A Conversation with Elliott Holt

In her debut novel You Are One of Them, Elliott Holt reimagines the true story of ten-year-old Samantha Smith (known as Jenny Jones in the novel), whose 1982 letter to Yuri Andropov about the threat of nuclear war captured America’s—and Andropov’s—attention. Holt’s version is narrated by Jenny’s best friend Sarah Zuckerman, who also wrote a letter to Andropov but received no reply. Ten years after Jenny dies in a plane crash, Sarah finds reason to suspect that her death might have been a hoax. The result is an absorbing novel that takes us inside Washington, D.C., Moscow, and the conflicts that caused two nations—and two young women—to stand off against each other.

Under Holt’s pen, cities become symbols, memories become tricks, and old friendship becomes the currency that binds the past to the present. Below, Holt shares some of the literary magic that went into creating a story of both intimate and international consequence.

A.J. Kandathil

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INTERVIEWER

Place plays such an important role in You Are One of Them, as the novel is set in two seemingly disparate locations, Washington, D.C. and Moscow. What connections do you see between these two cities?

HOLT

Both Washington and Moscow are capitals. And during the Cold War, they were capitals of Superpowers who viewed one another as evil empires. In that sense, they are more than cities. They are symbols of opposing economic systems, of competing world views. They are cities that the rest of the world has spent a long time paying attention to. They are both cities that the world associates with politics and propaganda, but doesn’t necessarily think about as homes for regular people. I’ve lived in both cities, so I’m aware of their symbolic power, but I also think of both cities as home. I really love Moscow, despite its bleak depiction in the book.

INTERVIEWER

The scope of the novel is at once wide and narrow; it’s a story about national defection as much as it’s about personal betrayal. Did one part of this story emerge before the other? At what point in your process did they start to intertwine?

HOLT

As soon as I wrote the line, “The first defector was my sister.” When that line came to me, I knew the book’s central metaphor: political defection as emotional abandonment. I’d been working on the book for three years already, but was spinning my wheels, writing the first 70 pages over and over again. I knew the premise (two girls write to Andropov, but only one gets a response, a la Samantha Smith) but I wasn’t happy with the voice or the tone. That line (which is the first sentence of chapter 1) opened up the whole book for me. I knew, then, what it was really about. And I found the voice and the tone and the narrative perch in that line.

INTERVIEWER

I appreciate that you told a story about the Cold War through a young girl’s eyes. What sorts of risks did that choice pose for you as a writer?

HOLT

I’m interested in the ways that history (personal and cultural) shapes a person. This book is a character study of the narrator, Sarah Zuckerman, who is shaped by both her broken family and by the era in which she grows up. If she were born even six years later, her worldview might be very different. But she is a child in the late Cold War years, when paranoia and fear of nuclear annihilation is very much part of the culture. And Sarah grows up in Washington, D.C. (not the suburbs, but in the actual city), so the aggressive posturing of the American and Soviet governments is hard to ignore.

INTERVIEWER

Throughout the book, three manifestations of Jenny’s character develop: the narcissistic childhood friend, the archetypal “good” girl she represented to the public, and the quizzical ghost she became later during Sarah’s trip to Moscow. How did you go about creating a character with such contrasting layers?

HOLT

Since this book has first-person narration, we only see Jenny through Sarah’s eyes. In some ways, Sarah has a romantic view of Jenny–she’s looking back on their childhood friendship with so much longing. And then in Moscow, Sarah is so wary, so susceptible to the paranoia typical of Moscow, that she finds herself thinking about Jenny differently.

INTERVIEWER

As the novel progresses, the relationship between translation and emotion emerges as a series of locks and keys. As you see it, what role does the art of translation play in the novel?

HOLT

That’s such an interesting question, especially because I think of writing itself as an act of translation. As a writer, I’m trying to translate the story in my head into something that someone else can understand. We all experience the world subjectively, so trying to relate to another person’s point of view requires translation, too. In the book, Sarah has always felt like a foreigner. When she goes to Moscow, that sense of foreignness is more pronounced, and she’s literally translating Russian phrases and customs, but she has always been trying to translate her mother’s behavior, her father’s behavior, her friend Jenny’s behavior.

INTERVIEWER

The notion of loss also lurks quite beautifully throughout the story, specifically likening “loss” to a matryoshka doll: “Each loss has to be unpacked to find the loss that came before.” What are your thoughts on using loss as a key to character motivation?

HOLT

There’s an obsessive quality to grief. It’s a human impulse to circle around a loss again and again, trying to make sense of it. So Sarah (and her mother, for that matter) are both pretty obsessive because they have lost people they loved.

INTERVIEWER

Ultimately, this becomes a novel about self-definition—for America, for Russia, for Jenny, and for Sarah. How do you think these trajectories influenced one another?

HOLT

During the Cold War, the United States and the USSR defined themselves in opposition to each other. And for a long time Sarah defined herself against Jenny. Sarah got too attached to the idea of herself as the sad friend, and as a person who is easy to leave. Instead of thinking about herself in opposition to Jenny, she finally focuses on herself. She finally lets go of that “us versus them” mentality (typical of the Cold War). And Russia and the United States have to define themselves, not as Cold Warriors but as something else.

INTERVIEWER

Without giving anything away, the end of the novel answers some questions for the reader, while raising others. In your opinion, what makes a strong conclusion to a story?

HOLT

The story had to end this way. Sarah spent years feeling like she never got to tell her version of the story about writing to Andropov. She spent years resenting the fact that she didn’t get to visit the Moscow in 1983. So this is her story, her journey to Russia. And in telling it, she finally lets go of her obsession with her friend and with the past. She finally lets go and focuses on looking forward, not back. The story has a resolution, even if the surface mystery isn’t resolved. The beginning of this book hints at the end. The scene in which Sarah and her parents watch home movies of her dead sister points to the heart of the story. This book isn’t really about Jenny; it’s about how holding on too tightly to the past can paralyze you.

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