Q and A with Heidi Pitlor, THE DAYLIGHT MARRIAGE
I had trouble putting down this harrowing, moving novel, which Heidi Pitlor was kind enough to talk to me about recently via email.
The Daylight Marriage is “[a] page-turning exploration of unexpressed love and unnecessary loss. Riveting and heartbreaking.” – Geraldine Brooks, author of Caleb’s Crossing and March
And from Tom Perrotta, author of Nine Inches and Little Children: “In The Daylight Marriage, there are two mysteries--the whereabouts of a missing woman and the vagaries of the human heart. Heidi Pitlor explores both of these enigmas with equal mastery, merging a shocking crime story with an incisive portrait of a failed marriage. The result is a novel that is fast-moving, emotionally complex, and ultimately heartbreaking.”
1. I was very taken with how sensitively you wrote about a family under extreme psychological duress in this novel. It must have been emotionally painful at times. Tangentially, would you describe your process a bit, e.g. how many drafts The Daylight Marriage went through, how much input from trusted reader(s) did you seek as you wrote it?
Thank you! I began this book during an extremely hectic time in my life. I'd recently had twins and switched jobs, so I was looking to write a story that would be, in fact, intense and immersive enough to hold my attention and interest.
Writing can feel similar to acting. The Daylight Marriage is told from the close third person points of view of a husband and a wife. After a blow-out fight, the wife goes missing. I tried to inhabit my characters, to experience the duress of the story as they would. Lovell Hall, the husband, is an academic at heart. He stows away his emotion, although it does seep out at times. I faced his narrative as he would have: armed with denial. I think intensity and catharsis are more effective for readers when delivered obliquely, and Lovell’s preoccupation with his work and anger about his marriage and frustrations with his daughter show a man who is actually in great pain about something else—the fact that he may have been, if indirectly and unknowingly, culpable for something horrific. In a sense, his denial became my denial (or vice versa?) and allowed me to render some difficult moments from a safe remove. Hannah, his wife, is a completely different beast. She lives so far inside her emotions that she can hardly see beyond them. I am not a stoic person. Her sections came more easily to me. I tapped into the isolation that I felt at the time, working from home and raising young twins, the strange sensations of feeling separate from the world after having worked in an office for so many years.
The book was initially longer and the plot more disperse, the intensity muted. It took me years of revision to peel back all that was obscuring the heart of the conflict. When I began what would be the final revision, a major restructuring of the plot and timeline, I worked quickly. Overall, this short book took me about eight years to write. It went through countless drafts and changed dramatically in the end. I relied heavily on input from reader-friends, my agent, Bill Clegg, and my editor, Kathy Pories.
2. Lovell, Hannah’s husband, is a climatologist who studies global warming. An inevitable question: how much research did you have to do for the sections about his work?
Research can be delicious procrastination. I did far too much research and writing about Lovell's work, writing that ultimately got trimmed in service of the story. I spent loads of time researching how global warming is studied, how this has changed in the past decade, how global warming has been treated (funded) and neglected by the government. Most interesting to me-- and most useful to me narratively—was researching the difficulties that the scientific community has had in establishing causality between human behavior and global warming. This idea-- and the hunger but necessary failure of science to identify and quantify with any precision our impact on the world around us-- interested me as a mirror to Lovell's search for the truth about his wife and his marriage. What happens when we sense a truth but are unable to solidify or quantify it?
3. What were some of your influences as you wrote this novel—other books (films, music, art)?
I read so many short stories each year for my job as series editor of The Best American Short Stories-- I cannot imagine these did not influence me. It's tough to parse influence. I always try to quiet my mind when I write, to banish other voices and styles and write the words that come directly, not indirectly, to me. That said, while I wrote this book, I came back to Virginia Woolf, early Margaret Atwood, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Franz Kafka, Charles Baxter, James Baldwin, Grace Paley, the films of Alexander Payne, the music of Josh Ritter, The White Stripes, Florence and the Machine, Amy Winehouse.
I'm always influenced by the world around me, and there was a high-profile murder in my town just as I began this book. Watching the press flood our streets impacted me, as did my own strange interest in the case. The increasing threat of global warming—especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina-- worried me greatly.
4. Did you begin writing this novel knowing that part of it would be told from Lovell’s POV and part from Hannah’s?
I did, although initially it was told from three points of view, one a neighbor’s. She ended up on the cutting room floor. Sadly, but necessarily. Hannah’s sections changed little throughout the revision process. Lovell’s changed enormously—his essentially absorbed the neighbor’s narrative.
5. How did you decide on the several months’ time frame?
Initially the novel spanned a few years, but I found that the more interesting, energetic, tighter story occupied less time. The story used to begin where it currently ends. The plot as you see it was primarily the backstory. I dug in my heels, unwisely, in the face of suggestions to trim and change the timeline, and in the end, had just two weeks to alter the plot and cut that third primary character. It was a grueling two weeks, during which I pretty much locked myself in my office and took a (metaphorical) hatchet to the book. I got carpal tunnel, migraines, but I also got a much better book in the end.
6. What are you working on now, besides the next edition of The Best American Short Stories, if you don’t mind disclosing a few details?
I'm working on my next novel, which at this point feels quite different from The Daylight Marriage. I'll say that it's about writing, publishing, Facebook, poverty, parenting and feminism.