The Best New Writers
The Daily Beast continues its series highlighting debut writers to watch. Taylor Antrim talks to Jenny Hollowell about her much-anticipated first novel and her Jehovah's Witness childhood.
As a young Jehovah’s Witness growing up in suburban Virginia, Jenny Hollowell, author of this summer’s breakout debut novel Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe, expected the world to end. “I spent all of my free time evangelizing. When other kids woke up on Saturday morning to watch cartoons I was getting into my dress and going door to door and preaching.” Her devoutly religious parents didn’t associate with non-Witnesses and forbade their daughter from extracurricular activities or sports after school. College was frowned upon. “College was worldly,” Hollowell says. “It wasn’t done. And what was the point? If you were preaching about the end of everything—why bother?”
And she believed—especially as a young girl. She expected to keep herself pure, spread the Word, marry young and prepare for God. But then she got her hands on books: Nancy Drew, Little House on the Prairie, and most memorably, To Kill a Mockingbird. “Reading that book in particular cracked things open for me. Everything I read exposed me to worldly things. It was such a complicated set of emotions. I was moved and upset.”
“For a time I thought that if I wrote anything nuanced about my religious upbringing that was a betrayal”
Defying her parents, she applied to college and got a scholarship to Virginia Commonwealth University’s respected art school. “College blew my mind,” Hollowell says. “Knowing people who smoked pot? That made me feel so cosmopolitan. I didn’t even have to smoke it myself.”
Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe tells the story of a struggling, 30-year-old Hollywood actress with an evangelical past whose big break comes at a terrible price. The novel will be published in June but it has already gotten raves from Jennifer Egan (“a strong new voice, poised and sharp”), National Book Award-winner John Casey, and Christopher Tilghman, who draws comparisons to Joan Didion, Lorrie Moore, and Nathanael West. Full disclosure: I was a classmate of Hollowell’s in graduate school and one of her early readers—but let me add my two cents. Birdie Baker, Hollowell’s magnetically flawed heroine, is both cruelly ambitious and deeply sympathetic, and the book’s febrile vision of sun-scorched Los Angeles makes me think of Play It As It Lays on every page.
What does Hollywood have in common with evangelical Christianity? A longing for immortality, Hollowell says, who married at age 19, but four years later got a divorce and left the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1998 (her parents wouldn’t speak to her for years; they have since reconciled). “Both worlds are about wanting to be remembered, to make an impact, to make an impression to last longer than mere mortals last,” Hollowell says. “Birdie has just replaced one kind of desire with another. Her mother has religious faith and Birdie has this faith in fame.” In the novel Birdie’s strobe-lit vision of success looks like the afterlife: “How beautifully, beautifully blank she could be, her failures forgotten, blasted away by the roar of her name being shouted and those lovely bright flashes of light.”
This is not an autobiographical novel, though Hollowell, of course, has her own religious background and now lives in the Highland Park neighborhood of L.A. (with her music-producer husband, their 17-month-old daughter Lowe, and a French Bulldog named Serge). She admits to being “morbidly fascinated” by actresses, but has never wanted to be one. As an advertising producer (Hollowell’s day job) she has sat in on scores of auditions. “You see hundreds of people and you have to narrow it down—it’s a difficult experience. You want to consider the feelings of these people. You don’t want to get callous.” She describes a wash of pretty faces—none of whom landed the gig. “The odds are so against you being an actress. There’s an irony in a fiction writer saying that, I realize—but the window for someone who wants to act is considerably smaller. As a writer you don’t have to worry about losing your looks.”
Hollowell has started making notes toward another novel (“set in Virginia, still in the gestation phase”), but she has no plans to leave advertising. “I like that world,” she says, and takes pride in many of the 30-second TV spots she’s produced for brands like Gatorade, Miller Genuine Draft, and Sharp (see Hollowell’s favorite ad from her production repertoire here). Advertising has taught her about writing: “My instincts are always to be lean and get to the point. I’m not an embellisher. I try to cut the fat whenever I can.”
Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe will appeal to the Hollywood set—but its subtle, searching perspective on religious transformation makes it a book for the faithful too. “For a time I thought that if I wrote anything nuanced about my religious upbringing that was a betrayal,” Hollowell says. “I grew up with a lot of wonderful people who are still in the church. I don’t feel hostility or anger. I’m not out to dissuade anybody from being a religious person. If there is an agenda of mine it’s that belief be a choice for everybody. To have a kind of belief thrust upon you and to be forced to hold to it is not fair.”
Taylor Antrim is fiction critic for The Daily Beast and the author of the novel The Headmaster Ritual.