The author of Listen To Me talks about the summer drive that inspired her book, writing real characters and being afraid of the dark.
A multi-state road trip with a couple and their dog gone awry. What more could you ask for in a summer read? How about plenty of suspense, an inside look at a marriage and a tightly woven story you won’t be able to put down. With praise from writers like M.O Walsh and Jill McCorkle, Hannah Pittard‘s Listen To Me puts you in the car with a husband and wife whose marriage is stressed to the limit and lets you ride it out as they find themselves in dangerous territory.
School is out, and Mark and Maggie are ready to make their annual drive east from Chicago to Virginia. Only they’re late getting on the road, a storm is coming and they’re not really speaking to each other. Maggie was recently mugged at gunpoint and is fearful of almost everything, a trait her husband is beginning to find annoying. When they are forced to stop for the night at a mountain inn with no power, Mark finds himself threatened in a dark parking lot. As Mark confronts what kind of person he really is, Maggie discovers she’s not as helpless as she thinks.
Hitchcockian is one way Listen To Me has been described in reviews, and it’s probably the best word for the way Pittard presents her brand of psychological suspense. Turns out she didn’t entirely make up the story though. We talked to her about her own summer drive that put she and her husband in a dark motel, her views on marriage, her personal fears and what she advises you bring along on a road trip.
Chat with Hannah Pittard on Twitter Tuesday, July 5 (her pub date!) from 7-8 p.m. CST (8-9 EST, 5-6 PST) using the hashtag #southernlit.
EZB: Listen To Me is based on the simple premise of a couple taking a road trip, but you add in all of these psychological factors going on with them to elevate the story to another level. Where did that idea first start and how did it evolve?
HP: Probably five summers ago, my husband and I were making one of our annual drives east from Chicago to Charlottesville, Virginia, where both our sets of parents live. We have a dog, we do not have children. This will sound familiar. It’s a drive that I am incredibly familiar with. I would never need GPS. I know the turns like the back of my hand, so things start to deviate pretty quickly between the fictional version and my real-life version. So, we were making this drive and we did get off to a late start and we might have been fighting, as couples will fight, and we were driving into a multi state storm … We got on the road, and around midnight I got tired. We probably still had another five hours to go, we had driven in and out of some storms, so we started looking for hotels and every single one of them was booked.
To make a long story short, her sister books them a hotel online that’s located about 20 miles from the interstate.
HP: So, we take this exit and almost immediately I am regretting what we’re doing because almost immediately it’s clear that this hotel is 20 miles into the middle of nowhere and, [like] Maggie, I do not love the dark. I do get a little bit fearful, especially in the wilderness. We ended up at a hotel without power in the middle of nowhere. So we ended up spending the night. I did not sleep. It was 90 degrees in the room, because there was no air conditioning. My dog didn’t sleep. My husband slept, I think, a little bit. What I remember is just lying there awake being so mad at myself, being so terrified, knowing that being terrified was pointless and silly because I knew I was so safe, but I also remember thinking this is a pretty good setup for a book.
EZB: The book could be described as a portrait of a marriage because of the way Mark and Maggie go back and forth between loving and being annoyed with each other. That’s pretty much the way that marriage goes.
HP: It is the way that marriage goes, and what I tell my students when they come to my office and ask me what should I write about, I say just tell the truth. I feel like what I was trying to do with this marriage was capture at least my understanding of what longterm committed relationships are. They’re absolutely insane. It’s madness to some degree that we inflict this on ourselves, but at the same time there is nothing like having one other person in the world know you better than anybody else. And it can be excruciating, and it can be absolutely stunning. So I really wanted to look at that, and also writing for me is very much an attempt at catharsis and I think everything that I’m working on I’m trying to make sense of my own life or the lives of the people around me. I do that through the sort of insular activity of sitting down and making characters up, but I’m making them up in order to understand what’s actually happening.
EZB: Maggie is afraid of so many things during the trip, mainly as a result of her recent mugging, but they’re also things that many of us would be afraid of anyway, such as being in an unlocked car in a dark parking lot. What were you trying to say about fear and what we should be afraid of in today’s world?
HP: I’ve admitted being afraid of the dark. I will admit I definitely have more fears than I would like and I probably entertain more fears than most healthy, happy, well-adjusted people do. It started really fascinating me probably 2008, 2009. I was teaching night school, and it just so happened that the workshop I was teaching happened at night. We would meet from 6-9 once a week for 10 weeks. They had my classroom in I believe it was one of the nursing buildings. It was a place that at least in the summer while I was teaching these workshops at night was fairly empty and would feel fairly abandoned and remote. I would usually walk to these workshops and that meant I would be walking home at 9:30 or 10, and the first half mile of the walk leaving the building was pretty dark. At a certain point you would hit the bars and the restaurants that Charlottesville is known for and the students would show up, but the first half mile out of the building was fairly remote and dark.
One night, I was walking and I had gotten out of the parking lot and I had started up a hill and there was a streetlamp and the streetlamp was off. I remember that so well. Ahead of me I saw a young woman from my class who was also walking home and I didn’t want to run to catch up with her because I thought I’d scare her so I started walking quickly. I had about a block to gain in order to catch up with her, and I started walking quickly and I was thinking this is even more terrifying than if I were running at her possibly. I noticed her body language changed the closer I got. I’m walking very quickly to her, you can hear my keys, you can hear my bag, her body language changed, her shoulders raised up. She didn’t stop walking, she didn’t even start walking faster, and amazingly she didn’t even turn around to look at who was approaching really quickly. So I caught up to her and she kind of jumped and she said oh thank god it’s you, and I said I can’t believe you didn’t turn around to see who was coming at you so quickly. She said — and it made so much sense, but it was so crazy and I’ve done the same thing a million times — she said I didn’t want to be rude.
… I’m really interested with the way that because of the social contracts that we have or because of wanting to be polite, sometimes we don’t make the right or the smart choices and sometimes we end up overcorrecting or over-exaggerating in order to make other people comfortable.
EZB: You’ve said in a past interview that you’re not trying to write about women who are likable or that we would want to have as our friends. Is Maggie a likable character?
HP: I love women. I love reading female characters. I love talking with real female people. Starting as early as middle school, I have had a very rocky relationship first with other girls and and with young women. Now in my quote unquote middle age, I am learning to appreciate all of the amazing wonderful things that other women have to offer, but as a school girl I was made fun of. I think that a lot of it was my own insecurity … Fast forward to high school, I carried that same sort of insecurity with me. I desperately wanted to be popular. I desperately wanted to be liked. Even more than wanting to be liked and wanting to be popular, again I was terrified of rejection. I isolated myself. You can see how this relationship, specifically with women, it’s definitely influencing my understanding of the female brain. I saw the female brain as very complex and very intrigued by intrigue. And it’s not something that I always saw captured on the page of current, popular fiction.
I think whatever I said was a response to the likable female character debate when Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs came out. Her response was so great, which was like but this is a ridiculous question. And she’s right. It’s a ridiculous question, but I also don’t need my women to be quote unquote likable, because I don’t need characters to be likable, I just need them to tell the truth. I’m hoping that Maggie is a realistic woman, which means there’s days that you love her and there are days that you would probably like not to have lunch with her because she’s being a little bit too crazy.
EZB: In terms of your writing style, every once in a while you take us out of the car with Mark and Maggie and up into what’s happening in the clouds or deep beneath the Earth. What were you trying to accomplish with those passages and were they a part of your original draft?
Those were very much a part of the original draft and, in fact, in a very, very early draft all of the sections that existed like that they were all much longer. One thing that I’m very interested in as a writer is the artifice of storytelling. It’s not real, but as I’ve said before, most of us are trying to tell the truth with it. We’re trying to get at something like what Faulkner talks about the human heart in conflict with itself. We’re trying to get at something real and something true and honest, but it is a lie. It is an act.
… I wanted this text to talk about the way that a day is just a day on the one hand, a moment is just a moment, it’s just another 24 hours, but on the other hand look at how much can happen in just five seconds. Look at all of the huge decisions that we make in our lives that we make so quickly. There are these instances where Mark and Maggie are given opportunity to make decisions that potentially impact the next 40 years. I’m hoping that with Listen To Me I’m tapping into something that is universal or at least that other people are aware of and struggle with.
A few miles east of where Mark and Maggie’s car was currently at a standstill—925 feet below the surface–was the deepest point of Lake Michigan. At the bottom of the lake, pitch-black, there lay a vast world of hidden networks and drowned river channels, evidence of a catastrophic overflow … ” – Chapter 2
EZB: Is it true that you attribute your love of literature entirely to Southern writers?
HP: I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and my older brother and my older sister were really fast readers and they were voracious readers, and I was aware early on of what good readers they were because my parents would always talk about it. I think for a little while I pushed back against being a reader. I didn’t want to be what everybody else in the family was, and I think my mom seduced me around sixth, seventh, eighth grade with some Faulkner and some Flannery O’Connor — and it took. I guess she got to know me a little bit by then and she understood that there was a sort of brooding darkness, but she also knew that I was fascinated by language.
I had this habit, especially when I was little, of asking people to repeat what they said and it would really frustrate me because they thought I hadn’t heard or maybe didn’t understand, so when they repeated themselves they would change what they had said to make sure that I was comprehending. What I wanted was for them to repeat themselves so I could see or hear the way that they had employed a particular adjective or maybe they used a verb that I’d never heard used in that manner. So my mom, I think, started paying attention to it and she went to Faulkner. I ate him up and then Flannery O’Connor as well and Walker Percy. The list goes on and on and on, but I couldn’t get enough of the gothic when I was little.
EZB: Are you hitting the road this summer for a book tour?
HP: My fourth book is due in July, so that’s what I’ve been working on, but I’m headed to New York, Chicago, Charlottesville, D.C. and I’m going out to Iowa City. I’m doing some readings and I’m excited abut that. I like getting out on the road.
EZB: Any advice for couples or families who are taking road trips?
HP: Be nice. Pack healthy snacks. Pack water bottles. I frankly think a book on tape is about the best thing in the world. Buy my book on tape.