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The Writing Life: An Interview with Elliott Holt

2013 May 21
by Wren

The Writing LifeElliott HoltEditor’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.


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