Elizabeth Ames always dreamed of becoming a writer. She earned her M.F.A. in fiction from the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program in 2005, and she published short stories and essays. Then, in the fall of 2016, when she moved to Quincy House with her husband, Lowell Brower, a graduate student and resident tutor, the idea for a novel took shape in her mind. Surrounded by College students, Ames was inspired to write the saga of a friendship between four women who form an intense bond as first-years, and how it evolves over decades. The book’s title, “The Other’s Gold,” is based on a Girl Scouts song that extols the blessings of old friendships — and hints of the sometimes-selfish complexities of intimacy. The Gazette sat down with Ames to talk about her book and how she found inspiration in Quincy House.
GAZETTE: First at all, what does being a Harvard resident tutor involve?
AMES: As a resident tutor, my husband serves on committees and advises students. As an affiliate, I see myself as a support staff, a resource for the students. But there are so many people who work in the Houses or are connected to Harvard in some way; everyone from the other tutors, the deans, the dining hall staff, the maintenance staff, and the students, of course. When you think about the reasons why they’re called Houses, why families are part of this system, why this isn’t called a dorm, it’s in part because these Houses aspire to resemble students’ families. It’s great for students to see a puppy or a baby, and have a warm moment with the families who live here. Some students have told me that seeing a cute baby or petting a dog can kind of lift their moods some mornings.
GAZETTE: What inspired you to write a book about college friendships?
AMES: I always thought I wanted to write a college novel, but I don’t know that I would have written this one if we hadn’t moved to Quincy House. In retrospect, it seems inevitable that I would write a campus novel. I was living alongside students who were just beginning their lives as adults, going through intense introspection and self-discovery. This is a time when there is so much happening around your identity; who you want to be and how you want to live. You’re asking these huge questions about yourself and you’re doing it alongside other people who are doing the same, and in the process, you forge bonds that endure for a lifetime.
GAZETTE: What struck you the most about the friendships among Harvard students?
AMES: What struck me was the intensity of the friendships. I went to a large state school myself, and I’m so lucky to have lifelong friends, but I didn’t have like a small group of friends that I made as an undergraduate. I learned since moving here that many students, not everyone, but a large number of students at Harvard, make these really intense and enduring friendships during their freshman year when they’re randomly assigned. There’s something about smaller colleges that are more conducive to the formation of really tight-knit groups; students live together, take so many meals together, go to classes together, so it’s very likely that your college roommates can become your best friends for life. But in general, the time when you go to college is a special time; it’s the first time when you’re away from home, and you make lifelong friendships or meet your life partner in college.
GAZETTE: Your novel is set in the fictional Quincy-Hawthorn College, where four characters — Margaret, Alice, Ji Sun, and Lainey — meet on their first day of college as roommates and become lifelong friends. The story follows them after they leave college and start families. How did you build these characters?
AMES: I’m a sentence-to-sentence writer, a scene-to-scene writer, and in the course of writing sentences and scenes, you start to build characters, and they start to reveal themselves sometimes in ways that you don’t even want them to. It sounds kind of absurd because you are writing the book and you are at the wheel, but characters do become alive and kind of walk into the room and do things that you hadn’t expected. In the beginning I was writing a short story with Margaret as a character. Lainey appeared next, then Ji Sun, and finally Alice. And as I was writing, the characters started to become more who they were. I don’t want to undermine the hard work it takes, but I have to say that characters just start talking to you as you keep writing. That part does feel a little bit like magic.
“There’s something about smaller colleges that are more conducive to the formation of really tight-knit groups … it’s very likely that your college roommates can become your best friends for life.”
GAZETTE: How long did it take you to write this book?
AMES: I was just thinking on how connected to the school year this book is because I moved here in 2016, and started writing it in 2017. In 2018, the book sold, and I revised it, and in 2019, it came out. It was like working on a college schedule. I’m so connected to the rhythms of college right now. I had a rough idea of where I wanted the book to end. It changed as I was writing it, but most of the changes happened throughout the process rather than having a big revision after it was completed.
GAZETTE: What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing this book?
AMES: This may sound silly, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed working on it.
Prior to working on this book, I might have agreed with people who say they don’t like writing, they like having written. I always kind of identified with that. Now I can really say I loved writing, coming back to it each day. I certainly tore some hair out, but I really loved working on it. That was a happy surprise.
GAZETTE: Who are your favorite writers?
AMES: I love Meg Wolitzer, Zadie Smith, Lorrie Moore, George Saunders, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Elizabeth Strout. I love so many writers. I just finished “The Need” by Helen Phillips; it was amazing. I just can’t even stop thinking about it. It’s so unsettling and immersive and beautiful that I want to join a book club just to talk about this book. That’s always a good feeling when you finish a book and you just are desperate to talk about it.
GAZETTE: What do you hope your readers will gain from reading your book?
AMES: What I hope readers will gain from my book is more empathy. Every work of fiction, in some ways, is part of the project of having more empathy for other human beings. I hope they’ll come away with questions about their own friendships and their own decisions. I hope they’ll come away still wanting to spend time with the characters. For me, when I finish a book, sometimes I don’t want to leave the characters. That’s the feeling I’m always after as a reader. And so that’s the feeling I want to provide as a writer. Hopefully the book will offer the reader good company and consolation.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed for length.