In 1982, then eight-year-old Elliott Holt closely followed the story of Samantha Smith, the 10-year-old American girl who wrote to Yuri Andropov asking for peace and was invited to make a highly publicized visit to the U.S.S.R. in response. Holt grew up down the street from the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C. She explains, “As I got older, I found myself thinking about the way that Smith was used (by both the Russians and the Americans) for propaganda, and about the way people and ideas are packaged. And then when I graduated from college, I ended up living in Moscow for two years. It was the mid-1990s and I was working in an advertising agency at a time when capitalism and consumer culture were new there.”
Holt’s debut novel, You Are One of Them (Penguin Press, May), is based partly on Smith’s story—it features two girlhood friends who write similar letters, but only one gets a response—and partly on Holt’s own experiences. Holt recalls that she first wrote a short story with the premise in 2006, when she was a graduate student in a workshop with Michael Cunningham at Brooklyn College. In 2009, she began working on the book in earnest.
Andrea Walker, senior editor at Penguin Press, acquired the novel from Holt’s agent, Bill Clegg of William Morris Endeavor. Walker says, “What I love about this book is that it’s an intimate story of female friendships and how they change from youth to adulthood, but also a story about how big political currents—in this case the daily anxieties of the Cold War in the U.S.—can insinuate themselves into our personal relationships. Anyone who lived through the early 1980s in America will recognize this landscape of fear and denial.”