Hannah Pittard Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Hannah Pittard
Photo: Joe Wigdahl

Hannah Pittard

An interview with Hannah Pittard

Hannah Pittard discusses Visible Empire, an epic novel—based on true events—set in Atlanta in 1962.

You were born in Atlanta?

I was born and somewhat raised in Atlanta. I have a complicated relationship with the town. It's where I grew up. It's where I became an observer, a listener, an introspective and often introverted little human, but it's also where I was the focal point of a decade-long custody battle. It's difficult for me to divorce my experiences of that time—all those therapists and lawyers and judges—from the city itself. I went away to school when I was 13, and this also has affected my relationship with the place. When I go back, there are no high school friends waiting to catch up with me. Most of my favorite places to hang out are long gone.

Your mother, to whom you dedicate the novel, is the person who first told you the story of the disaster at Orly?

My mother was deeply impacted by the event. She didn't know anyone who'd died—though she ultimately came to know several of the children whose parents were lost—but after that crash, she began making audio recordings on tiny handheld tape recorders before traveling anywhere by plane. She would make a tape, box it up, heavily seal it (masking tape, etc.—they're insane, I've seen them, they still exist) and then leave a note on the outside of the box that said something along the lines of To be opened only in the case of my death.

Why write about this tragic plane crash?

To me it feels like catharsis, which is why I write—to make sense of (or try to make sense of) the world around me. Sometimes that world is very nearby, sometimes it's far away, sometimes it's no further than my own psyche. But here's what's undeniably fascinating about the Orly incident: at the time, it was the most devastating accident in the history of aviation involving only one plane. For a writer, when something is the biggest, the most, the worst, there's automatically interest. But here's something else—what made that crash interesting to me, being from Atlanta—it wiped out more than 100 Atlantans all at once. I wasn't alive when the crash occurred. I was a decade and a half away from being born. But that single terrifying incident had a long-lasting impact on my hometown. Growing up, I was always hearing rumors, anecdotes, stories about the people who'd died and the people they'd left behind.

You write a lot about loss. Why is that?

Loss necessitates change. Change is uncomfortable even when it's desired. When you lose something— a baby, a dog, a father, 100 friends—your worldview is automatically put to a kind of test. In the past I've kept my focus narrow, looking at an individual's relationship to loss, maybe at a family's. I felt I was ready—and frankly I felt compelled given the state of the world—to try with this novel to tackle large-scale loss. I did this not simply for the sake of the story but because I'm concerned with the potential problem of a person wanting to take care of and attend to himself while also wanting to take care of and attend to his community. This competition between self and society strikes me as difficult, complex, and timely.

In Visible Empire, there's a young woman called Anastasia Rivers who works as a professional diver at a hotel. Did such a thing exist in the 1960s?

There was this story growing up that my siblings and I told each other (or maybe a story they told me—I was youngest and most gullible; still am…) about my mother having once been a professional diver at a hotel in Atlanta. I was very taken with the idea, and often I found myself wondering what that would have been like, what she would have worn, what kind of dives she might have performed. It sounded so incredibly strange and glamorous. When I was younger, I let my imagination run pretty wild with the few details I'd heard as a child—red bathing suit, floor to ceiling windows, professional length diving board... I didn't ask my mother the truth about the diving gig until after I turned in the novel. I was afraid what she might tell me would affect the version I'd been seeing so vividly in my head and the one I'd tried to reproduce for the page. After she read the book, I finally asked her. She said I got some of it right—as in, there was a diving board. The real story is something like this: for fun, my mom used to walk to a Days Inn in Athens, GA, when she was a student at UGA and use the hotel's swimming pool and diving board. She was almost always the only one at or in the pool. She often went during meal time. There was a large window in the hotel's dining room. People would sometimes watch her dive while they ate. She never got paid, but neither did she have to pay to use the pool. The rest is apocryphal history.

Q: Visible Empire is a provocative title. What does it reference?

A: There's a long answer to this and a short answer. The Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is the full name of the KKK. It's a terrifying moniker. In the novel—which deals with grief, love, race, and money—one of the characters recalls finding (and recoiling at) a piece of paper the size of a business card with those awful words written in an ornate and intricate script. The card signified membership into the "club." These cards existed; I've seen photographs. This is the short answer. The long answer has to do with relevance, and the swiftest way to summarize this is to point a reader towards the novel's epigraphs. There are four. One is from Ivan Allen, the then-mayor of Atlanta, in which he refers to the incident at Orly as Atlanta's greatest tragedy. Another is from Malcolm X, in which he declares the same incident to be God's work and asks for more planes (filled with white people) to fall from the sky. Reading these two quotations side by side—so different in their understanding of a single event—remains a haunting experience for me. I think the title subverts certain expectations and, with it, I hope that I'm asking a question about the things we see and the things we don't see; the things we want to acknowledge and the things we to ignore. What happened at Orly was a tragedy. But it was not Atlanta's greatest tragedy. The city's greatest tragedy was its systematic, incessant, and legalized racism and the thousands and thousands and thousands of deaths and injustices as a result.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $12 for 3 months or $39 for a year.
  • More about membership!

Books by this Author

Books by Hannah Pittard at BookBrowse
Visible Empire jacket The Fates Will Find Their Way jacket
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $12 for 3 months or $39 for a year.
  • More about membership!

Readalikes

All the books below are recommended as readalikes for Hannah Pittard but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
How we choose readalikes

  • Tom Rachman

    Tom Rachman

    Tom Rachman was born in 1974 in London but grew up in Vancouver. He studied cinema at the University of Toronto and completed a Master's degree in journalism at Columbia University in New York. From 1998, he worked as an ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    The Fates Will Find Their Way

    Try:
    The Imperfectionists
    by Tom Rachman

  • Marilynne Robinson

    Marilynne Robinson

    Marilynne Robinson is the recipient of a 2012 National Humanities Medal, awarded by President Barack Obama, for "her grace and intelligence in writing." She is the author of Gilead, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    The Fates Will Find Their Way

    Try:
    Gilead
    by Marilynne Robinson

We recommend 3 similar authors

View all 3 Readalikes

Non-members can see 2 results. Become a member
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $12 for 3 months or $39 for a year.
  • More about membership!

Join BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten.

Find out more


Today's Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: Seek You
    Seek You
    by Kristen Radtke
    In the first pages of Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness, Kristen Radtke's sophomore ...
  • Book Jacket: The Man Who Hated Women
    The Man Who Hated Women
    by Amy Sohn
    If debates over women's reproductive health seem stuck in an earlier era — the fact that birth...
  • Book Jacket: The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois
    The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois
    by Honorée Fannone Jeffers
    Honorée Fannone Jeffers' The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois explores the Black experience in ...
  • Book Jacket: Beautiful World, Where Are You
    Beautiful World, Where Are You
    by Sally Rooney
    Beautiful World, Where Are You centers around four key characters, the most prominent of which are ...

Book Club Discussion
Book Jacket
In Every Mirror She's Black
by Lola Akinmade Akerstrom
An arresting debut for anyone looking for insight into what it means to be a Black woman in the world.

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    The Last Chance Library
    by Freya Sampson

    Fans of libraries and heartfelt, humorous fiction won't want to miss this one!

  • Book Jacket

    Blind Man's Bluff
    by James Tate Hill

    A writer's humorous and often-heartbreaking tale of losing his sight—and how he hid it from the world.

Win This Book!
Win A Most Clever Girl

A Most Clever Girl by Stephanie Marie Thornton

A thrilling novel of love and espionage, based on the incredible true story of a Cold War double agent.

Enter

Wordplay

Solve this clue:

Run T G

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.