Devil’s Lake


Interview with Hannah Pittard

Q: Your debut novel, The Fates Will Find Their Way, came out about a year ago from Ecco and is about a teenage girl named Nora Lindell who mysteriously disappears on Halloween. I’m really interested in this archetype of the girl who goes missing—it seems to be showing up more and more in our culture. I’m thinking of works like David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Heidi Julavits’s The Uses of Enchantment, and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. What do you make of this American fascination with missing girls?

What I can tell you is this: If I could change one thing about the book, it might be the fact that a girl goes missing. The fact that she’s gone was meant simply as a launching pad from which to explore a few of the things I’m interested in: male sexuality, teenage sexuality, delayed adulthood, prolonged adolescence, the power of memory, the faultiness of memory, etc., etc. All of my short stories (which I was writing before I wrote the novel) explore the idea of loss—a lost dog, a dead dad, a missing baby. If something goes missing, you almost always get a story out of it, don’t you? Things can’t possibly keep going as if nothing has changed, can they?

All of my short stories explore the idea of loss—a lost dog, a dead dad, a missing baby. If something goes missing, you almost always get a story out of it, don’t you?

Q: Your title, as evidenced in the book’s epigraph, is taken from a line in Virgil’s The Aeneid: What each man does will shape his trial and fortune. / For Jupiter is king to all alike; the fates will find their way. Here we have two bodies of work more than two thousand years aparthow do you think the classics can inform the craft of contemporary literature?

I think we have no business writing if we haven’t read the classics. It’s our job to know where the art form comes from. How else can we see where it’s headed? See where we want it to be headed? To me, reading the classics feels something akin to standing on a very tall ladder (impossibly tall, if we’re going to get all literary) and looking out at the world. Things just look different.

Q: I see that The Fates Will Find Their Way is also available as an e-book for Amazon Kindle. As a writer at the beginning of her career, how do you feel about publishing’s assumed trajectory towards the electronic? Will the physical book as we now know it ever be dead?

I won’t lie: I have no idea what the literary terrain will look like in twelve months, much less twelve years, and that frightens me. I’m glad that my book is available for e-readers simply because the devices exist, and I don’t want to limit my potential audience. That said, if I could erase the e-reader and its cohorts from existence, I would. I would erase our memory of them. Everything. I might even erase the internet while I was at it. I’m old school, through and through. I’ll be reading the paper form until it doesn’t exist anymore, and then my heart will break, and then I’ll start re-reading all the classics I’ve been neglecting because in my house, on my bookshelves, at least books will always exist in the paper form.

Q: It seems like workshops and MFA programs have been under a lot of scrutiny lately. You graduated from the MFA Program in Fiction at the University of Virginia, and you’re currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at DePaul University. What do you think the relationship between writing and academia should be? Is the workshop Satan, Savior, neither, a little of both?

Workshop isn’t Satan. There might be bad workshops out there, but anyone who makes such a blanket statement regarding workshops is either looking for attention, uninformed, or being deliberately provocative, all of which are boring. Here’s what UVA was to me: time to write. And then, after a little while, it became more than that. It became a way to get better. Time alone can’t help a writer improve. And at first, I think there was very little movement in my own writing. But then I had Ann Beattie for one quarter. She ripped apart every story I wrote. She challenged me to stop being lazy. She pointed out my tics. She accused me of favoring style over substance. These things devastated me, but it was exactly what I needed to hear. I took the advice she gave me, spent the summer between first and second year following it, and by my third semester, I was writing on a completely new (and, I think, higher) level. Can I guarantee that every MFA student at every school has a similar experience? Absolutely not. But every MFA student should have time, and in that time she should be reading, writing, thinking, creating. That’s a luxury that ends, for most of us, when the program ends. I began waiting tables full-time after I graduated. I didn’t stop writing, but the time that I had to devote to it was less.

I’m old school through and through. I’ll be reading the paper form until it doesn’t exist anymore, and then my heart will break …

I understand both sides of the question, though. I don’t mean to ignore the subtext. Workshop has been accused of dumbing down stories. How many times have I heard the phrase, "soul-less workshop story"? Even better, how many times have I used the phrase myself? But to suggest that every program is somehow producing literary robots, well that’s just naïve. I suspect those soul-less stories have more to do with the individual writer than they do with the program, the workshop, the faculty members, or even the peers. Just because you enter a program doesn’t mean you stop living. So this idea that writers are birthed either from New York City or from a program (and that their true worth can somehow be measured by their literary womb) is just nonsense. Nonsense!

Q: Could you talk a little bit about what you’re reading and watching now?

I just finished listening (while walking my dog and doing the dishes) to The Marriage Plot and Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. For the most part, when I’m teaching, I’m almost always only re-reading. So what I’m re-reading right now is Anagrams, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Jesus’ Son, Walks With Men, Bright Lights Big City, Interpreter of Maladies, Where I’m Calling From, The Moviegoer, and In the Lake of the Woods. Not bad company to keep for three quarters every year!

I’m watching Top Chef, though I’m a little disappointed so far, and I’m fascinated by Showtime’s Luck. Can’t wait to see where it goes. Unfortunately, an addiction I developed for Castle hasn’t yet died. It’s all about the text messages my sister and I send back and forth during the show, but still I won’t lie—there’s something mildly charming happening there. I will be watching Downton (season 2) the minute I have time. I loved the first season and I plan to be equally moved (like everyone else) by the second. I can tell you the show that everyone else is watching: Portlandia. This isn’t to say that I haven’t seen a few episodes, but there’s something in the air right now with that show. It’s impossible to walk my dog without someone asking me if I’ve seen it. Sometimes I think someone’s videoing the entire thing: us watching them watching us. Spooky.

HANNAH PITTARD is the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Fates Will Find Their Way. She is the winner of the 2006 Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award, the recipient of a 2012 MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and a consulting editor for Narrative Magazine. She is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Fiction at DePaul University.