MS. EMILY BERMAN
We'll end today's show with Bookend.
MS. EMILY BERMAN
Our regular look at the writing life here in the D.C. area. In this edition, we'll sit down with debut novelist Elliott Holt. Holt's novel, "You Are One of Them," is set both here in Washington, Holt's hometown, and in Moscow, where she worked for many years in the advertising industry. Jonathan Wilson brings us her story.
MR. JONATHAN WILSON
We have joined you outside the National Cathedral. You just wrote a novel, or published a novel, "You Are One of Them." We're in the shadow of the National Cathedral. Tell me, again, why you brought me here.
MS. ELLIOTT HOLT
The National Cathedral figures prominently in the novel because the two main characters, Sarah Zuckerman, who is the narrator, and her best friend, Jenny Jones, spend a lot of time as children playing in the Bishop's garden and hiding notes for each other. And, I grew up right near the Cathedral, spent a lot of time on the grounds as a kid. I went to school here, so it's a special place to me, too.
I notice in your book you thank your second grade teacher. So, let's go back a little bit. Your writing career, did it really start that early in your life?
I think, certainly my literary ambition started that young. My second grade teacher, at the Potomac School, Sarah Korson, really encouraged creative writing. We did a lot of really fantastic writing exercises and that sort of thing. And I'm still in touch with her. She's retired now, but she recently shared with me some report cards from that year in which the report card said Elliott said she would like to be a writer and in the parent teacher conference, Mr. and Mrs. Holt confirmed that she has always wanted to be a writer, which is very funny because, you know, I was seven. But, yeah, apparently even then, I, you know, I think as soon as I knew it was a thing you could be, that's what I wanted to be. I never had a phase wanting to be an astronaut or a fireman, or, you know. There's never anything else I wanted to be.
Having said that, have there been periods in your life where you thought like, I just can't make a living doing this. I just, you know, this is too hard. Talk about those moments of discouragement and how you kind of got over that.
Well, I still think I can't make a living doing this. I mean, very few people actually make a living just writing fiction. Most writers I know, you know, make their living teaching or doing various other kinds of freelance writing. That part is scary, though, you know, that I gave up my salaried staff job in advertising to finish writing this novel, and there were definitely moments along the way of complete terror because I thought oh my gosh, I've just given up my financial security and my health insurance and I was burning through the money I'd saved up. And I still wasn't finished with the manuscript, and then I thought well, God, I could finish it and not sell the book, and then what will I have to show for these, you know, this gamble I took.
On the other hand, it felt like less of risk than, you know, it would have if, say I had children or something. I mean, I figured I was only potentially ruining my own life, not anyone else's. So I didn't have a mortgage. You know, I didn't have children. I still don't have children. So it felt like a risk I could afford to take and I just really thought I'd never forgive myself if I didn't really give it my all.
You were in this exotic place, Moscow. You spent a lot of time in New York. How does D.C. compare in terms of, you know, writing from D.C., and living here? And you've told me, you know, you may not stay here very long. So, what kinds of associations do you have when you think about where you grew up?
You know, when I was growing up here, and I knew I wanted to write fiction, I didn't know any fiction writers. I knew journalists, you know. When I think of Washington, I think of the great, you know, tradition of journalism and, you know, The Pentagon Papers, and Daniel Ellsberg, and, you know, I think, like a lot of people who grew up in the wake of The Pentagon Papers and Watergate, I have a real reverence for journalists. And, you know, I didn't know any fiction writers. I didn't know novelists in Washington. There's more of a literary community than there used to be. I think it's great that 826 has a branch here. That's Dave Eggers' nonprofit that encourages writing for kids.
The Penn Faulkner Foundation's based here, and it's a really amazing organization. So, it is changing, but, yeah, when I was growing up, I had a sense that writers lived in New York, you know, and I knew I wanted to be a writer and I knew I wanted to live in New York from a very young age. I always felt like a little bit of a fish out of water here, I think, because I had this, you know, artsy bent and I didn't quite see any models for what I wanted to do here. But that is changing.
In terms of your process, where did you write most of this novel? Were you, you know, in New York coffee shops? Were you in Moscow? Were you holed up in a dark room with no windows? What's your preference for where you like to write?
I wrote a good chunk of the book in my old apartment in Brooklyn, but I spent most of the last year I was working on the book, or probably five or six months of it, in Washington, and I was actually basically living on the attic of my sister's house. And, she was very generous to let me there for a little while. Everything -- all my furniture was in storage and I'd given up my apartment in New York. I like to work in coffee shops sometimes, but I prefer to be in my own room. It has to have windows. I'm big on light. I really need light. I like to be by myself because I sometimes read parts aloud and I sometimes am listening to music while I write.
And I pace sometimes. I'll get sort of into something and I find myself pacing back and forth. So, yeah, I like to be by myself. But I also will sometimes have long stretches, you know, where I'm really -- just don't leave my desk for hours and hours and hours and I kind of emerge for a cup of coffee and then go back, but I'm a little bit of a zombie and not very pleasant to be around, I think, when I'm really in the throes of working on something.
That was Elliott Holt, author of the novel "You Are One of Them," talking with Metro Connection's Jonathan Wilson. And if you'd like to hear Holt's advice for aspiring writers growing up in D.C. today, head to our website, metroconnection.org.
And that's Metro Connection for this week. We heard from WAMU's Jacob Fenston, Jonathan Wilson, Bryan Russo, and Tara Boyle, along with reporter Lauren Ober. WAMU's managing editor of news is Memo Lyons. Metro Connection's managing producer is Tara Boyle. Lauren Landau is our editorial assistant. Our interns are Eva Harder and Kayla Peeples. Lauren Landau and John Hines produce "Door to Door." Thanks, as always, to the WAMU engineering team for helping us sound good and the digital media team for making metroconnection.org so beautiful. On our website, you can find all the music you heard in today's show. Just click on a story and you'll information about its accompanying song. Our theme song, "Every Little Bit Hurts" and our "Door to Door" theme "No Girl" are from the album "Title Tracks" by John Davis and used with permission of the Ernest Jennings record company. If you missed part of our show this week, you can stream the whole thing on our website. Click the link this week On "Metro Connection."
You can also subscribe to our podcast there or find us on iTunes, Stitcher, and the NPR news app. We hope you can join us next week when we'll look back at some of our favorite stories of the year thus far. It's a show we're calling "Hall of Fame." We'll meet the scientist designing teeny tiny backpacks for dragon flies. We'll spend time with doctors and nurses who cope with crises every day at the University of Maryland's Shock Trauma Center. And we'll revisit the nearly forgotten story of D.C.'s first public housing project.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #1
I do remember all the doors were painted blue, and everyone had little red lawn mowers. Even though it was not our property, we treated it as it was.
I'm Emily Berman and thank you for listening to Metro Connection, a production of WAMU 88.5 news.
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