First Draft Episode #197: Linda Holmes Transcript
Date: June 21, 2019
Linda Holmes, pop-culture critic at NPR and host of the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, is out with her debut author of Evvie Drake Starts Over. I loved what Linda had to say about how practicing appellate law helped hone her critical writing; getting used to listening to her own voice; how she manages anxiety and depression, and the difficulty in even acknowledging that she wanted to write a novel.
The original post for this episode can be found here.
[Theme music plays}
Sarah Enni Okay. Hi Linda. How are you?
Linda Holmes I'm good, thank you. I'm so glad that you could come and we can chat here, at my wonderful office.
Sarah Enni Oh my gosh. I couldn't be more excited to be at NPR right now. Lifelong public radio nerd, as the t-shirt I just purchased indicates [laughs].
Linda Holmes Oh, you got the good one!
Sarah Enni And I got the mug, which is like soup-sized. So on my podcast, I like to start at the very beginning, which is, where were you born and raised?
Linda Holmes I was born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware. Our house was in Pennsylvania, which is right over the state line, but my school and my friends were mostly in Wilmington. So essentially, outside Philadelphia and more specifically outside Wilmington.
Sarah Enni So how was growing up? How was reading and writing a part of your life?
Linda Holmes I loved reading when I was really little. I think I was a person who got a little bit of the idea of novels being work when I was in middle school and high school. I didn't read a ton of heavy novels for quite a long time. I read a ton of popular fiction starting when I was a teenager. I read, on the one hand, a lot of Jackie Collins and stuff like that, but also on the other hand, a lot of Stephen King. I read a ton of Stephen King as a kid. Writing, I always wanted to do. I started writing stories when I was six or seven or eight and I would just write little bits of things and very often they didn't get finished, but I would at least make a shot at writing them. And then when I went to college I kind of went away from writing.
Sarah Enni Yeah, well, and we're going to get to that because you went in a very different non creative writing direction.
Linda Holmes Yeah. I'm going out of order.
Sarah Enni No, that's okay. That's okay. So I listened to an interview that you did on The Hilarious World of Depression, which is a wonderful podcast, in which you described a teacher who wrote to you. I'm just going to tell the story to you then you can explain it in more detail. The teacher who wrote on an assignment that you turned in, "You may feel like your feet are in cement, but you're writing."
Linda Holmes Yeah. I was struggling with depression as a teenager, which I would not have described that way at the time, but I think now I recognize what it was. And there was a teacher who said to me basically, who was making the point to me that, you may feel like you can't do anything, and everything is kind of, you know, your gears are grinding and everything, but that I was still able to write. And she felt, I think, that would reassure me that I was still myself. And that I think is probably exactly what that did for me.
Sarah Enni Yeah. Which is a really early age to feel so explicitly reassured that writing can be a safe haven, a little bit.
Linda Holmes Yes, I think that's right. I think that's right. And the funny thing is, a lot of my writing for a long time wasn't necessarily fiction. It was just writing. It was just writing anything, whether it was writing people long letters or writing little short stories about my life. I started writing my memoirs when I was in 11th grade. And I would just write little stories about embarrassing things that had happened to me pretty much.
Sarah Enni Do you think you were processing?
Linda Holmes That's a great question. I think that I was figuring out a way. Yeah, probably. I was probably figuring out a way to live with embarrassing things that had happened in my life, none of which worked. [Not] the traumatic kind of embarrassing, but they were difficult to think about. And so for example, I wrote a piece when I was, I think I originally wrote it when I was in early high school, about going to a banquet and accidentally dropping my plate in my lap. And that was sort of my first funny humor essay and I probably wrote it, like I said, it was probably 15 or 16
Sarah Enni Wow! You described on the podcast of having anxious thoughts. And I think anybody who is even anywhere near anxiety has the embarrassing moments [that] sort of pop up unexpectedly or unwelcomed.
Linda Holmes Oh yeah. And I would, I think everybody with "anxiety brain" as I always call it, kind of funnels all of their bad feelings and all of their bad memories. So everything really embarrassing that I've ever done, I still can cringe. And really it's painful to think about the most embarrassing things I've done. But you know, none of them are terribly serious and I survived all of them and made it into whatever it was for me.
Sarah Enni It strikes me that writing them out though might have been sort of like sometimes looking right at a thing can take some of the power out of it.
Linda Holmes I think that's right. I think for me it felt like I was getting a little distance from those stories by telling them in a way that was funny and it was a primitive coping mechanism. I would not say that the fact that I was doing that meant that I was dealing well with my social place in the world necessarily. But I do think that telling my embarrassing stories was a big part of me figuring out how to fit into the world in a way that I felt comfortable with.
Sarah Enni Was anyone reading that writing?
Linda Holmes I would pass them around in class. Some of my classmates I remember we're reading these little, like I said, my memoirs that I started. And I went to a really small school so people knew me, and they knew my family, and so they would read them. And some of them would be in them and it was a very informal thing, but not other than that, no.
Sarah Enni Okay. And when you went to school, what did you embark on? How did you begin your studies?
Linda Holmes I went to Oberlin wanting to be a music teacher and then I did not get into their music school, which was correct because I was not nearly good enough and also would not have wanted to spend my life practicing as much as the people in that music school do.
Linda Holmes But I went there anyway. And I was in the college and I didn't do any creative writing classes because you had to submit writing to a professor to be admitted to a creative writing class. And I was too shy, I guess, to do that. I was too nervous about my writing to submit it to anyone. So I did a lot of social studies eventually. First I did a lot of math and science my first year. That was weird. I don't know why I did that. In retrospect my parents were like, "Why are you doing this? You don't like this stuff." So then I got into social science and that's what I really wound up doing in college was government and pre-law and sociology and things like that, which still allowed me to do a ton of writing. Those are really, really writing and reading and analysis and argument, heavy topics.
Sarah Enni Critical thought, a lot of that. So then what did you do after undergrad?
Linda Holmes I ended undergrad pretty sure that I wanted to go to law school, but I wasn't ready to go the first year. I hadn't thought about it soon enough. So I took a year and I temped, I was like an office temp. I answered phones and filed and things. And then I went to law school. I went to Lewis and Clark in Portland, Oregon. And graduated [and] became an attorney. Took the bar exam in Minnesota where my family lived by then. They had moved from the Philadelphia area to the Twin Cities. So since I didn't really know anybody out in Portland who was staying in Portland, and I didn't really know anybody back where I had grown up, I went to Minnesota and I took the bar there. I had a kind of a government type job, a couple of government type jobs there.
Sarah Enni I want to talk about that work, legal work, but I want to talk about it in conjunction with TV Without Pity. So if you don't mind setting us up, how did the TV Without Pity writing come about?
Linda Holmes So in probably 1999 ish, 2000, something like that, I was reading a site that was then called Dawson's Rap, which was a Dawson's Creek recap site. And I loved it and I thought it was genius and funny. I shared it with everyone that I knew and then eventually they changed the name of it to Mighty Big TV, which was a site that did different shows. I loved it and I talked about it with people, and then I eventually pitched them that maybe I could write for them and I still had, I was still an attorney full time at that time. It was just a side thing to do.
Linda Holmes Then I recapped a couple of reality shows for them. And you would just sit and write down everything that happened and they weren't recaps, like recaps are now where it posts on the same night and it's maybe a page and a half. They were like 15 pages that would take several days to write and post. It was a form that doesn't really exist anymore. I'm not sure it was a born moneymaker, but it was extremely beloved by the people who loved it. But I'm not sure it was ever gonna scale.
Sarah Enni Right. I mean they were like essays. And it was also, like you said, the sort of nascent period of time of just the recap as a concept of writing and then also of this application of very dedicated, critical thought to this kind of high/low mix to The Amazing Race.
Linda Holmes I think that's exactly right. I think that's exactly what it was. It was also kind of a blank slate where you could take what was going on in the show and you could talk about [it]. And we wouldn't have said it this way at the time, but you could talk about kind of sociological aspects and gender politics, and what stereotypes are they employing about race? What kinds of tropes are they employing? And they still have the people who ran Television Without Pity, which at that time, Mighty Big TV had changed its name to Television Without Pity, by the time I started, or around the time I started writing for them a little after. And I think they still have a site it's called Previously Dot TV. They have a new site and I was listening to them do a podcast about episodes of Beverly Hills 90210, which they have been doing an episode-by-episode podcast about.
Linda Holmes And I realized that a lot of what they do, even though it seems weird like, "Why are you talking about these people like they're real people." Like "What a jerk this person is being." It's because they are taking apart - the show [and] treating this person in a heroic way. But actually, if you think about it, he's being possessive and awful and they don't necessarily say that explicitly, but that's why you're there. That's the conversation that you're having is, "How are they using tropes in a way that doesn't really hold up if you think about it as a human being."
Sarah Enni Right? Which is so interesting and kind of ushered in this whole level of talk that now we are kind of steeped in of enjoying cultural things. But also at the same time really bringing ourselves to it and talking explicitly about what that means. It's blurred lines that we now live in. It struck me that I think at that point you were doing appellate law or you were writing a lot?
Linda Holmes Yes, I was. I was doing appeals which are mostly [pauses] or by the time I got out of lawyering, so toward the end of the time that I was lawyering, I was writing appeals. Which means you're mostly doing briefs. You're just writing legal arguments and then doing oral argument from time to time. But mostly it's a lot of argument writing.
Sarah Enni And like persuasive writing, right?
Linda Holmes Yes, absolutely.
Sarah Enni Which to me seems like that would help with your critical writing?
Linda Holmes 100%. You know, when I sit down now and I'm writing something where I'm trying to explain a critical opinion about a movie or particularly an analytical point about a cultural issue, you're still doing essentially the same thing, which is present a bunch of of facts. And then you're making an argument and you're explaining how those facts that you've laid out support the argument that you made and you're also doing things that I learned to do as an attorney. Like you're trying to close... you're trying to explain why the possible counter arguments are not convincing. And it's absolutely the same thing as good essay writing, and a lot of good critical writing. They're all connected. All these things are connected.
Sarah Enni Yeah. Which I loved seeing and I mean still to this day, when you post like the longer writing on Monkey See blog [pauses] I was going back and looking at some of the ones that I've enjoyed the most and I was like, oh yeah, you can kind of see bullet points and flushing it out. And it makes it something that you can bring into like a classroom and study or something like that.
Linda Holmes Yeah. I mean learning to express yourself in critical writing is a really helpful skill to have. And that's why sometimes people say, because I didn't stay in law, they say, "Well, do you wish you hadn't gone to law school?" And I say, "Well, I wish I hadn't spent the money on law school, but I don't regret going to law school." I mean, because mostly what it does is make you a good critical thinker. You do learn a lot of law, which I don't use very often anymore. But it also teaches you a lot about how government works and how cases, legal cases work. And it helps me navigate my understanding of the news and the world and things like that.
Sarah Enni So I'd love to hear you tell me how TV Without Pity then leads to NPR?
Linda Holmes Yeah, in a direct sense it led to it because my friend Stephen Thompson who works here at NPR and is on the podcast with me, had just left his position at The Onion and he still lived in Madison, Wisconsin at that time. I lived in the Twin Cities still at that time. And he was looking for a job and we became friends because he had been reading the Television Without Pity stuff and he liked it and he wrote to me and we kind of struck up a correspondence and became friends in that way. And then he got a job at NPR and almost immediately started telling them, "I think this would be somebody that would be great for you to have to cover stuff for you." And then they were looking for somebody to do a pop culture blog project and that's how I got here. He mentioned it to me and mentioned me to them. I wrote a long blog proposal for them and did a bunch of tryout writing for them and that's how I wound up here.
Sarah Enni It's cool. I think on the Monkey See blog, or somewhere in your website , you described it as the first and only culture blog and you're the first and only editor of that blog.
Linda Holmes At NPR, yeah. It was really the first pop culture project that they undertook, that I know of, that was sort of explicitly labeled that way because I think for a lot of people what pop culture is is not entirely clear. And there are people who I think associated with, you know, stuff like celebrity gossip and obviously it's not going to be that at NPR. So I think there was a lot of, "What exactly does it mean to do a pop culture project?" And that wound up really being defined by what the blog was and what my editors and the people that I worked with thought that it should be.
Sarah Enni Which is such a cool project. I'd love to just hear a little bit about your thinking about shifting from TV Without Pity [which] is sort of people who are unapologetically obsessed with whatever it is you're talking about, and you can make all kinds of assumptions about knowledge and all that kind of stuff. And then transitioning to actually determining how NPR approaches pop culture is a big task. I would love to hear how you approached that.
Linda Holmes Fortunately I think I didn't think about it in those terms or it probably would have been too daunting at the beginning. I think that I thought about it in terms of, "What are they missing that I can do?" And so at that time, this was before they hired a full-time television critic, [and] this was before they opened up certain avenues, I think they cover pop culture more than they did when I first got here. And so at that time there was a ton of open space where I think they had not yet decided, or kind of gotten a handle on, what was the tone where you could cover, for example, Dancing with the Stars in a way that would still seem at home on NPR.
Linda Holmes And I think a lot of what went on in the first couple of years that I was writing the blog, was trying to figure out what does that look like? And what is fun enough to be really fun and to still feel like me and feel like my writing? But that also feels like it belongs at NPR? I never wanted to be somebody who was upsetting anybody's idea of, "NPR is supposed to be good. This is stupid!" I never wanted that to be the feeling of who I was or what I was doing.
Sarah Enni Right. At the same time, I'm sure there's some NPR die-hards who just would rather it not be covered at all.
Linda Holmes Absolutely that's true. And you get to a point where, it never hurts my feelings when people say, "This is not what I tune into NPR for." Cause that's fine. There are things that I don't tune in to, any show, or no radio show or whatever. There are very few podcasts that I listen to where I don't skip some episodes. You don't have to be a completist. It's okay as long as you're not insulting me for doing it. I don't mind that people say, "Hey, you know, this essay about this Amy Schumer movie isn't what I come to NPR for." It's like, "That's fine. That's okay.
Sarah Enni Click away.
Linda Holmes "That's okay. Not hurt"
Sarah Enni Yeah. How does it develop? Were you hired as only a writer? And when did, actually you as a voice for Pop Culture on NPR start?
Linda Holmes So I was hired to write. And NPR at that time, you know podcasting, this was 2008 when I started the blog. Podcasting was in a really different space. What had happened at that time was the iPod had kind of brought up the idea of podcasts and then they hadn't really gone. They had sort of flared up, but it was hard getting people on board. So this was in between the iPod part and the smartphone part a little bit. So NPR, at that time, was mostly using podcasts to re-distribute radio stories. They weren't doing a lot of original stuff in podcasting at that time. Not none, but not a lot. And so I definitely started within the first couple of years. I had started to occasionally be on the radio shows. Like I would do something on All Things Considered very occasionally. And then at some point, Steven, who I mentioned earlier, Stephen and I decided that we thought you could do a kind of a round table, a podcast conversation.
Linda Holmes Which for us was inspired by some of the round table discussions that they did on All Songs Considered, which was a music show that still exists that he is sometimes on, and was sometimes on then. We thought you could do one that was more broad about pop culture in general, television and movies and things. And we knew exactly who we wanted on it and we knew exactly who we thought would produce it for us. And it was a very, very under the table kind of informal project at first. We really just snuck into studios at the end of the day when nobody was using them. And that's how we launched a podcast.
Sarah Enni Which is really great. What's it been like to see the response to it? And also you are becoming a voice rather than a writer and you're sort of becoming a more public figure. How did all that play out?
Linda Holmes Weird. It was weird. I definitely think it took me awhile to get used to hearing my own voice. I think everybody, and it's still true now as you hear your own voice, you become very conscious of all of your verbal ticks and you're constantly trying to fight them. Um, you hear every time you say, um, I just heard myself do it! So I think it can make you very self conscious. At the same time, people at NPR talk about and it's really true that there's an intimacy to audio that's unlike anything else. And although I was lucky enough to have a lot of people who were enthusiastic about my writing, who were really kind to me about my writing. There is something about people who have heard you speak, that gives them a more personal sense of you, and that gives them a much more intense sense that they know you. Which can be a little intimidating when people really feel like you are their friend. But for the most part is really lovely because people feel like you're their friend, which is great.
Sarah Enni Right. So did you feel intimidated by, I mean, hosting the round table and speaking extemporaneously about stuff is really different than being able to go over several drafts and have an editor look at something. Were you intimidated by that?
Linda Holmes Sure is. I was intimidated by it, although I have always really liked live radio. And when I used to be on NPR shows, my favorite one to go on was Talk of the Nation, which isn't on anymore but was a live call-in show. And every once in awhile I would get to guest on that. And I always really liked the fact that it was live and you really didn't know what was gonna happen. But NPR is a place where everybody is so experienced with things like that, that they know how to make them work well.
Linda Holmes And it's the same thing with our audio producers. We always had a show that was edited. We always had a show where you could say, "Hey, I shouldn't have said this." And, "I don't think that came out the way that I intended it." And it could be cut. It was never a show that was just as live. But it is definitely true that what you say on a podcast is always gonna be less fussed over than what you can say with writing.
Sarah Enni That's true. You don't get to edit yourself as intensely, but it's also not inherently...you aren't [pauses] I don't know. Is that true? Were you reaching fewer people with your writing than podcasting?
Linda Holmes I don't know. It would really depend on the piece. I would say there are some pieces that I've written that have been read by more people than the podcast and many that haven't. But I think that for us, the value of the podcast, as opposed to writing, is that you're in conversation with other people.
Linda Holmes So the really wonderful parts for me are the moments where somebody says something and it makes you think a different thing and maybe something comes up that you weren't anticipating. That really happens to us every week because we don't sit down in advance and say, "I'm gonna say this and you're gonna say this." We just don't do that. We will have usually some bullet points of things we want to hit, but they're usually very general. So it is basically what it appears to be, which is people sitting down who have all seen the same thing and talking about it.
Sarah Enni Having a genuine conversation, which is very, very cool. I enjoy it a lot. On the other podcast episode that you did, you said that you had always wanted to write a book.
Linda Holmes Yes. I think that's right. And I think it took me a really long time to acknowledge to myself that I had always wanted to write a book because like I said, I started writing stories when I was a little little kid, but then I abandoned it at some point and I started doing a lot more analytical writing.
Linda Holmes And I have a ton of respect for people who write fiction. And I didn't want to be one of those people who says, "Well, I can just do whatever I want. I'll just pick up something and make something up." So I think I didn't, it was hard for me to presume that I could do that. But yeah, I think I had always wanted to write a novel. I think it was a goal that it was really hard for me to acknowledge that I had, cause I thought the odds of making that happen, we're so remote that I didn't particularly want to spend a lot of time thinking about it. So what I would do, is I would just write five pages of something and put it down. And write five pages of something else and put it down. Literally five pages, not a lot. And I did that for many years. That was how I approached this kind of stuff.
Sarah Enni Wow. But you had ideas, you kind of gave yourself permission to try a little bit and then walked away.
Linda Holmes It was just like a little, I don't want to say game, but it was a little thing that I was too afraid to take seriously, but I really enjoyed doing.
Sarah Enni Yeah. That's so interesting. And for many years you now have steeped yourself in narrative and applying critical thought to narrative and breaking story down and thinking in that way. Kind of giving yourself this MFA in some ways.
Linda Holmes Yes. So the trick was, and I said this when I was first getting serious about launching into this book, one of the things that I said to people who asked me about it was, "Look, you know, I'm pretty confident. I know how to write good sentences. I'm pretty confident about how my writing sounds. I'm pretty confident about my use of language." But there is something to be said for the training that you get when you spend a lot of time studying literature. The training that you get in pacing and story construction and things like that.
Linda Holmes And so as much as I would like to say, "I don't have an MFA and it was fine!" It was fine, but those were the points where I was the most open to,"Tell me where it needs to be cut. Tell me where what I'm doing isn't making sense." And in fact the more complicated things like, "Tell me where not everything that I'm envisioning as what's going on in this scene, is making it out of my brain and onto the page."There are places where it mattered a lot that I didn't have the training in fiction that some people have through academics and things like that. It just meant that I had to rely really heavily on people who have spent more time with those things.
Sarah Enni But it's not necessary. And then you have so much more, or you have a great deal of experience, thinking about other parts of it. You know what I mean?
Linda Holmes Absolutely. I think everybody has, "These are the things that I feel confident about. These are the things that I don't feel confident about." I felt really, like I said, I felt really confident that I liked how my writing sounded. And so I didn't feel like I needed a lot - and in fact I didn't get a lot - of editing. That was on the level of, "This is an unpretty sentence. Let me make it a prettier sentence." And I think there are people who are really good at story construction who rely more on people to kind of adjust the tone and that kind of melodic nature of your writing.
Linda Holmes That's the stuff I felt good about, but there were places where it was like, you know, this whole thing gets very bogged down in the middle and I don't spot those things as well as I would if I had spent a million years talking about really impeccably made novels. It's not that I don't read, I don't want to make it sound like I don't read, but I had a different background. And it was important to me to respect the things that were missing from maybe my experience. Not just because I hadn't studied fiction, but because I hadn't been a big literary novel reader for a long time for exactly the reasons that I was talking about.
Sarah Enni Yeah. Yeah. That makes sense. So what, after spending much of your life, knowing you wanted to write a book, what made you want to take the leap?
Linda Holmes I think that I knew for awhile. What became this book has roots that go back to 2008 or nine. I wrote a little flash fiction thing that I posted to a blog that I had, that I didn't even think was part of a novel at that time. But it was. I realize now when I go back, that I was writing a bunch of things that were sort of all around these same pieces. And I think it took that long for it to percolate. And then in 2012 I decided that I was going to try to write something for National Novel Writing Month. But then my apartment flooded on like the 6th of November. So that was not happening. I was sort of into this little, well I had written a few thousand words that I really liked, but then it kind of all got derailed.
Linda Holmes So those few thousand words would sit there and I would pick them up and put them down and pick them up and put them down. And fortunately, I had a friend or two who I would send them to and say, "Here's the thing." And I had exactly the right people who would say, "This is fun! I would read more of this." And eventually, I probably wrote close to 25,000 words between 2012 and 2016. That's a long time to write. But late in 2016 - and I talked about this on The Hilarious World of Depression also - but I was having sort of a depressive episode and I needed something to put energy into that would feel positive and good. And I picked up this thing and I started to write it. And there was a moment when I was about a third of the way done with the book, there was a moment or I felt like, "Well, now I've written enough of this that I think I have to finish it because I don't want to leave these characters in this situation that I have created."
Sarah Enni You don't want to leave them hanging.
Linda Holmes Yeah. Which is a really weird, really weird feeling. But that's sort of what happened. And so I wrote and wrote and wrote. And then after being really slow for a long time, it was really fast. And the first draft was done by March of 2017.
Sarah Enni I want to examine a couple of elements of that. First we should say the book is called Headcase.
Linda Holmes No.
Sarah Enni [Gasps] It's not? What's it called?
Linda Holmes So the book is called, Evie Drake Starts Over. Her name is Evie Drake. It's short for Eveleth, which is a town in Minnesota that she's named after.
Sarah Enni Before we talk too much more about it. Do you want to give the quick pitch for the book?
Linda Holmes Yeah. So the book is about a young widow who has lost her husband and rents out the apartment in the back of her house. She lives in Maine. She rents out the apartment in the back of her house to a recently washed up baseball pitcher.
Sarah Enni Okay. So a couple things I want to examine about the impetus to really give it a full go... writing the book. On the other interview, you talked a little bit about getting medicated for anxiety and also the election happened. Was that a part of a whole storm of inspiration to actually go for it?
Linda Holmes I think for a lot of people that whole summer and fall just felt very big, and hard to kind of get your arms around. It felt like a lot of things were happening. A Lot of things were changing. Some of it felt scary, some of it might not have been whatever. For me it just accumulated as that the world around everybody was really tumultuous.
Linda Holmes So yeah, it was definitely around there that I got on anxiety medication. And after I was on anxiety medication, it was much easier for me to slow down and concentrate on something. So it's a combination of the fact that anxiety meds made me more able to write, but also the situation that had gotten me into anxiety meds - this sort of depressive episode which might have been somewhat situational - that it was that time in world history. But it was also just, I am chemically predisposed to periods of depression and anxiety,. So I don't want to blame any particular thing for that. But it's partly that the meds made it easier to write, and partly that the same circumstances that got me on meds also caused me to need something else to do.
Sarah Enni Right, right. Which is a very motivating, creative thing to be able to escape into your own work. I think that's something a lot of people can relate to. And I'm going to come back to that [in] a little bit because you've spoken recently about writing things that are light and fun, in the midst of a very intense period of time that we're living in. But I want to dive into a little bit more of the details of this book. And especially the writing of it. It strikes me that your job requires an enormous amount of time to watch all the movies and all the TV and listen to all the podcasts. You have a job that's kind of constant. So how did you carve out time to write?
Linda Holmes I don't have a great answer to that cause it's really just that I stayed home a lot and I was lucky enough to be able to occasionally take a few days, get away from work, go away. And then when I was working on the second draft, I was lucky enough to be able to take the time and go up to Maine, actually sort of where this book is set. And spend some time up there and do writing up there. So sometimes I was able to squeeze it in around work and sometimes I just had to use my vacation.
Sarah Enni Yeah. Get out of town. Well let's talk about the setting really quick cause I think I read somewhere that it's a place you... that choosing Maine was a personal setting for you.
Linda Holmes Yeah. So when I was younger, my family used to vacation around Rockland, Maine, which is what they would call mid-coast. Which is a combination of touristy but also really nice and friendly and charming. And it's just a place that I'm extremely fond of personally because we spent time there when I was younger.
Sarah Enni Did the setting come right away? Did you know?
Linda Holmes Yeah, the setting was always really central to the book. My family went back and stayed there again in like 2003 -ish when we were all [older]. My sister was grown [and] with kids. And we all went and my parents and me and my sister and her kids and all that in 2003. So I think that's probably what kicked in again, that maybe I would write about this part of the country. And it didn't wind up happening for a few years. But yeah.
Sarah Enni Okay. Well I want to talk a little more about the characters and then come back. Because you talk about the washed up baseball player he had the Yips.
Linda Holmes Yes.
Sarah Enni Can you describe what that is?
Linda Holmes Okay, so the Yips, if you're not familiar with the Yips, the term originally was used more in golf. But now they use it for any sport. What happens is athletes, and it can happen to people who do other kind of fine motor movements, but it's best known with athletes. You just wake up one day and you cannot do the thing that you used to do and they do not know why. And very often it manifests. It's not one of those things where you used to be a great pitcher and then you just kind of lose your stuff a little bit. It'll be like you throw into the stands.
Linda Holmes The saddest [chuckles] one of the stories that I think is the most painfully funny, but also terrible, is Chuck Knoblauch who actually had played for the Minnesota twins. He's the second baseman. And then he went to the Yankees and he was playing second base and he completely lost the ability to just throw from second base to first base, just like a regular ordinary play. Like you can make in little league. He would throw it into the stands or he would throw it wildly past the first baseman. So that he couldn't just throw a normal throw. He wasn't trying to do a particularly hard thing and he could do other things, but he couldn't do that. And that's like the most important second baseman thing that you have to be able to do. And on one occasion he threw the ball into the stands and he hit Keith Olbermann's mother.
Sarah Enni [Guffaws]
Linda Holmes Now Keith Olbermann, if you're not familiar with sports casting, [is a] very familiar, very famous sportscaster. Now also a news commentator and things, but at the time,best known [as a] very famous sportscaster. [He] threw it into the stands, hit Olbermann's mother. That's bad luck. That just seems like a curse. And if you've ever watched somebody with the Yips, it's like they're cursed. It doesn't seem like it can be happening.
Linda Holmes And I think as a writer, I always really related to it cause I think writers have that same fear that, "What if I just get up and I'd never have another idea?" And so to me it was a kind of terrifying thing. What if you all of a sudden, cannot do the thing that you've done your whole life? So the Yips are this point of, as you can tell, this point of fascination for me. Cause they're terrifying.
Sarah Enni You wrote, it's on your website, it says, "It's so awful that I find it irresistibly compelling."
Linda Holmes Yes, that's exactly right. Because they continue to do research into it. And there are people who say, "Well, maybe there's some kind of trauma." And other people say, "Not really necessarily." Sometimes it just happens. Sometimes, some people think it's physical, neurological. There's one guy in one documentary that I watched who calls it a potentially career ending injury. They're not sure yet. They say yes, they say no, they say maybe, they're not sure. And meanwhile you just really, really have to hope it never happens to you.
Sarah Enni Yeah. That's so wild. And then the other character, I'm sorry, her name is?
Linda Holmes Evvie.
Sarah Enni Evvie is a young widow. Was that a part of the character from the beginning for you?
Linda Holmes Yes, actually this was originally in my head, two stories. It was originally a story of this young widow who had kind of complicated feelings about her marriage and [she] didn't know how much to explain to people. After someone has died, it's very difficult to be honest about what your marriage was like.
Linda Holmes And then I had this idea for the story about a baseball player who got the Yips. At some point it occurred to me that they were both sort of stuck. And they were both feeling a little bit busted in a way. And that it might be interesting to have them meet and become friends. And perhaps have some kind of relationship. But also just work through all this stuff. So it was originally two stories. But yes, the fact that she was a widow was always part of it. It was always part of the story that it complicated grief.
Sarah Enni Yeah. And that's part of what, when I was thinking about Maine as a setting for this, it does feel very secluded. Like a place where one might go to collect oneself.
Linda Holmes And she is somebody who grew up there. She's somebody who, this is where she comes from. He is somebody who lives in New York, lived in New York, played for the Yankees and leaves New York. Because when you are an incredibly famous washout, it is nice to get away from that. If you know anything that has ever happened to famously washed out athletes and people who have gotten the Yips, crowds and fans are not terribly sympathetic about it. Even if most are [pauses] a small number who aren't, will kind of ruin your life. So, he is there essentially to hide out. And because he is friends with the guy who is her best friend, her best friend comes to her and says, "I have this buddy. He just washed out of baseball. Can he come rent the apartment that you have in the back of your house?"
Sarah Enni I love that. So would you call the book a love story?
Linda Holmes I always call the book several love stories. Because it has a romantic love story. it also has a friendship love story. That friendship that she's in is very intense and important. It also has a story about her and her family, her parents, and her own history. So I think of it as several love stories. You can stretch it far enough to say it's also a little bit about how much he loves baseball and misses it, and wants to figure out how to deal with that loss.
Sarah Enni I was gonna say that's not to, I don't want to overstate it, but all of a sudden waking up and not being able to do that thing, especially when it's your livelihood, that is a kind of a death.
Linda Holmes Yes, they're both dealing with unusual grieving experiences that they're having trouble talking about. That's probably part of what makes them a compelling relationship to me.
Sarah Enni And it reminds me also of, and I'm just [sound of papers rustling] quoting you to you all day, but you had this really wonderful... you were writing about rom-coms I think, and you had this great quote that I'm going to read to you. "Love stories are best when the people exist outside of the relationship with each other. If the only things that have happened to you are One; having relationships and Two; not having relationships. How interesting can you really be? What have you been doing?" Which I loved.
Linda Holmes Yeah. I mean for me, you can't be a person who exists solely for the purpose of being in relationships. And if you think about your great romantic stories, a lot of times they do have other relationships that are meaningful. Whether it's relationships with parents, or relationships with friends, or work that's really important and meaningful to them. I think that sometimes people forget if you come into a love story with two people who have no lives except being in the love story, it's very hard to care about them because either they're in it or they're not in it. But you don't develop a kind of an attachment to a complete person.
Linda Holmes And so for me, that's one of the reasons why I really liked the fact that they also both had friendships, and they both had family relationships, and they both have friendships and family relationships that are complicated by their circumstances. So it was really important to me that even though the setting, as you said, kind of loans itself to seclusion a little bit, it was very important to me to not have it be just two people shut in a house, talking to each other. As much as I have kind of a fondness for those "Before Sunrise" kinds of just people talking. I wanted it to feel fuller than that.
Sarah Enni Yeah, there's room for fanfiction of that version of Evvie's story.
Linda Holmes For sure.
Sarah Enni want to ask about just telling love stories right now. You wrote a tweet recently, so it's not explicitly related to this book, but you have a two book deal. So there's a second book and you tweeted, "I was about to ask whether it was immoral for me to write a next book that would be really fun. And then I realized I'm watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine at the moment and really appreciating it."
Linda Holmes This is something that I've wrestled with a ton, right? Not just over writing novels, but in general talking about things I love. Talking about TV I love, talking about movies I love. Posting pictures of my dog. Because I never want to seem like an unserious person. And I never want to seem like a person who doesn't understand the stakes of what is going on in the world. At the same time, I don't think people are built to think constantly about disasters. I don't actually think that the human mind is well wired to be in a state of emergency all the time. So I think that when people are upset and they feel frightened, whether it's something out of politics or whether it's climate change, or whatever. I actually think that if you have things that you can step back [from] and take a breath, I think it actually helps you then recover enough to go on with what you're trying to do. That you feel is maybe higher stakes.
Linda Holmes And I've spent a lot of time thinking about, "But is it moral to be the person who provides the break as opposed to the person who is setting up the nonprofit or whatever." I don't know the answer to that. And I worry about it a lot. But for me, this is what I'm doing and I do think that there's some value. And I feel this way about Brooklyn-Nine-Nine too actually. It's good if the thing that you're escaping to is humane and diverse and supportive of a lot of different kinds of people, and is based around ideas that to me feel compassionate. Like, it's not a time when I would feel good about writing something that felt mostly mean, but funny. Maybe that's my compromise.
Sarah Enni Yeah. Well, I mean for a lot of people this question is sort of abstract, but you literally do your job in NPR.
Linda Holmes Right. Exactly.
Sarah Enni In Washington DC.
Linda Holmes Exactly. So I think I have come to terms, a long time ago, with the fact that if somebody comes to me and says, "I don't think what you do at NPR is as important as what other people do at NPR." My answer is pretty much like, "You're probably right.I agree with that." If you say, "I don't think you're contributing as much to the world as people who report on Syria or, immigration issues, or health." That's probably true. I don't know what the answer is to that. I'm not trained to do that kind of reporting. It's not something for which I've ever demonstrated any ability. So I think the thing for me is I don't really fight it. I have to try to be the best version of me and not the alternative person.
Linda Holmes But it's not important to me to be the most important. To be doing the most important work in the building or the world. It's important to me to be doing something that I feel good about and that I am good at.
Sarah Enni And at the same time you are in the building with people doing that work and you see that they are not that work all the time.
Linda Holmes Right. Exactly. And I do think that they, and audiences both, really value the opportunity to take a breath. And so there are times when we have people on the podcast who work in very, very hard news. We've joked with Audie Cornish about this all the time. She comes on the show and she will have been talking about war, war, war, and then she comes up and talks to us about something much lighter. Sometimes people need that, that breath.
Sarah Enni Right. Oh, and you had another thing where you wrote, I don't think it was you writing about your own book, but you coined the term "defiantly frivolous", which I loved.
Linda Holmes Mm-hm. Yeah. Yeah. I think that there are times you just have to be accepting of the fact that nothing is serious all the time
Sarah Enni Which is good.
Linda Holmes Yeah. I mean, I have made this comparison a couple of different times, but I have talked about Matt Damon in The Martian. In the Martian he, if you haven't seen the movie, he is stranded on Mars. Logically enough he's trying to get home to earth. And one of the things that he has to figure out how to do is grow potatoes on Mars. And that's actually one of the big things that they spend time on in the book and movie. And figuring out how to grow potatoes does not actually solve his problem. But he will not live long enough to solve his problem if he doesn't figure out how to grow potatoes.
Linda Holmes So I always tell people, you know, your books, your music, the things that you love are the potatoes that you need in order to keep going long enough to undertake whatever more vast and serious plans you may have.
Sarah Enni Yeah, I love that. That's really well said. I want to talk about this book and sort of your expectations for it. And then also what you are thinking about for the next book?
Linda Holmes Okay.
Sarah Enni You set out to write a book, a lifelong dream. Now you've done it. How are you feeling about it becoming a real thing in the world?
Linda Holmes I am feeling amazing about it becoming a real thing in the world. I am sure that between the time that I write it and the time that it goes out into the world, I will go through massive cycles of being extremely excited about it and extremely terrified. Right now I feel really happy. I think that my editing process was actually really easy and pleasurable. Not Everybody has fun being edited. I loved being edited. And I have so few expectations.
Linda Holmes I will say, I think one thing that's really helpful about having covered a lot of culture when you write a novel, is that I have seen so many things that are wonderful that just never get any traction. So in no way does that mean that I am prepared for the disappointment of nobody reads it... If that happens. But I understand, intellectually at least which is a start, that there are a million books that come across my desk. There are a million TV shows. There are a million films that people have poured their hearts into. That the most they ever get out of it is that the thing is good. And sometimes that has to be satisfying enough.
Sarah Enni Right. That's a very selfish question because my book is coming out in February, my first book, so I've been telling people that I'm like, "Intellectually I know where I'm at. And emotionally I'm not ready at all."
Linda Holmes No, I won't be either. I'm saying this with a good amount of advanced warning and as it gets closer, I'm sure that I will feel less this way. And the problem is occasionally things are gonna happen that are going to make me really optimistic and excited about externalities that I can't actually do anything about. Like, "Oh my gosh, what if a lot of people buy it?" That probably won't happen statistically. Even though I love the book. All that I really want is for a lot of people to love the book.
Linda Holmes That's my goal. That's what my aspiration is. And hopefully it's one of the reasons why I really like having a deal to write another one. One of the things that's great about that is, that doesn't have to be what the stakes are. The stakes don't have to be, "I hope this isn't the only time I ever get to do this."
Sarah Enni Right. Yeah, that's huge. That's really huge. And have you been thinking about you, Linda Holmes, NPR, Pop Culture Happy Hour versus Linda Holmes, the author. How much do you think those people are going to...?
Linda Holmes Great question. Don't know. I've talked to a couple people about the fact that this book had come out. This book could come out and not change my life that much. It will be exactly like my freelancing was when I was an attorney and then it will be a separate thing.
Linda Holmes It will add enormously to my life. It will not change my life that much and it will be essentially like it is now. It will be another thing I'm doing. There's always the possibility that it will change my life more than that. But there is just so much that is so far out of my control that I just don't know. I mean, could I someday be so fascinated by the idea of fiction that I don't want to do this anymore? I suppose in theory. But that is not the goal and I was lucky in that regard. I think that's another way in which I was really lucky about stakes was that the stakes were never like, "I hope to quit my job."
Sarah Enni Yeah. That's such a good point. And if you're quote unquote worst case scenario is that your life continues on pretty much as it is.
Linda Holmes Exactly.
Sarah Enni And you feel completely happy about that. That's the best place to be.
Linda Holmes And of course, that's not true. Because the worst case scenario is that nobody likes it and nobody reads it and somebody says something devastating who I really respect and it makes me feel terrible. Those things are all completely within range, but I did not go into this thinking, "I want to become a person who writes novels and I want to quit my job." Because honestly, when people write to me, which they sometimes do, and say, "I'm a lawyer and I want to quit my job and become a writer." One of the things that I tell them is you can't do it that way. You can't quit your job and become a writer. You have to become a writer and then maybe someday you can quit your job.
Linda Holmes So if you really want to do something, you have to just go do it. And it has to be okay however it turns out. And that's how I started writing about television. And that's how I started writing fiction. So I'm lucky in that regard because if my life stays the same, and I keep my same job, and I keep doing this on the side, that's fine. If something else happens, which I can't imagine what it would be, but if it did, that's also fine.
Sarah Enni So then how are... second books are notoriously difficult. And you, it sounds like ,we're stewing on this first book for quite some time and letting it coalesce. So how have you been approaching thinking about the next?
Linda Holmes I mean, it probably is not gonna work for me to take another 10 years to write another one, given contractual obligations. But, I think the big question is to what degree do you want to do something really different? And to what degree do you want to continue to do what you're good at? I think about this a lot.
Linda Holmes I have ideas. I have things that I'm thinking about and perhaps they will come together quickly once I settle on something. There's definitely a feeling of maybe I want to write something that, particularly something that contains no love story because I don't want people to necessarily think that that's the entire... and that has nothing to do with the identity of writing romance. That has to do with me not wanting to narrow what I get to do. But there are also parts of me that think I really enjoyed writing this book. Maybe I should write a book that has similar elements cause I feel like it went well and I feel like I was good at writing this kind of book. It's really difficult. This is all just me thinking completely out loud because this is exactly what I'm spending a lot of time on right now.
Sarah Enni So when you wrapped it or sold this project, you didn't have necessarily five other ideas swimming around?
Linda Holmes I did. And I talked about them with the editor who bought the books. I don't know for sure whether those will be what I actually go with. They are among the ideas that are still kicking around. I don't know whether any of those will be what I go with. It's funny, sometimes you have an idea and it sounds like something you would write, and then with the experience of having sold and edited another one, you might think differently about what you want to write.
Sarah Enni Yeah. Or then you kind of get weighed into it and you're like, "Oh no, no, no."
Linda Holmes Yeah, that's the other thing. As with this one, it was so much a part of the creation of this book, that I became in love with it as I wrote it. And I would hope to have that experience. You know, like I said, I don't want to mess around for another 10 years. I want to write it faster than that. But I want to have that same experience of starting to write it and not being able to stop. Which is sort of what happened with this one once it got to a certain point.
Sarah Enni That feeling of not wanting to abandon your characters to their adverse circumstances. That's a pretty lovely feeling to care that much about your characters.
Linda Holmes Yeah.
Sarah Enni Well that's awesome. Was there anything else about the book that you wanted to make sure we got to?
Linda Holmes I don't think so. Like I said, it's been a really good experience. I was really lucky.
Sarah Enni Do you mind telling us a little about how you found your agent?
Linda Holmes So, my agent is actually somebody who was recommended to me years ago when I was fussing around with the idea of writing books. And somebody said, "Oh, you should get in touch with Sarah Burns. I think you'd really like her." I didn't pursue it at that time. And then this time I was fortunate, obviously, because I had a platform existing. It was easier for me to get an agent, there's no question, than if I hadn't. But I spoke on the phone with several possible agents and I have to tell you I had nothing but great choices. I was spoiled in the sense that I had nothing but good choices.
Linda Holmes But eventually, I think an agent is somebody where you go with the person that you want to, that you feel like you can stand to be on the phone with all the time. Just because you feel like you're gonna have to deal with them a lot. You want to feel like this is somebody that you will always be happy to hear from. Not that the other ones wouldn't have been. It's also just a thing where you just have to jump, you just have to pick somebody.
Linda Holmes And one of the things that was really... I talked to some other people who write novels and I kind of said, "Should I be thinking about an agent super strategically?" Like, "Cause it's the person who's got the exact right kind of... " And, almost everyone's [response was] exactly the same thing, which was, "No, pick somebody that you like. Pick somebody that you feel really comfortable with. That you feel gets you and gets the book. Don't worry too much about the business positioning." And that's what I did.
Sarah Enni Yeah. It's a gut thing.
Linda Holmes It really is. It really is.
Sarah Enni And in a lot of good cases, it's because people said, I just went with my gut.
Linda Holmes Yeah. That's exactly what it was. And it was in a way refreshing that I had no idea what I was doing. I had basically finished writing the first draft and then I went to people I knew who wrote novels and I said, "What am I supposed to do?" And you know, there were a couple of agents. The agent I ultimately went with, actually wasn't one of them, but there are a couple of agents who had emailed me over the years and said, "If you're ever thinking about writing a book..." So I had it easier than a lot of people do.
Linda Holmes But I think the process in some ways is similar, which is that you just have to find somebody who's first willing to consider it. Then you have to find somebody who's willing to read it. And then you have to find somebody who likes you. And then you have to find somebody that you like.
Sarah Enni It's the same process we all go through in some way, shape or form.
Linda Holmes And if you do, honestly, it will save you so much heartache because you will not have to do all the things that make you feel mean. Someone else will do them for you.
Sarah Enni Yes, it's very true. It's a big selling point for agents. So this has been amazing! Thank you so much. I like to wrap up with advice. So I would love to hear advice for writers. But I'd also love to hear your advice for people who are writing things like you do for your day job for a critical critique.
Linda Holmes I think the most important thing is to write things that you would want to read. Now that is sometimes controversial because when you're writing for money you have to write for the people that you're writing for. And I understand that. But I think within that, within those parameters, make sure that you are writing something that you would want to read. Because if you are trying to do it for any kind of personal satisfaction or anything like that, and I am sympathetic to people who say "I'm writing manuals and I don't care." But if you're writing from personal satisfaction, write something you'd want to read. Cause I think you can always tell when people aren't doing that.
Linda Holmes Don't try to write a novel that you think is what the current market for novels is. Unless you can do that in a way that is also a novel that you would read. I wrote a novel that I would read, absolutely did. And I think that is one of the reasons why I like it. And I think it is one of the reasons other people like it. I wrote something that I really care about and wanted to be good. So I would recommend that.
Linda Holmes And I would also recommend if you're writing criticism, read a lot of criticism. Read a lot of different kinds of critics and don't fall into the trap of trying to draw attention to your writing by reaching for contrarian takes. I think there's a lot of that going around. Some things are just mostly good and there's nothing wrong. There's nothing wrong with being the person who says, "Hey, everybody likes this thing. Here's my problem with it." But make sure that that comes from... that that goes in the right order, which is, "This is my opinion. It might be interesting if I published it." As opposed to, "What would be an interesting opinion to publish? Wouldn't it be interesting if I hated Mr. Rogers?" Like, no, it actually isn't that interesting unless you really do, and you can make a case for it. But again, I think people can usually tell when you're just...
Sarah Enni Just going for a hot take?
Linda Holmes Yeah. Yeah.
Sarah Enni Well this has been such a joy. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.
Linda Holmes Of course. Thank you.
[background music plays]
SUBSCRIBE TO FIRST DRAFT WITH SARAH ENNI
Every Tuesday, I speak to storytellers like Veronica Roth, author of Divergent, Michael Dante DiMartino, co-creator of Avatar: The Last Airbender, or John August, screenwriter of Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Together, we take deep dives on their careers and creative works.
RATE, REVIEW, AND RECOMMEND
How do you like the show?
Please take a moment to rate and review First Draft with Sarah Enni in Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Your honest and positive review helps others discover the show -- so thank you!
Is there someone you think would love this podcast as much as you do?
Please share this episode on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or via carrier pigeon (maybe try a text or e-mail, come to think of it). Just click the Share button at the bottom of this post!