Linda Holmes’ has a homerun with debut novel about honesty, second chances and baseball
The title character of Evvie Drake Starts Over has been carrying around a heavy secret. She didn’t love her husband, a hometown golden boy turned revered hometown doctor, who was killed in a car crash. On the day of the accident, she was finally, clandestinely leaving him. Forced to play the grieving widow at age 33, Evvie can’t bring herself to be honest with even those closest to her and it just about paralyzes her.
Dean, a famous New York Yankees pitcher humiliated that he inexplicably has lost his ability to throw—suffering a case of the “yips” in baseball lingo—comes to Evvie’s unnamed Midcoast Maine town to lie low and attempt to get his life back.
Author Linda Holmes, co-host of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, endows Evvie and Dean with witty and sharp dialogue that gives them a fine chemistry. But love alone isn’t enough for these two heavily-baggaged people to live happily after. Starting over in the face of human hangups (and very recognizable relationship realities) isn’t easy.
Holmes, 48, lives in Washington D.C., but spent a few summers as a child on Spruce Head in Penobscot Bay, “got to know” Rockland and then returned as an adult. That’s when she started thinking about setting a story here.
“I always like stories that take place somewhere particular, with the jobs and weather and sounds of that place,” she says. “In this case, it also gave me an opportunity to explore the idea of what a home is and what feeling at home is.”
She ended up writing a lot of the book at the Camden Public Library.
Sharp, smart and real, Evvie Drake Starts Over is a definite for your summer reading list. Holmes talked to MWM about the challenges of living in small communities, male-female friendships and the yips as a metaphor.
Q: How did the character of Evvie and her circumstances present herself to you?
A: What came to me first was the idea of complicated grief. I imagined what it would be like to be at someone’s funeral when you didn’t love them as much as people thought you did, which is an experience I think a lot of people have had. The image of people taking her by the elbow to comfort her existed in every version of the story.
Q: How does the sense of place in Evvie Drake add to the novel?
A: Part of what the book is about is a community that’s incredibly loving in a way that can be both wonderful and difficult. Evvie is in this place where people know her, where they care about her and have known her all her life. But that makes the weight of keeping secrets from them much heavier.
Q: Evvie says she’s on “Evvie Drake, take three” and both she and Dean eventually make new and different lives for themselves. What is your personal experience with “re-doing” yourself?
A: I’m a career-changer. I went to law school, but then I quit my law career when I was 36 to go into writing cultural criticism. A few months before I turned 40, I started a podcast, and that’s been a huge part of my life ever since. And now I’m writing fiction. It’s a pretty defining characteristic of mine, I think, that I need to be able to do new things regularly. I need that sense that I’m conquering a new challenge.
Q: Evvie’s best friend, Andy, is male, and changes in their relationship weigh on Evvie. Were you trying to say anything in particular about male-female friendships?
A: I think male-female friendships among straight people are a weirdly unexplored universe. They exist all over my life and my friends’ lives, and yet you still get people having these silly conversations in popular culture about whether they’re possible. Of course they’re possible! Most people you know probably have them, if they think about it. Are they precisely like same-sex friendships for heterosexual people? No, they’re not precisely the same. But does that mean they’re fraught with conflicting sexy feelings? It does not. And I really wanted to write that story. All friendships, I think, have those moments of tension where one friend gets into a new relationship and somebody feels a little left behind. And I think those moments are a little more fraught, because it looks a lot like what romantic jealousy would look like, even though that’s not what it is. I really wanted to spend some time with that, as a source of conflict.
Q: You’ve said your book is about “love, friendship, guilt, grief and baseball.” What was it about baseball that made you want to include it?
A: I became totally fascinated by the yips after I saw Mackey Sasser, who used to be a catcher for the Mets, totally lose the ability to make throws back to the pitcher. Just the toss back, after the pitch. He couldn’t do it. He would struggle to make himself take the ball out of his glove. It was one of the strangest things I ever saw, and one of the scariest. It was so awful that it was so compelling that it was irresistible to me. I think it’s a great metaphor for what to do when all of a sudden, your plans just collapse. Which is a little bit what happened to Evvie, too, so it seemed like they belonged in a story together. I also just love baseball, honestly.
Q: How did your podcast work have an impact on your writing and the novel in general?
A: The podcast made me more aware of how particular my tastes are. It made me better at sussing out what bothered me about things, because when you’re in a four-way conversation like we have on our show, it makes you concentrate on respecting the opinions of all the people who are there and yet sticking to your guns if there’s disagreement. Chewing over culture with people you respect is a great exercise for lots of reasons.
Q: Anything else you’d like your readers to know about the book?
A: I started it in 2012 as a National Novel Writing Month project, and I got about three days into the month and had written maybe 15 pages, and then there was a flood in my apartment. I had to move out, and everything came to a stop. But I had those 15 pages, and after that, I chipped away at it whenever I could, and I probably had about a third of it done when I finally got more focused on it in the fall of 2016. So I really encourage writers: if there’s a book that won’t leave you alone, don’t be afraid to pick it up whenever you feel the urge, even if it seems like you’re getting nowhere. Because by definition, as long as you’re writing, you’re getting somewhere.
Amy Canfield is deputy editor of Maine Women Magazine and managing editor of two weekly newspapers.