By Rachel Sweeney
“The great thing about Kenyon, of course, is that even if you’re not an English major, it’s the kind of place where literature is everywhere.”
For Elliott Holt ’97, a lifelong ambition to become a writer inspired her to attend Kenyon. Today, she will return to Gambier to read from her debut novel, You Are One of Them.
In the years following her graduation from Kenyon, Holt worked as a copy editor in Moscow, London and New York. While in New York, Holt worked full-time during the day while attending the Master of Fine Arts program at Brooklyn College.
“I’ve been writing my whole life, but I think the first time I actually was paid for a piece of fiction was in graduate school when I sold my first short story for not very much money,” Holt said. “Then I sort of gradually started to publish a couple little things here and there.”
Since she began writing more formally, Holt’s pieces have appeared in the Kenyon Review, Guernica and the Bellevue Literary Review. In 2011, Holt received the prestigious Pushcart Prize and was a runner-up for the PEN Emerging Writers Award.
In addition to her degree from Brooklyn College, Holt credits her experiences at Kenyon as a drama major with honing her fiction-writing skills.
“The only writing workshops I actually took were actually playwriting workshops; I didn’t take any fiction workshops when I was at Kenyon,” Holt said. “I think playwriting made me a better fiction writer. … I always liked writing dialogue and I think writing plays helped me with my fiction because I have a really good sense of narrative structure and subtext.”
Holt’s time at Kenyon influenced the content of her novel as well ﾗ the title is drawn from a poem by Elizabeth Baker that she first read in Professor of English Jennifer Clarvoe’s class Women in Poetry.
The novel tells a re-imagined history of a Cold War-era news story: in 1983, 10-year-old American Samantha Smith wrote a letter to Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov expressing her fear of nuclear war. Andropov responded to her letter, inviting her to the Soviet Union and creating a media circus. Smith would go on to become a “child ambassador” to the Soviet Union until her death at age 13 in a 1985 plane crash.
This story, which made headlines during Holt’s childhood, continued to capture her imagination into adulthood.
You Are One of Them is Holt’s reengineered history of Smith’s saga ﾗ here, Smith’s character is named Jennifer Jones, and her fictional best friend, Sarah Zuckerman, serves as narrator. Centering on the dynamic of these two young friends, Holt says the novel is “about friendship and loss, but it’s also about the way people and ideas are packaged and sold.”
“I’ve spent a lot of time just sort of thinking about her over the years,” Holt said. “When I was in graduate school getting my MFA in fiction writing, I found myself thinking about Samantha Smith and I just thought, ﾑWell, what if two girls had written letters to Andropov in 1982? What if two best friends were worried about nuclear war and wrote letters together and only one girl got a response?'”
At today’s reading, Holt plans to read a portion of the novel and answer any questions the audience may have. Attendees can also expect to laugh ﾗ though the novel has been described as gripping, Holt says “a lot of the novel is actually quite funny.”
Holt will appear today at 4:10 p.m. in Finn House’s Cheever Room. Her novel You Are One of Them is available for purchase in the Bookstore.