I met Elliott Holt just over a year ago, at a reading Tania James gave to support her short story collection Aerogrammes. Afterwards, a group of us wandered down the block to a rooftop bar to get a round of drinks. It was a perfect spring evening. There was still a trace of daylight in the sky, and the oppressive D.C. summer hadn’t yet arrived, so the air was cool. The popular bar wasn’t even that crowded (a rare thing—D.C.’s best bars are always packed). It was the perfect time to enjoy a drink, or two, but Holt quickly downed her gin and tonic and said goodnight. “My manuscript is due in a few days,” she explained. “It’s my last chance to go through it. I’m afraid that, after this, I won’t be able to make any changes.”
Writing a book means putting other things aside. I don’t know whether Holt can be called a perfectionist, but I know her well enough to say she works incredibly hard and is unusually dedicated to her craft. Her hard work and dedication are evident in You Are One of Them, Holt’s winning debut novel about the anxieties of the Cold War and a childhood friendship that ends too soon.
The story is told by Sarah Zuckerman, whose best friend, Jennifer Jones, is catapulted to international fame when Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov invites her on a publicized trip to Moscow. Shortly after her return, Jennifer dies in a plane crash. Years later, Zuckerman goes to Moscow, to retrace her friend’s journey, but also to come to terms with her untimely end.
You Are One of Them is, among many other things, an emotional detective story about a young girl’s loss of her best friend, and a young woman’s attempt to navigate that loss without a map or guiding star. It is a novel about how hard it is to know someone, and how hard it can be to protect a friendship’s trust. It’s also a pitch-perfect remembrance of the Cold War and, above all, a very enjoyable read.
The Rumpus: You grew up in D.C., and I think you lived in Moscow for several years, is that right?
Elliott Holt: Yes. I grew up in Washington and I lived in Moscow for two years, from 1997 to 1999.
Rumpus: What made you move to Moscow for those years, and what did you do there?
Holt: I first visited Moscow in 1993 with my mother, who worked for The World Bank and began traveling regularly to Russia and the former Soviet republics in 1991. In 1996, she took a job based in the Bank’s Moscow office, so she rented out our house in Washington and moved there. I was in college, then, but my sisters and I spent our Christmas vacation in Moscow. And then a year later, after I graduated from college, I went to live with my mother in Moscow. I went because I wanted to learn Russian, and I thought I’d stay for just a few months. But then I didn’t want to leave. So I found a job, teaching English, and then a few months later, I found a better-paying job at an American ad agency.
Rumpus: What about Moscow enticed you to stay?
Holt: Moscow was coming of age then. It was in the midst of this very rapid transition to a capitalist society and it was fascinating to watch the change. Not just watch it, but feel it changing day to day. The rest of Russia wasn’t changing as fast as Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Rumpus: It must have been crazy working for an ad agency during Russia’s transition from a planned to a free market economy.
Holt: It was crazy. The agency’s clients were American and British companies, mostly, who had recently launched their brands into the Western market. So there was this clash of cultures: expat brand managers and advertisers trying to sell Western goods to Russian consumers. Most of the people who worked at the agency were Russian—I made a couple of really good friends there—but the management were expats. There was a famous campaign done for Yava (an old Russian brand of cigarettes).
Rumpus: Tell us more about that!
Holt: Yava has been around since before the Revolution and it was an inexpensive cigarette brand. When Marlboro and other Western cigarette brands arrived in Russia, they were popular at first because they had foreign cache and because the quality of the tobacco was better.
But meanwhile, British American Tobacco bought the old Yava factory in Moscow and decided to repackage the brand as Yava Zolotaya (Yava Gold), with better-quality tobacco and a fancy gold package. They wanted to market it as a Russian cigarette that matched Western quality because their consumer research showed that a lot of Russians were starting to resent the “imperialism” of Western brands. A lot of people wanted to buy Russian brands, and resented the notion that Western brands were of better quality.
So the American ad agency did this campaign—I should clarify that I had nothing to do with the campaign—with a tagline that translated as “STRIKE BACK,” and all the billboards featured these iconic American things (a space shuttle, the Statue of Liberty) being occupied by Russia.
There was a billboard of Russian cosmonauts painting a Russian flag on the side of an American space shuttle, for example. And the campaign was hugely popular and successful. Yava Zolotaya sold really well. But very few people realized that this so-called Russian cigarette was owned by a foreign company.
Rumpus: So this was an American advertising agency selling British and American-owned cigarettes to Russians by convincing them that by buying them, they would be striking a blow against American and British imperialism?
Rumpus: Did you always know you wanted to write about Russia, or was that something that came to you later?
Holt: I didn’t plan to write fiction about Russia. But I did find myself writing a few stories about Russia in grad school. I wasn’t just writing about Russia, though. I’m interested in the way people feel like outsiders or foreigners. I’ve felt like an outsider for much of my life.
Rumpus: Sarah Zuckerman is also an outsider, both in her childhood in D.C. and later, in Russia, when she tries to discover the fate of her childhood friend, Jenny. What inspired you to take up those themes?
Holt: I didn’t start with themes. I started with a premise. I was thinking about Samantha Smith, the girl who really did write a letter to Andropov in 1982 (as a kid I followed her highly-publicized trip to the USSR with great interest) and I thought: what if two girls had written letters and only one got a response? What if two friends—best friends—are pulled apart when one becomes famous as a peace ambassador?
I started with that idea and then I wondered why the girl who is left behind by her famous friend would be so hurt by the events. So I decided that my narrator, Sarah Zuckerman, was haunted by loss. She needed Jenny and her family to make up for what her own family lacked. I started with those characters. The themes emerged intuitively out of my early drafts.
I was following the story—Sarah’s story—not setting up thematic tension. But once I had a working draft and was in the revision process, I started seeing themes. Then I pulled them out, emphasized them in places.
Rumpus: I liked the novel’s exploration of the mystery of the fulfillment, and maybe also the power, that Moscow and its people might offer to Sarah. Did you think of the story that way?
Holt: I didn’t think of it in terms of fulfillment and power. I was thinking a lot about grief, and about how grief turns us into detectives: we find ourselves trying to make sense of the loss, searching for clues about the person who is no longer in our lives. I was also thinking about obsession and about memory, which is often unreliable. Sarah spends much of her time in Moscow wrestling with memory and with the tension between reality and perception.
Sarah has been hurt and betrayed, so she’s susceptible to a certain paranoid mindset that was typical in Moscow then. But she’s also grieving and looking for a way to revisit her past. So she sees Moscow through her very particular lens.
Rumpus: What did you want Sarah to discover in Moscow?
Holt: I don’t want to give anything away. I was most concerned about Sarah’s emotional arc. What matters is what she discovers about herself. I know what happens at the end. I’ll leave it up to readers to decide what they think.
Sarah spent most of her life defining herself in relation to Jenny. This is a book about when she starts defining herself on her own terms.
Rumpus: And what she needs to go through to get to that place.
Holt: Right. It’s a psychological journey. Part mystery, part coming-of-age story, part Cold War freak-out!
Rumpus: But what you capture so well is the enigma of her quest. Not just the mystery of Jenny’s fate, but the mystery of what Sarah is doing. I’m not even sure she herself is fully aware of what she’s doing.
Holt: It’s definitely murky psychological territory. Plus, Sarah is not the most reliable narrator. So much of this story is colored by her nostalgia, her anger, her sadness. She’s learning about herself as much as anything else. It’s about tone. It took me a long time to find the right tone for this book.
Rumpus: How did you find it?
Holt: Well, the perch is important. I realized pretty early on that I wanted Sarah to be narrating this book from a perch in her thirties. So she has an emotional distance from the events she’s describing. We see her as a young girl and as a young woman, but we also have a sense of the woman she has become. I’m interested in the way that people’s pasts shape their futures.
In a writing workshop with Claire Messud, she gave us an assignment to write a scene featuring a ten-year-old character. Then to take that same character and write about her/him at fifteen. And then again at twenty.
It’s interesting to imagine how a character might evolve over the years. In this book, we see Sarah over many years. We track her psychological progress. So I think the perch informed the tone. She’s distant enough to be analytical about the historical context of the events. But there’s a nostalgia in the tone, too.
Rumpus: Are you drawn to grief and loss more than other subjects?
Holt: Yes, I do seem to write about them a lot. I don’t set out to write about loss, but it does seem to preoccupy me. I’ve also noticed that I write a lot about secrets. Characters in my stories are always keeping things from each other. Again, I don’t plan to write about secrets. But I suppose that I’m preoccupied with them. I always wonder how well anyone can really know another person.
Rumpus: Did you know it had to be in first-person? Or did you find that point of view as you went?
Holt: I knew this book had to be first-person. Because this narrator is ranting about the fact that she never got to tell her story. The world heard her friend’s story and now she is finally telling hers. The story demanded first-person. This is a very subjective version of events. This is a book about memory, too. So I had to write in first-person because it’s about the narrator (Sarah) trying to make sense of the events and her memory of what happened.
Rumpus: So about loss and secrets: is that something that you discover in the course of revising, that you have returned to loss and secrets in your stories?
Holt: I didn’t think about the fact that I write a lot about secrets until someone pointed it out to me. My stories “Fem Care” and “The Norwegians” definitely have secrets in them. Like I said, I think a lot about how well we ever really know another person. Even the most intimate relationships aren’t completely open. We keep parts of ourselves hidden.
Rumpus: Someone you thought you knew well, even intimately, can suddenly, in the face of new challenges or circumstances, seem to become a different person.
Rumpus: Why is that? And why is fiction such a good tool for investigating and trying to understand that phenomenon?
Holt: We read to feel less alone, to understand and connect with humanity. And we write to try to understand things. I think we all project our ideas onto the people we know. When someone says of her son, “He wouldn’t do that,” what it really means is that her conception of her son wouldn’t do that. We all see the world subjectively.
Rumpus: We create the people we know through the stories we tell to ourselves and others. In part we do that, I guess.
Holt: I always think about that great Joan Didion line: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” It’s true. It’s a human impulse to create narratives, to rationalize and explain things with stories. But each person’s stories are different.
Rumpus: And of course we create ourselves that way, too.
Holt: It’s not always a conscious construction. We tell ourselves stories about who we are and then that informs the way we act with other people.
Rumpus: Your novel strikes me as incredibly timely. Is seems like a perfect cultural moment to reflect on the history of our relationship with Russia, and to relive the Cold War. Do you agree? And, if so, any theories on why that might be?
Holt: A lot of culture-makers are in their forties now, so it makes sense that they are looking back at their childhoods in the 1970s and 1980s. I hesitate to use the word “nostalgia” when talking about the Cold War—nostalgia is warm, not cold—but yes, the zeitgeist seems full of references to the late Cold War years.
Rumpus: Thanks very much for your time, Elliott.
Holt: Thank you, Sean.
Featured image of Elliott Holt © 2013 by Rebecca Zeller.
Image of Moscow © 2009 by Stephen Exley.