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Author Elliott Holt’s debut novel is rooted in Cold War D.C. and post-Soviet Russia, but raises universal questions about trust and truth. Inspired in part by a true story, the novel follows Sarah Zuckerman’s fictional search for answers about the fate of her friend Jenny Jones, whose letter to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov and ensuing visit to Russia made her a celebrity. We talk with Holt about the nature of truth, the Cold War’s place in modern pop culture and the writing process.
- Elliott Holt author, "You Are One of Them"
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “You Are One of Them” by Elliott Holt. Copyright © 2013. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Press. All rights reserved.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIGrowing up in Washington, D.C. during the Cold War isn't easy for Sarah Zuckerman. Her mother's anxiety over the possibility of nuclear war can be debilitating. Her father leaves them, moving back to his native London where he remarries and has another child. And when she finally finds a best friend, a girl named Jenny Jones who moves in across the street, she ends up feeling betrayed by Jenny and remains haunted by the specter of their friendship decades later.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISarah's is a fictional story told in the pages of D.C. native Elliott Holt's debut novel, but it has a strong connection to a true tale from the Cold War era that captured the nation's attention and that explores timeless things of truth, perspective and loss. Here to help us ponder these issues is Elliott Holt. The debut novel is titled "You Are One of Them." She's the winner of the 2011 Pushcart prize and the runner-up of the 2011 Pen Faulkner Emerging Writers Award. Elliott Holt joins us in studio. Welcome.
MS. ELLIOTT HOLTOh, thank you so much for having me.
NNAMDILet's start right out in the book. Let's pick up Sarah's story in a place that will be familiar to many of our readers. Could you read for us from the middle of page 17?
HOLTI sure will. I'll just read a couple paragraphs.
HOLTThe Olympic boycott was one of many signs that 1980 was a turning point in the Cold War. Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were escalating. Whenever my mother said this I thought of escalators. For years escalators had scared me, a phobia caused by the steep ones at the D.C. metro which plummets straight into darkness. Riding down into the stations induced such panic in me that for several years we didn't ride the metro at all.
HOLTWhat are you so afraid of? my father asked me when I was six, as if I could rationally analyze my fear. He wasn't afraid of anything, my father, or didn't seem to be. And until my phobia of escalators developed, he thought I was like him. You're turning into your mother's child, he said to me. We were on the steamy July sidewalk outside the DuPont Circle station. He had promised to take me to the Air and Space Museum if and only if I agreed to ride the metro to the mall. Now we were at an impasse.
HOLTWe stood at the top of the station entrance looking down the short flight of stairs that lead to the main escalator. I wasn't afraid of these steps but I knew that if I descended into the station I would be trapped. My father would drag me onto the escalator. He would tug me like a stubborn dog on a leash. I didn't want to turn into my mother's child. I knew that she was not normal, that her anxiety was crippling.
HOLTWhat are you so afraid of? my father asked again. This time his tone was frustrated, patronizing. You're my flesh and blood, he seemed to be saying. Isn't it time you acted like it? To my father fear was weakness. To my mother it was preparation. I looked at him. He was so tall, 6'4" in bare feet. He was wearing a sport coat and a buttoned down shirt even on weekends,. Even in the heat he dressed up. He never wore jeans. They were, he though, too American.
HOLTThis dapper, impatient Englishman seemed suddenly like a stranger. He crossed his arms. Sarah, he said, you used to ride the bloody things all the time.
NNAMDIYes. And you could remember stepping gingerly onto the top of the step back in the day. But this description captures D.C. in a way that only someone who lives and really knows the city can. How did growing up here shape your understanding of some of the concepts you explore in this novel, like freedom, truth?
HOLTWell, I think, you know, I was born and raised in Washington and I do think that at least in my experience, children who grow up in D.C. are unusually aware of larger political issues from a very young age. I mean, I know I wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. But when I was a really little kid I would write these kind of terrible poems all the time. And when I was six in first grade I wrote a poem about the hostages being freed from Iran called the Yellow Ribbon Parade. And it was not a good poem but I don't know how many six-year-old outside of Washington were really paying attention.
NNAMDIThat was the Washington, D.C. of the late '70s and the early '80s when Elliott Holt was growing up. Her debut novel is titled "You Are One of Them." If you have read the novel and have questions for her, give us a call, 800-433-8850. What memories do you have of D.C. during this Cold War era that is covered in this book, 800-433-8850? You can send email to email@example.com or if you're in a hurry send us a Tweet at kojoshow.
NNAMDIThis fictional story was inspired in part by a true story. For those who don't remember her, who was Samantha Smith?
HOLTSamantha Smith was an American girl who at the age of ten in 1982 wrote a letter to Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov because she was worried about nuclear war. Her letter was quite remarkable. It basically said, you know, Dear Mr. Andropov, I am ten years old. Congratulations on your new job. Are you going to start a nuclear war? And what was really remarkable is that Andropov wrote back, invited her and her parents to the USSR in the summer of 1983 for a two-week tour to see that the Soviet Union was a peaceful country that would not start a war.
HOLTAnd, you know, at the time the Soviet Union was so inaccessible to Americans behind the Iron Curtain. So I think, you know, it would be -- it was a really remarkable story -- it would be as if today a ten-year-old girl wrote to Kim Jung Un and was invited to North Korea with her parents. I mean, that's -- it was a really big story. And I didn't know Samantha Smith. She was two years older than I am, but I followed the story with great interest because at the time I was eight I was also really worried about nuclear war. She captured my imagination because I thought it was, you know, cool that a ten-year-old was basically playing diplomat and peace ambassador.
HOLTSo I followed the whole thing and then she did sadly die in a plane crash...
NNAMDI...two years later.
HOLT...two years later with her father, yeah. And so I just still found myself thinking about her. It's now the 30th anniversary of her trip to the Soviet Union. She went in July of 1983 so...
NNAMDIAnd I suspect that because that event had so much resonance with you, in a way you have been writing this story practically your entire life.
HOLTYeah, I guess that's true. I guess that's true. I mean, I...
NNAMDIThe character Jenny in the book is the character who is essentially Samantha Smith but Samantha Smith was from Maine. And so that's one significant difference. Jenny was in Washington, D.C. Any other differences?
HOLTWell, there's absolutely no doubt that Samantha Smith really did die, you know. In this book -- you know, this book is not a fictionalized version of Samantha Smith's life. It just takes that letter-writing story as a jumping off point. In my book there's some question about whether or not Jennifer Jones really did die.
NNAMDIAnd that's one of the fascinating aspects of it, yes.
HOLTRight. So there's no mystery. Samantha Smith's remains were found whereas in my book Jennifer Jones' remains were not found.
NNAMDIExactly. Jenny's experience does seem to mirror Samantha's pretty closely, but the imagined back story that you were just describing is where you make it your own. Each of your characters, Sarah most especially, is really defined by his or her relationship to the other people in or absent from their lives. Do you think most of us are aware of how our relationships define us?
HOLTI don't -- I mean, I think probably most of us are and I think one of the things I was thinking about quite a lot working on this book is that I think it's a pretty common human fantasy to revisit your past or to see someone that you've lost and be able to kind of confront them about what happened. And so I think, you know, in this book Sarah Zuckerman, as a 22-year-old who's just out of college, goes to Moscow because she's received a letter that suggests her friend Jennifer Jones didn't really die. And so she's going to try to figure out what really happened.
HOLTAnd she wants -- you know, a lot of the book is about the tension between what she wants to believe and what is actually true between perception and reality. And, you know, I think it is -- a lot of us would want to believe that a childhood friend that we hadn't seen in ten years was still alive. So, you know, the question becomes, is that true or is it just that she's being swept up in her own fantasy, you know, hidden by memory?
NNAMDIWell, that's the question of mystery, so to speak. But the question that this entire novel seems to raise is the question of how we perceive ourselves in relationship to other people. We live in a culture that emphasizes individuality. So a lot of us would love to believe, I am not one of them.
NNAMDINevertheless, what we discover through Sarah is that, well, like we are.
HOLTYes, exactly, that the difference between us and them is not so great. And I think you're right that in many ways it's actually easier to define ourselves in terms of other people. And certainly that's true of individuals like the two girls in this friendship, like Sarah who spent most of her life defining herself as, you know, versus her mother, versus her father, versus her friend. And to a certain extent this is, you know, a book about when she finally starts defining herself on her own terms or kind of realizing her own story.
HOLTBut I think we do it -- you know, nations do it too. I mean, so much of the Cold War was about defining ourselves as Americans versus the Russians, you know. What did it mean to be American? Well, it meant we weren't communists.
NNAMDIWhere did this -- I mean, the title of the book speaks for itself, but where did it come from? Where'd you get the title?
HOLTThe title is the line of an Elizabeth Bishop poem. I really love Bishop. And in her poem "In the Waiting Room," which is one of my favorites, the speaker of the poem says to herself, you are one of them. And that poem is very much about identity and self. And this novel is also so...
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Our guest is Elliott Holt, author of her debut novel. It is titled "You Are One of Them." She's the winner of the 2011 Pushcart prize and a runner-up for the 2011 Pen Faulkner Emerging Writers Award. You can also send us email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you're not old enough to remember the Cold War but are intrigued by it, what about that era appeals to you? You can also call us at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIYou know, this story also brings us inside a Russian ad agency where the staff is working on a campaign for a new soda called Zar that's trying to take on Coke and Pepsi. The assignment brings up underlying questions about national identity and branding. What's telling about the distinctions Svetlana, a Russian copywriter, makes between the two?
HOLTYeah, well, I -- when I lived in Moscow -- I lived in Moscow from 1997 to 1999. And I actually worked in an American ad agency in Moscow. So at the time, what was fascinating to me was, you know, Russia was making this very rapid transition to a capitalist society. And advertising as an industry had not existed in the Soviet Union. I mean, I think (word?) did some billboards once in a while, but, you know, advertising as we know it did not exist.
HOLTAnd it fascinated me to see how quickly my Russian colleagues were, you know, sort of assimilating to this market culture and speaking ad speak, you know, and kind of embracing campaign speak and that sort of thing. And there was a campaign that was quite popular when I lived there for an old Russian cigarette brand called Yava. And Yava was repackaged with this fancy gold packaging and renamed Yava Zolotaya, which means Yava Gold.
HOLTAnd this -- there was this campaign, the tagline translated essentially to strike back. And the entire campaign was using Cold War iconography to sell the cigarette brand as a kind of, you know, Russian -- with a sort of Russian nationalism. So there was a huge billboard, for example, with an American space shuttle and Russian cosmonauts painting the Russian flag on the side of the space shuttle. And then this tagline that basically was translated as strike back.
HOLTBut -- so it was hugely popular. People were, you know, buying Yava Zolotaya. Everyone was really excited. But what people didn't realize...
NNAMDI...out of national pride.
HOLT...out of national pride, but what people didn't realize is that actually British American tobacco owned Yava and had, you know, re-launched it as Yava Zolotaya. And it was an American adage in doing this campaign. And so again, this kind of nationalism and national identity sort of playing themselves out in consumer culture. And I guess I was sort of interested in a way in the wake of the Cold War when we no longer had these two super powers.
HOLTYou know, suddenly the kind of competition and rivalry was between these corporations. And so, you know, it's a little bit of a play. This book is about the Cold War, but it's also about the Cola wars.
NNAMDIYes, exactly, how national identity and branding are related.
NNAMDILet's go to the telephones because John in Baltimore, Md. awaits us. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNHi, Kojo. I'd like to talk about the ism of communism and related to the most recent ism of terrorism. I'm 47 so I remember the Cold War, you know, mostly as a kid in school. You know, I remember -- it was third or fourth grade specifically, I remember my teacher scaring us and telling us that, you know, if you lived in Russia under communists, you know, if you break your pencil in school, you know, they take you away from your parents, and all these kind of crazy stories. I guess the most troubling thing is that I think she probably believed it.
JOHNBut anyway, I want to bring it back to this idea of terrorism. You know, people are so caught up in terrorism, as if this is the, you know, sort of potential death knell of America. It's really only the latest ism. You know, before it the communism -- or the communists were all out to kill us. You know, before that there were other isms. And, you know, there's always been these seeming existential threats.
JOHNI mean, people were building bomb shelters, you know, during the Cold War and, you know, using now terrorism as an excuse to do all kinds of things that the communists used to actually do, or at least we used to -- we were told they used to do to their citizens. It's almost as if we've become them. And our fear of all these new isms is just driving us deeper and deeper into this constant state of, you know, believing we're in war or acting like it at least.
NNAMDILet me have Elliott Holt respond to that.
HOLTYeah well, first of all, I was going to ask you where you grew up where your teacher was threatening -- you know, telling that Russian children who broke their pencils went off to the gulag.
NNAMDIAnd did you ever break a pencil, but...
JOHN(unintelligible) this constant state of, you know, (unintelligible) and...
HOLTI think we lost...
NNAMDIOkay. I think he's breaking up, yes, but go ahead.
HOLTRight. But, no, I think you're absolutely right that the fear is not new. You know, when I was a child we were extremely worried about nuclear war. And I'm sure kids today who, you know, were young when September 11th happened probably have different fears. But I -- this book, even though it's about a very specific era, it's, you know, very much about the 1980s and the 1990s. I think the larger themes of what fear can do to people and our human tendency to kind of divide ourselves into us versus them are still resonant today.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, if you have called stayed on the line. If you haven’t and would like to the number's 800-433-8850. Do you think there's more than one true answer to questions about people's personal lives? Does any one version of the truth carry more weight in your view than the others, 800-433-8850? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Elliott Holt about her debut novel. It's titled "You Are One of Them," and how it may have been inspired in part by her growing up here in Washington, D.C. And taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Questions about how we define truth are central to the mystery that Sarah is trying to unravel over the course of this novel. What is it that appeals to you about that theme?
HOLTWell, you know, the character Svetlana, who is the Russian woman who knew the young Jennifer Jones and is the one who sends a letter to Sarah Zuckerman suggesting that her friend Jennifer Jones didn't really die. Svetlana says to Sarah at one point when Sarah's in Moscow, oh you Americans love truth. I think it is the favorite word, after freedom of course.
HOLTAnd I think -- you know, I think that's true. We do love the idea of truth with a capital T. And I think -- you know, on the one hand I grew up in the wake of Watergate. So like a lot of people I have great reverence for journalists and, you know, was really adamant about the idea that, you know, we should be seeking the truth. On the other hand, growing up in Washington I was always very aware that -- of spin and the way everything has kind of spun.
HOLTAnd in that sense it's not that different from advertising, you know. You market your ideology the same way you market consumer products. So I think -- yeah, I guess it's just something that preoccupies me, this notion of not that there can't be an absolute truth, but the extent to which we see things as we want to see them. And I guess I'm also interested in the way, you know, a story-- depending on who's telling the story, you're going to get a very different version.
HOLTSo this is, you know, a first-person narration. And I think it's -- the reader should sort of question the reliability of Sarah's version. But on the other hand, you know, Sarah, as a narrator, is dealing with the fact that she feels like everyone's version of this story has been told except hers. And she's, you know, finally telling her own version of the story.
NNAMDIAnd speaking of spin in Washington, we are in a period where right now we're hearing a great deal of spin from different sources on the story involving the National Security Agency leaks and Edward Snowden and what he had to do with them, how important they are or not on the like of it. You made an interesting revelation during the break when we were talking about your conceiving of this novel.
HOLTYes. When I was writing the novel I decided that Jennifer Jones's father worked for Booz Allen Hamilton. I never named the company but it's just specified that he works for doing intelligence work for a government contractor that's based in the suburbs. And I always imagined it as Booz Allen. And when I was doing research I actually talked to some people who had worked at the CIA and would know and said, you know, is it plausible that someone working at Booz Allen in the 1980s with -- you know, would've had the kind of clearance, would've had access to the sort of secrets that the Soviets would've wanted? And they said yes, absolutely.
HOLTSo that was -- I find it, you know, kind of hilarious that Snowden worked for Booz Allen. I will say as someone who spent a lot of time at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow over the years, I wouldn't want to be stuck there. It's a lot nicer than it was when I lived in Moscow but, well, a week in the transit zone is already a long time. And it seems like he's going to be there a lot longer.
NNAMDIHere we are 30 years later and Booz Allen Hamilton is in the news over the NSA incident. And here we are 30 years later with you sitting here talking on public radio when your own father worked both at National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service.
HOLTThat's true, that's true.
NNAMDIThe ironies are so many.
HOLTYeah, that's true.
NNAMDIHere's Jennifer in Alexandria, Va. Jennifer, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JENNIFERHi, Kojo. I'm actually in my car so I'm going to keep this brief. I'm sorry I tuned in late. I just go in a couple of minutes ago but I wanted to return to the topic that the previous caller addressed regarding these fears that we have in the isms. And I think that after the fact it's really easy to look back and minimize the fears because nothing, you know, bad came of it. But I grew up in the Soviet satellite countries in Poland and in East Germany. And the fears that Americans have were real. And these places were extremely scary. And that's really my only comment and I look forward to reading the book.
NNAMDIWe also got a Tweet from Trevor, Jennifer, who writes, "I grew up in the '80s in the Kansas City area in the middle of hundreds of missile silos. This made the abstract very real to me." Care to comment, Elliott Holt?
HOLTYeah well, first of all, the Tweet from Trevor who grew up near Kansas City makes me think of "The Day After" which is the film that most of us who were alive when it aired in 1983 watched. It was on ABC and it was shown without commercials. And it was a truly terrifying -- terrifying because it was a realistic depiction of nuclear annihilation. And it was set in Lawrence, Kansas and in Kansas City. And it depicted mutually a shore destruction basically. It starred Jason Robards.
HOLTAnd I remember being absolutely terrified when I watched it. I watched it again twice when I was doing novel research. And even thought the special effects are quite dated, it's still really terrifying. And, you know, there were a lot of us who, as kids then, really thought we were on the brink of destruction at all times. You know, there was that -- and there was that song called Russians by Sting that was on the radio all the time. And I remember...
HOLT...yeah, I remember thinking...
NNAMDII still have that in my -- I think.
HOLTYeah, it struck me as, you know, so profound at the time. I mean, now it seems a little bit silly and simplistic because the chorus is basically like what might save us, you and me -- or me and you as if the Russians loved their children too. And of course the Russians love their children too. But, you know, it was -- you know, you're right, the fear was real. It was palpable. And I think it's hard for people who are a little bit younger and did not, you know, weren't alive when we were sort of always worried about nuclear war, to understand how scary it was.
NNAMDIYou recently Tweeted a link to a study that found that reading literature helps people feel more comfortable with ambiguity. You Tweet a lot. The questions you raise in this novel are not all definitively answered by the end. Do you think it's important to, in a way, empower readers to draw their own conclusions?
HOLTYeah, I mean, I wasn't thinking in terms of, you know, oh this is a choose-your-own adventure and readers are going to draw their own conclusions. To me the novel does have resolution. It's just not necessarily the surface mystery about whether or not Jennifer Jones is alive that's completely resolved. Well, some -- you know, readers can decide how resolved they think it is.
HOLTBut to me, because this book is really a character study of the narrator Sarah Zuckerman, and she is a character as someone who has spent most of her life feeling like she was a footnote in someone else's story and not having the chance to tell her own story. To me the ending is the most empowering ending for her because she finally is letting go of her obsession with this friend of hers and the friend story and making herself finally the kind of heroin of her own story.
NNAMDIYou know, they say there's no such thing as bad press. But after being named the top writer to watch in one publication before you even had a book deal, it's my understanding you took some time off from writing for a while. How did that experience prepare you for publishing this novel in retrospect?
HOLTWell, it's not -- that was New York Magazine, and I love New York Magazine. But, yeah, they did a little profile of some young writers in 2007 and I was one of them. And it's not that I consciously took time off from writing, but I did find that profile a little paralyzing just because I suddenly felt a lot of pressure as someone who had...
HOLTYeah, the expectations were daunting for me.
NNAMDIAll of a sudden you weren't alone anymore.
HOLTRight, right. And I, at the time, had -- was just finishing up an MFA in fiction writing and still worked at the time full time for an advertising agency and, you know, had been going to school at night. So I was really just starting out. I had published a couple of short stories but, you know, was just beginning to think about a novel. And so it was, you know, just kind of nerve racking to...
HOLT...have publicity before I'd done anything.
NNAMDI...it all worked out for the better. Elliott Holt's debut novel is called "You Are One of Them." She's the winner of the 2011 Pushcart prize and a runner-up for the 2011 Pen Faulkner Emerging Writers Award. Thank you so much for joining us. Good luck.
HOLTThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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