The Humor of Devastation: A Conversation with Hannah Pittard

Lily Felsenthal speaks with Hannah Pittard about her new book “We Are Too Many: A Memoir [Kind Of].”

The Humor of Devastation: A Conversation with Hannah Pittard

We Are Too Many: A Memoir [Kind Of] by Hannah Pittard. Henry Holt and Co.. 224 pages.

IN THE SUMMER of 2016, novelist Hannah Pittard made a painful, world-altering discovery—that her then-husband was having an affair with her best friend. As a human being, she reeled; as a writer, she began to process the experience in the only way she knew how: by translating it onto the page. What she ultimately wrote, the wry, genre-bending We Are Too Many: A Memoir [Kind Of], published in May by Henry Holt and Company, is an unflinching account of a formative betrayal, but it is also a surprising (and often surprisingly funny) meditation on time, truth, and grief.


The book is split into three sections: “Remembered Conversations,” in which the events surrounding the affair and its discovery are relayed solely in dialogue, like a stage play; “An Imagined Exchange,” a kind of postmortem in which literary avatars of the former spouses argue, reflect, and reminisce; and “A Coda in Pieces,” an affecting series of vignettes from the safer vantage point of the present day. As the story progresses, shapeshifting in form and tone, it mimics the fascinating ways in which memory and fantasy, fact and fiction, can fuel and complicate one another. Influences and allusions include Linda Rosenkrantz’s cult-favorite found novel Talk (1968), from which the book gets its name, and American classics like James Salter’s Light Years (1975), among other nods to the long-standing literary tradition of writing about heartbreak and betrayal. But the narrative also remains grounded in specificity, as we follow a narrator in crisis processing and finally healing from a shattering loss.


I first knew Hannah when I was an undergraduate writing student of both her and her ex-husband, and I have followed her career eagerly for the past decade. In that time, her work has expanded in scope and ambition, from the quietly simmering thriller of marital discord Listen to Me (2016) to the sprawling, expansive Visible Empire (2018), an exhaustively researched literary reimagining of the disastrous 1962 crash of Air France Flight 007. We caught up by phone about her first foray into memoir, a departure for the author in form and vulnerability. She spoke with refreshing candor about the dissolution of her marriage, the grief it left in its wake, and the book that it became.


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LILY FELSENTHAL: This strikes me as a book about memory. Would you agree with that?


HANNAH PITTARD: Absolutely. The first third of the book is made up of conversations that I couldn’t get out of my mind. And so, the book is about memory in that I’m literally writing down conversations I cannot forget, but it’s also about memory because, as I was recovering from a marriage gone wrong, one of the questions I was asking myself was, What do I do with this thing, with this block of time that has ended? How do I move forward as the person I am now with these shared experiences with a person who’s no longer going to be part of my life? And so, writing the book was very much trying to figure out an answer to those questions.


I was struck, as the book progressed, by what felt like a growing distance from the events being described, a distance that’s mirrored in the way the form shifts through the book’s three sections.


I’m glad that that came through. It is the natural way of things, right? What cures heartache, what cures loss, what cures any kind of grief? Time is what at least makes it easier to process. When I was working on this memoir, it started off as conversations, like in the first section, and that’s what I thought it was going to be all the way through. And then there came a moment when I realized I wasn’t as invested in some of those conversations as I once was; in getting it on the page, I was also clearly exorcizing something from my mind and from my memories. One of the things that I honestly did for a long time after my divorce was continue to have conversations with my ex-husband in my mind. I was trying to capture some of that reverberation, some of what was left. I also wanted to attempt to see things from his perspective: how might he have lived the same experience as me but remembered it completely differently?


The last part of the book—the coda, as you call it—is when I felt the greatest sense of narrative distance from the inciting events. I wonder if that happened organically too, as you were starting to move on from those memories.


That third part, which is the most traditional in some ways, was both the most difficult to write and the easiest: the easiest because I love sitting down to write prose, the most difficult because it’s where I had to be the most honest. I would catch myself shifting into fiction-writer mode and wanting to make it a better story, or a story where I appeared in a better light, and I would have to stop myself because that’s not really what happened.


One of the most unflinching elements of the book, to me, is the frankness with which you deal with your ex-husband’s professional jealousy and the ways you felt obligated to leverage your own success as a writer to help his career. I wondered if you were apprehensive at all about discussing this, or how it felt to write.


Well, writing it was cathartic. It was also easy because it was stuff that I’d thought about a lot while we were married that I didn’t complain about to his face because I was trying to be a good wife. But then, the idea of actually publishing it was a lot more difficult for me. There was one night when I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, I don’t want to put in there what I’ve put in there about his career and my career—I shouldn’t do it. I can’t do it. But frankly, I think that there are other spouses out there, regardless of gender, who might read this and think, Yes, this feeling is true to me, and I think the way we make connections is by telling stories. The more particular we can be, the more universal our stories can be. Ultimately, I let it stand.


That makes total sense, this idea of writing something versus having it out there and people reading it. When I was reading your book, I thought a lot about another memoir of divorce, Rachel Cusk’s Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, from 2012.


I love Rachel Cusk.


So do I. Like yours, that book is raw and unwavering; there’s a lot of grief in it, and there’s some anger too. It was met with a great deal of harsh criticism, and Cusk has credited the difficulty of that with leading to an artistic hiatus and ultimately a turn to autofiction. But now, in 2023, Annie Ernaux has won the Nobel Prize largely for accounts of personal heartbreak and jealousy and betrayal. So, do you think that attitudes toward these kinds of personal histories, especially by women, especially about the thorny business of romantic love and conflict, have changed or are changing?


I hope they’re changing. I am a huge admirer of Annie Ernaux; there are some women writers who were like a late-in-life education for me, reading them. Melissa Febos is another. I think that there will always be people who say, “I’ve already heard this story. Oh, another story of heartbreak, of betrayal.” But I don’t want to read any other kind of story. And it’s interesting because this book has charted my own path toward autofiction, something that, up until three or four years ago, I wasn’t even completely sure what it was. Even while I was reading Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010), or Ann Beattie’s Walks with Men (2010)—I don’t think [Beattie would] call it autofiction, but I teach it every year, and now I can’t see it as anything other than that. I’m really interested in the tension between what’s real and what’s not real when we are reading and telling these stories. The things I can feel, the conversations I have, comprise the one life that is mine, and that life is real, but so too is the very rich one that I have in my head alone all the time. I’m playing out all the conversations, all the scenarios. I think most of us have that—a secondary, private inner life that’s very rich. And because I happen to be a writer, the way that I’m trying to tackle and expose that other life is by putting it on the page.


You talk in the book about your practice of “mining” or “cannibalizing” life for your writing. So, I wondered if you could talk about the process of translating those experiences into memoir, versus your previous experience translating them into your novels.


Well, prior to this book, there was no experience that I had that I couldn’t turn into fiction. My second novel begins with a suicide; the suicide in my life that I stole from was my grandfather’s. I was always able to take my life and use it as fodder for my fiction. And when I sat down to write about my divorce and my husband’s affair with my best friend—I sat down as the fiction writer I’ve always been, and I tried to write about it from his perspective, from her perspective, from my perspective. I tried to make it funny, I tried to make it sad, I tried to make it a satire, and I could not make it work. Nothing I wrote felt true. And it was the first time in my life when I felt hemmed in by the limitations of fiction, and I found myself just wanting to tell the story.


I loved the humor in this book. I wondered if that was something you set out to do when you were writing it, or if it came out organically?


Both. Can I say both? I think that life, especially when it is at its hardest, can be quite absurd. As often as I wept during the collapse of my marriage, I laughed. I think that’s one of the things I’m trying to be honest about. I wanted to get that humor, the humor of devastation, in there. I didn’t want to write a story of heartache that didn’t have humor.


It sounds like honesty was sort of your North Star as you were writing this book.


It was, but I also wanted to make sure that I was never being unnecessarily cruel. Elizabeth Hardwick said that “there are really only two reasons to write: desperation or revenge.” And it’s possible that both of those things were on my mind when I sat down to write this. But at the end of the day, I wanted to step back and make sure I was thinking first and foremost about this piece of art that I was attempting to make, and how each section fit together holistically, and what’s necessary to tell and what isn’t. Frankly, there’s more material that comes to me all the time from my past and from that relationship. I find myself thinking, I can’t believe I left that out—but I suppose it’s for a different project.


Maybe that’s just part of a writing life …


I think it is. I think writers are great and I can’t imagine being anything else, but boy, can I imagine at the same time how annoying I am to be in a room with. As my ex-husband used to tell me, I was only ever a certain percentage present. And the other part of me was always trying to figure out: How can I take what I just saw, what I’ve just heard, and translate it into a good story? And I still do it. My family will sometimes just start chuckling and say, “Everybody pay attention, because Hannah’s paying attention—it’s going to show up in a story.”


It’s such a fascinating thing, this business of how we narrativize our own lives. Revisiting your previous work, I was struck by how much of a theme that is, even as far back as your first novel The Fates Will Find Their Way (2011), which was published more than a decade ago. I wonder if it’s something that you feel has always been an interest for you?


Absolutely. If I had to say the thing that links all of my work together, it is this question of how stories are told and how time and memory and perspective can manipulate the truth, can manipulate the way that we navigate the future. I have always been interested in the stories that we tell ourselves—the lies we tell, the truths we tell, the information that we leave out.


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Hannah Pittard is the author of four novels and a memoir, a winner of the Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award, a MacDowell Colony fellow, and a graduate of Deerfield Academy, the University of Chicago, and the University of Virginia. She is a professor of English at the University of Kentucky and lives in Lexington with her boyfriend and stepdaughter.


Lily Felsenthal is a writer based in California. She is a graduate fellow in fiction at the University of California, Riverside.

LARB Contributor

Lily Felsenthal is a writer based in California. She is a graduate fellow in fiction at the University of California, Riverside.

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