I couldn't finish Linda Holmes' debut novel Evvie Drake Starts Over, out June 25. Rather, I wouldn't finish it. When the time came for the final chapter, I put the book down and avoided it for days. Frankly, I wasn't ready to leave Evvie Drake, Dean Tenney, and the rest of Holmes' lovable characters.
With Evvie Drake Starts Over, Holmes, a longtime cultural critic and host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, wrote the kind of near-living book I wished I could slip into forever. Through the pages, I could almost make out a charming coastal Maine town where everyone has the radiant warmth of Sookie in Gilmore Girls, a Hufflepuff streak, and an arsenal of sharp pop culture references. And in this town, two people who aren't looking for a relationship end up finding each other. Evvie Drake is a young widow with a secret: She doesn't miss her husband, who had been controlling and emotionally abusive. Dean Tenney is a professional pitcher with a problem: He can no longer throw a ball (it's called the yips). Escaping the taunts of fans in New York, Dean moves to the town where his childhood best friend, Andy, lives, and moves into Evvie's spare room.
Maybe you can see where things go from there. But the title, Evvie Drake Starts Over, is a constant reminder that Evvie, and the gradual rebuilding of her sense of self, is the real triumph of the novel.
We spoke to Holmes about being a critic and a creator, the yips (both for writing and baseball), and choosing to write at what sometimes feels like the end of the world.
Refinery29: I’ve been eagerly awaiting your book ever since you started talking about it on Pop Culture Happy Hour. What made you share your writing journey on the radio?
Linda Holmes: "We make resolutions every year on the show. It pushes you to think about what you’re willing to commit to for a year. I was at a point where I had written just enough [of the novel] that I felt like I was on a pretty good roll. I thought, I’m going to go ahead and admit to publicly finishing a book, because that way I will have admitted it to myself that it was important to have finished it. It’s less about wanting other people to be keeping me accountable. It’s more admitting to myself that for many years I’ve been noodling around with different ideas, but I’m actually going to commit to finishing this. It was very helpful to have that forum to plant that flag and say, Yes, I admit that I want to do this.”
And you knew there’d be next year’s resolution episode, when you’d have to look back and see how you'd done.
"Absolutely. I didn't think about that aspect too much until I had actually finished the book, and I thought, Oh man, that’s going to be so awesome. I’m going to feel so great. And I did!"
What about Evvie Drake gave you the follow-through versus the other ideas?
"It was the right time for me to work on it. I had enough security in my job, and I had addressed some depression and anxiety that I think made it hard for me to concentrate for long periods on demanding projects with little structure. So I really wanted to write something that I'd want to read. I think that's is a manageable goal for a first novel: Write the thing that you’d really love most to read. With Evvie Drake, I was like, ‘Oh, I would read this book. If someone was writing this book, I would read this book.'”
The book is just as much about Dean and Evvie's personal developments as their romance. How did you balance those strands?
"It was interesting. This book started off as two different stories. At some point I realized there were parts of their stories that were in dialogue with each other, as far as feeling like everything you thought was going to happen turned out not to be what happened. It really helped that I was deeply invested in both of them as individual stories before the idea of having them be with each other showed up."
What inspired Evvie and Dean?
"At some point when I was reading about grief, it occurred to me what it must be like to be grieving publicly for someone you had a complicated relationship with. That's how I got to the young widow story. The baseball story comes from players who got the yips, and it ended their careers. It’s fascinating to think about what it must be like to not be able to do the thing that you do anymore. As a writer, I profoundly relate to that. What if I wake up tomorrow, and I never have another idea? It feels magical to have a good idea come to you. It can also feel terrible to think that you might just lose it at some point."
Speaking of things not happening the way you thought they might — I know you started your career as a lawyer, then became a critic. Did you imagine becoming a novelist would be part of your path?
"I always wanted to write stories, even when I was little. Did I actually think a novel was going to happen? Absolutely not. It was something I thought would be a little hobby thing that I did in my free time. Something I shared with friends or closed groups of people. I didn’t expect this to actually happen until three or four years ago."
I think that's is a manageable goal for a first novel: Write the thing that you’d really love most to read.
As a critic, you're always talking about art. Has creating art changed your relationship to criticism? Are you more hesitant to give a total pan?
"I have been. One thing that people misunderstand about critics is that they think since you’re a critic, then you don't know what it’s like to have your work criticized. That’s absolutely not true. I’ve been writing on the internet professionally since 2001, and I've been called just about everything you can think of. I’ve been through all of those critiques. It’s definitely hard. I don’t seek it out — I don’t Google myself. As a critic, I always try to be talking about the product and not the person. That’s still what my rule is.
"What it's has taught me is that I do think that writing fiction will sharpen your eye for some of the mechanics for writing stories. It’s not so much that it’s changed my relationship to criticism so much as it’s taught me additional things about fiction that I use when I write about any fictional project, whether it’s a book or a movie or a TV show."
That’s good advice. All critics should become novelists!
"It’s a helpful thing. Having people criticize your stuff is really hard. That’s the way it goes. As long as it’s not super personal and people aren’t seeking me out personally, which are not things I do as a critic. It is part of what the creative business is."
I often find that pop culture, like your book, is a balm given how tumultuous the world is. How do you negotiate consuming a lot of pop culture with being a conscientious citizen? Is that something you grapple with?
"I grapple with a lot. But not publicly, too much — like most journalism organizations, NPR asks you to keep your political thinking to yourself. I do worry about the state of the world, but I don’t see that as necessarily in conflict with my job anymore than with anyone else’s. Most people go off and spend a good part of the day taking care of what their business of the day is. I’m like that too, even if my business of the day happens to be going to a film and writing about it. It’s unavoidable that you spend some time taking in culture that’s pleasurable to you. I never want to be someone who isn’t thinking about what’s going on in the world. But I also never want to be someone who doesn’t understand that art, culture, and things like that remain important no matter what else is going on in the world as you worry about it."