Hannah Pittard can’t remember when she first heard about the 1962 plane crash at Orly Field. The disaster, which killed 106 Atlantans on a chartered art tour to France, serves as the starting point for Pittard’s fourth novel, “Visible Empire,” which goes on to trace the grief and loss that rippled through a city just beginning to grapple with its own history. For Pittard, who grew up in Atlanta, the tragedy was part of family lore, a set of stories shared by her parents.
“My mom was 13 when it happened,” Pittard said. “My father was 20 when the plane went down. I grew up hearing anecdotes about those kids – those adult kids, specifically – who were left behind.”
The stories she heard were sad, but also wild: tales of sudden inheritance, family battles over fortunes and legacies, rifts revealed by the sudden, crushing news. In “Visible Empire,” the shock of the event sends ripples throughout Atlanta’s wealthiest neighborhoods, as bereaved spouses, parents, lovers, siblings and children try to figure out what life will hold for them after the worst has happened.
Pittard, who directs the graduate program in creative writing at the University of Kentucky, is tall and lanky. At 39, she projects a mix of athletic ease and academic earnestness; when we spoke at a writing conference in Tampa, the first thing I noticed was how carefully she speaks, rarely even using contractions.
She didn’t talk to Orly survivors in researching the book, Pittard said. Her main resources were “libraries, archives, and my mom and my dad. And that was deliberate. I was worried about the temptation to write a history and not a novel. I wanted to write a novel about how communities reconstruct their lives in the wake of extreme change,” she said. The idea of “extreme change and sudden loss,” she said, “has been an interest of mine since my very first novel. I was finally ready to take on the biggest one of all, which is how does a large community respond to a sudden departure, and a sudden extreme change?”
With the exception of Ivan Allen and his wife, Pittard invented all of the book’s main characters, fictional versions to stand in for the real people who lost loved ones at Orly. Anchored in history, the book is also “a real exercise in imagination to try to recreate Atlanta in 1962,” she said.
Along the way, she found some historical blind spots. “It was interesting to find, in the archives, Mayor Ivan Allen saying this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to Atlanta,” she said. “In fact, that’s not the worst thing that’s ever happened to Atlanta. Was it a tragedy? One hundred percent. Is it a tragedy that affected the city? Absolutely. Is it the greatest tragedy? No, not at all,” she added.
In 1962, after all, there were citizens of Atlanta who were struggling just to live, or whose attentions were turned more to civil rights than to French paintings. It was important, she said, to include characters from Atlanta’s black community. “Not everyone in Atlanta felt that crash, not in the way that the newspapers would have had us believe. It would have been just irresponsible to try to write a book about Atlanta in 1962 and not address the question of race.”
When inventing the book’s black characters, Pittard felt a duty to get it right. “I wanted to write about a character, somebody who your mayor, your white mayor, comes on the radio and says this is the worst thing that ever happened,” she said. “And all of a sudden, the world is paying attention! France is sending a Rodin, and Kennedy is calling, and people are visiting. But what no one is paying attention to, even though Atlanta suddenly has the spotlight, no one’s paying attention to legalized racism.”
Aware of the difficulties writing about characters from different racial backgrounds, Pittard showed the manuscript to friends and colleagues of color to make sure she wasn’t slipping into stereotypes. She took their suggestions and made revisions. The literary world’s conversation about who has the right to tell certain stories is a necessary one, Pittard agreed, but at the same time, she added, “if somebody were to tell me that I could only write about me, and only write about my experiences, I would probably hand in my badge and say I’m going to find something else to do. I like the act of empathy, I like the act of imagining. I will hopefully continue to do it and make mistakes and get things right occasionally for the rest of my life.”
The book’s focus on privilege and its discontents stems in part from Pittard’s own life. “I grew up thinking that we had a lot more money than we did,” she said. “What my parents did was spend money that didn’t exist. Atlanta is very interesting when it comes to money,” she added. “There’s a lot of it, and I think it doesn’t get talked about. It’s not just Atlanta, though; the disconnect between what people have, and how they have it, and privileges being reconsidered … That’s something that I’m seeing now everywhere. And that’s why I’m really glad that I wasn’t emotionally, spiritually able to write this book until I was. Because I think now more than ever, we are seeing people having to renegotiate, reconsider privileges that have been taken for granted.”
The tension between fearfulness and bravery runs through the book, as well as Pittard’s earlier novels. That, too, has its roots in her personal story.
“I grew up with a mother who was terrified to fly” because of Orly, she said. “She used to record herself before any flight, like a last will and testament. And she would put it in a box, tape it up, and write, ‘only to be opened upon my death’.”
But change can also inspire courage. Friendly as she is now, Pittard was once painfully shy. Following the death of her beloved stepfather, she says, she “made a very deliberate effort in my late 20s to stop being an introvert.”
“I hope that it invites readers to ask themselves questions,” she said. “If tomorrow is the first day of the rest of my life, what do I want to do differently? If there is a change I can make, what do I want it to be? Because I think we really can start – I think we can become different people if we want to. I think that this book is about starting over and reconstructing, forming a life with new material after the old material has been taken away.”
Hannah Pittard. 7 p.m. June 5. $10. Margaret Mitchell House, 979 Crescent Ave. Atlanta. 404-814-4000, www.atlantahistorycenter.com.