Interview: Elliott Holt, Author of You Are One of Them

Author Elliott Holt

Author Elliott Holt grew up in Washington, D.C., and worked in ad agencies in New York, London, and Moscow. She attended the MFA program at Brooklyn College, won a Pushcart Prize for a story that was published in The Kenyon Review, and was labeled a literary “Star of Tomorrow” by New York magazine.

Elliott Holt’s “crafty, confident” first novel, You Are One of Them (Penguin, May 2013), was named one of the Most Anticipated Books of Spring 2013 by Publishers Weekly.

You Are One of Them is your first novel. Did it turn out like you wanted?

The novel I had in my head was better than the one I wrote, but I think a lot of writers feel that way. There’s a gap between what we aspire to do and what we actually accomplish. I’m sure I’ll never be entirely satisfied with anything I write. Having said that, the book is the one I wanted to write: a book about the obsessive nature of grief, about the way in which history (personal and cultural) shapes a person. It’s a coming-of-age story, but it’s not just about Sarah Zuckerman (my narrator) coming of age. It’s about Russia and America coming of age after the Cold War.

As a young writer, how important is recognition to you?

By recognition, do you mean reviews? Awards and prizes? Sales? It means a lot to me when writers and critics I admire respond to my work–I was really honored to know that Kathryn Schulz of New York magazine liked my book, for example, and to have Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie mention my novel in a Q&A in the N.Y. Times. And it meant a lot to me to win a Pushcart Prize for a short story in 2011. It was a great confidence boost. But in the end, the only critic that really matters is me. I have to write the stories I want to write, in the way that I want to write them. The motivation has to come from me, not from other people. I’m hard on myself.

Who was the first writer you tried to imitate?

Louise Fitzhugh, probably. I loved Harriet the Spy when I was a kid. I also definitely tried to imitate Salinger in ninth grade after reading Nine Stories. The voice!

What is the best writing advice you’ve received so far?

Discipline is even more important than talent.

Which books/authors do you re-read most frequently?

I reread favorite short stories a lot, especially ones by Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant and Chekhov. Other books that I have read multiple times include Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, Lolita by Nabokov, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, Anna Karenina, and The Great Gatsby.

You’re very active on social media, and we’ve followed you on Twitter for years. Why is Twitter important to you? How does it affect your writing life? Do you struggle to draw a line between social media/email time and serious writing time? 

When you work alone at home, like I do, Twitter becomes a virtual water cooler. The “conversations” I have on Twitter are often the only ones I have all day. It’s nice to take a work break and talk about TV shows, books, politics, etc. I follow a lot of smart, funny people on Twitter, who link to interesting articles.

I don’t find it distracting when I’m revising and editing. But when I’m composing new material, I can’t be on Twitter. I checked out for a month or so in 2011 and I’ll check out again soon, because I’m diving into my new writing project and will need entire days of uninterrupted writing time. When I’m in the throes of writing something new, it’s hard to distract me. I get completely consumed by my writing.

You’ve lived in Moscow, London, and New York. Which did you enjoy the most? Which was the best city in which to be a productive, inspired writer?

I also lived in Amsterdam (for a year), which was my favorite place to write. I would move back there if I had the chance. I loved living in Moscow and I loved living in London and I really miss New York. New York is an inspiring place, but it can be also be distracting to live so close to the publishing industry. I’d run into agents and editors on the streets of my neighborhood all the time. Being aware of the publishing business and its trends while you’re working on a book isn’t healthy. You need to ignore the market and just write the story you’re compelled to write.

You now live in D.C., the city in which you grew up. What brought you back?

I came “home” to finish writing my book–something about being in my hometown, where much of the novel is set, was helpful to me. I find Washington incredibly boring in many ways, but I’m highly productive there. Maybe knowing the city so well makes it easy for me to tune everything out and just work.

Beyond your writing career, what are you most proud of?

I’m proud of my reading: I’m a very good close reader and I read a lot. I would like to write more literary criticism. I’m also proud of my friendships. I have some really amazing friends who have been in my life for 20+ years.

The N.Y. Times recently published an article you liked called “The Gift of Siblings.” What’s the best part about having siblings?

I’m so close to my two younger sisters that I can’t imagine what it would be like to be an only child. My sisters are both married (and one of them has three kids), but I still talk to them every day. They are my two favorite people in the world. They are funny, smart, fun to hang out with, and their faith in me is a huge source of strength. When I don’t believe in myself, they believe in me. My sisters and I all take care of each other and root for one another. Our mother traveled a lot when we were growing up, so we’ve always leaned on each other.

Your Twitter profile says you love dogs. Tell us about your dog(s).

I grew up with dogs. And I love all dogs. I recently had to put my dog to sleep and I’m still heartbroken about it. I may adopt another rescue dog at the end of the summer.

Your favorite famous fellow Holt: Henry, Jim, or Steve?

Steve.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a couple of short stories and taking notes for my new novel, but I’m too superstitious to talk about it. I’m not sure if it will work yet!

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