Q&A: Elliott Holt

In Elliott Holt’s Cold War–set debut novel, You Are One of Them, ten-year-old best friends Sarah Zuckerman and Jennifer Jones write letters to Soviet premier Yuri Andropov asking for peace. Jenny receives a response but Sarah doesn’t, and when Jenny heads to the USSR (and ensuing media stardom) at the Kremlin’s invitation, Sarah feels left out. Their relationship has still not healed when Jenny and her parents die in a plane crash three years later. Ten years down the road, Sarah is about to graduate from college when she receives a letter from Moscow suggesting that Jenny’s death might have been a hoax, and she heads to Russia to investigate.

The book reads like part coming-of-age novel, part mystery. Is that how you saw it? What are your thoughts about the balance between the intrigue portion and the story of the girls’ friendship?

I think that coming of age is always a mystery! Growing up is full of mysterious situations that are hard to understand. And I think a lot of people have fantasies about revisiting their pasts, or getting another chance to see people they’ve lost. In this book, Sarah never let go of her late best friend, Jennifer Jones. So when she receives a letter that suggests Jenny didn’t really die, she wants desperately to believe it. She goes to Moscow to try to find out the truth, but it’s hard for her to separate her perceptions (and what she wants to believe) from reality. Grief is mysterious and Sarah turns into a sort of detective, trying make sense of her loss.

Since the book was inspired by a real girl on whom one of the characters was modeled to some degree, can you talk about which details of that story really grabbed you and made you want to tell your own version?

As a child during the late Cold War years, I was really worried about nuclear war. When Samantha Smith wrote to the Kremlin and then was invited to the USSR in 1983, I was really inspired. I was impressed that a ten-year-old was acting as an ambassador. I was also really sad when Smith was killed in a plane crash in 1985. When I got older, I found myself thinking about Samantha Smith—whom most people had forgotten—for different reasons. She was so photogenic and such a seemingly ideal version of American girlhood. It was as if she’d been cast in the role of poster child for peace. I was interested in the way she became a symbol, to both Russians and Americans. And I thought, ‘what if another girl—a girl who was a less perfect poster child—also wrote a letter to Andropov, but didn’t get a response?’ I was thinking about the role that image and marketing plays in everything.

With a first-person narrator, there is always the question of how reliable our narrator is. I’m really intrigued by the way listeners are given information about who the narrator has become by the time she is telling this story. It comes in sudden bursts and almost feels impulsive when it arrives.How much did you have the present-day narrator in mind while you were writing about the character in the past?

Sarah Zuckerman is not dishonest or coy, but like all first-person narrators, she can only see her version of the story, so as readers we’re getting a limited perspective on the events. She’s telling this story from a perch in her 30s, so she has some distance from the events, both in the 1980s, when she was very young, and in the 1990s when she was in her early 20s. The fact that she is finally telling her own story (after years of feeling like a martyr, relegated to the sidelines of someone else’s story) suggests that she is a stronger person than she once was, but a few flash-forwards hint that she hasn’t completely changed. A romantic relationship has ended recently, so she still feels like a person who is easily abandoned. This book is a character study, and her story flashes forward and back in the way that so many people’s stories do. We make connections when we’re telling stories: something that happens in the present reminds us of the past. Sarah’s memory (fractured and fallible as it is) is a character, too. Sarah sets out to find the truth about her friend, but that’s just the surface mystery. The real questions she’s answering are about herself.


Stephanie Klose About Stephanie Klose

Stephanie Klose (sklose@mediasourceinc.com, @sklose on Twitter) is Media Editor, Library Journal.