Point Breeze native and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard concedes that Pittsburgh’s landscape is painted indelibly in her mind.
Photo by Phyllis Rose
Annie Dillard grew up in Point Breeze in the 1950s “in a house full of comedians reading books,” she recalls in her 1987 memoir, An American Childhood. But the more she read as a child—books on art and nature, science and medicine, religion, war and peace—the more she grew restless, determined to flee the narrow confines of the Pittsburgh upper-class society into which she was born (“where the idea was to look good, stay thin and live on any one of 80 acceptable streets”) and the sealed edges of Appalachia (with its “terrible Midwest summers” and “terrible Midwest winters”) in order to live a life of letters, a life of the mind, somewhere else.
Her feet, she writes, “had imperceptibly been set on a new path.” After graduation from The Ellis School, that path led to college and graduate school at Hollins College in Virginia. Later, it took her to New England and Washington state, where she taught collegiate English classes and wrote and edited more than a dozen books of essays, fiction, first-person narratives, poetry, memoir and literary theory. She was a 1975 winner of the Pulitzer Prize (in nonfiction) for her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
Perhaps it’s ironic that the region Dillard was so eager to leave behind would receive such tender, poetic treatment in her memoir. In An American Childhood, Dillard concedes that Pittsburgh’s landscape is painted indelibly in her mind.
“When everything else has gone from my brain … I will see the city poured down the mountain valleys like slag and see the city lights sprinkled and curved around the hills’ curves, rows of bonfires winding.”
Dillard, 65, along with husband Robert D. Richardson, a well-known writer, now divides her time between Cape Cod, Mass., and Key West, Fla.
Who are your greatest influences as a writer?
Thomas Hardy, I adore. And Graham Greene, George Eliot. ... God, I love them all—any great writer, any country, any century. I read a lot of stuff out of China. I don’t read American women writers. I am an American woman. I know what it’s like to be an American woman.
Not even the poet Louise Glück? I devour everything she writes.
You’re a man. You can do it. I’m trying to get the whole human experience. I read to learn—both from nonfiction and fiction. I like works in translation very much; most of the time, I can’t pronounce the author’s name.
The first few paragraphs of An American Childhood are so elegant. Did the words just flow out like that?
I’d like to say it was easy. I would like to remember they flowed, but when I see my original drafts, they are full of the usual burns, bite marks, vomit, tears and blood. Everything I write goes through millions of drafts. I learned never to write on a computer. It makes you babble on. You should be writing on paper, with pencil—with crayon even. It should be hard to get things down. You need time to think.
Lucy Grealy, author of Autobiography of a Face, once told me that, for her, “The only thing more painful than writing is not writing.” How do you feel about the act of writing?
I agree. You have to set a schedule. You need a room, and you have to go into it every day. If you don’t go into the room every day, pretty soon, you’ll get scared of the room—like people who can’t drive over bridges. The room is where the job is.
Where do you stand on the Kindle (or other e-reader) versus book debate?
I love my Kindle. I have arthritis in the thumb from holding heavy books open as I lie down to read. Low-blood-pressure people lie down to read. My thumb is encased in an elastic band. I was reading [Cicero’s] The Dream of Scipio the other night and realized that I do not need to try to hold the book open and kill myself. On the Kindle, the book weighs next to nothing.
What’s it like being married to another writer? Does this breed competition?
He is a literary biographer. It’s like the difference between football and basketball. There’s no competition at all.
When you became famous after winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, did it change your life? Did fame interfere with your ability to lead a normal life?
It did interfere. I spent the rest of my life fleeing it. If I had had any sense, I would have given back the Pulitzer Prize, but you don’t know what will come of it. You feel guilty. You feel [that] you need to be punished.
Why did you write An American Childhood, your memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh?
I wrote it as a belated thank-you to my mother. I treated her horribly as a child, so I wrote a memoir in which she starred to try and make up for the endless years of my adolescence.
What about your childhood in Pittsburgh? Did this city nurture you?
As a young writer, Pittsburgh couldn’t have been better. I could go to the Carnegie Museum to look at my buddies, the insects. I could go to the [Carnegie] International and see Giacometti’s sculpture “Man Walking.” I could take art classes and hop on streetcars or buses and go home any time I wanted. Everything was great there, thanks to the philanthropists. Andrew Carnegie said, “The man who dies rich dies disgraced.” I took that to heart and still do.