The Do-or-Die Novelist: An Interview with Elliott Holt

September 4, 2013 | 7 books mentioned 3 7 min read

coverI’ve admired Elliott Holt’s writing for years, ever since we were in graduate school together, and so I started reading her first novel as soon as the galley slid through my mail slot. I tore through it; I know I’ll want to read it again. You Are One of Them is a wonderful book, astute and mysterious, wry and true, about a friendship changed by the Cold War. Others have agreed. In the New York Times, for instance, Maggie Shipstead called it a “hugely absorbing first novel from a writer with a fluid, vivid style,” and, in Bookforum, Roxane Gay praised it as “both a compelling character study and a psychological thriller with a ferociously intelligent ending.”

Elliott has received a Pushcart Prize and was the runner-up of the 2011 PEN Emerging Writers Award. We talked online about the loneliness of writing, the uses and limits of social media, the evils of lunch, and the key to good fiction.

The Millions: I think sometimes of a lunch we had in Chicago, when I asked how you’d finished your novel and you said you’d put a sign above your desk exhorting yourself to “make it happen,” and Lauren Groff noted she had a sign above her desk, and I thought, Aha! I need a sign. I went home and made one — “finish your novel” — and it’s helped. Can you tell me more about how you got yourself to finish your novel?

Elliott Holt: It felt like a do-or-die moment for me. I’d just gone through this break-up and was feeling crushed and heartbroken, but I also felt suddenly like my writing was all I had. I had quit my salaried staff job in advertising (after saving up some money to write full time for a while) and I was running out of money/time, so I said, that’s it. I have to do this. I have nothing else. I have to make this happen. I have to give it my all and actually finish this novel I’ve been toying with for four years. I was lonely and I was near broke, so I had nothing to lose!

And I wanted to publish a book before I was 40. Which is a totally arbitrary deadline, since writers mature at totally different rates. But anyway, I finished the book a few weeks before my 38th birthday. And it was published when I was 39. A 39-year-old woman can’t help but be aware of her waning fertility, but I made a conscious choice to focus on writing and not have children. So now I have to produce another book child.

TM: I forget which writer said every baby is a failed novel, but I think of that sometimes when I get asked why I’m not having a child. How’d you know the novel was done? What did it feel like to finish it and send it off?

EH: Some people will say it’s still not finished! (I’m joking because so many people hate the ending.)

TM: I love the ending, by the way.

EH: Oh, thanks. I knew that the book would end with that letter (I hope I’m not giving anything away) and I was writing to that point, though there were plenty of surprises along the way. I can’t really explain how I knew I was done. The same intuitive way I know I’m done with a story. It’s usually about the beats, the tone.

TM: I know we’ve talked in the past about how writing can crowd out most of everything else, especially social interaction. Sometimes I’ll realize I’ve gone all day without talking to anyone, and I think it helps my writing — at least, that’s what I tell myself — but sometimes I do get tired of the loneliness. How do you balance the two, the writer’s need for isolation versus the desire for human company?

EH: Oh, man, I do a terrible job of balancing the two. The year I was finishing my novel was the loneliest year of my life. I hardly saw or talked to anyone. l find that I have to check out of socializing in order to work well — I can’t just shift gears after a day of work and go to a cocktail party — but I’m single and I live alone so that means it’s easy for me to go weeks at a time without spending time with other people. And that’s not good. Everyone needs human contact and I don’t get enough of it. I was at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference this summer and I was so happy because I was surrounded by smart, fun, like-minded people. It had been so long since I’d had spent so much time with other people. And I was like, oh, right, I love people! I miss hanging out! I need to do a better job at balancing my writing life and my social life.

TM: Exactly — it’s hard, while working, to switch gears and go to a party. I once read a letter by Dickens in which he complains to a woman about her wanting to have lunch with him, how it’s not “only” a lunch because the interruption will destroy his entire day’s productivity. You’re very active online, especially on Twitter — The Millions once called you a “fixture of the literary Twittersphere” — do you find that social media helps with the balancing act?

EH: First of all, I’m with Dickens on lunch. I don’t do lunch. And the virtual banter of Twitter can provide what I miss of office life (the random chats about TV shows, etc.). But when I’m composing new material, even Twitter is distracting. So I won’t be on Twitter much for the next few months. I get tired of it.

TM: I go through ups and downs with online interaction. I’ve read a couple of articles lately about how use of social media seems to add to people’s feelings of depression. One article suggested that a problem with online interactions is that people tend to present a more manicured, upbeat version of their lives, mostly or only discussing what’s going well for them. Part of what I like and admire about your online self is that you aren’t relentlessly upbeat. What has brought about or inspired your openness?

EH: I can’t say that I’m totally open. I’m actually a very private person. But I have a dark sense of humor and I appreciate the absurd aspects of life. I just can’t help being irreverent. I guess I like social media that feels unfiltered, even though the truth is, it’s all filtered through personas.

TM: Have you ever found that, because of Twitter and whatnot, people think they know more about you than they really do?

EH: Yes, all the time. But anyone who “knows” me from social media doesn’t really know me. That’s another reason I want to take a break from Twitter. Twitter is fun, but I’m a writer, not a tweeter, but a lot of people know me from Twitter, not from my writing.

TM: You also wrote a great Twitter story that Slate, among others, praised. It was the first Twitter fiction I’ve seen that actually took advantage of the medium by making use of different feeds’ points of view. Can you talk about what it was like to write this story? How was it different from — or similar to — writing more traditional prose?

EH: Writing that story for the Twitter fiction festival was a lot of fun. It was similar to other fiction writing in the sense that I was thinking a lot about beats, about voice, about pacing. But storytelling should adapt to its delivery system. We tell stories in films differently than we do in books, or on stage. So I wanted to use Twitter to tell that story. I wrote a story in tweets instead of tweeting lines of a story.

TM: If I remember correctly, we started becoming friends when we realized we shared a love of Norman Rush. You often evangelize for books you’ve been enjoying — I can think of several books I’ve bought on your recommendation — and I wonder what makes you decide you’ll keep reading. What pulls you in?

EH: Voice and tone. If I love the voice, I’m sold. And then, when I fall in love with a book, I tell everyone I know about it. I get very excited.

TM: What are some books you’ve read recently that you’ve loved?

covercoverEH: The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, & Sons by David Gilbert, Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman (it came out last year, but I just read it), and story collections by my friends Jamie Quatro, Ramona Ausubel, and Laura van den Berg. Also Hangsamen by Shirley Jackson. I’ve long loved Jackson, but didn’t read that novel until this summer. And it is such a wonderfully unsettling portrait of existential loneliness. It’s weird and brilliant.

TM: I think I’ve only ever read Jackson’s collected stories — now I’m curious. What’s one of the more astute things you’ve learned about your writing from one of your teachers, or a friend or editor, or from anyone else?

EH: Hmm. I was in a workshop with Charlie D’Ambrosio (who is one of the very best writers working today, in my humble opinion) at the Tin House Writers Workshop and he told me that a story I’d written was constructed to avoid the one thing it most needed to confront. He said, this story is so well written, but you’re avoiding the real issue. He was right.

Charlie has no patience for cowardice on the page.

But I’ve also been told that I create good details — and details are the key to good fiction, I think. The judges of the PEN Emerging Writers’ Award in 2011 wrote this really nice thing in their citation: “The physical details Holt tosses down (so easily it seems!) do double duty, creating a rich sensory world while deepening and complicating character. She can’t be called a miniaturist, though her gaze on the details of family life is focused and keen. She strives for — and succeeds at — an admirable largeness, an emotional awareness that borders on uncanny. Her prose is a thrill to read.” And I really needed to hear that. It meant a lot to me.

TM: I love that about the details. It’s true — I remember vividly, for example, the shimmering chartreuse of the leaves in You Are One of Them, and the film burning on the projector. You’ve mentioned the Tin House and Sewanee writers’ conferences, and you’ve been to Yaddo — have you found writers’ conferences and colonies to be helpful to your writing?

EH: Ah yes, I love having writer friends and I really value a sense of community with other writers. I loved being at Yaddo. I loved the Sewanee and Tin House conferences. The friends I’ve made in those places are some of my very closest friends and readers.

covercoverTM: Part of what I love about your novel is its intelligence about friendship. I’ve been rereading Bellow’s Ravelstein and Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, and it’s occurred to me that there really aren’t enough novels addressing friendship, especially friendship between women and girls. Is this a lack that came to mind when you started thinking about your novel?

EH: Actually, I wasn’t thinking about the lack of fiction about friendship — though you’re right that there are a lot more books about romantic love than about love between friends. It was an intuitive decision to write about a friendship (and its attendant rivalries). Maybe because all my most intimate relationships have been with friends, not lovers.

's writing has appeared in Ploughshares, the Southern Review, Believer, and elsewhere. The recipient of scholarships from Yaddo and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, she has been named one of Narrative’s "30 Below 30" writers. She is working on a novel.

3 comments:

  1. Huh, I finished my novel without a sign over a desk. Five of them actually. All unpublished. I guess that means they all suck. Or maybe I wasn’t “persistent” enough in submitting them. I can never remember which of those two reasons explains my lack of success. It’s gotta be one of them, right?

  2. When you are in isolation and in the zone, how many hours a day do you write? Do you write every day? And what did Dickens say about lunch?

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