The Plane Crash that Blew Up an Empire
Hannah Pittard, author of Visible Empire, on the fictional aftermath of a real plane crash that changes Atlanta
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I n Hannah Pittard’s newest novel, Visible Empire, a plane crashes in 1962 in Paris, but it is the city of Atlanta, Georgia that is blown up. Atlanta residents from all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds suffer the effects of this crash, a true-to-life accident that killed 121 white Atlanteans in one fell swoop. There are bombshells and destruction. Not actual bombs, but the aftermath of devastation and what such an extreme and unannounced change grief can incite. Personal, political, racial, and social fires ignite throughout the city, revealing the brutal bones buried beneath America’s Southern gentry and opulence. These bombshells force either ruin or an opportunity for rebuilding.
Pittard is a winner of the 2006 Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award, a MacDowell Colony Fellow, and a consulting editor for Narrative Magazine. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, American Scholar, Oxford American, McSweeney’s, TriQuarterly, BOMB, and many other publications. She directs the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Kentucky. Visible Empire is her fourth novel.
The author and I spoke over the phone about the aftermath of a plane crash that blew up an empire, the grandeur and brutality of the South, and negotiating the new reality of today’s America.
Tyrese L. Coleman: What made you want to write about the Air France 007 crash?
Hannah Pittard: I was born in Atlanta and grew up there. My father was born there and grew up there. My mother moved there when she was very young. Obviously, I was not alive when the plane crashed. My mom was 13. My dad was 20. It’s been a story and an incident that has loomed large in my life, first as a little girl living in Atlanta, and then as I got older and became a professional storyteller. I’ve always been fascinated by the incident. It seemed, for me, a platform for talking about the things I wanted to talk about: money, class, race, love, the way that communities are divided, the way that communities can sometimes reunite. It seemed like a really interesting and provocative way to talk about those things that I think are relevant today but using the podium of 1962.
At the end of the day, I write to make sense of the world — to make sense of the things that terrify and confuse me.
TLC: We see the crash in the book but it also feels symbolic, more surreal and less of an actual event, as if it is something that happened to these people yet not actually concrete.
HP: I love that word symbolic. Obviously, this was a very real incident, but I think that’s the right way to look at it because this is not a book about the crash. This is a book about the aftermath of the crash. In many ways, the crash is just the incident that allows the story to be told. Symbolic is not the wrong way to be thinking of it. One of the characters who we visit a few times is Ivan Allen’s wife. She’s a fictitious character but she’s struggling to believe this, to make sense of this incident, and her husband keeps saying, “It’s real. It’s real,” and she’s saying, “Prove it.” The way that I’ve personally responded to loss and to tragedy is disbelief and a desire for evidence. And I don’t want the evidence because I want it to be real. I want the evidence because I don’t want it to be real. My brain is working against learning the new normal, adapting to this new way of life that includes a loss I’m unprepared for.
TLC: I find the title Visible Empire symbolic as well. I think of this crash as a blowing up of an empire that existed prior to this event and 1962 being a catalyst for the blowing up of what feels like an empire within this country.
HP: The full name of the KKK is the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. That whole name nods at power that is not seen, power that is deadly because of its invisibility. Visible Empire as a title begs the question of our responsibility in regards to power we can see but that we choose to ignore or choose not to examine because it’s so ingrained in our way of thinking.
There are four epigraphs at the beginning of the book. The first recounts the fact that this is the biggest and deadliest accident involving a single airplane. The second one is mayor Ivan Allen saying this is Atlanta’s greatest tragedy. The third is Malcolm X essentially praising the crash as the work of God, and the fourth is an unnamed man quoted in the New York Times who lost two loved ones, and he says this thing is so overwhelming, maybe “I’ll feel it tomorrow.”
For me, Visible Empire really captures the tension between the two middle epigraphs: Ivan Allen juxtaposed next to Malcolm X. Suddenly, the world was paying attention to Atlanta because of an incident involving 121 White Americans, and the world was paying attention in a way that it hadn’t been previously paying attention to the South’s legalized racism or the city’s incipient civil rights movement. I thought it was a provocative title and, in my mind, good fiction invites the reader to ask questions. I hope that this title invites questions about what we allow on a daily basis, what we accept on a daily basis, what we choose not to accept on a daily basis. I hope that this book starts some good conversations and engenders some good questions out of readers.
“Visible Empire” as a title begs the question of our responsibility in regards to power we can see but that we choose to ignore or choose not to examine because it’s so ingrained in our way of thinking.
TLC: When I think of the term “empire” and the settings in the book, the Pink Chateau is the epitome of what I imagine and of someone being part of and controlling an empire. I think it was Piedmont who pointed out that they were partying on the Fourth of July at a place where a whole family was lynched, setting off firecrackers and celebrating freedom. I cannot imagine that level of hypocrisy, entitlement, and privilege happening anywhere else in this county other than Atlanta.
HP: There’s this coming together of intense privilege. I think the book needed a moment of hypocrisy at this scale. Whether or not this level of hypocrisy could only happen in Atlanta, I don’t know. In fact, the more I read the newspaper, the more I see that this sort of hypocrisy is available just about anywhere at any time. But the South certainly lends and loans itself, especially in the 60’s, as a study to showcase that level of hypocrisy. Ivan Allen is really an interesting character in real life. He became increasingly progressive throughout his career. But later in 1962, he actually allowed a wall to be built between a black community and a white community. He thought he was doing the right thing. Fortunately the wall was found to be unconstitutional and it was torn down.
TLC: Maybe I’m conflating Atlanta as a representation of all of those cities in the South where you see the grandeur of the South that relates specificity to a certain gentry. It’s a fairy tale, obviously, but fairy tales are really brutal and have underbellies. I felt the dichotomy of being in this really opulent place and knowing that that brutality is always ever present and lurking.
HP: That was part of the question I was asking myself as I was writing. In the novel, the Pink Chateau is a place where a mass lynching once occurred but the tree has been torn down and now there’s this home in its place, and there’s this opulent pool where the tree once stood.
The question that I’m asking is how much time is ever enough time to pass. When is it ok to forget? It’s never ok, right? Just the idea of a place like that existing makes me feel profoundly uncomfortable yet we know there are these landmarks all over our country and all over the South in particular. These places that have been torn down and built up upon. It makes sense to me why Atlanta seemed like the stand in for all of the opulence of the south.
I hope that what I’ve done with Visible Empire is write a book that actively invites people to talk about how individuals from different backgrounds can learn and connect during moments of extreme change.
TLC: It also makes me think of our current moment in history. If you look at the Pink Chateau as a monument to the grandeur and brutality of the South and the argument for pulling down confederate monuments. How does this book resonate with our current moment in history?
I’ve been wanting to write this book for as long as I’ve been a professional writer but I was just never ready. I’m really glad that I was never ready to write it before because I don’t think it would have been as relevant as it is now.
Just read the paper, right? What we see everyday are different forms of privilege that are no longer being taken for granted. Black Lives Matter. #MeToo. The world around us is changing. I hope that what I’ve done with Visible Empire is write a book that actively invites people to talk about how individuals from different backgrounds can learn and connect during moments of extreme change.
Perhaps part of me is being optimistic in this moment, hoping for extreme change, but it does seem like the world that we are living in right now — the America we are living in right now — is blowing up everything, all of what we’ve gotten used to is just changing radically and changing quickly. I woke up this morning and looked at the paper and there is a letter from the President on the front page of the New York Times and it’s like reading the Onion. This isn’t real and yet it is real, and something that we’re going to have to figure out as a community is how to negotiate this new reality.
All of my books have been about loss either on a small scale or on a large scale, and this is the book that most tackles a large scale loss. I’ve been reading the news, watching the news. These school shootings, these church shootings, it feels like these last four or so years have showcased community after community after community losing people. As a writer and as an empathetic human being, on the one hand, I’ve been really lucky not to have been personally affected by any of these large scale losses around the country, on the other hand I think about it all the time. My sleep is affected by it. How I think about writing is affected by it. When I was working on this book, I was very much aware of the America we are living in today and the communities across the country that have been dealing with large scale losses. At the end of the day, I write to make sense of the world — to make sense of the things that terrify and confuse me. All this loss — it terrifies and confuses me.