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What We’re Reading: You Are One of Them

2013 May 23
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What We're Readingyou_are_one_of_themYou Are One of Them by Elliott Holt (The Penguin Press, May 2013)

We’re teaming up with Magers & Quinn Booksellers to host author Elliott Holt reading from her debut novel, You Are One of Them at the bookstore on June 4 at 7:30 pm (mark your calendars!). Through this process, we were lucky enough to be able to interview Holt and get a behind-the-scenes look at her approach to the novel, among other things. And of course, we devoured the book.

The story follows two middle school friends Sarah and Jennifer, from Washington, D.C. in the 1980s. The political environment is frosty at best, with the Cold War and nuclear warfare on everyone’s mind, including the two friends. The two girls’ home lives couldn’t be more different: Sarah’s single mother fuels fear with her neurotic tendencies and obsession with nuclear war, while Jenny’s picturesque American family seems to have it all. Sarah and Jenny both write to Yuri Andropov in the USSR, asking for peace between their countries, but their friendship starts to fracture when only Jenny’s letter gets a response. Not only that, Jenny is then invited to the USSR arguably as a form of propaganda for the country, to experience the welcoming and peaceful image the world power was trying to portray. Their fractured relationship is left unresolved when Jenny and her parents tragically die in a plane crash shortly after her return. Sarah carries the weight of her absence into adulthood.

Flash forward ten years, when Sarah receives a mysterious letter from a woman named Svetlana in Russia, claiming that Jenny is still alive. Sarah quickly packs up, despite her mother’s nervous titterings, and sets foot in Moscow, a city that is murky and always changing, with the truth always taunting from around the next corner. She searches for the truth about Jenny in what becomes a dangerous, desperate spiral of hope.

Holt is an expert at creating the aura of fear, mystery, and doubt that permeates the story. Part of this is due to her apt setting descriptions of both Moscow and D.C. (which Holt considers to be two of the novel’s characters in our interview with her, and I agree—they are living and breathing cities). Holt herself has lived in both Moscow and D.C., which informs her ability to make both of places glitter with reality and familiarity, such as this car ride from the airport after Sarah arrives in Moscow:

“Do you mind if I open a window?” I said. ” I get carsick.” The numbing exhaustion of jet lag combined with a mounting headache from all the smoke in the airport made me feel like I was going to throw up. I cranked open a window, but the air that rushed in wasn’t fresh. I coughed.

“Terrible air quality here,” said Corinne. “Whatever you do, don’t go running outside.”

What struck me on the forty-minute ride into the city was how run-down Moscow was. It was hard to believe that a country with such exhausted infrastructure was ever considered a superpower. The margins of the city were dotted with sad Soviet apartment blocks, trapped in a 1960s version of the future. The avenues were dirty—not with litter, but with actual dirt, as if the entire city needed a good scrub. And our car was one of the few on the road that wasn’t leaking exhaust. We were surrounded by ancient Ladas, some of them seemingly stapled together. “This is where the world’s cars go to die,” said Corinne.

Holt also writes Sarah’s first person narrative in a way that is innately personal, human, and intimate. Not only do we watch an innocent childhood friendship crumble, but we’re also let into Sarah’s darkest and most vulnerable moments. She is repressed by her mother, neglected by her father, feels left behind when Jenny leaves for the USSR, and constantly searches for closure when Jenny dies. We also get an up-close look at Sarah’s more questionable moments, when her obsession with Jenny gets the best of her, when petty jealousy takes over, or when her search for the truth fringes on over-zealous. Holt doesn’t let us pull away from the most realistic moments, where we’re not quite sure if we agree with Sarah’s actions or her impulses. Instead, she leans into the moment, bringing us closer. One such defining moment in the book is the following confrontation with Svetlana, who wrote the letter to Sarah asking her to come to Moscow:

“You said I should come to Moscow to learn the truth,” I said.

“Ah, truth. You Americans love truth.” She leaned back in her chair and cracked her neck. “I think it is the favorite word—after freedom, of course. You want the truth, and you ask for it like the eggs you order for breakfast. Today I want my truth sunny side up! And tomorrow hard-boiled. And then sometimes it is scrambled. And you congratulate yourself for ordering this truth, because you think asking for it is what matters. But what is truth? Pravda? No, Pravda is a newspaper. We understand that there is not one truth. There is your truth and my truth and yes, your Jennifer Jones’s truth.”

“She’s not my Jennifer Jones.”

“No? You act like it. She is your obsession.”

“I’m not obsessed with her,” I said. “She was my friend.”

Sarah’s rising obsession, and the stark, sometimes violent environment of Moscow lend the novel a dark undertone throughout, placing the reader alongside Sarah in a constant state of uncertainty, right up until the final pages of the book.

Holt has previously published mostly short fiction, making this debut full-length novel an impressive one. Her short fiction has won a Pushcart Prize and was runner-up of the 2011 PEN Emerging Writers Award. If you’re from Minnesota, you may have heard her name recently as the judge for Paper Dartsshort fiction contest. Meet her in-person on June 4, and nab some free letterpress bookmarks, printed with love by yours truly!

What other authors make main characters out of their settings, thanks to attention to detail and reality? Can you think of another book that brings the reader deep into the character’s vulnerable moments?


Psst: Happy Memorial Day weekend! Because we plan to be outside somewhere, grilling good eats and imbibing homemade wine (and we hope you will be, too!), we will not be posting a Three Things writing prompt on Mon, May 27. Fret not, we will get back to our regular schedule with a What We’re Reading review on Thu, May 30!


The Writing Life: An Interview with Elliott Holt

2013 May 21
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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.