The truth: Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne’s debut novel, Holding On To Nothing, made me cry. Not many novels have this effect on me and so it is no exaggeration when I say that her beautiful, tragic characters sucked me in and left me reeling as if they were real flesh and blood. On the surface, Holding On To Nothing is the simple love story of Lucy and Jeptha, but the beauty behind the writing is that Shelburne shows no love story is simple. She lays bare Lucy and Jeptha’s complexities and mistakes in a way that reveals the oversized role loneliness and fear play can play in any life.
When the book opens, Lucy and Jeptha are living a ‘country’ life in Tennessee. Both in their early twenties, Lucy is on her way to Knoxville where she plans to work her way through college. Jeptha is a drunk who’s been in love with her for as long as he can remember. Too much alcohol leads to a string of bad decisions, culminating in a pregnancy that neither of them foresaw or can afford. Both characters have their flaws, but they also have beautiful hearts and they try to make it work, only neither can seem to get out of their own way—and they know it. That’s where Lucy, in particular, shines, and that is what I loved most about the book. While hindsight pushes most of us to polish our bad decisions and make them look better than they were, Lucy doesn’t. She doesn’t balk at her mistakes or try to retell what happened in a better light. She faces life with an unflinching stare and strength that made me adore her.
This book will haunt you when you’re done. It will make you question your own decisions and loves, your mistakes and heartbreaks and this is why we read—to face what scares us. I was thrilled when Elizabeth agreed to this interview, so let’s get to the good stuff.
Elizabeth, let’s start by talking about my favorite character: Lucy. She makes one big mistake—with Jeptha, and ends up pregnant. She owns the consequences, does everything she can to deal with the fall out. In this sense, she’s strong. But at the same time, she might have decided to try to make a family because she missed hers so desperately. And she gave up her dream, changed course all to try to mold herself and her life around Jeptha. What were you thinking when you created her with these dichotomies?
That is a great question! I think Lucy is a really strong character who is a victim of her place, time and circumstances. While getting an abortion would have allowed her to continue on her path, it just isn’t something she would do. (And I continue to be interested in the regional split—readers up North often question her decision, whereas my Southern readers reason, “Of course she wouldn’t.”) I wasn’t thinking of her as someone who molded herself to Jeptha, but to her circumstances. I think she so desperately misses her family that the baby feels like a home to her (“nothing cobbled” as I say in the book) and Jeptha, in his best moments, feels like maybe he can also be a part of that. Her longing for that family, for that sense of belonging, is so fierce that she makes decisions that in retrospect are awful, but in the moment, feel right.
Would you call her a feminist? A modern woman?
There is a moment near the end of the book when she makes a momentous decision that prioritizes herself and her son. She becomes a feminist in that moment. She’s no longer a little sparrow and is no longer willing to be broken.
****SPOILER ALERT **** Let’s push that further. Do you think she was angry that she gave up her dream to go to Knoxville earlier, that she waited and tried to make things work with Jeptha?
I’m not sure she was angry. In the moment, she was angry that she tried so long with Jeptha, that she didn’t listen to LouEllen. But she comes to her decision and feels solid about it, but she wants to say good because she does have some love for Jeptha. She wants to close out that chapter.
But is she thinking about feminism?
No. I don’t think she’s thinking of herself as a feminist. In that moment, she wouldn’t use those words. In a few years maybe she would come to see it that way, but not now.
Sticking to this question of feminism, you wrote Dolly Parton into the book. (I love that!) Lucy is a fan and she thinks to herself, “Dolly Parton was mountain, not just country, and she sang about to people all over the world who might not otherwise give a damn.” Can you talk about what that meant to Lucy?
Everything. And to me too! For all the focus on MAGA and politics, Southern Appalachia is really under-represented or not represented accurately in the media and in fiction. Dolly tells the story of our region and of her life in a way that makes people care. And she has never, not for a minute, forgotten from whence she came. She distributes 1.4 million (!) books a month all over the world through her Imagination Library, which started in East Tennessee, gave money to those affected by the fires in Gatlinburg, and shines a light on many of the problems and the positives of that region, while also not being afraid to call out people’s prejudices. And, she’s funny as hell. I could go on and on, but suffice to say that Dolly Parton is a national treasure. In East Tennessee, to say otherwise? Them’s fighting words, as we say.
Let’s move on to LouEllen, the woman who took Lucy in when her parents died. You wrote, “She (Lucy) would always be grateful to LouEllen for taking her in, but sometimes, she wanted to tell her to get the hell out of her life.” Why did Lucy struggle with this love/ hate for LouEllen?
They very much have a teenage daughter-mother relationship, but they didn’t get to have any of that time of pure love and joy from birth to 12. So they just have the hard stuff. Can you imagine parenting your kids, but you only really knew them from 13 on, after they’d just suffered a devastating loss? They dearly love each other, but that’s an extremely tough row to hoe. I love LouEllen and think her character is really complex and knotty, but I think she’d be a challenging person to live with. In the good moments, she’d blow you away with her heart and love and loyalty. But in the bad? Well, she’d blow you away then too, just not in a good way.
I hadn’t thought of it that way—that LouEllen is parenting without any of the good stuff that comes in the first 12 years. I love that. Let’s talk about it more because I read LouEllen as a hard character, with something sinister about her. Maybe it’s that she’s mourning the loss of the first 12 years?
Yes. What’s not on the page is that LouEllen and Alice (Lucy’a mom) had a complicated relationship. Lucy’s mom had what LouEllen wanted but didn’t get. And LouEllen made a complicated peace with that. When she got what she’d always wanted, a daughter, it was the hardest version of it. So it’s not sinister, but it’s complicated.
I hear you have a real soft spot for her—that I didn’t get when I read the book. What do you think is going on?
That’s interesting. I never envisioned her as hard or mean but maybe it’s because in earlier drafts she played a slightly different role. And it’s funny, the things you think about your characters, once they are released onto the page and then into people’s minds, what people make of them is sometimes different than what your vision of them is.
It’s like when you talk to someone and they’re gruff and mean you might think they’re a horrible person but it might turn out they’re just having a bad day. We just don’t know the entirety of people. For the author, for me, I know this whole backstory of LouEllen. But it’s not on the page because it didn’t need to be. And that’s probably why I have a different love for her.
And Jeptha. We have to talk about him. You wrote, “He didn’t want to be this kind of man anymore. But he didn’t know how to be any other kind.” This was a constant refrain for him. Why was it so hard to Jeptha to change? Before the final tragedy (I don’t want to add in any spoilers) did he actually ever want to change?
From the first moment when Jeptha plays the set of his life and sees Lucy looking at him like he’s something special, he always wants to change. He loves Lucy deeply. But, he’s an alcoholic. They can try like hell to change, but it’s just not always possible. Not to mention that he doesn’t have the resources available to get the help he needs. It takes a real tragedy for Jeptha to get out of his own way.
Last content question. Judy, the woman who owned the bar, was one of my favorite characters. Her sass and wisdom were outstanding. At one point she tells Lucy, “People who had the worst things happen in their lives rarely shared them—they stayed on the periphery of the crowd, got along well enough with everyone, but rarely divulged anything about themselves. It was the ones yelling about themselves on the bar stools that hadn’t really experienced anything terribly profound.” I love this insight. Why did you include it?
That’s a darling of mine, for sure, and one I’m glad didn’t die! I was going through some hard stuff at one point before I started writing this book and would sometimes wind up at a dive bar called The Cantab Lounge near my apartment at the time. There was a bartender there, whom Judy is named after, who was gruff as hell to the loudmouth assholes complaining about whatever, but dearly kind to those whom she could see were actually struggling. I watched her a lot as I sat there drinking and wanted to pay tribute to the wisdom that I imagined she had earned through a lifetime of tending bar.
OK, switching gears, I’d love to hear a little bit about the craft of writing this gorgeous novel. Elizabeth, did you write with an outline? What was your process?
I believe I will keel over dead on the day I finish an outline. I’ve started many but I’m not sure I’ve finished any! I am a total pantser, and very much depend on the characters to fly the plane. In this book, I knew that Jeptha and Lucy would get together and I knew the climax, but everything else was a surprise. And, in fact, most of what is in the book now wasn’t even on the page in the original draft, which was about Lucy moving up to Cambridge, towing around this tragedy in her past.
Cambridge? I can’t imagine that.
Yes. The original draft was Lucy’s life in three parts and it just didn’t work. My amazing Novel Incubator class and instructors helped me realize that the actual story was what had happened in Tennessee and helped me see that Jeptha needed to be a POV character. Thank God for that!
For us writers out there, can you help us understand why you moved everything to Tennessee? Is there a larger craft lesson there?
That’s a good question. For me, I learned I was scared to write solely about Tennessee. I started this book so many years ago, and when I started I wrote a semi-autobiographical Lucy. Like me, she’d just moved to Cambridge and was trying to process it all. And that’s pretty common, starting with a character who is close to yourself. I’m glad I didn’t send the book out at the point.
The lesson for me was, if you’re feeling some fear about writing a story or setting it in a certain place, location jumping might actually be about being afraid to dig in on the important part. And that was what I needed to do.
I know that getting Holding On To Nothing published was a roller coaster ride that included years of hard work. I am so glad you never gave up. Can you tell us about it? Offer advice for other authors still trying to get their manuscripts published?
I was about to give up, so thank you for saying that! I started this book many, many years ago, long before my first child, who is now 8, was born. So it took me a LONG time to write (a situation I’ll partly ascribe to having four children in just under six years). I was new to novel writing and, for much of that time, I was on my own. I didn’t have a class or a writers group. I got into Novel Incubator, which helped me to see some of the biggest issues with the story, but I had three more kids before I finished it, so it took a while. So, some advice from that stage of the journey: get yourself some writer friends, let them read your work and read theirs, and figure out how to make it all better. And a second piece is: find characters whom you can’t forget. I’d take months off from writing when I had each kid, and eventually, I’d find myself wondering what Jeptha would do in a certain situation or what Lucy would say about something that happened. They were the voices in my head, so it was never a question of if I would go back to them during those long interruptions, but when.
Just before my fourth kid was born, because impending birth makes a great deadline, I sent out the first 20 pages to a bunch of agents who had expressed an interest during a short-lived Tinder for Agents and Writers of the Incubator at Grub Street’s Muse & the Marketplace. I was so grateful to get a lot of requests for full manuscripts, which was amazing. I had two offers and another agent who was going back and forth, and when she dropped out for personal reasons, I chose the agent who was the most enthusiastic about the book, Ann Collette at Rees Literary. She just loved it and I felt like her passion was what I and the book needed in an agent. And a good thing too, because Ann submitted it with high hopes in July of 2017, but it didn’t sell in the first round, or the second, or the third. We got some great rejections, but after I got one that read “great characters, wonderful writing, love the setting—too dark” and another that read “great characters, wonderful writing, love the setting—not dark enough,” I checked out of the process and wrote 75,000 words of book two. I was about to chuck this book, try to sell book #2 as my first novel and maybe see if we could sell this one on the back end, when the book landed with Robin Muira at Blair. She read it in a weekend in January of 2019, called my agent as soon as she was done, and has loved it every minute since. The book truly couldn’t have found a better home.
What was the biggest change you made while editing?
Two things: Bringing in Jeptha’s POV and shifting the whole story to Tennessee. Jeptha wasn’t a point-of-view character until maybe the fourth or fifth drafts. Bringing in his voice really unlocked the story, which I realize now I was a little afraid to tell. There was absolutely no reason that Lucy would wind up in Cambridge, I see now—beyond me wanting to work out my own mess in my head. I’m so glad I made both those changes.
Finally, let’s get personal. What are you reading now? What books do you recommend?
You know I’m always going to recommend your book A Bend in the Stars, because I love it so much! And Kelly J. Ford’s Cottonmouths. And Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a forever favorite. I’m reading Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey for an essay I’m working on and Sugar Run by Mesha Maren, which features gorgeous language, a compelling story and an increasing sense of unease due to a mountain of bad decisions on the part of each character.
About Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne: Elizabeth grew up reading, writing, and shooting in East Tennessee. After graduating from Amherst College, she worked at The Atlantic Monthly. Her nonfiction work has been published in The Atlantic Monthly, Boston Globe, and Globalpost, among others and her short fiction has appeared in The Broad River Review and Barren Magazine. Her essay on how killing a deer made her a feminist was published in Click! When We Knew We Were Feminists, edited by Courtney E. Martin and J. Courtney Sullivan. She is a graduate of Grub Street’s Novel Incubator. She lives outside Boston with her husband and four children.