Elliott Holt (The Bat Segundo Show #500)

Elliott Holt is most recently the author of You Are One of Them.

Author: Elliott Holt

Subjects Discussed: Confusion on what word to emphasize in the book’s title, Elizabeth Bishop, Holt’s stint at ACT in San Francisco, the comparisons and differences between acting and writing, being a failed playwright, reading aloud your work for revision, Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman, Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three, Samantha Smith, writing an introvert based almost exclusively on what she sees and avoiding the interior monologue, smugglers who deliver KFC to Gaza through tunnels, hooking Russians on Coca-Cola, having to answer to the Coca-Cola Company in Dr. Strangelove, the weak perception of Boris Yeltsin, Yeltsin’s 1994 “Truth Decree” in advertising, creating an enemy to define yourself, Cold War cola wars, memorizing slogans to survive, Holt’s experience working as an ad agency in Moscow, the dreadful term “creatives,” Russian cigarettes, trading one form of propaganda for another, characters who are defined by advertising, child ambassadors who become branded, the joys of decrepit Moscow, why Russia is hooked on dichotomies, when mapping personal identity is obstructed by societal forces, how people spill their stories to friends and therapists and what the novel offers in return, Alice Munro, hating the Eagles, why Moscovites love “Hotel California,” Russian accents, Boris and Natasha, church vs. George, the adventures of Holt’s mother in Russia, The Moscow Rules, The International Spy Museum, conveying international calls through brackets and ellipses, having no real designs on journalism, Hollywood cliches in Russia, what people associate with Russia, taking author photographs of Reif Larsen, hanging out at the Propaganda nightclub in Moscow, nude men swimming in fish tanks, Russians on American cleanliness, menacing babushkas who enforce cleanliness in the shower, getting use to being reprimanded by Russians, cultures driven by superstition, the Russian notion of “????” (i.e., soul), being deemed a “star of tomorrow” by New York, being paralyzed by pronouncement, people who feel resentful towards those who are successful, and whether it’s okay to hate other writers.


Correspondent: I did some research and found that you had gone to ACT in San Francisco.

Holt: How did you find that out?

Correspondent: Oh, I have my ways.

Holt: Oh god.

Correspondent: And this is interesting. So you had an acting career at some point.

Holt: I did.

Correspondent: Roughly at the time that I was there. And I was making these short films and plays. And I’m wondering why we didn’t actually run into each other.

Holt: That’s so funny. I did go to ACT in San Francisco. I was a drama major in college.

Correspondent: Oh!

Holt: I went to Kenyon. I was in lots and lots of plays.

Correspondent: That explains why all your answers are in iambic pentameter.

Holt: I was in a lot of plays in college. And I wrote some plays in college. They were terrible. But I think because I took playwriting and read a lot of — I read Aristotle’s Poetics and I read a lot of plays by Pinter and Beckett and Mamet. And I think I was a terrible playwright. I thought I would like playwriting because I had been writing fiction since I was a little kid and one of the things I always liked about fiction writing was dialogue. And so I thought that because I liked to write dialogue, it would be fun to write plays.

Correspondent: Were any of your plays performed?

Holt: Well, my two best friends from college and I — they actually are playwrights. They’re really good playwrights. They’re working playwrights. But when we were in college, we had a student theater group. And we sort of staged our own short plays in those kinds of black box theater. I never staged any full-length thing. There were some scenes I wrote. But anyway, the point is that I was actually a terrible playwright. But I think reading all those plays helped my fiction writing. Because I think I have a really strong sense of subtext and of the importance of scenes as opposed to just interiority. So I think it helped me as a fiction writer, but I was a really bad playwright.

Correspondent: Do you still have any kind of performance quality when you are conjuring up a scene or getting in the head, in this case, of Sarah Zuckerman? I mean, did you feel..

Holt: You mean when I’m writing?

Correspondent: When you’re writing. Do you have to perform sometimes to pinpoint her voice?

Holt: No. I don’t perform. I do think that, when I’m writing, it’s not so different from when I was acting in the sense that I’m really imagining my way into the head of someone. But it’s not like I read things aloud. I think I have a good ear as a reader. And I am very sensitive to modulations in tone when I’m reading fiction. So I think I do hear the language while I’m writing. But I’m not reading it out loud. I mean, later, when I have a full draft, I’ll read it out loud to sort of hear the spots that I think would work. But…

Correspondent: Do you read the whole book? Because Laura Lippman, I know, does that too.

Holt: Yeah. And it helps. You really hear the weak sentences. But, no, not while I’m writing. I’m not performing anything. But yes, I do think in terms of scenes. And I’m sure that’s because I’ve read a lot of plays.

Correspondent: Well, since you have very kindly stepped into the fray of this revived Bat Segundo, I’m going to have to give you one of these massive Bat Segundo questions on your book, which I very much enjoyed.

Holt: Okay.

Correspondent: So this book reminded me of two specific masterpieces. Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, of course. Because we have Nathan Zuckerman and Sarah Zuckerman. But not just that. Also the whole thing with Jennifer Jones reminded me of that Anne Frank situation in The Ghost Writer.

Holt: Oh, that’s so funny. I didn’t even…

Correspondent: And then of course, I have to ask you about Billy Wilder’s masterpiece One, Two, Three. Especially since Coca-Cola is here. You’ve got the whole Russia thing. And I’m wondering. Do you need to have partial narrative frameworks — like, in this case, The Ghost Writer or One Two Three, possibly — in order to pinpoint Sarah’s life in this case? Because there’s a good chunk of the mid-section where it’s pretty much Sarah just kind of thinking. And we’re in her head. And then we go back to the plot. So it’s almost like sometimes you adopt narrative frameworks with which to provide Sarah some momentum and with which to provide the reader a good sense of steering the life along a kind of track. And then it kind of dissembles. And then it kind of reattaches again. And I’m really curious about that.

Holt: Dissembles.

Correspondent: Yes. Absolutely. So I’m curious, first of all, were these two masterpieces inspiration for you?

Holt: No.

Correspondent: No? Not at all?

Holt: I’ve never seen One, Two, Three.

Correspondent: You have not seen One, Two, Three!*

Holt: No.

Correspondent: It’s Jimmy Cagney!

Holt: I’ve never seen it. And I love Billy Wilder.

Correspondent: Oh my god.

Holt: I’ve never seen One, Two, Three.

Correspondent: This moves at a machine gun pace. And it has Coca-Cola and Soviet relations at the hub. And paternal stuff. There’s a lot of paternal stuff in [your book].

Holt: No, I’ve never seen it. And actually I think I read The Ghost Writer in college. I love Philip Roth, but I haven’t read The Ghost Writer in a long time. My favorite Roth books that I love the most are American Pastoral and The Human Stain. And I love Portnoy’s. It’s like such a great first book. No, I wasn’t conscious. I think on some intuitive level, I knew I was playing games by naming her Zuckerman in a Roth thing. But I wasn’t thinking about The Ghost Writer. What I was thinking about in terms of — no, I didn’t have the conscious narrative frame. I was inspired by Samantha Smith. So I had a historical — I had history to play with. So I had some history as a frame. And I think, otherwise, no, it wasn’t like there was a conscious frame that I was working towards. I mean, I don’t want to give too much away. But, to me, this is a book about history, personal and cultural. And the obsessive nature of grief. And I think this is a narrator who has a kind of fantasy about doing her past over or getting to see this person that she hasn’t seen in a long time. And she’s really susceptible to a lot of things when she gets to the former Soviet Union. Because there are things she wants to believe. And she gets kind of caught up in her own little spy story in her mind for a while. Because that’s her association with Russia and she wants to.

Correspondent: Sure. On that subject, I was really keen to talk with you about the way you capture Sarah’s introverted nature. Which is a little different from other books. Because it’s almost as if we can get inside her social reservations by way of what she observes in Moscow and the very specific details. It’s almost as if that exists as a way for you to not necessarily inhabit the full nature of her head. She’s taking things in. She’s trying to actually figure out how this relates to her own identity and how this relates to Jennifer Jones, this girlhood friend who has disappeared. She’s trying to make complete sense of this. But she’s doing so by merely bouncing off of the sights that she observes in the regular world. And I’m wondering. Did you feel that you wanted to avoid this almost interior monologue or descent into someone’s head? Because, most of the time, when we read an introvert in fiction — especially in, say, A.L. Kennedy novels — we’re totally inside that head. Which is fine. But in your case, you don’t always go there. And in fact, we don’t actually see what becomes of her until very late in the game when we see some more present day memories. Aspects of her life that are later. And I wanted to ask you about that.

Holt: Well, I don’t think it’s a conscious decision. This is probably just — I probably write the way I do because of the kind of writers I love to read. I mean, Chekhov did exactly that. You have a sense of the character more from what the character is observing than from anything else. And I think the other thing about this book is that Sarah is a character who has spent her life thinking of herself as a footnote in someone else’s story. Kind of playing martyr. And in this book, this is finally when she tells the story herself. But she’s not the most reliable narrator. I mean, she is still evasive in some ways. And I don’t know. But I guess what I’m saying is that it’s, for me, a pretty intuitive process. So it’s not like I thought, “Okay, this is a character whose introvertedness is only going to be revealed by what she observes.” I mean, I think it’s just the way I write. And I think it’s more to do with the kind of books that I love most.

* — Warning to Listener: This moment, featured at the 9:22 mark of the show, has the Correspondent responding to Ms. Holt in a very high-pitched and enthusiastic timbre. The Correspondent apologizes, but he cannot fathom going through life without watching One, Two, Three, a delightful film that you should watch immediately.

The Bat Segundo Show #500: Elliott Holt (Download MP3)

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NYFF: Summer Hours (2008)

[This is the eleventh part in an open series of reports from the New York Film Festival.]

Olivier Assayas is a prolific auteur. Summer Hours is Assayas’s third feature in two years, following Boarding Gate, a muddled dimebag noir depicting an implausible relationship between the gravel-voiced Michael Madsen and the melodramatically languorous Asia Argento, and Eldorado, a television documentary chronicling Angelin Preljocaj’s efforts to choreograph Karlheinz Stockhausen’s imposing Sonntags-Abschied. Summer Hours, with a premise nowhere nearly as Chekhovian as the situation suggests, is a considerable improvement from Boarding Gate, involving three middle-aged scions in an artistic family attempting to corral a family legacy against their own financial needs.

It doesn’t quite live up to its full potential, but it certainly comes close. Mother, a cheerfully depressed and easily tired woman who we get to know in the film’s first half hour, dies. Father — a renowned artist named Paul Berthier — has been dead for some time. The Berthier home, built over the years into a summer retreat for the family and populated with expensive furniture and art, is ready for the auction block.

Assayas is on point here thematically. Charles Berling, who is looking more and more like Aidan Quinn with each movie, plays Frédéric, the most interesting character of the three. He’s an economist courting controversy with his books, but remains very much in doubt about who he is. He cannot connect with his teenage daughter, but attempts to reach out to her with liberalism, only to see these slippy efforts resisted. He lives very much in his father’s shadow, but Assayas is wise enough to keep this detail under the surface. (Indeed, Paul Berthier survives in this film largely as a memory.) We do see Frédéric break down in a car hours after he has learned that his mother has died: the suggestion here being that the responsibilities of being “adult” have led Frédéric to defer his emotions. This breakdown comes shortly after a radio appearance in which he has calmly duked it out with cultural pundits. (Later, when a major decision has been reached, he sits in a dark room staring out the window. He cannot confess to his understanding wife that he is crying.) The bookstores want him for readings and appearances. But Frédéric says in response to this success, “Writing this book has just brought me trouble.” But he insists on overseeing the family legacy. He wants the family to hold onto the home, but it’s largely because he’s incapable of seeing the developments in the present.

Frédéric’s other two siblings are Adrienne (a blonde Juliette Binoche who is given top billing here, but whose contributions are supporting at best), a fashion designer in New York now trying for Husband No. 2 in the dubious form of an “artistic director of an Internet magazine” (played, with a nod to Assayas’s next generation theme, by Clint Eastwood’s son) and whose feelings are often given the short end of the stick (even her engagement announcement is trumped by family news), and Jérémie (played by the striking Jérémie Renier), an industrialist looking for lucre with a shoe company in the Far East who has no problem rattling off such pronouncements as “The future is making cheap sneakers by exploiting cheap labor” in front of the family. So if Frédéric can’t pave his own way, then it’s either hard art or hard business for the next generation of Berthiers. But these respective overseas circumstances will certainly keep the other two from visiting the summer home.

Aside from these two siblings, Assayas suggests quite adeptly with his editing that time will march on despite Frédéric’s emotions. Months often pass by during the course of the film, but Assayas keeps his transitions quite muted, sometimes cutting directly to the next scene, which is set weeks later, and sometimes finishing up a scene with an unobtrusive fadeout. For example, at one point, we see that Frédéric has grown a beard. Fifteen minutes later in film time, the beard is gone. Cinematographer Eric Gautier, who also shot A Christmas Tale, likewise keeps his camera whipping and panning at the fleeting pace of the present. The camera frequently dollies up to a door, slightly ajar or open, but very rarely moves through it, as if to suggest the inability of these characters to make an active decision.

This intriguing visual psychology anchors the film thematically, but Assayas’s ending, which involves something of a handover of the home to free market forces and the next generation, suggests a stylistic imbalance between characters and theme. The cherry picking is intended to connote Chekhov, but it’s far more literal-minded in its execution. These characters are left sitting in museums, no more different from the caged objects that once presided in the family home. But Assayas’s inability to focus on how these people will move forward comes off as considerably disingenuous in light of the complexities he embeds beneath the surface. But if Charles Berling is Assayas’s DeNiro, perhaps he might find a more satisfying balance in a future offering.