I’ve had a good year in reading, mostly because I’ve been traveling a lot and have developed a habit of reading obsessively in airports and airplanes. In January I read Josephine Rowe’s debut novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal, and Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, and was deeply moved by both. Both are little marvels of elegance and concision.
Three of the five books I read in February warranted a little star next to the title in the notebook where I keep track of books I’ve read. Javier Marías’s A Heart So White is essentially a ghost story, except that thing that’s haunted isn’t a house or a landscape or even particularly a person; the thing that’s haunted is somehow the entire institution of marriage, and I’m still unsettled by the thought of it. I think that Ali Smith’s Autumn is her best work to date, and I’ve loved almost all of them. Autumn is utterly of this era, the first post-Brexit novel I’ve read, and yet I think it has a rare quality of timelessness, in that I am certain I’ll still find it moving and fascinating 20 years from now. Dan Chaon’s Ill Will is the creepiest book I’ve ever read, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s the kind of book that grabs you by the throat.
My favorite book of March was Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments. It’s slim and deadly. Her idea was that it might be interesting to write a book comprised solely of the quotable sentences that one underlines in more ordinary books. I found this book quite useful. When one of my European publishers sent me a proposed jacket image over the summer that involved a young woman strutting down a post-apocalyptic road with a come-hither look, dressed in a bustier and form-fitting jean shorts, I sent them this section from 300 Arguments:
After I submitted the final draft of my book about a train-track suicide, the art department produced sketches for my book cover: a needle and a long skein of red thread; a length of fluffy pinkish lace; a yellow hand mirror lying on a patch of green grass. I gave my editor a note for the designers, and the next day they delivered a perfect cover design: a photograph of the book’s subject, a man sitting on a train. This was the note: Pretend this book was written by a man.
(My publisher responded with the same jacket image, except with the girl Photoshopped out, so that the image was just an empty landscape. Fine.)
In April I read and loved Sherri L. Smith’s Orleans. I don’t read much YA, but we were about to do an event together and it was a rare moment where I was a) doing an event with another author and b) actually had time to read said author’s book. It’s a devastating and beautifully written book. The imagery stays with me.
My favorite book of May was Adam Johnson’s short story collection Fortune Smiles, which includes one of the best ghost stories I’ve ever read. I spent a pleasurable July reading everything ever published by Nicole Krauss, in order to familiarize myself with her body of work before I reviewed her spectacular Forest Dark for the Guardian. August was unremarkable, book-wise, but in September I read Nick Harkaway’s wonderful Gnomon, and then James Smythe’s gorgeous and haunting I Still Dream the month after that. Gnomon and I Still Dream are in an AI-paranoia genre that I’ve been seeing more and more frequently, with plots wherein the nature of reality is slippery.
As I write this, November isn’t over yet, but the books that have most impressed me this month are Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman and Brit Bennett’s The Mothers. The novels are in no way similar, except in their authors’ impeccable control over their material.
I’ve saved June for last, because in June I read Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing Is Monsters. I encountered the book in Montreal. I go to Montreal only under duress or when I think it will be especially helpful to my Quebec publisher, because I lived there 15 years ago, and living in that city as an Anglophone was so unpleasant that I fall into an automatic depression every time I return. People are nice to me now when I go there, no one spits at me on the street for speaking English the way that one guy did 15 years ago, I no longer see anti-English graffiti on the street, I speak French well enough now to order a coffee en français and therefore other customers in line don’t glare at me, I no longer have the kind of job where I need to worry about the Language Police, and I care much less about whether or not people like me than I did when I was 23, but one’s first impression of a place can be indelible.
In the spring I was in Montreal for 24 hours, and at the hotel between interviews, my Quebec publisher showed me a book that pierced my haze of unhappiness: My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is a dazzling graphic novel, a story about growing up poor in 1960s Chicago that’s also a Weimar Republic horror story and a meditation on monsters, on what it means to be different, on family and love. “This book will change the genre,” my publisher said, and I don’t know enough about the graphic novel genre to confirm or deny this, but I do know that the book changed me. I left the city with the sense of having encountered something truly extraordinary. Sometimes you read a book and you think, Oh. This is what a book can be.
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Shirley Jackson’s house in North Bennington, Vt., unlike the nearby Robert Frost Stone House, has not been made into a museum. There isn’t even a sign that says that Shirley Jackson used to live there. It stands magisterially, with its four columns, up the knoll on Prospect Street. But if you stop to take a good look at it, you will realize that, despite its white grandeur, the overall impression it gives is one of inadequate upkeep — it could do with a new coat of paint, and the roof is crumbling in some places. The dysfunctional family in Jamaica Kincaid’s novel See Now Then lives in “the Shirley Jackson house…in a small village in New England.” (Kincaid, too, is a resident of North Bennington). From a window of the house, the mother Mrs. Sweet in the novel “could look down on the roaring waters of the Paran River as it fell furiously and swiftly out of the lake…and looking up, she could see surrounding her, the mountains named Bald and Hale and Anthony, all part of the Green Mountain Range; and she could see the firehouse where she sometimes attended a civic gathering…” The new owners of the house seldom come out on the porch; I have walked past it many times but never seen anyone walking in the yard or sitting on the steps. It is not very surprising then that Kincaid chose this house for her novel; its anonymity only fuels its quiet power to command everything in its view. As you walk up the hill and see the house emerge slowly, you feel as if you had stumbled upon the axis of the whole village.
Shirley Jackson was walking up the hill to the same house as she worked out in her mind what would become her most famous story. “The idea had come to me,” she writes in the “biography” of “The Lottery,” “while I was pushing my daughter up the hill in her stroller — it was, as I say, a warm morning, and the hill was steep, and beside my daughter the stroller held the day’s groceries — and perhaps the effort of that last fifty yards up the hill put an edge to the story.” Shirley Jackson left New York City and moved to North Bennington in the ’40s when her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, accepted a teaching position in the literature department at Bennington College, which is only a short walk from Prospect Street. One question that would come up persistently in the deluge of fan- and hate-mail that Jackson received after the publication of “The Lottery” in The New Yorker in June 1948 was: “But where is this fictional village located, whose habitants participate in the cruel ritual described in the story?” In her delightful essay “How I Write” in Let Me Tell You, a new collection of Shirley Jackson’s unpublished and uncollected short stories, essays, and other writings, she writes: “For a while I tried telling them that I was just thinking of my neighbors, but no one would believe me. Incidentally, no one in our small town has ever heard of The New Yorker, much less read my story.” North Bennington is the setting for many of Shirley Jackson’s short stories and for her novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle, considered by many her finest (it was also her last) and Hangsaman, which is about a Bennington College student. Yet, Shirley Jackson never mentions the name of the place; it could be any small village in New England.
It is this effacement of place that makes Shirley Jackson’s writing so astonishing. Nowhere in We Have Always Lived in the Castle does Shirley Jackson mention the name of the hostile village from which the Blackwood sisters are hiding away, but as soon as you start walking around North Bennington, you realize how she was deftly transforming the space around her with her abundant imagination. She explains this process in “How I Write:”
I had been reading a book about choosing a victim for a sacrifice, and I was wondering who in our town would be a good choice for such a thing. Also I was wondering what would happen if they drew lots by family; would the Campbell boys, who haven’t spoken to each other in nearly twenty years, have to stand up together? And I was wondering what would happen about the Garcia boy, who had married a girl his parents couldn’t stand — would she have to be admitted as a member of their family? I was so fascinated by the idea of the people I knew in such a situation, I thought that when I got home I might try writing it down and seeing what happened…Because I was interested in the method, I called the story “The Lottery”…
In the fall of last year, Ruth Franklin, who is working on a new biography of Shirley Jackson to be published next year, contacted me for help with some local research. As I read through old issues of the Bennington Banner from 1957 preserved on microfilm, I stumbled on a trove of local gossip that the newspaper, unfortunately, no longer publishes: “Several local residents caught a glimpse of Mrs Roger W. Tubby Thursday afternoon as she, accompanied by her husband’s sister and husband visiting from England, was on her way home to Saranac Lake.” In one of the issues, the newspaper reported how a Mr. Williams had been admitted to the hospital, but the next day it also published a correction saying that after being contacted by Mr. Williams, the newspaper had realized its sources had been faulty. Who knows what Mr. Williams’s secret afflictions were, or what life-altering effects the noteworthy visit of Mrs. Roger Tubby, wife of a former White House Press Secretary, had on the village? Either of these could easily be the premise for one of Shirley Jackson’s stories.
Jackson had a penetrating eye for the absurd and the horrific in everyday lives, whether in New York City or in a quiet Vermont village. In the story “Paranoia” in Let Me Tell You, a New Yorker happily returning home from work, having remembered his wife’s birthday and carrying a box of candy for her, starts being chased relentlessly by the image of a man in a light hat. Even his home will not be able to shelter him from his pursuer. Let Me Tell You is divided into five sections — unpublished and uncollected short fiction, reviews and essays about work and life, early short stories about the Second World War, humor and family remembrances, and essays on the craft of writing. Some of the short fiction in this collection — like “Paranoia,” “The Man in the Woods,” and “The Lie” — was previously published in magazines like The New Yorker, Tin House, and McSweeney’s. Much of it, however, is wholly new, such as “The Arabian Nights,” in which a girl insists on accompanying her parents and their friends to a nightclub the day after her 12th birthday, but the events following Clark Gable’s appearance at the club make her feel uneasy in the world of adults and want to take refuge in her childhood once again. The stories in Let Me Tell You are not Jackson’s most detailed, and sometimes they’re only one or two pages long, but as Ruth Franklin points out in her illuminating foreword, many of the stories that reappear in this collection were supposed to be part of a short-story collection that Jackson was trying to put together in the ’40s. However, they weren’t included when she found an organizing principle for the collection and it took the form of The Lottery and Other Stories.
Nobody was a more astute chronicler of the post-war crisis of the female mind in America than Jackson. In her novels The Bird’s Nest, Hangsaman and The Haunting of Hill House, the horrors that visit the female protagonists are psychological rather than supernatural. More opportunities were available to women after the war, but they were still shackled by domesticity and their lives continued to revolve around their husbands and children. Stanley Edgar Hyman’s career overshadowed that of Jackson in her lifetime, she was often dismissed as a mere faculty wife, and her neighbors suspected her of witchcraft (though it must be admitted that Jackson took an extraordinary interest in the paranormal). In the story “Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons,” the immaculate housewife Mrs. Spencer’s compulsion to keep everything in her household in order turns into mania, and then into loneliness when everybody in town, including her husband and children, desert her to attend a picnic at the less priggish Oberons’. In “The New Maid,” Mrs. Morgan remains untouched by the arrival of spring because she takes the train to work very early in the morning. Her husband is jealous that she has an important job.
Jackson knew how difficult it was to manage a teeming household and a writing career at the same time, and the pieces about family life in the collection show Shirley skillfully turning her misadventures and imperfections as a homemaker into art. In “Questions I Wished I’d Never Asked,” Jackson’s innocent question, “Who left the hose out to freeze?” is met with confessions of other mischief going on in the house. These writings are of a piece with the hilarity and hysteria of her memoirs Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. Yet, enjoyable and amusing as these pieces are, there is sometimes an uneasiness about them, as if she were negotiating with the Angel in the House. They often come across as stoic concessions of someone who, as the heading of one of the sections in the book says, “would rather write than do anything else.” In “Here I Am, Washing Dishes Again,” she talks of entertaining herself by making up stories about her kitchen utensils while she washes them. The reader is jolted when after these droll pieces about her household she declares in “The Real Me,” “I am tired of writing dainty little biographical things that pretend that I am a trim little housewife in a Mother Hubbard stirring up appetizing messes over a wooden stove.” The most interesting pieces are the ones where her family life merges with her creativity and work. In “Private Showing,” she takes her children to a viewing of the film Lizzie, based on The Bird’s Nest, and they are delighted to go to “Mommy’s movie.” In “The Play’s the Thing,” Jackson writes a play at her children’s behest that they can stage, but they make the play their own, and in the end Jackson gives them the copyright. The piece on poltergeists in the house on Prospect Street makes for a truly spine-chilling moment in the volume, when the Hymans sit down to dinner and find a still-warm pumpkin pie on the table, prepared by one of the spirits in the house.
Some of the finest pieces in this collection show a side of Shirley Jackson that the world does not readily associate with her — that of a generous writer who is willing to share her process with her readers and give meticulous advice. “Garlic in Fiction” is one such gem where Jackson illustrates how to hold the reader’s attention with the use of a set of symbols: “what I’m calling images or symbols or garlic,” she writes, “is actually a kind of shorthand, or evocative coloring, to a story.” Jackson shares her experience of the haunting, subconscious, and often adventitious aspects of writing in “Memory and Delusion,” where she says, “I cannot find any patience for those people who believe that you start writing when you sit down at your desk and pick up your pen and finish writing when you put down your pen again. A writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees, always noticing.” Her essays on Samuel Richardson and Dr. Seuss have the effervescent quality of the literary criticism in Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader. This collection also reveals to us Shirley Jackson the illustrator; it’s dotted with her charming drawings of family life — stick figures of herself, Stanley, and her children. A vanquished Stanley lies on the ground while Shirley, perched happily on a swing, says, “Push me again, dear — it’s just like flying.”
Let Me Tell You is a welcome addition to the reissues of Jackson’s novels, and its publication is a good opportunity to ask why there’s been a resurgence of scholarly and popular interest in her in the last few years. As Jackson’s centenary in 2016 approaches, it might be important to investigate whether we, constantly being watched on social media, bear any resemblance to the paranoid man in Jackson’s story. Is the pressure of “leaning in” really any different for women now than it was in post-war America? The answers may not come that easily, but in the meanwhile we can go on reading Shirley Jackson and marveling at her unique ability to turn happy and stable worlds on their head.
I read a lot of great books this year, including George Saunders’s Tenth of December, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, and Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman. And I reread three of my favorite Alice Munro collections: The Beggar Maid, Open Secrets, and The Love of a Good Woman. (She’s my favorite living writer, so I was thrilled when she won the Nobel Prize). But it was Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical My Struggle (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett) that most consoled me.
My father used to say that my mother had “no sense of mortality.” When my mother regaled us with stories of jumping onto moving trains in Kenya, say, or being shot at in Sudan, he just shook his head. “No sense of mortality.” The irony is that it was my mother, who’d spent her life oblivious of death, who died of cancer at the age of 60. My father, now 78, continues to ruminate about mortality. And I am clearly his child: I’ve always spent a lot of time thinking about death. My paternal grandfather died in our house when I was 10. My grandmother died there nine years later, and then, when I was 31, my mother died there. I actually felt the warmth go out of my mother’s body while she turned into a corpse.
I bring up this morbid history only because it may explain why Knausgaard’s My Struggle — a book defined by its sense of mortality — resonates so much with me. Book 1 is narrated by the 39-year-old Knausgaard, and I am 39 now. (Generation X will recognize themselves here: Knausgaard may be Norwegian, but he grew up on the same pop culture as a lot of his contemporaries in the States.) As a writer facing her mortality, how could I resist a novel about a writer facing his mortality?
Reading Book 1 of My Struggle proved to be one of those serendipitous experiences: the right book at exactly the right time in my life. A few months ago, my father sold the house in which my sisters and I grew up. And this fall, we had to clear out the place, deciding what to keep, what to donate, what to sell. The process was daunting because the house was crammed with stuff, collected by my mother, father, and both sets of grandparents. We were burdened by history, and eager to get rid of things, but it was emotionally draining to watch our childhood get priced for an estate sale. I felt like we were saying good-bye to our mother all over again. And while my siblings and I were clearing out our father’s house, I was reading a book about adult siblings cleaning their father’s house.
In the first book, Karl Ove and his brother, Yngve, go home to Kristiansand to the house where their father recently drank himself to death. The house is in a terrible state when they arrive: it reeks of urine, there is excrement smeared on the sofa, and the floors are littered with empty bottles. While describing the downstairs bathroom, a place that scared him as a child because it seemed haunted, Knausgaard writes:
This particular evening, however, my unease with it rose again because my grandfather had collapsed here and because Dad had died upstairs in the living room yesterday, so the deadness of these non-beings combined with the deadness of the two of them, of my father and his father.
So how could I keep this feeling at arm’s length?
Oh, all I had to do was clean. Scour and scrub and rub and wipe. See how each tile became clean and shiny. Imagine that all that had been destroyed here would be restored.
The Knausgaard brothers get to work cleaning the whole house. They are not daunted by smeared excrement or rotting food. It’s easier to confront shit, with its stench of life, than the abstractly terrifying “deadness.” And as a writer, Knausgaard hopes to leave more than shit behind when he dies: he wants to write something great before his time runs out. And so the thorough cleaning — so vividly rendered, in every mundane detail — is not just an attempt to grapple with grief. Knausgaard is trying to restore not only his grandmother’s house, but his own legacy. As James Wood put it in The New Yorker, “By the time [the book] is over, we have cleaned that house with these brothers; the experience is extraordinarily vivid and visceral and moving.”
The efficient way that Knausgaard and his brother tackle the cleaning struck me as very Norwegian. My family has enough Norwegian friends for me to conclude that when you have a tough job, you need a Norwegian man to do it. In fact, a Norwegian friend helped us with all the heavy lifting as we packed up our family house. My sisters and I couldn’t have finished the monumental task without him. But Knausgaard’s sense of mortality — and his exhaustive cataloguing of it — is universal, and the book is compulsively readable. Knausgaard’s consciousness is so lucid on the page that his book feels fully inhabited and alive (no “deadness”). Yet we never forget that this is a text, aware of itself not just as a novel, but as a bid for its author’s literary immortality.
 I also recommend Zadie Smith’s recent essay, “Man vs. Corpse,” in The New York Review of Books.
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I’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?
EH: 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.
TM: 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.