Ex-expat Elliott Holt’s sly debut novel, You Are One of Them, follows Sarah Zuckerman, who travels to Moscow in 1995 to unravel a mystery from the Cold War years involving her childhood best friend.
The book is set in Washington, D.C. (your hometown), and in Moscow. Did you live in Moscow?
Yes, I lived in Moscow from 1997 to 1999. Moscow was wild then! There were all these crazy bars and nightclubs and there was a sense of lawlessness. I never felt unsafe, but it felt like the normal rules didn’t apply. People bribed their way out of traffic tickets (and everything else). You could buy pirated movies at markets. Western businessmen acted like teenagers, drunk on the attention from much younger Russian women, who were attracted to their money.
When Sarah travels to Moscow for the first time, she realizes that Russians have a skewed view of Americans. Is that taken from your experience?
When I lived in Moscow, my Russian friends were always saying, “You Americans always do X” or “you Americans always think Y.” They believed that Americans were naive philistines, not “kulturni” (cultured). Russians love conspiracy theories and tend to be suspicious of official reports (understandably, given their country’s history). My friends were always telling me that Americans are too quick to believe what we’re told.
Why set the book in the 1980s and 1990s?
The 1980s were the final years of the Cold War. In the 1990s, the Cold War had ended but 9/11 hadn’t happened yet. The U.S. wasn’t at war. Our economy was booming. And with the Internet came new notions of global connectivity and identity. In my book, Sarah is a child in the 1980s and a young woman in the 1990s, facing a very different world from the one she grew up in.
Who are your favorite Russian writers?
I love Chekhov, Gogol, and Tolstoy (if I had to choose, I’d take Tolstoy over Dostoyevsky, though I love Crime and Punishment). Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. And Nabokov, even though he left Russia and ended up writing most of his books in English. I’m just starting to read Platonov.
Did you intentionally leave the book’s ending open to interpretation?
I crafted the book very carefully—with clues and details along the way—to make the ambiguity of the ending work. There are two possibilities, both supported by evidence. What matters ultimately is what Sarah decides has happened.
I bet you get this all the time, but is there a backstory to your first name?
Elliott was my great-grandmother’s maiden name, my grandmother’s middle name, and my mother’s middle name. It’s my middle name, too, but I’ve been called Elliott since the day I was born. I spent much my childhood wishing I had a “normal” girl’s name, but now I’m grateful to my parents for giving me a good writer’s name. I do get mail addressed to Mr. Elliott Holt, though!