|photo: Tim Coburn
Linda Holmes is the host of National Public Radio's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast and has many years' experience writing about books, movies and TV shows for NPR and, previously, for TV Guide, New York magazine and the website Television Without Pity. Her debut novel, Evvie Drake Starts Over (Ballantine Books, $26; reviewed below), is the warm, witty and thoughtful story of a young woman in Maine who suddenly loses her husband and of a professional baseball player who misplaces his mojo.
First novels are often partially autobiographical. Does Evvie share some characteristics with you?
Biographically, almost not at all, but she does have a best friend who's a man, which I also do. I think that every character an author writes has elements of things that she spends time thinking about. In Evvie's case, she thinks about what it means to be the person people expect you to be versus the person you feel you really are. I have elements of that, as probably a lot of people do. She has a little bit of anxiety about her future, which I certainly have had at times. And she has a fondness for being with other people but only so much--that I also have. I love being with my friends and family, but I can also be a bit introverted, so I relate to her desire to retreat sometimes and get some peace to think.
One of the main characters in your novel, Dean, is a professional baseball player. Why did you choose that profession for Dean?
I watched a lot of baseball growing up, and my nephews play a lot of Little League, so I am kind of a baseball person. I have also been fascinated by struggling athletes who lose the ability to do the things that they've always been able to do. Both of the main characters in this book are trying to figure out, "This is what I thought my life was going to be like, and it's now going to be abruptly different." It seemed like it was going to be a suitable match of very different situations that nevertheless have some things in common.
In a typical romcom, one of the main characters saves the other in some way. Without any spoilers, both Evvie and Dean have to work individually to heal themselves. Why did you decide on this less common approach?
I love romcoms, but I have always wanted to take that kind of story and change certain things about it. As you mentioned, very often, romcoms feature someone with a lot of problems, and a person comes into their life and repairs the problems. In the cases of both of the main characters in my novel, it's a little bit different. He's got a very concrete issue with his pitching arm, and she's feeling, "I like this person, and I want to help." He's feeling a compassionate sense that he would love to be helpful to her because he's trying to figure out what's going on with her. I particularly don't like a story where it seems to me that the problem is something that needs addressing through mental health treatment, and it turns out to be treatable by meeting a new boyfriend or girlfriend. I wanted to make a book that did not do that.
I loved the humor and lightness in your novel, but it also deals with some serious issues, like emotional abuse and living up to others' expectations. How did you find the right balance between gravity and wit?
Even in very sad stories, there is an opportunity for funny things to happen, whether it's because of a sort of gallows humor or just because, as in this story, even people who are going through difficult things are still looking for those moments of joy. In terms of writing the book, I love and could write that kind of witty romcom banter back and forth all day long. As long as I took care of the more serious elements of the story, I felt like when I put those characters in a room and they talked to each other, you got the lightness and the humor of how much they enjoy each other.
Most of your career has been focused on writing nonfiction, particularly reviews and articles about pop culture. What made you decide to give fiction a try?
I have always, since I was a little kid, wanted to write stories. I dabbled in it in various ways. I was too afraid to take it seriously, so I always had little beginnings of stories, ideas that I was nursing along, but I never got anywhere with them. This was a story that I found hard to just throw away. I would pick it up and put it down, pick it up and put it down. And eventually, in late 2016, when the election cycle was preoccupying, I needed other things besides politics, which can get overwhelming, so I decided to pick it up again. Eventually, I found the time and concentration to actually get somewhere with this story after all this time of sitting with it and thinking about it.
What do you hope readers take away from Evvie Drake Starts Over?
It is meant to be a love story--several love stories, including a romantic story and a friendship story and a family story--and I want them to be love stories that don't require anybody to be fixed or changed or to necessarily keep all relationships the same forever. I want them to be love stories that tolerate the imperfect ways that people and circumstances change and you ultimately just have to find a way to not feel broken. I hope people will take away from the book my conviction that that is possible, even when it feels very unlikely. --Suzan L. Jackson, freelance writer and author of Book by Book blog