You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt (Penguin; 304 pages; $26.95).
When two school-age girls have a falling out, the clash can seem like the outbreak of world war. Both sides have many friends, allies who declare war simply because of loyalty to one party. Think of them as NATO versus the Warsaw Pact. There is no détente, and things can quickly get ugly. Each girl deploys secret agents to spy and gather intelligence on the opposing foe. Undercover surveillance reveals the weaknesses of each adolescent, failings that must be exploited at any cost. Mutually assured destruction is a given. If one of the girls tells a deep, dark secret on the other, retaliation will be swift and massive. In this electrically charged, DEF-CON 1 environment, nuclear war becomes a real possibility as the chances of disarmament plummet. This terminology recalls the blackest, iciest days of the Cold War—the early 1980s—the setting of Elliott Holt’s smart and suspenseful debut You Are One Of Them.
Jaime Boler: Thank you, Elliott, for letting me ask you these questions. Your debut novel, You Are One of Them, grabbed me from the first page and still has a hold on me. You worked at advertising agencies in Moscow, London , and New York, and attended the MFA program at Brooklyn College at night. Did you always want to be a writer?
Elliott Holt: Thanks so much for reading the book, Jaime. Yes, I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. My mother recorded me making up song/poems at age 3 and then transcribed them. I still have them. And by the time I was five, I was telling people that I wanted to be a writer. I wrote poetry and stories throughout my childhood. And I was always a voracious reader.
JB: How would you describe You Are One of Them?
EH: It’s a book about identity and friendship and loss, about the obsessive nature of grief, and about the way history (personal and cultural) shapes us.
It explores the themes of the Cold War–competition, paranoia, propaganda, loyalty–on the smaller scale of a friendship between two girls. Humans have a tendency to divide the world into us vs. them. Coke vs. Pepsi, the US vs. the USSR , boys vs. girls, Democrats vs. Republicans, the popular kids vs. the unpopular kids, etc.
It’s easy to see the world in those polarized terms and to define ourselves versus an enemy or rival. During the Cold War, much of what it meant to be American was “not Communist.” During the Revolutionary War, we weren’t British, during World War II, we weren’t Nazis, and during the Cold War, we weren’t Russian. And friendships can work that way, too. There is often an intrinsic rivalry in close friendships.
JB: What was the inspiration for your story?
EH: I was inspired by the true story of Samantha Smith, an American girl who wrote a letter to Soviet premier Yuri Andropov, asking for peace, in 1982. But her story was just a jumping-off point. This novel is not a fictionalized account of her life. (She died in a plane crash in 1985, but her remains were found. The events of my book are fabricated.)
The premise was inspired by Samantha Smith, though. I thought, ‘what if two girls had written to Andropov, but only one got a response? How would the friendship between those two girls change if one of them became a famous peace ambassador and was invited to the USSR, while the other was left behind?’ So I told the story from the point-of-view of the marginalized character. And then I asked myself why this character would be so hurt by what she perceived as abandonment. So I created a family history for her, one defined by loss and fear. The late Cold War years were pretty terrifying for a lot of us. But for Sarah Zuckerman, my narrator, there is never any buffer or escape from that fear. Her mother has an anxiety disorder, so Sarah never feels safe.
EH: In Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “In the Waiting Room,” the speaker says to herself, “you are one of them.” That phrase felt right for my book both in terms of tone and because the meaning works on many levels. This book is about our tendency as humans to divide the world into “us” versus “them,” but it’s also a book about identity and understanding of self. In that poem, the speaker realizes just how connected she is to the rest of humanity. Sarah, the narrator of my book, makes similar discoveries about herself.
You can read it as an accusation, “you are one of them!” or a quiet realization. Sarah realizes that she herself is one of ‘them’–she’s not so different from everyone else.
JB: In You Are One of Them, you revisit so many 80s fads and issues. Are you a child of the 1980s? What do you remember most about that decade?
EH: I was born in 1974, so yes, I was a child in the 1980s. I remember watching regular space shuttle launches on TV (and watching the Challenger explode in 1986) and following the news of regular summits between the Americans and the Soviets. I also played a lot of Pac Man!
JB: As a child of the 1980s, did the prospect of nuclear war frighten you?
EH: Definitely. Like a lot of kids my age, I was really worried about nuclear war. I was very aware of the arms race between the US and the USSR.
JB: I, too, was a child of the 80s and the possibility of nuclear war frightened me. I’m curious as to whose voice you heard first—Sarah’s or Jenny’s?
EH: When I was writing the book, I was always focused on Sarah’s voice. This is Sarah’s story, not Jenny’s, and I knew that I had to write the book in the first person because Sarah is a character who has spent her life thinking of herself as a footnote in someone else’s story. In this book, she is finally telling her version of the events. Her friend wrote a book about her journey to the Soviet Union, now Sarah is telling her story about her trip to Russia .
Everyone’s version of a story is different. And Sarah is not the most reliable narrator, not because she’s coy or dishonest, but because her experience is totally subjective. She sees the world through her particular lens. She’s narrating this story from a perch in her thirties, so she is looking back at her childhood in the 1980s and at her twenties in the mid-1990s. Her story is colored by nostalgia (she has a wistful, romantic view of Jenny) and by her anger and grief, but she also has enough distance from the events to put them in their historical context. The perch informs the voice and the tone.
JB: How were earlier versions of You Are One of Them different from the final version?
EH: The book changed a lot in the four years I was working on it. It’s hard for me to track all the changes I made along the way, because I revise so much. I wasn’t sure I could finish the book. I threw a lot of pages away. I spent a lot of time spinning my wheels and feeling like I’d never get it right.
I’d been working on it (writing and rewriting the same fifty pages) for three years before I found the line, “The first defector was my sister.” But that line unlocked the central metaphor of the book. And once I heard that line in my head, I found the tone. I follow the sound of sentences. I play with language. “Defector” sounds like “defective.” So I found myself playing with both political defection from one’s country and the idea of being a person with defects.
The first defector was my sister.
JB: Perfect segue to my next question. Why is Sarah so concerned with defectors and why does she worry she herself is defective?
EH: Sarah has lost a lot of people (her sister dies, her father leaves, her mother retreats into fear, and then her best friend dies), so she feels abandoned. She feels like something must be wrong with her because so many people she cared about have left her. She sees the abandonment as “defection” because she is influenced by Cold War lingo. She brands herself as a sort of martyr.
JB: You Are One of Them has an ambiguous ending. I thought I knew, and then I began second-guessing myself. Did you always intend for the conclusion to be so indefinite?
EH: I always knew that I wanted the book to end this way. The surface mystery is not completely resolved, but there is resolution in terms of Sarah’s emotional journey. Sarah chooses, finally, to let go of her friend’s story and focus on her own.
JB: You also write short fiction, which has been published in Kenyon Review, Bellevue Literary Review, and The Pushcart Prize XXXV (2011 anthology). Which medium do you prefer: short stories or novels?
EH: I really love writing short stories, but in many ways they are harder to write. You can’t have a single weak line in a short story! I’ve published three short stories and each of them took me more than two years to write. I would write a first draft pretty quickly, but then spend two or three years revising it. But I’ve learned that writing a novel requires a level of endurance that a story doesn’t. I think you figure out the rules of the story or novel you’re writing while you’re working on it, though. So each new project brings different challenges.
JB: You are the winner of a Pushcart Prize and runner-up of the 2011 PEN Emerging Writers Award. Did you feel any added pressure because of these early awards?
EH: Those two awards didn’t add pressure, but they did inspire me to keep working on my book. As a writer, you face so much rejection and self-doubt that any kind of encouragement is really helpful.
JB: What is a typical day of writing like for you?
EH: It depends. I can’t support myself just by writing fiction, so if I’m working at an ad agency (I still freelance sometimes) or teaching, I often go several weeks or even months without getting to write much at all.
But I saved up money to give myself a year of uninterrupted writing time while I was finishing this book. And during that period, I would spend ten or twelve hours a day at my desk. When I’m in the zone on a project, I’m hard to distract. I write in the morning, revise and edit in the afternoons and evenings. I print drafts out and edit them by hand (scribbling in the margins, etc.)
JB: What are some of your favorite books and who are some of your favorite authors?
EH: I love so many writers and so many books! Here is a sample of authors whose work I adore (in no particular order): Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Anne Carson, Vladimir Nabokov, Anton Chekhov, Graham Greene, Leo Tolstoy, Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, James Baldwin, Dana Spiotta, Jeffrey Eugenides, Rachel Kushner, and Zadie Smith. And I read a lot of poetry. Fiction writers should read more poetry. I’m especially keen on Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop.
JB: I love that you read such a wide-range of authors. What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?
EH: Read! I love to read. I also like to hike/walk in the woods, swim (especially in the ocean), and go to movies, plays and art museums.
JB: All that reading as a kid has now paid off! It made you the writer you are today. What was the most difficult thing about writing your story? And did you learn anything new about yourself in the midst of writing and editing?
EH: I’m glad that I kept working and didn’t give up on it. I had to prove to myself that I could write a novel. I learned how important determination and will is to the process.
JB: When you were writing your story, did you have any idea how big it could be?
EH: When I was working on the book, I wasn’t even sure it would be published! I’m very grateful that it was.
JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading You Are One of Them?
EH: I hope that its depiction of fear, loss, and friendship resonates with readers.
JB: What’s next for you? Are you working on anything new?
EH: I’m working on a couple of short stories right now. And I have an idea for another novel, but I’m not yet sure if it’s going to work!
JB: If You Are One of Them is an indication, anything you write will be smart and compelling! Thank you, Elliott, for a wonderful interview. Good luck with the book.
EH: Thank you so much, Jaime.