Author Hannah Pittard talks about her new book Visible Empire, a fictional retelling that explores the dichotomy of Atlanta’s greatest tragedy.
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It was June 1962, and 121 Atlantans boarded Air France Flight 007 headed home after a monthlong tour of European art. These were the city’s elite, some of the wealthiest members of society, cultural and civic leaders. The plane never made if into the air and ran off the end of the runway before crashing and catching on fire. Only two flight attendants survived, and it was, at the time, the worst single-aircraft disaster in history.
Mayor Ivan Allen Jr., who was friends with many of the deceased, called it “Atlanta’s greatest tragedy and loss,” while Malcolm X expressed joy that God “dropped an airplane out of the sky with over 120 white people on it” and called for it to happen again.
Author Hannah Pittard grew up in Atlanta and heard stories about the plane crash from her mom, who knew “orphans” whose parents had died that day. “Over the years she told me more and more stories and would allude to her own resultant fear of flying because of this crash that happened when she was a teenage girl in Atlanta,” Pittard says. “It was one of those events, an incident that really loomed large over the city, over my family, and from the time I was a little girl I was fascinated by it. My mother passed this obsession down to me accidentally—and a fear of flying down to me. For years I’ve been wanting to write about it, and I finally felt ready to take it on.”
She started doing research in the summer of 2014 when she arrived at the University of Kentucky to direct their MFA program in creative writing, but had already been thinking about storylines for a decade. She looked up old clippings from The Atlanta Journal Constitution to see how the story was covered and even ordered some vintage 1962 Playboy magazines. “I read all sorts of material to really try to get myself into the world and see what was going on an what people were concerned about,” she says.
She remembers the day she read the quote from the mayor about the crash being Atlanta’s greatest tragedy. “I had this sort of thump in my stomach of the gravity and the sadness,” she says. Later that same day, she came across the Malcolm X quote and knew she had a responsibility to show both sides. “I was there with these two quotes in front of me and realized it would be irresponsible and inappropriate to leave out the issue of race,” she explains. “I was very aware of the importance and gravitas of the Civil Rights Movement and Atlanta’s role in it. This is the event that makes the world watch. It’s a dichotomy that is sad how relevant it still is today.”
At the same time that more than 100 Atlantans were traveling to Paris to look at art, James Meredith was escorted into Ole Miss by U.S. Marshals, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech about the Emancipation Proclamation being a “promise unfulfilled,” and black and white people weren’t allowed to attend the same movie theaters in Atlanta.
In addition to creating several white characters affected by the crash, Pittard decided to also filter events through the eyes of 19-year-old African American character Piedmont Dobbs. After the pressure to become one of 10 students to enroll in Atlanta’s all-white public schools becomes too great, Piedmont leaves his mother’s house and decides to experience the world on his own. He soon learns that a black man can’t just drive around in a white man’s car in the dead of night with cash in his pocket.
It was just Piedmont now, just Piedmont and the Thunderbird’s headlights and those ghastly white wee-hour moths kamikaze-ing against the windshield and the crickets—a crescendo of crickets from all sides. He moved into fourth gear, pushed the odometer to seventy, and settled back against the cool white leather. This, this right here, was what it was all about.“
Piedmont’s late night adventures introduce him to characters Robert Tucker, an AJC journalist, his pregnant wife, Lily, and trust fund party boy P.T. Coleman. Pittard also includes Mayor Allen and his wife, Lulu, in her cast, along with Anastasia Rivers, a professional diver at the Radisson Hotel in downtown Atlanta, and Coleman’s aunt Genie Case. Pittard says she started with Robert, Piedmont and Anastasia but realized that other characters, like Coleman, needed their own chapters.
“I loved the work and imagination and diversity of thought that those three would require from me,” she says. “I wanted a challenge. When I started writing the book, I didn’t necessarily know how they would intersect.”
The mayor and his wife’s chapters are short and sweet but show a public figure attending funerals and trying to be strong for his constituents, while his wife falls apart at home. They are some of the most telling and fun to read. “To be able to come up with this device, this choral device, where we return to these two characters throughout the novel and watch as they are transitioning and grieving, that was lot of fun for me as a writer and also a useful tool to be able to bring in some of the historical events of the time [like Harry Belafonte being denied service in a local diner] ,” Pittard says.
Don’t you understand, Lulu? The world—not just the governor, not just the president—the world is watching. Right now, I am being watched. Do you understand? They want to know if we’ll ever stand up again. They want to know if this is the beginning of a spiral into the ground, or if we’ve got fight and life left in us yet. Don’t you see, Lulu? Don’t you see that? France is talking about sending us a goddamn Rodin, and you’re lying in bed like a child.“
Several of Pittard’s characters cross paths toward the end of the novel at a Fourth of July party at the Pink Chateau. Pittard imagined something Gatsby-esque and wanted to illustrate the lushness and hedonism of the time period. This final party shimmers with pink marble, afternoon fireworks flare overhead and a veranda looks out onto a “dreamlike swimming pool.”
It’s a scene not so different from the cover of Visible Empire, a Slim Ahrens photo of attractive people doing attractive things. “I don’t even care if people read it, they should buy it for the cover,” says Pittard. Her title Visible Empire was another matter. The original name of the book in her head was Atlanta 1962. She remembers at some point the title Invisible Empire being proposed—a reference to the name of the KKK—but she knew that wasn’t right and asked some colleagues for help. Visible Empire was an idea that made perfect sense and stuck.
“It’s a klan nod to a power that isn’t seen,” she says. “Visible Empire invites the question of our responsibility with regard to power we can see but choose to ignore or not to examine. A lot of readers won’t know what it’s a reference to until they come to that page in the book where Robert finds a KKK membership card. I think that good fiction and good literature invites readers to ask questions about how they live their lives.”
Visible Empire is one of our 2018 summer reads. View the full Summer Reading List here.