An Interview with Hannah Pittard

Can childhood wounds ever heal? Maybe, says the author.

An Interview with Hannah Pittard

In Hannah Pittard’s latest novel, Reunion, Kate Pulaski is facing the end of her marriage when she gets the news that her estranged father, Stan, has committed suicide. She returns to her hometown for the funeral and reunites with her brother and sister, as well as her many half siblings and her father’s string of ex-spouses. What follows is a story of self-reflection and coming to terms with the legacy of a dysfunctional family.

Kate comes from a troubled family and bears the emotional scars to prove it. At 34, she’s still getting to know herself and remains child-like in some ways. To compensate, she’s ambitious and overeducated but, sadly, underemployed. Is Kate emblematic of Generation-Y?

As I imagine it, Kate was born sometime in the late 70s, which — I think — puts her outside the Gen-Y/Millennial categorization. That said, even if she were the right age, I suspect she’d balk at the label. She seems inclined to fight everything and everyone, even her creator. But, to be less coy, I’d probably say, yes, she’s very much characteristic of that dreaded generation, which strikes me as yet another reason she must feel adrift.

Kate’s father, Stan, commits suicide. His death serves as an organizing principle for the novel without overshadowing the deeper themes in the story, like shame, vulnerability, and personal reflection. How did you accomplish that?

It’s very important to me as a writer — especially with first-person narratives — that no story ever be limited to the one the narrator thinks he’s telling. There must, of course, be the surface story — oh, this is an anecdote about the time I went to a dance all by myself — and the “accidental” story, the one the narrator unintentionally reveals: Oh, and by the way, at this dance, I saw my father with a lady not my mother and, incidentally, I kissed a woman, but that’s beside the point. I am always looking for the “beside the point” moments in life and seeking to find ways to incorporate them into my writing, as these moments are almost always “the point.” Working on Reunion and thinking about surface vs. “accidental” stories, I was pleased to find that Kate — a self-absorbed liar — made for an excellent medium for just this sort of verticality of narrative. When she says, “This is not a story about my father,” she genuinely believes that, which is both utterly honest and terrifically naïve because, well, you know, it is a story about her father. Without her father’s suicide, the story wouldn’t exist.

Reunion is named after a short story by John Cheever in which a young boy meets with his estranged father for an hour and a half. The father, an alcoholic who’s possibly suffering from a personality disorder, is incapable of connecting with his son. What inspired you about the story?

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it suggested that he’s suffering from a personality disorder. That’s rather priceless. Something I love about the story is — against my better judgment — just how charming the estranged father is. “Garcon! Garcon!” I cringe just recalling his drunken and flamboyant requests for more booze and, yet, I’m also grinning wildly. What Cheever achieves with “Reunion” is, in my opinion, about as good as fiction gets. He causes the reader great discomfort — No, no, no, we think, be just a little less drunk at this bar, please! That same reader manages to be both enamored of the estranged father and thankful that he is not our own. Lucretius recounts a time when, standing on a great cliff, he witnessed a ship in the distance come into contact with a deadly storm. It’s an apocryphal tale, I suspect, but the story goes that, from where he watched, safe from the weather, men began jumping overboard as the ship was bullied apart by the waves and wind. His first feeling — and this should make you think long and hard about your own “first feelings” — wasn’t sorrow, but relief. “That’s not me,” he essentially thinks, grateful all at once for his own healthy life. Later, of course, he thinks, “Those poor men…”

Peter is Kate’s husband, and she was caught cheating on him before her father’s death. In some ways, Peter acts as the father figure Kate always wanted: Unlike Stan, he supports her financially, loves her despite her flaws, and believes in her. Why isn’t this enough?

The hackneyed answer: The heart wants what the heart wants. The less hackneyed answer has something to do with the way we feel when the people closest to us see us fail or underperform or, worse, make actively bad decisions. Maybe not everyone is this way but, for instance, when I disappoint my husband and when I know he’s right to be disappointed (because, you know, I’ve seriously blundered in some ethical or moral way), my instinct is (and about in this order) to get mad (at him); to get sad (ideally as a way to manipulate him into forgiving me, though I know I haven’t earned it); to search my memory for a time when he had a moral failing (to use as a reminder that we are fallible, which ideally would get me off the proverbial hook); and then, finally, to acknowledge aloud that I was wrong, apologize, and seek ways to correct as best I can. The point is, Kate has been her worst around Peter and to him. More than anyone else, she has let him down. That he continues to love her is too much. She doesn’t deserve it. And so, rather than say his love “isn’t enough,” I think I’m inclined to say it’s too much.

Feeling trapped after Peter pressures her into trying to adopt a baby, Kate sabotages their relationship by having an affair. Is it just that Kate really doesn’t want kids, or do you think she’s terrified to share her husband with a child, the same way she had to share her father with her many half-brothers and sisters? How does the early death of Kate’s mother play into her character in this respect?

Yes, yes, yes. All this and more. In the marriage, she’s the child, yes? So if there’s a real child suddenly in the room, won’t her constant transgressions and foibles (some loveable, most not) be all the more unforgivable? Additionally, her feelings toward her husband are already tenuous, in part because she seems — especially when we meet her — genuinely not to know herself. Now imagine giving this woman a baby. Would she know how to love it? Would she even know, for that matter, what it felt like if she did love it? Kate is the little kid at Christmastime who insists all month long that she doesn’t want a gift. When Christmas day comes and there’s no gift, she’s disappointed. Yet, she has no one to be mad at but herself. What she realizes — maybe the next day, maybe years and years later — is that what she truly wanted was for her father or her mother or her sister or her brother to look inside her soul and see what she wanted without being told. She wanted to be known completely, which is, of course, a recipe for disappointment.

There’s a powerful flashback where Kate recalls a moment of mutual dishonesty between her and her father. From that point on, she withholds truth and keeps secrets. Why? What about that moment gave it a kind of permanency in her behavior?

You’re referring to Kate’s “origin story,” as in, the origin of her dishonesty. The moment (which comes in the form of a chapter called “A memory!”) is written in second person, a voice of detachment. Kate is watching her childhood self relive the scenario of her first memorable lie. Though detached (because she’s not yet ready for her epiphany), Kate recalls the events in present tense, that’s how vivid the occasion is to her still. What I love about this chapter is that Kate gives the reader the details and then moves on. She doesn’t offer her own judgments or analyses; she simply gives us the facts as clearly and candidly as she can. I see the memory of this moment as an instance of growing up for adult Kate. For child Kate, the actual moment is wrought with sadness and confusion and, bizarrely, triumph. She tells her father a silly little lie. Though he knows she is lying (and she knows he knows), he does not question her. He lets the lie stand. It is the end of childhood for Kate, the moment after which nothing will be the same. Her father has surprised her, disappointed her, but also made available to her a world she’d never before considered. I want to give Kate a hug just thinking about it.

Do you feel sympathy for Stan? Are his four subsequent marriages after the death of his first wife (Kate’s mom) just a way of coping?

I feel sympathy for Stan because, at the end of his life, he was confused. He didn’t know up from down. His brain was at odds with his body. The woman he loved (Kate’s fifth stepmother) became a stranger to him. Regardless of who he was prior to the suicide or why he did what he did during the bulk of his life, I’m inclined to feel deep sympathy for just about anyone whose mind jumps ship prematurely. It sounds like living hell.

The relationship between Kate and her siblings is touching and sometimes rocky. Kate is the youngest of the three, and she’s different from her siblings. For instance, they are financially stable and independent, albeit unhappy in their own ways. The biggest difference between Kate and her siblings is that she lacks their maturity and emotional intelligence. Is this because Kate, being the youngest (and the last to leave the house), had to endure more of Stan’s machinations?

That was certainly my intention! Kate, trapped as she was and is (albeit sometimes wittingly) in an adolescent frame of mind, understood her older siblings’ exodus from home-to-college as abandonment. She took their natural and proper departure personally. Combine that with a solipsistic father who marries and reproduces like it’s going out of style and I think, very easily, you end up with an emotionally stunted young woman.

Is Stan responsible for Kate’s problems in adulthood?

Yikes. I knew of a therapist when I was little who used to say, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” She said it to me a lot while I was in the midst of an unhappy childhood and, as a result, I’ve always taken issue with the logic. Without sounding too ooey-gooey, I’d perhaps offer a different take: It’s never too late to have a happy life. Period. Is Stan responsible? Perhaps to a degree, but, at some point, Kate must become the hero of her own story, yes? We all must. I don’t much go in for looking back when looking forward is still an option.

How do adult children forgive and accept their parents?  

Oof. You are killing me! There are many parents who shouldn’t be forgiven. I believe that. But for the ones who deserve it, who are in many ways still children themselves (though they might be 60, 70, 80 years old), how about starting with this basic acknowledgment: I (the child) am 20 years further from death than they (the parent). Twenty years! It’s a blip on the radar in the grand scale of things, but it’s also 20 whole wonderful years during which I (the child again) get to continue living and fighting and sorting things out. Is forgiveness really that hard?

[Editor's note: Click here to read the Independent's review of Reunion.]

Dorothy Reno is a DC-based writer who’s been published by Red Tuque Books and is working on a collection of stories called The One that Got Away.

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