Hannah Pittard is the author of four novels, including Listen to Me and the forthcoming Atlanta, 1962. Her second novel, Reunion, was named a Millions‘ Most Anticipated Book, a Chicago Tribune Editor’s Choice, a BuzzFeed Top-5 Great Book, a Best New Book by People Magazine, a Top-10 Read by Bustle Magazine and LibraryReads, a Must-Read by TimeOut Chicago, and a Hot New Novel by Good Housekeeping. Her debut, The Fates Will Find Their Way, was an Oprah Magazine selection, an Indie Next pick, a Powell’s Indiespendible Book Club Pick, and a “best of” selection by The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune, Details Magazine, The Kansas City Star, Chicago Magazine, Chicago Reader, and Hudson Booksellers. She is the winner of the 2006 Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award, a MacDowell Colony Fellow, and a consulting editor for Narrative Magazine. She teaches English at the University of Kentucky.
To read an exercise on creating an emotional backdrop for characters based on Listen to Me, click here.
In this interview, Pittard discusses finding the timeframe for a novel, zigzagging structure, and a difference between long and short novels.
From the beginning I was interested in writing a novel that took place over the course of a single day and concentrated on a single action. I’m fascinated with the treatment of time in fiction and I have a lot conversations with myself while I’m writing about the constraints and advantages of short stretches of time vs. long stretches of time. My first novel spans approximately four decades. Deciding what to include as scene (vs. summary) was such an intense process. In many ways, the chapters of that novel (The Fates Will Find Their Way) became for me like sentences in a short story. Every chapter needed to be as tight and deliberate and relevant as possible. Nothing was included that wasn’t essential, which is how I write my short stories (or try to…) I knew in crafting a novel that took place over the course 24 hours, I’d be relying more than usual on summary, backstory, and flashbacks. In general, I’m a writer who likes to stay away from all those things, concentrating instead on juxtapositions between observation and scene and the implications of the quiet ellipses that exist off the page. It was only during later drafts that I realized I would need to fill out those two major events you’re referring to. I put up a fight at first but I’m so glad that I eventually gave in. I think those moments away from the “present tense” of the narrative provide such a necessary reprieve from the current action.
The novel opens with scenes that anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship will recognize: disagreements over mundane issues like walking the dog, packing the car, and taking out the garbage. What I found so refreshing about the novel is how the tension from those disagreements really forms the basis of the plot. Many of the early scenes are simply Mark and Maggie together in the car, feeling each other out. As a reader, I found these scenes really engaging and suspenseful. How did you approach suspense and tension in those scenes?
I have never considered myself a suspenseful writer, but I came up with a method for the alternating chapters of this novel and I think somehow it (the suspense) just fell into place. In moving from chapter to chapter, I gave myself the rule of always moving forward in time and place (allowing for occasional flashbacks within each chapter). Next I tried always to pick up close to where Maggie or Mark might have left off but never exactly where the other had ended. Instead of a straight line, I imagined instead a zigzagging thunderbolt that moved right to left, upward and away. I also tried never to allow Mark and Maggie to consider the same moment (with a few key exceptions, including the cowboy and the sex). Somehow, this uneven and off-kilter back and forth provided the perfect balance for whatever suspense does exist.
In the blurbs on the back of the book, several writers remark on how they read the novel in one sitting, which is easy to do as it’s less than 200 pages long. As a writer, I would imagine that this length would make the novel easier to hold in your head, more like a story. Was that the case? How did the process of writing this novel compare to your others, which are about 100 pages longer?
Man… This novel took me longer than any book or story I’ve ever written. It’s short, you’re right, but there was nothing easy for me in its creation. As with the stories I write, every word in this book mattered to me. And given the aspect of suspense and the moodiness of the Maggie’s fear and Mark’s frustration, it was essential to me that it be as terse and swift as possible.