Commie Dearest: Elliott Holt’s Debut Novel Makes the Cold War Hot Again
Elliott Holt knows exactly when Homeland jumped the shark.
“In the middle of Season 2,” Holt says. We’re at Kramerbooks discussing her debut novel, You Are One of Them. But talking about the book means talking about her native D.C. and misperceptions about it, particularly about the relatively tony part she grew up in.
“The kids are going to a sort of—it’s clearly supposed to be Sidwell, except they have uniforms. It’s supposed to be a kind of Quaker school… And there was one scene where somebody says”—she affects a swagger—“‘What if I told you my father is Secretary of Defense?’
“And I was like, OK, stop. The thing is, the kids who grew up here, nobody talks about it. Because, first of all, everybody kind of knows what people’s parents do. But they’re also not that impressed by it.”
Holt, 39, grew up near the U.S. Naval Observatory. Her father is a former director of programming at PBS and NPR; her mother was a financial analyst for the World Bank. She attended the National Cathedral School. And though it’s a fallacy to connect an author too closely to her work of fiction, You Are One of Them unavoidably circles around what it’s like to grow up in the particular era of Cold War paranoia and D.C.-centric realpolitik in which Holt was raised. The book’s heroine, Sarah, was childhood friends with Jennifer, who as a tween writes a letter to then-Soviet premier Yuri Andropov pleading for peace between the United States and Soviet Union. Jennifer is invited on a tour of Soviet Russia, much to Sarah’s resentment—the letter was her idea. Those feelings well up again in the mid-’90s, when she heads to Russia to work as a journalist and Jennifer’s story insinuates itself back into her life.
The story will sound familiar to readers of a certain age: Jennifer is modeled after Samantha Smith, who wrote a similar letter, went on a similar Russian excursion, and enjoyed a brief moment of celebrity as an actress before dying in a plane crash in 1985 at 13. Holt recalls being fascinated by Smith’s story at the time—she was just two years younger—but didn’t think of her again until she was studying creative writing at Brooklyn College. In 2006 she was spitballing story ideas with the novelist Reif Larsen (who’d later become her brother-in-law), then a student at Columbia. Holt suggested Smith’s story to Larsen. Blank stare—he’s six years younger than Holt. She used it for her own story.
Holt recalls that her creative writing teacher, Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Michael Cunningham (The Hours), admired what she wrote, but sensed the premise didn’t resonate with her younger classmates. Holt was a relative latecomer to MFA-dom, juggling fiction alongside a day job at an advertising firm. But she was determined to see if the idea could work as a novel, something that covered the Cold War as something more than an ’80s phenomenon, something that conveyed a more timeless mood of fear and loss. “It occurred to me that that kind of story could only work if I went emotionally deeper into the narrator’s sense of betrayal,” she says. That took three years, one of them more or less flailing for a way to do that. “There was definitely one whole year where I was like, ‘What do I have to show for this year? I’ve written all these pages that I’ve thrown away.’”
Talk to Holt and people who know her, or follow her on Twitter (@elliottholt), or read her published fiction, and brevity emerges as a common theme. Her favorite writers tend to be short-story writers—she mentions Alice Munro’s name often. And last fall, as part of an online fiction festival sponsored by Twitter, Holt juggled the usernames of three fictional characters to tweet out a night in which a young woman fell off a rooftop.
Attempts at using Twitter as a fictional vehicle have generally been disappointing—Rick Moody and Jennifer Egan are just two prominent authors who have made awkward forays into it. But Holt’s did-she-jump-or-was-she-pushed tale cannily exploited the form’s limited real estate, conversational style, and subtweetish sense that not everything is being said that could be.
At 304 pages, You Are One of Them itself isn’t particularly long, and it was originally shorter. “In some ways she’s so good at short stories and the very compressed sentence and minimalistic, subtle character traits that a novel was always a little bit daunting for her,” says Larsen. “I saw her do it inch by inch. The first draft of her novel was 120 pages or something like that. And she’s like, ‘I don’t have anything more to say.’ But of course you always have something more to say.”
“There are a lot of door-stoppers I really like, but most of them I think, ‘Eh, that didn’t need to be in there,’” Holt says. “I’m cutting flab in my head. I’m a concise writer.”
That’s part of what elicited Cunningham’s admiration: He admires “her ability to create a character or a scene in two deft scalpel strokes,” he says. So in 2007, when New York magazine asked writing professors in the city to name their most promising students, Cunningham’s choice was easy. Holt’s photo was splashed in a “Stars of Tomorrow” feature before she’d published a story or even began thinking seriously about a novel.
“I think it kind of paralyzed me for a little while,” Holt says. “It was of course a lovely thing, but it’s a very strange thing to create buzz around people who don’t have books yet. In my case, I was just finishing grad school, I was still working full-time in an ad agency, so I didn’t have that much writing time... It’s dangerous to focus on your persona. You need to focus on your writing. I get anxious when somebody says, ‘Watch out for writer X! Writer X is gonna be a star!’”
Cunningham recalled being struck by Holt’s response when he gave her a heads-up about the feature. “It’s hard to imagine another MFA student saying anything like this: She said, ‘Well, I’m not sure. I don’t really have anything finished. I’m not sure it’s really appropriate for me to get this kind of attention this early in my career.’ And I thought, my God. Imagine a young writer actually pausing over whether or not a certain degree of attention is appropriate.”
Holt began writing You Are One of Them in late 2008, but only around 2010 did it begin to come into focus, its dashes of Graham Greene (a scene on a Ferris wheel in Gorky Park evokes The Third Man) interlacing with the psychological intimacy that defines her beloved Alice Munro and a satire of the late-’90s ad industry. (In one section, Sarah visits a Russian firm trying to pitch a Coke-owned brand called Tsar to the newly liberated nation. “So an American company is using Russian nationalism to sell a Russian brand that is actually American?” Sarah asks, aghast.) But the novel’s heartbeat is its tone of suspicion. As Sarah learns Jennifer may not have died, the novel turns on the question of how much her distrust is legitimate and how much of it is a remnant of her Cold War youth.
Much of the struggle, Holt, says, was nailing down Sarah’s voice. “I kind of hate the term ‘unreliable narrator’ because—aren’t they all unreliable?” she says. “But it seemed to me that it had to be in the first person because as a reader you have to question how reliable Sarah’s version of events are. I wanted to play with the tension between what you remember happening and what you choose to believe is happening.”
If there’s a connection between Sarah and Holt, it’s in that kind of political—but not exclusively political—anxiety, which will happen when D.C. political chatter is part of your childhood background noise. “We definitely grew up in a household that was very aware of the political situation,” says Katie Holt, Elliott’s youngest sister (and Larsen’s wife). “Neither of our parents were politicians or lawyers, but everyone they knew was a lawyer or a journalist or involved in a government post. We’d watch The McLaughlin Group on the weekends. That kind of thing was just always on. Even at age 8 or 9 I knew who the different McLaughlin Group people were.”
Once Holt had figured out Sarah’s voice and the novel’s trajectory, the rest came relatively easy. She bounced the story off a few trusted readers, among them Baltimore author and George Washington University writing teacher Laura van den Berg. “We started doing this thing where every Sunday we would send each other an email attachment with 10 new pages,” Holt says. “In some cases we would give each other instructions, saying, ‘This is really rough. Don’t even open the document.’”
The book was finally in her agent’s hands at the end of 2011. In the interim, she’s taught, moved to Adams Morgan in the beginning of 2012, started another novel, and she does the occasional freelance advertising gig. (“I couldn’t live on income from fiction writing alone.”) And she prepares for the process of promoting the book, which involves shopping first-person articles—a form she’s not especially comfortable with. “Personal essays are not my thing,” she says. “But this is the catch-22: Even if you’re a fiction writer, the way they market fiction is that you write personal essays.”
As for what might help sell the book in Russia, where much of the book is set, there’s no telling. The rights haven’t sold there. “They’ll probably just pirate it,” Holt says.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery