Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Hannah Pittard

In books, fiction, short stories, writing on February 9, 2011 at 6:24 pm

Hannah Pittard

Hannah Pittard. Photo by Marissa Bell Toffoli (2011).

An introduction to the author of the debut novel The Fates Will Find Their Way (Ecco, 2011). Hannah Pittard confesses a few obsessions, and shares advice she gives to her writing students at DePaul University. She’s articulate, she’s a serious thinker, she’s got a sense of humor, and she’s out to break your heart.

Quick Facts on Hannah Pittard

  • Hannah Pittard’s website
  • Home: Chicago, Illinois
  • Comfort food: spicy food
  • Top reads: Anagrams by Lorrie Moore, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, I. by Stephen Dixon, “Pet Milk” from The Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek, Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
  • Current reads: rereading both Stephen Dixon’s I. and Patrick Somerville’s The Universe in Miniature in Miniature

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a book, but not nearly as much as I want to because of teaching. Teaching is incredibly demanding. I love it, but this is my fist year teaching full-time, three classes every quarter. There’s just not that much time to do my own work if I demand a lot from my students, which I do, which means I have to give them a lot back.

I guess I’m sort of a sprinter when it comes to writing. It happens in spurts, but when it does happen it happens a lot at once. I have something to think about, and as long as I have something to think about it’s sort of the same as writing. The plotting is always happening in my head.

Where did the idea for The Fates Will Find Their Way come from?

The themes of the book were a long time coming. I was going through some of my old notebooks after I had sold the book and I found this moment where it said, “How about the idea of somebody seeing somebody else for the last time and they don’t even know it?” The notebook was probably ten years old and I thought, “Man, apparently I’m obsessed with this idea.” Definitely, it’s a book about obsessions.

I started the book in October of 2008 and I wrote the first ten pages. It was Halloween, the time change had just happened, and I was just in a mood of regret and thinking about adulthood, how strange it was. In 2009, I sat down and I wrote from April to September, and the book was done.

Writing in one chunk like that was good for me; I think it kept the voice consistent and I never really faltered. I maintained the mood. It was always in my head, the boys were always in my head.

“One idea can get me a lot of distance.”

One idea can get me a lot of distance. That’s how my short stories always started—with a sentence. I would just be so attached to it that I’d be determined to make a story out of it. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.

What do you hope readers will take away from your work?

I hope I get readers. I like that there are readers. I hope that they take away the same thing that I take away from a great story that I’ve read, or a great book—that feeling of (for lack of a better word, and what I call it when I’m teaching), that “oh shit” feeling that you’ve been caught. That somebody else has had this same feeling, whether it’s a terrible feeling, or a great feeling, or a shameful feeling. That there is this strange thing in common and it’s been captured. Hopefully, captured in a way that you’d never thought of before, but the minute you read it, it felt so entirely familiar and ubiquitous. That is what I’m after.

Where and when do you prefer to write?

I like writing at home. There is no schedule. Sometimes I have Law & Order on in the background just to keep it that un-intimidating. For me, it is turning my brain off and tapping into some other place.

“For me, it is turning my brain off

and tapping into some other place.”

What I do at home feels very intense and very isolating. When I know that I’m going to be writing I sort of have to approach my computer from an angle, like I have to sneak up on it. It’s more like I’m sneaking up on my brain. I can get very uncomfortable with how very isolating it can be. Once I’m in that mood and in that moment, I find it incredibly addictive.

I went through a phase where I liked coffee shops and I suspect that I will go through that again. Every once in a while I need to go to a coffee shop for the noise and the distraction, but usually the noise and distraction prove too much for me. I end up watching, or eavesdropping, or just focusing on things that I’m not supposed to be focused on.

Where would you most want to live and write?

Lately, I’m torn between thinking that I am definitely a city person and thinking that I really miss the privacy of being in the country.

Mostly, it’s a room. I cannot wait to have a house, to have a home with my boyfriend that we don’t have to pack up and move every year. I would not say that it needs to be in any specific place, but I would like an office so that I never have to worry about packing all of my books again. I would like it to have a window. That would be fine.

Do you listen to music when you work?

No music. If it’s quiet in the background, maybe. Some Tom Waits played really, really low would be fine. But the minute I can hear it—John Prine playing really, really low—but the minute I can hear those lyrics, that’s all I’m listening to.

Do you have a philosophy for why you write?

Definitely, the audience. Writing is such a funny thing in general because we do it because we want people to read it. Ultimately, it becomes this public thing.

I didn’t keep a journal as a child, because I just didn’t see the point. I would make up lies and tell these stories in my diary when I was really little. I would leave it around for people to find, often with the key on top of the diary. I would be devastated when nobody would read it. I thought, “I really don’t understand the point of this thing if nobody is trying to read it.”

So then I just switched over to stories. I had to make sure people would read them. I’d write “For Mom. Please read. This is a story. It’s meant to be read.”

“This is a story. It’s meant to be read.”

I get a lot of comfort from writing. I get a lot of calm. I am somewhat depression-prone and writing gets me out of it every single time.

How do you balance content with form?

When it comes to essays and stories and books, I’m a bit of a pack rat. I have looked at essays and maybe even some stories from high school, from multiple teachers who would write, in different ways, what essentially always boiled down to, “Don’t sacrifice content for style.” At 14 to 18, I couldn’t wrap my head around that idea.

When I got to the University of Virginia, I think Ann Beattie was the one who said it to me again. Ten years had passed since the first time that I’d heard it. I really started to understand that the writing did have to have a point; it couldn’t just be about a voice or a style.

Although, I am still absolutely motivated by voice and how something sounds. I firmly believe that if the writing doesn’t sound good out loud, it cannot sound good when you’re reading it in your head. I understand now that it has to do more than that; it also has to affect someone.

“If I can break my own heart,

I think that maybe I have a chance

of breaking the reader’s heart.”

When I read aloud to myself, I am trying to break my heart. If I can break my own heart, I think that maybe I have a chance of breaking the reader’s heart. And that’s what I want. I think that’s what reminds us that we’re alive. Experiencing pain is what makes experiencing pleasure possible.

Is there a quote that inspires you?

I would look to something like a William Gass quote. It’s more like a quote that breaks my heart, that sounds good and also does the breaking of the heart. From In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, he’s got this line: “For I’m the sort now in the fool’s position of having love left over which I’d like to lose; what good is it now to me, candy ungiven after Halloween?”

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Don’t be lazy. Read everything out loud.

I teach some of my favorite books. Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son are great books to teach because students often haven’t read them before. They have this moment where I can see them thinking the same thing I thought when I read these for the first time, which was “Oh my god, I didn’t know you were allowed to do that.” It forces them to reconsider some of the preconceived, traditional ways of writing that they’re used to. I have no problem with traditional writing, but I think it’s nice to have the standards shaken up, and then start again.

“It’s nice to have the standards shaken up,

and then start again.”

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

Chris Tilghman, who was my first writing teacher at the University of Virginia, talked about the fact that you will be in school with writers better than you; you will meet writers who are better than you. One of the differences is half of them give up. It is about being willing to keep going in the face of adversity.

What do you find most challenging about writing?

All of it. I’m not kidding. I think it’s one of the easiest and hardest things to do. It’s very instinctive. I tell myself stories all the time; I love writing it down. But, it is an isolating process, and for me, for somebody who already tends to look inward, tends toward being an introvert, I see the dangers of writing. I constantly have to make sure that I don’t abandon reality, because there is that temptation on a daily basis.

Also revision, and editing, is a hard part of writing. It will always be. I take criticism really poorly.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I’m a runner. I like to run. I come up with a lot of ideas when I’m running. I don’t listen to music. I’m constantly talking to myself. I can work through hard scenes that way.

When I’m not writing, I’m running, or walking my dog, or talking to my dog—I put the mother in smother when it comes to this dog; or cutting up things in the kitchen for my boyfriend—I am his sous-chef; or I’m drinking wine. And I read, obviously, and grade papers.

About Hannah Pittard

Hannah Pittard’s fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s, the Oxford American, The Mississippi Review, BOMB, Nimrod, and StoryQuarterly, and was included in 2008 Best American Short Stories’ 100 Distinguished Stories. She is the recipient of the 2006 Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award, a graduate of the University of Virginia’s MFA program, and the author of the novel The Fates Will Find Their Way. She divides her time between Charlottesville and Chicago, where she currently teaches fiction at DePaul University.

Buy the book, preferably at your local independent bookstore.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Hannah Pittard.” Words With Writers (February 9, 2011), https://wordswithwriters.com/2011/02/09/hannah-pittard/.%5D

The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard

The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard (Ecco, 2011).

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