Kimberly Willis Holt
“I’m amazed how the tiniest moments grow into books.”—Kimberly Willis Holt
Kimberly Willis Holt’s first novel, My Louisiana Sky, was an ALA Notable Book and an ALA Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults. It also received a Boston Globe—Horn Book Honor Award. Her second novel, When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, won the National Book Award. She is also the author of Keeper of the Night.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kimberly Willis Holt considers herself a southerner, but in reality she is a child of the world. Seven generations of her family are from the piney woods of central Louisiana, but her father’s military career caused her to call a different place home every couple of years. Some of her father’s assignments included France and Guam.
“Richard Peck once said that I wrote to find home. I think he’s right.”
As a child, Holt daydreamed a lot and struggled in school. She was thinking up stories while she should have been listening to the teacher.
After college, she had several different careers including radio news director, marketing a water park, and working as a terrible interior decorator. Finally she decided to pursue her secret dream to be a writer. She wrote short fiction, and worked on her first novel My Louisiana Sky.
“Although I sometimes enjoy writing from an adult’s perspective, I feel dedicated to the coming of age story-that part of a young person’s life where he must make a decision that will change his life forever. I still remember what it’s like to be twelve years old.”
Holt pulls a lot from her own experiences. “I’m amazed how the tiniest moments grow into books,” she says. The seeds of When Zachary Beaver Came to Town were planted when she was thirteen and visited the Louisiana State Fair. There she paid two dollars to see “the fattest teenage boy in the world.”
In 1999, Holt won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for When Zachary Beaver Came To Town, but she says the biggest reward was that this book proved the magic of rewriting. “I struggled with that first draft,” she explains, “and at one time I even thought of giving up on the book. I remember the exact moment where the story started to come together. Then the joy of revision took over.”
Holt claims that sometimes she’s just as surprised as the reader when something happens to one of her characters. “When I begin to write a story, I usually know how things will end. It’s the journey toward that point I must discover. The process is sometimes painful, but also exciting. I hope the wonder of what happens to my characters never goes away. That yearning keeps me writing.”
Born: Pensacola, Florida (during a hurricane)
Currently home: Amarillo, Texas
Previous jobs: Directing radio news, marketing, and decorating
Hobbies: Reading and going to the movies and theater
Inspiration for writing: Memories from childhood
Favorite books: To Kill a Mockingbird and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
A CONVERSATION WITH KIMBERLY WILLIS HOLT
Q. You spent time in Guam as a child. What was the inspiration for this particular story?
A. When I returned as an adult to visit the schools on Guam, I learned that a former classmate had committed suicide the prior year. A mutual friend told me that she’d died praying on her knees. I couldn’t shake that image. And it was that image that led me to Isabel’s story. At first, I thought her story was going to be one among several in a short-story collection. But as I wrote I had to know that she would be okay. That required the space of a novel.
Q. Why did you decide to tell this story through short passages?
A. I’ve always loved the idea of writing a book with short chapters. However, in the past when I’ve tried to do so, it seemed forced. With Keeper of the Night, the spare form came naturally. It was a refreshing departure for me, and that in itself was rewarding. Part of the satisfaction I get as a writer is knowing I can explore different ways to tell a story. As far as difficulties are concerned, I encountered the same challenges I do when I write in a more traditional form. Did I tell the story well enough? Do the characters have depth?
Q. Do you have a favorite passage?
A. Usually my favorite passages are not my readers’ favorites. In Keeper there is a chapter where Isabel’s father takes her to the diving team tryouts. Later he tells her about her uncle who was a great diver. Isabel thinks that is her father’s way of telling her she wasn’t that great. Then her father says, "You must have gotten your talent from him." That part still chokes me up, because no matter how old I am, I want my parents to be proud of me. It’s funny, one of my sisters said that’s the part that got to her the most.
I was most intimidated to write about Frank being found after he cut himself. I dreaded writing that scene. I didn’t want it to be melodramatic. So I chose to write it in short clips, like a photographer taking fast snapshots of an event. Originally, I did it that way just to get some words down, thinking that I’d go back to it. Ultimately, I chose to leave it as it was.
Q. Many of the scenes and people in the book feel very detailed and authentic. Do you write from real-life observations?
A. My writing is like making gumbo–a little of this, a little of that mixed together. Some of those people were inspired by bits of people whom I met on the island; many details I made up. The oddest thing is, after spending so much time with the story, I couldn’t tell you what is true and what isn’t. I like to think the best fiction becomes its own truth.
Q. You thank many people in your acknowledgments. What kind of preparation did you do to write this book?
A. Six months after the trip to Guam during which I visited the schools, I had to return to do research. I spoke to many people on the island, spent time in the library, and tried to soak up the setting. Later, I depended greatly on several people for answers via e-mail. Because suicide and self-mutilation were part of the story, I interviewed the director of the suicide crisis center in Amarillo, Texas, as well as making contact with a Guam crisis center counselor.
Q. Do you like to get a lot of feedback as you write?
A. My daughter is the only person allowed to read (or I should say hear) my first drafts. I try not to let anyone else read anything earlier than the seventh draft. The reason is that I’m still figuring out the story and the characters in early drafts. I don’t want other people to influence me at that organic stage.
Q. How long does it take you to write a book?
A. I’ll give the answer that I heard Bruce Coville give: all my life. Technically, it takes about one year to two years, but how can you discount a writer’s entire life experience? That is truly a part of every story.
Q. Any advice for writers who have great story ideas but just can’t seem to get them down on paper?
A. If you are meant to be a writer, you will put it down on paper even if it means you have to write a lousy first draft. If not, maybe you aren’t meant to write that story. Or maybe it’s not the right time to write that story. Or maybe you are meant to do something else.
Q. As a writer, what is your greatest fear?
A. Boring the reader.
Q. Isabel must grow up fast in this story and seems exceptionally mature for her age. Why did you want to tell the story from her perspective?
A. Isabel is a firstborn child, as am I. But I didn’t choose to tell it from her point of view. She chose me.
Q. In response to a loved one’s suicide, are there typical stages a person goes through?
A. I’m certainly not an expert on this subject, but my research, which included talking to survivors of suicide, indicated that the stages that Isabel goes through are typical. The sadness, the anger, the trying to figure out why it happened. One thing the suicide crisis director told me was that the survivor has to find something of her own to help her get on with living. For Isabel, that is the diving.
Q. What is your response to stress?
A. I’m afraid I’m not good at handling stress. Thank goodness, I married someone who is. Although I do think I am good at handling big difficulties. It’s the small ones that I find most challenging. I guess you could say I sweat the small stuff.
Q. Are you a list maker like Isabel?
A. Yes, I feel most secure with my lists. This drove my mother crazy because my dad was a list maker too. And he even made lists for her.
Q. One theme that emerges from the book has to do with asking for (or not knowing how to ask for) help from other people. Why does Isabel struggle alone until the last part of the book?
A. I believe it’s because she is a firstborn and thinks it is a weakness to ask for help. Tata’s neglecting to deal with his wife’s death plays a huge role in this family’s lack of communication. One thing the crisis counselor from Guam told me was that when a Chamorro wife dies, the father goes on with his life and the grandmother or auntie steps in and tries to fill the mother’s role. The counselor said Guam was very much a matriarchal society.
Q. Isabel is very much afraid to let the bucket of her emotions spill over. What do you think she fears will happen?
A. Tata is not holding the family together. Isabel feels that someone must, and that someone is her. I think Isabel believes she must stay strong, and that means not releasing her emotions.
Q. What do you like best about being a writer?
A. I get to wear my pajamas to work.
MY LOUISIANA SKY
“Making an unusually auspicious debut, Holt offers a unique coming-of-age tale . . . readers . . . will admire [Tiger’s] courage, loyalty and love for her parents.”–Publisher Weekly, Starred
“Holt . . . eases the action along with a low-key, unpretentious plot . . . uncannily credible characters.”–The Horn Book Magazine, Starred
“Tiger has a distinctive voice, and her subtle observations include an increasing awareness of those marginalized by difference of class, race, and intelligence.”–The Bulletin, Recommended
WHEN ZACHARY BEAVER CAME TO TOWN
“As in her first novel, My Louisiana Sky, Holt humanizes the outsider without sentimentality. . . . Holt reveals the freak in all of us, and the power of redemption.”–Booklist, Starred
“In her down-to-earth, people-smart way, Holt offers a gift.”–The Horn Book Magazine, Starred