually have a really hard time appreciating uncertainty in a book. But, in this case, I not only tolerated it, I actually found it really satisfying. I want to know how you managed to convince me that I didn't need to know.

Pittard: I don't know, but I'm really glad it worked. I understand you've been a champion of the book at Powell's, so I'm glad that I convinced you. I wonder if it's because when I was writing it, I just so thoroughly believed.

The one thing that I'm comfortable and confident saying is that I have a very wild and strong imagination. This is a bad thing when I'm fighting with someone, because I absolutely believe what I'm saying even when I know I'm making it up. I can so embody my belief in something, even when I know it's wrong. This helps me when I write, I think. I saw those boys as real. I saw Nora as incredibly real. I just believed their uncertainty. And if they couldn't know, then how could the reader? It just wouldn't be fair. They had to be in it together.

I hope that readers are able to see these things that the boys can't see themselves. The boys don't know that they're not living their own lives. But maybe the reader can see it. And I don't know why or how it worked, but I am so thankful that it did. And it might never work again for me. But I lucked out.

Megan: We talked a little bit about regret, and how people often assume that the unknown lives would have been better than the lives they're actually living.

Pittard: Right.

Megan: So, for these boys, these men, if it wasn't Nora, would it have been something else?

Pittard: I believe that it would have been this way for these boys regardless. Because it's that way for everyone, whether or not there's something specific that we can point to. I do believe that those of us who are honest with ourselves, no matter how happy we are or how content or how good our lives are, will admit that there's always that desire to look over our shoulder or fantasize briefly about what might have been.I do believe that those of us who are honest with ourselves, no matter how happy we are or how content or how good our lives are, will admit that there's always that desire to look over our shoulder or fantasize briefly about what might have been.

In some ways, these boys are luckier, because they have something specific, a huge event to say, "Well, you know, that's what's standing in my way. That's the thing." I think most of us have an accumulation of tiny things.

I remember when I was maybe 12 or 13, I was at the mall with my brother who's six years older. I must have been 13 because I was definitely old enough to have some serious crushes on boys in class. But I was with my brother, and I felt incredibly adult.

He saw a girl on the escalator, and he looked at her, and they had this moment, and then we kept walking. He said, "Do you ever have that feeling that you just know that you could've connected with someone, and you let the moment pass?" and blah blah blah. Of course, I agreed with him. I said, "Oh, yes, I know what you're talking about," but I had no idea at all what he was talking about. Yet I'd seen the look on his face. I'd seen him look at this girl, and I'd seen the girl look at him, and I remember thinking, that looks awfully adult, and that looks very powerful and romantic.

Then, of course, I'm the one who, for the rest of my life, thought about that moment. I kept thinking, "Oh, I bet my brother thinks about that moment. I bet he thinks about it all the time." I brought it up once, and he was like, "I don't know what you're talking about." [Laughter] But here I've fantasized this entire life for them and what might have been. I gave my brother regrets about this moment that he never thought about before.

Megan: The end of this book is really beautiful.

Pittard: Thank you.

Megan: Can you talk about how you came to it?

Pittard: Yes. The ending is absolutely my favorite part. Someone early on, at Ecco, read it, and I loved the word that they used. They said that it crescendoed. And that just made my life. That's what I wanted, and to have somebody acknowledge it was the best feeling in the world.

I wrote the ending about midway through writing the book. I was struggling with the order of things.I wrote the ending about midway through writing the book. I was struggling with the order of things. Each chapter was its own Word document, and I just didn't know where to go next or what chapter to work on, or which boy's anecdote to develop next. But what I did have was this line repeating in my head — "At the end of the day, at the end of the day" — which is something that my biological father used to say, and which my brother picked up at a certain point.

When he'd get very furious, he'd say, "Well, listen, Hannah, at the end of the day..." or "At the end of the day, let's cut to the chase." We always sort of made fun of that expression. Like, oh, it's at the end of the day, now we're going to get serious.

But I started hearing that line in a much softer, much more regretful way than I'd ever heard either of them say it, and it just stretched into this one sentence. I sat down; I wrote it down; and I wrote those last two chapters in one sitting. I knew that I had the end of the book, and I was so thrilled. I also used it as a terrible excuse to procrastinate writing the rest of the book. For the next two weeks, I reread them aloud very gloriously and walked around my house feeling very, very proud of myself.

Then, two weeks later, I was in a funk because I hadn't written anything in between, but it did end up being the sort of through line. Once I had those last couple of pages, everything else sort of fell into place, because I knew what I was working towards. I finally knew what the book was about, because I hadn't realized until I wrote those last couple of pages that it was a love story. I

looked up from my computer one day, seeing my boyfriend, and I said, "It's a love story."
And he said, "No, it's not a love story. It's about a girl who's gone missing." And I said, "No, no, it's a love story. I figured it out." And he said, "You're so wrong." [Laughter]

We have so many opinions flying around in our house. But, finally, when he read it, he said, "You're right. It is."

Megan: We include a little author questionnaire in Indiespensable boxes, and I don't want to spoil it for subscribers, but I need to know more about the whale shark.

Pittard: The whale shark! Oh, man, I'm not kidding. It was such an amazing experience. I went to Thailand a couple times in college because my boyfriend at the time, now very ex-boyfriend, was living there. My boyfriend now, who I've been with for a very long time, makes fun of me because he says I'm a con artist, and that I've come from a family of con artists, because we finagle. He says that I haven't really graduated from college because I did a year and a half at St. John's College, and then I went to the University of Chicago, where I only did, I think, four quarters. I graduated because I did a lot of petitioning. If you want something, you petition for it.

So, at the University of Chicago, they have this thing called a foreign-language acquisition grant, and they'll give you $1,000 to go study in the country of your choosing as long as you've had a year of the language. My boyfriend at the time was living in Thailand, and, of course, I didn't speak Thai. So, I petitioned the University of Chicago and said, "How could I have a year of the language if you don't even offer the language at Chicago? You should give me the money anyway so I can go learn to speak Thai."

I went in to talk to my adviser, who didn't like me, and I did not like her, and she gave me the news that the grant had been approved. She looked at me and squinted and said, "Don't you have a boyfriend over there?" And I was like, "I don't know what you're talking about, lady." [Laughter]

So, I went to Thailand. I was there for three months, and I took my mandatory week of classes and I used the University of Chicago's money to get there and do it. Then I proceeded to just hang out in Thailand with my boyfriend and eat a lot of Thai food. We went for a week down to the south of Thailand, and I got my scuba-diving certificate. He was advanced, so he was in his own little scuba-diving group, and I was in my beginner group by myself. Everyone else was coupled or best-friended, or they had a sibling with them.

I was so lucky, though, because I got to swim with this beautiful Australian who was teaching us how to dive. He was seven feet tall, and he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen in my life. I was just like, "Yes, I will be your partner. Thank you. You will swim next to me." So we went out, our last day of our training, into the big water. We had been gearing up for it, and it was going to be really unsafe, and we had to be really careful.

Then, all of a sudden, we got this radio call from the boat that had the intermediate swimmers on it. They said, "There's a whale shark. We're going in. Abandon all caution. We're all going in."They said, "There's a whale shark. We're going in. Abandon all caution. We're all going in." They got off the radio, and this guy looked at us, a bunch of beginners, and he said, "Follow me. Don't touch anything, and keep up. Don't get lost."

The next thing I knew, we were all in the water. We swam around and we found this whale shark. It was the biggest, most beautiful creature I'd ever seen in my life. I never knew this about whale sharks, but I guess they attract other sharks, and a school of fish swims with it, like an entourage. It's like this famous person in the sea.

It was probably only 15 or 20 minutes, but I was in full awe and felt like a small, tiny thing. It's just a great memory, and obviously it's further and further away the older I get, but it was a great feeling.

On a side note, because there were a ton of swimmers, they had told us, "Don't touch the whale shark." So, of course, none of us touched the whale shark until, 15 minutes in, someone touched it. It got scared, swam away, and all the other fish swam after it.

Later on, when I had reconvened with my then-boyfriend, he confessed to me that he had been the one to touch it, which was so fantastic. I remember even then being filled with resentment towards him, and wanting to go tell my seven-foot-tall, beautiful Australian instructor that I knew who it was, but he was mortified by it. He said that when he got back on his boat, a lot of people were looking at him out of the corner of their eye, thinking, "You're the one who did it." I thought that was pretty funny.

Megan: Wow, that's awesome.

Pittard: It was awesome. And apparently I didn't even realize how lucky I was, but the whale shark is like the Maltese Falcon for a scuba diver. It's for people who really do it. It's unfair, because I'm sure there are divers who are better and have been doing it longer who still haven't seen one, but I wouldn't trade it for the world. It was a great moment.

Megan: What are you working on now?

Pittard: I write really quickly, in spurts and fits, so I wanted to finish something as quickly as I could before the book came out, because I didn't want the mean things that people said about this book to change how I wrote. Not that I ever listen to criticism anyway or know how to take it and use it in a—

Megan: But no one has said anything mean!

Pittard: People will say mean things, I promise. It's only a matter of time, and — this is another one of my faults — I will Google myself. My boyfriend hates it. He thinks I'm a terrible person when I do it. But at least I admit it. So, I find things that people have written on Goodreads or something, and there will be these wonderful, beautiful things that people have said, and, of course, I focus on the really mean thing that says, "It has no plot" [Laughter] or "Who cares? You can't connect with it because there is no specific character," or "Oh, my God, another story about a missing child. Who cares?" And I think, "Oh, no." [Laughter] So... what was the question?

Megan: [Laughter] What are you working on?

Pittard: I'm trying to stick with one character or one voice this time, and a woman, because I've spent so much time with men recently. But it's first person. It's a woman. She's older, and I like it. I think about it all the time. I like the chapter that I'm writing, but I'm not getting to work on it a lot right now, because it turns out teaching college is really, really demanding. [Laughter] If you demand a lot from your students, then you have to give them a lot, and I feel like I'm pretty demanding.

For the most part, I write down one-sentence ideas, and that's how I'll get a chapter. I know I can come back and get five to 10 pages out of it. I know how the book ends. I have the last chapter, and if I have the last chapter, I can write a book.

I spoke to Hannah Pittard by phone on December 30, 2010.

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Megan Zabel works in marketing for Powell's. She can switch out a bike tube in six minutes, but unfortunately can't whistle or perform a legitimate cartwheel. You can follow her often misguided adventures on Tumblr.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Fates Will Find Their Way
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