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.

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