Editor’s Note: When we dug into Elliott Holt’s debut novel, You Are One of Them, we were struck by the ease with which Holt winds a web of mystery and fear, all within the perspective of a relatable friendship between two young girls. We were mesmerized, and we’re positive you will be, too. We’re teaming up with Magers & Quinn to present Elliott Holt reading from the book on June 4 at Magers & Quinn Booksellers at 7:30 pm. Join us for a captivating night of literature, as well as letterpress freebies and more! Stay tuned for a review of You Are One of Them this Thursday.
Hazel & Wren: You’re very familiar with the book’s two settings of Moscow and Washington D.C., as you’ve lived in both places. How did that influence your choice to place the novel here? How did it change the way you wrote about the two locations?
Elliott Holt: I set the novel in those cities because they were the capitals of the two Superpowers (they are still the capitals, but the USSR no longer exists and Russia is no longer considered a superpower). Knowing the cities well helped me animate the scenes and give the book a keen sense of place. Both cities are characters in the book.
H&W: How does your previous experience as a copywriter at an advertising agency affect your literary writing (or doesn’t it)?
EH: It doesn’t affect it all. Quite a few novelists worked as copywriters (Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo, Fitzgerald, Faulkner) so there’s an assumption that it’s similarly creative work. But it’s not. As a copywriter, you do traffic in words, of course, so it helps to be highly verbal and creative with language, but “creative” work in advertising involves a lot of cooks in the kitchen. There’s so much compromise—with art directors, creative directors, account directors, clients, etc.—that the work never felt like mine. Working in advertising paid my bills for a long time. (I still freelance for ad agencies sometimes.) I got good at presenting my work—because I had to do so, to clients, in meetings. I learned to work fast, to meet deadlines. And I learned a lot about filmmaking because I got to go on the commercial shoots for the ads I wrote. But it hasn’t helped my fiction writing.
H&W: The character Jennifer Jones is loosely based on a real young girl named Samantha Smith who really did write to the Soviet Union’s Yuri Andropov. You’ve mentioned in other interviews how you felt connected to her as a young woman yourself. Did writing with these real experiences or influences aid or hinder the story’s development? How so?
EH: I read a lot about Samantha Smith when I was doing research for the book, but then I had to put that research aside and make the character of Jennifer Jones my own. This is not a roman a clef. I used the historical setting, but this is not historical fiction. So I had to make sure that the history didn’t get in my way, if that makes sense. I used the historical events that served my story.
H&W: You’ve done an excellent job of capturing the main character Sarah’s fear and doubt, two emotions that can be difficult to successfully capture on paper. How did you approach writing these emotions?
EH: I’m very familiar with fear and doubt, so writing about them came pretty easily to me. I’m a pretty anxious person. I worry a lot!
H&W: According to a Publisher’s Weekly article, you first wrote a short story with this idea in 2006, and then began to work on the novel itself in 2009. How has the story changed over the years, in ways you had or hadn’t expected?
EH: The original story was inspired by Samantha Smith. I thought, “what if two girls wrote letters to Andropov, but only one got a response and was invited—a la Smith—to the USSR? What if these girls were best friends? How would the friendship be affected if one of them was suddenly famous?” The original story was a rant by the narrator, left behind by her famous friend. It was very satirical.
But when I realized that this story wanted to be a novel—it needed room—then I dug deeper into the psychology of the narrator. I asked myself why Sarah would be so hurt by what she perceived as her friend’s betrayal. And then I decided that it was because her own family was haunted by loss. I created her family’s history, her mother’s anxiety disorder. And then as I continued to write and do research, all the cultural anxieties of the era worked their way into the book.
And then I decided that the bulk of the book events would take place ten years after her friend’s death. Sarah loses her best friend in 1985 when they are twelve and then gets a mysterious letter from Moscow in 1995 that suggests that her friend didn’t really die. I think it’s common to fantasize about having another chance to see the person you’ve lost, an opportunity to do the past over again.
I also realized that the story needed to be told from an adult perch, in Sarah’s thirties. She’s looking back on all this, with a certain distance from the events. She spent much of her life as a footnote in someone else’s story, but now, in this book, she finally tells her own story.
This is a coming-of-age story, but it’s not just about Sarah coming of age. Russia is coming of age. American society is coming of age. The Cold War ends and the Internet totally changes everyone’s ideas of connection, correspondence and identity.
H&W: What is your writing process? Can you describe your typical writing schedule?
EH: It depends. If I’m teaching or freelancing at an ad agency (I love teaching and want to do more of it), I often don’t get to write at all in a given day.
When I was in the throes of writing this book (during 2011, I worked on nothing else), I sometimes worked for twelve hours a day. But usually, I’m lucky to write for three or four hours. I write best in the mornings, after a couple of cups of coffee, but I often edit and revise in the afternoons and evenings. I revise a lot. To me, writing is at least 90% revision.
H&W: What are the challenges and freedoms in the two forms you work with most: short fiction and the full-length novel? Is it difficult to switch between the two?
EH: The novel is a more forgiving form. You can’t have a single weak line in a short story. But writing a novel requires endurance that a story doesn’t.
H&W: You have a Tumblr, Twitter, and website, and seem to be very active in those realms. How significant do you think the role of an author is today in promoting their own book (as opposed to, or in addition to, the publisher)?
EH: I like social media, mostly because I’m working from home (by myself) most of the time, so twitter is often my only form of communication. It’s like a virtual water cooler. It’s a nice work break. I also like to champion literary fiction, so on twitter and tumblr and facebook, I’m a passionate evangelist of books I love.
I do think authors need to take some responsibility for promoting their own books. But I don’t think that anyone wants to hear any author talk about himself or herself all the time. If you just tweet about your reviews and upcoming readings, it’s not interesting. People are more likely to follow you if you have a compelling voice.
H&W: If forced over hot coals to choose, who would your top three favorite contemporary fiction writers be?
EH: That is a really tough question. But I’ll say Alice Munro, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Zadie Smith.
Another writer I’m crazy about (whom not enough people know about) is David Gilbert. He had this incredible story called “Member/Guest” in The New Yorker last November and his new novel, & SONS, will be out in July. I’m in love with that book.
H&W: What’s next for you?
EH: I’m working on a couple of short stories—I’ve missed writing short fiction! I have another idea for a novel, but it’s too early to talk about it. I’m superstitious and I’m so early in the process that I’m still trying to figure out if this book will work.
Elliott Holt‘s short fiction has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Guernica, and Bellevue Literary Review. She won a 2011 Pushcart Prize and is the runner-up of the 2011 PEN Emerging Writers Award. A graduate of the MFA program at Brooklyn College, where she won the Himan Brown Award, she has received fellowships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop and Yaddo. She is a former contributing editor at One Story magazine and a former copywriter, who has worked at advertising agencies in Moscow, London, and New York. She currently resides in her hometown of Washington, D.C.
This week, let’s visit the dream state again. This time, we’ll focus on the feverish dreams. The ones in which people and places are continually morphing into new things and half-things; a parade of random objects and mismatched parts. And there’s nothing like some trippy photomontages from the ’30s to help put us in the mood.
Man Ray, (Électricité) la Ville, 1931. Photogravure. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Hannah Höch, Sea Serpent, 1937. Photomontage. Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, Stuttgart, Germany.
Claude Cahun, Aveux non avenues, planche III, 1929-30. Gelatin silver print photomontage. Private collection.
Sing This One Back to Me by Bob Holman (Coffee House Press, 2013) begins with a poem called “[Title of Poem]” which lays out some of the things to follow in the book. Here’s the beginning:
Body of poem
Tail of poem
Refrain from poem
There’s humor here, to be sure, but there’s also a clear love of poems. Holman is a poet who is constantly looking for the “Neverending poem, the other poem, yet another poem[.]” He’s a poet who actively looks outside his own experience of the world to find inspiration in visual art and in the songs and poems of other cultures. Sing This One Back to Me includes a “special guest appearance by Papa Susso,” a West African singer and poet, as well as poems in the ekphrastic mode, translations of sorts from the visual work that inspired them.
There’s a risk of appropriation when someone from a dominant group uses language and stories from another culture. Holman, thankfully, avoids this trap, and is incredibly respectful of the source material he’s working with. The third section of Sing This One Back to Me, “Jeliya! (or, Griot Poems, As Sung by Papa Susso to Bob Holman)” features poems that are performative and energetic, filled with exclamations and digressions. Holman allows Susso’s voice to come through, never editorializing or annotating the poems. “This story begins long long long long long long long long ago” begins “How Kora Was Born,” hearkening to English fairytales. “Jeliya!” begins:
Alaleka Jaliyaa Daa!
God created the art of music
This music! This song!
This song is a celebration!
These lines demand to be read out loud, they demand to be read to an audience. It’s clear that Holman has learned much from Susso.
Not all of the poems here are translations from another language. There is also a series of ekphrastic pieces translated, as it were, from paintings by Van Gogh and Rothko. A typical “Rothko” poem reads like this:
Quest amber tease
Test amber breeze
Anchor azure still
A “Rothko” poem is, according to Holman’s notes, “three lines, three words per line.” Three of the words should be colors, and they should form a tic-tac-toe pattern in the poem. Holman does concede, however, that these rules can be broken, though do so “at your own risk.” As short as these are, they too seem to want to be performed. The sound of the words becomes a new dimension and helps to create a more complex picture in the mind of the reader.
The most heartfelt poems in Sing This One Back to Me come at the end of the book, which contains a collection of lovely poems about family. “Love,” in particular, is a beautiful little piece dedicated to Holman’s late wife, painter Elizabeth Murray. “Your hand throws out / As you sleep[,]” the poem opens, and this intimate moment is compressed suddenly and stopped in time. The poems that follow touch on Murray’s death from lung cancer, making the small moment when her hand “[l]ands and settles” on Holman’s body heartbreaking in retrospect.
While the last section of poems contains less bombast than the previous poems, they are no less performative. Indeed, it is the final poem that the book is named after. “My feet on the lotus?” Holman asks, before answering,
[…]No, my feet are the lotus!
All God? Gosh, I was looking over at you—shh.
No need this talking, this poem so obvious, shh.
But Holman’s poems are never just obvious. There is always, in his own words, a “[p]oem behind the poem[.]” These poems are colloquial, honest, and sure of themselves, which makes reading them a pleasure. Reading them, though, is only part of the experience for Holman. To fully experience these poems, I imagine one would have to see and hear them read out loud, either by the poet or by someone else. These are poems to share with friends and family until everyone is singing them back.
Rosanne Bane‘s most recent nonfiction book, Around the Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance, proved to be productive fodder for our almost hour-long phone conversation. (For more about the book, check out Rosanne’s guest post for The Writing Life last week called Top Ten Tips for Writers.) What I wanted to know right away, though, was how she came to her current career as a writer, creativity coach, and writing teacher.
Bane started out studying linguistics in college before she realized creative writing was where she belonged. Through her time in the University of Minnesota’s creative writing program, Bane taught Freshman Composition where she discovered her love and zeal for teaching writing: “That spurred me,” she says. After taking a personal growth workshop, Bane proposed a class on self-actualization to the Loft Literary Center—that class became the first in her long career of teaching at the Loft. She also edited The Phoenix during this time, which gave her the opportunity to interview and pick the brains of many inspirational and intelligent folks, including Julia Cameron (co-author of The Artist’s Way, an influential book for Bane, and many writers). Finally, Bane kept up with her own writing, including both fiction and nonfiction.
But Bane had some difficulty with something that many of us writers face: showing up for writing. Bane explains that this is why she teaches a lot of creative process classes at the Loft, because, as she puts it, “we teach best in the places we’ve struggled to learn ourselves. What I was having trouble with was consistently showing up and putting in my time. So I thought I was pretty well equipped to help others.” More recently, this love for teaching and helping writers segued into her creative coaching career. After having a sample coaching session with a friend, Bane realized this was something she could be good at. Her coaching clients are primarily writers, although she’s open to teaching creative people of any genre (some of her clients include fabric artists, painters, entrepreneurs, and more).
Her most recent book got its roots from a class she’s taught at the Loft for many years called “The Writing Habit.” Bane had been thinking to herself, “What’s happening? Why do people keep having this problem? If I like to write so much, which I do, then why is it so hard to show up? I started realizing it wasn’t just me.” In her class, she came up with the three steps: process, product time, and self-care. She used these as a framework for the writers to check in each week on their progress, and later, used these as the pillars of the book.
The book is steeped in neurology, but Bane explains it in a way that makes sense, appealing to my inner nerd. The science behind the book was really a catalyst for writing it. Bane says after her first nonfiction book (which focused on psychology of writing) she started researching neurology, including Joseph Ledoux’s book, The Emotional Brain. Another book that triggered something for Bane was The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge, M.D. Bane talks about how LeDoux’s book specifically helped her find her angle for Around the Writer’s Block:
“I saw LeDoux’s research on how the limbic kicks in when we’re stressed and how that makes the cortex, the source of our creativity, problem-solving, and self-motivation, unavailable. And the cortex doesn’t even realize what’s happened. When I saw that, I thought, THAT’s what happens when we want to write, but can’t. It’s not that we lack will power or discipline; it’s that the part of the brain that has the desire and ability to write—the cortex—simply isn’t available. Joseph LeDoux’s book was a huge A-ha for me that prompted me to write my book.”
One of the ideas Bane asserts in the book is that “To write well, you must be willing to write badly” (pg 89). Why is this? Here’s what Bane had to say in our interview:
One of the truths that as a culture we don’t want to recognize, is that creativity and deconstruction have to go hand in hand. When you’re creating music, you’re destroying silence. For writers, when it’s in your head, it can unravel in a million different directions, but when you go to put it on the page, you have to pick one. Basically what you’re doing when committing to a draft is destroying all other possibilities, at least for the day. If we’re thinking, “I have to get this right the first time,” then it’s really hard to write at all.
In other words, remember: “A draft is just an approximation of the final draft.” Take the pressure off, and allow yourself to destroy the other possibilities for the day.
If you, like me, are always interested in where fellow writers find inspiration, then you’re in luck. I asked Bane for a list of resources, and guess what was at the top of her list? The Loft, naturally. As she says, “I’ve been on the education committee so I’ve had the opportunity to see a bunch of people go through. [The Loft does] a fabulous job of finding people who are not only gifted, talented, [and] recognized, but are also good teachers. That’s not always an easy thing to find.” Some other resources include Seth Godin’s blog and the blog Write to Done. Bane also emphasizes the importance of having resources and connections outside of the writing world. She actually got the contract for Around the Writer’s Block in an unusual place: a contact from the agility dog world (Bane has two agility dogs).
I could go on and on about my conversation with Bane, the book, and more, but I’ll spare you my excitable rantings, and leave you with this: Bane is teaching a writing workshop called Overcome Your Writing Resistance class at ArtReach in Stillwater, MN on May 18 on these very topics. What can attendees expect? “Students get a greater understanding of their own process, their own brain, and will be able to move more easily into their writing. They’ll find that after the workshop, they understand more about what gets in the way [of their writing], and how to get around that. They will leave writing more easily, more powerfully, and more often.” Sounds like an obvious choice to me!
What are your personal road blocks to writing? What do you do to ensure that you have self-care time to fuel product time?