An Interview with Hannah Pittard

Hannah Pittard, MFA program graduate (2007) and author of The Fates Will Find Their Way, took some time to talk to Iris about her life at U.Va., her writing career and her buzz-worthy novel.

What was your childhood like? Do you think it influenced your work as a writer?

I grew up first in Atlanta, Georgia… with my mom and my dad, who divorced when I was very young… They had shared custody, and I went back and forth. And I think the way that I lived starting at about six years old, going back and forth, probably has a lot to do with how I am now. I am strangely politic, sometimes …to a fault… I have a hard time ever really getting mad at someone, or ever sharing true opinions or feelings… because I very early on learned– wanted to learn– to make people happy. I don’t think either of my parents would be thrilled to know that, but I wanted to make them happy. I made it my point or goal to make them happy. And, I think one of the things I did was sort of become a storyteller, like a very low key entertainer… specifically of my parents… I would spend a week at my dad’s and tell stories to my mom about what happened, and I would spend a week at my mom’s and tell stories to my dad about what happened. Not necessarily truthful stories… I wanted to entertain them, truthfully or not. I wanted to make them happy. It also helped that I had a father who told amazing anecdotes, just really a charming, charming man…My mother was brilliant with words, she always pushed me probably than my teachers did early on, in a good way. She taught me not to settle. I think my mother was probably a huge model. She was a reader, she was a writer, she was beautiful, and my siblings—my older siblings—were so artistic. And, I think I spent a lot of time when I was young just wanting to impress my family… they were definitely my first audience.

What was your experience at U.Va. like? How would you describe your time in the MFA program?

The best thing that happened to me at the University of Virginia was Ann Beattie… She was amazing; she absolutely—there were no kid gloves—she was honest I think in a really respectful way. I think that sometimes people misperceive … the way that she offers criticism, and rather than acknowledge that they aren’t perfect writers, they might say, “Oh my God, she’s so mean!” And the minute I stepped into class with her I thought, “Oh My God! She’s brilliant!” I don’t even know when we started workshop whether or not she liked me, what I realized early on was… I adore this woman. I adore the way she teaches, I adore how honest she is with us, and just the fact that anyone that is that honest about our writing clearly respects us. …. She just demanded a great deal of all of us. I took her incredibly seriously. I had her my first year in the program, and I had her—I requested her—as my thesis advisor. I really think… between that one workshop with her, that one semester-long workshop with her, and when we were doing my thesis, I had taken everything I could that she said to heart, and I had sort of eaten my proverbial “Wheaties”… There was an obvious growth-spurt and obvious difference in what I had come to the program able to do and what I was doing after a year in a half in the program, and I think, obviously, that everyone else there is amazing, and I also think that every student connects with a faculty member in a different way… I was determined that she would take me under her wing. It was a great program, and I think it helped being in the class with seven really wonderful students, and wonderful in a way that I knew when I got there that I was not the best writer. I mean I was there with Lydia Peelle, and I was there with Emma Rathbone  … and a bunch of other people, and I sat down on the first day of class, and I thought, “Oh wow! I am at the bottom of this class.”… Being in a room with such wonderful talent, just made me… I wanted to impress them; it was like being with my family all over again. I wanted to show them that I had earned the right to be there.

When did you first start calling yourself a writer?

It’s funny because once I finished up at the University of Virginia, I stayed in Charlottesville because as far as I’m concerned there’s no reason to leave Charlottesville… so I stayed in Charlottesville and I was waiting tables and I was writing and I was getting a lot stories published. And even after I sold my book, when anybody would ever ask what I did, friends around town, I said, “I’m a waitress, I work at the Downtown Grille.” And my boyfriend, to this day, gets mad at me because I still do it. I am not inclined to want to say that I’m a writer. I think, in part, that’s simply because everyone wants to say that they’re a writer. People who aren’t paid to do it… the few times I have said, “Oh, I’m a writer,” the response I got from almost everyone is, “Oh, I write too.” And, I thought, “Okay, nevermind. You clearly don’t understand because I’m betting you haven’t been waiting tables for five years to support your writing, but maybe you have.” Maybe that makes me sound like a snob… but they were always lawyers or musicians, who made a lot of money doing something else.  So I don’t know if I have that confidence; I don’t know if I ever will. Now, I say, ”I’m a teacher,” although sometimes I still accidentally default and say, “I’m a waitress,” because I really do and did enjoy waiting tables.

What have been the best and worst moments of your career?

I think I have a ton of worst moments… I wrote a novella before this book was published, this current book [The Fates Will Find Their Way], and that novella did not sell, and I remember the day that my then agent emailed to tell me that it was taken off the market, and it had been on the market for months, so I already knew what was coming, but to actually get the email that said–“Your novella is not selling. We’re taking it off the market.” — was really, really sort of heartbreaking… It was very near my 29th or my 30th birthday, and I thought, “Wow. I really am just a waitress.”… I think some other funnier, more embarrassing low moments were trying to workshop a total rip-off of “The Vintage Thunderbird” with Ann Beattie, and she actually gave me the story back, we were meeting for coffee; she slid it across the table, and I saw at the top of the page was, “Vintage Thunderbird?” And all she said…. She slid it across the table and said, “Do we really need to talk about this?” And I said, “No.” And she was absolutely right. I had mimicked it from start to finish, and I think she was ultimately flattered. And she took it like a pro. But, she also was right to nip it in the bud, and to point out that you’re going to be your own writer; you’re not going to be me. So, try again.

Best moments would probably be the day I did sort of get Ann Beattie’s affirmation… that was a wonderful day. And maybe topping that day was selling this book…  it was a pretty great day.

If you could go back and give your 25-year-old-self advice, what would it be?

Don’t make so many mistakes. No… don’t drink so much. Take your writing a little more seriously. Take yourself a little less seriously. I don’t know; don’t move in with anybody until you’ve known them a couple of months…. I either come across, I have been realizing in interviews, strangely endearing because I’m so honest, or people read it and they say, “Wow. I think she forgot she was being recorded, because this is bizarrely intimate.”

Do you have any writing rituals?

…I think I have a couple different ones. Sometimes it’s sitting and listening to some John Prine or Tom Waits and just hanging out and listening to that. Sometimes it’s going for a run; I am a huge runner. And, I don’t listen to music when I run, because I talk to myself a lot, and I compose ideas when I run. But probably, the most bizarre and honest ritual would be reading the Norton Anthology of Poetry, as I walk around in my house. And I make sure it’s when my boyfriend is not there, and preferably when my dog is fast asleep, so he doesn’t think I’m being too weird. I’ll walk around, and I’ll read these very, very ancient poems aloud…  I’m like a character in a movie. It’s very bizarre, and I do not even know if I understand or like poetry that much, but somehow I have these few poems I go back to, they’re all dog-eared, and I read them aloud and hopefully after that I want to sit down and write, and if that doesn’t work then I read… some old standbys like Anagrams by Lorrie Moore…. Every time I read that, I am star-struck, and my mouth drops open, and I just want to write.  Same with some other things. Donald Antrim and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City; they’re these short books but I think they’ve packed an enormous punch into such a small, condensed little, brilliant book. And these things really do the trick for me.

What inspired you to write The Fates Will Have Their Way?

I started the novel shortly after I had gotten the news that my novella was taken off the market. I was feeling incredibly stuck, and I was really lamenting the fact that I had this advanced terminal degree, but here I was waiting table and starching a shirt every night and serving steaks at a really high-end restaurant… All of which was totally fine, but somehow it was made better when I knew I had an agent who was actively trying to sell a novella, and when that rug was taken out from under me, I felt like a loser, for lack of a better word. And I think I was really feeling… like my childhood, and my early youth, and my early adulthood was slipping away from me, and I wasn’t even sure that I had paid… attention to it. It was Halloween; it was October… there was the time change, and I was feeling this strange depression and regret. And I was looking around, and for some reason, I’m sure I was just projecting, but it felt as though everyone around me was feeling this strange nostalgia for a time that no longer existed. I think that mood just sort of persisted until I had written this book. Luckily, once I started writing it, my depression lifted, but that memory of that nostalgia, and the way that these boys narrate the book, had become so real to me, all of that just stayed with me. I wrote it very quickly, I think that helped. I really believed that what I was writing about was a universal sort of feeling and experience, because if it is not a universal feeling or experience, then I am… in this life alone, and that is too much to bear… It felt like, at the time anyway,  I had tapped into something that we all experience whether or not we’re willing to admit it to ourselves.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing The Fates Will Find Their Way?

… Except for the novella, I had only written short stories…. I write to get to the ending; I write for the punchline; I write for that sort of high that maybe all writers get. Maybe they don’t; I don’t know. But I certainly do get this incredible high from finishing a story, and if it is good it is good, if it’s not that’s fine—you’ll just write the next one, and it will be great… Writing a novel was an even more private thing because I didn’t show it to anyone, not significantly— I showed the first ten pages to a few people, but other than that it did not get shown to anyone, so it was very difficult. It felt like writing in the dark sometimes. There were days when I would reread it, and I catch up with where I was, and what still needed to be told. And, I would think, “… This is total dribble. This is worthless; it’s shallow. I’m not tapping into anything.” … And then there would be other days when I would think, “This is really… brilliant. I am a genius!” And, I would get that sort of high, and I would think, “I have tapped into something universal, and this is something I’d be proud to have as my first novel.” … Not knowing whether or not I was wasting six months on it… was really difficult because I do think I take rejection personally enough that the idea of finishing this novel, also sending it out and it not selling or it not garnering interest, might have just been too devastating a thing to come back from, sort of emotionally and mentally… But, it turns out that people did like it, and it did sell, and it did sell well, and it was a great thing for me, and everyone around me, because my mood certainly lifted….

[Author's image courtesy of Hannah Pittard]


2 Comments

  1. Denise Pittard Murphy

    Hannah, I bought your book today because….well, I just needed to support another Pittard girl. There aren’t so many of us you know! My son is also a college professor and a writer who is sending his first book out in hopes of success. So good luck young lady.
    I grew up in Duluth GA with a large group of Pittard cousins. The only Pittards that I knew outside my family were Rob and Madonna who lived at Peachtree Corners and then Cumming, GA …where we live now, any relation that you know of?
    I’d love to hear from you, we almost certainly are related.
    Denise Pittard Murphy

  2. June Donegan

    Hannah,

    I admit that the only reason I read the review of The Fates Will Find Their Way was because I recognized your name as one that my daughter Mary had mentioned while you and she were at Deerfield. Curiosity led me to ask my local library in Keene NH to order it for me. I loved it and plan to recomment it to my book club group! Congratulations to you and I look forward to reading more of your writings.

    By the way, Mary (if you remember her) is finishing her PhD at UNC. She married almost 5 years ago and has a 9 month daughter.

    June Donegan

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