Heart and Spirit: Interview with Author K.A. Holt

By Carol Coven Grannick

As a poet and children’s author as well as clinical social worker, I’m particularly interested in the emotional resilience that I believe is foundational to a writing life. I’m interested in what I consider the many facets of emotional resilience, the behaviors that fuel and flow from it—positive emotions such as hope and joy, persistence, and productivity.

I don’t like the phrase I see sometimes describing emotional resilience as having a “thick skin.” To me that phrase implies immunity to hard or painful feelings—the idea that we shouldn’t let the discouragement, sadness, moments of hopelessness, etc. penetrate.

That doesn’t work for me—I believe in a Self that experiences a range of emotions without judging them, heals, and returns to the journey stronger than before for having experienced and survived the disappointments, failures, losses.

Chronicle Books

With these interests in mind, I talked recently with K.A. Holt, author of numerous middle grade and young adult novels (see the bio at the end of this interview), including this year’s Redwood and Ponytail (Chronicle, October 2019) and I Wonder, illustrated by Kenard Pak (Random House, October 2019), which I eagerly look forward to reading.

Kari Anne, your characters in several of my favorites—Rhyme Schemer (Chronicle, 2014), House Arrest (Chronicle, 2015), and Knockout (Chronicle, 2018)—are deep and complex, so completely human that I was immediately lost (in the best way!) in their stories and lives. What do you experience as you write their inner journeys?

Of course each character is different, but there is a kind of pattern to them as I write. I usually start off knowing a little bit about who they are, what they want, things like that.

But as I draft and revise, I learn things about them I’d never have known before. The characters come alive and they just guide me through their stories. I feel the surprise and turmoil and sadness and joy at the same time as my characters first feel them—if that makes any sense.

Then of course I feel terribly guilty for some of the things that have to happen to them in order to create the story. I’m always amazed at how much my characters just…become themselves…seemingly on their own!

What can you share about your own “inner” journey as you write? Are there ups and downs, and if so, what aspect of the writing do they seem to relate to? And if you experience them, can you share how you tend to handle them?

There’s a great quote—I think it’s Dorothy Parker—that goes something like: “I hate writing, but I love having written.” That used to be me, but I find that as I’m getting older and more comfortable with who I am and how I work, I’m starting to really love the writing process more than I ever have before.

I used to create these scenarios in my head where every other writer had foolproof drafting and revising processes. I would worry I was doing something wrong, or missing something, or taking too long, or writing too fast, just…a lot of worry. I’m not sure what’s changed, other than I’m getting older and I’ve stopped caring what other people think.

Ha. That’s translating to my writing process, and it’s really nice.

I know that I have a very individual, messy process, and that that’s okay. I do still have to remind myself that messy is fine, though. Messy is who I am, and how I write.

Kari cuts and pastes poems together when working on a book.

My process looks very much like this, on repeat:

1) Super excited about new project.
2) This is gonna be the best project ever ever ever!
3) Look at this solid summary/outline!
4) Yes, yes, the first three chapters are really singing.
5) Uh oh.
6) My summary/outline doesn’t actually make any sense?!?!
7) Ugh. Maybe I should just start a new project.
8) This is the worst draft I’ve ever written.
9) No, seriously, how did I ever write any other books?
10) [days scrolling through Linkedin classifieds to see if maybe I should go back to writing advertising copy]
11) Get off of Linkedin! You’re a children’s book writer. You’ve worked really hard for this job. You’re really good at this job. It doesn’t matter if your draft is terrible, Just Finish It!
11a) I can’t finish it.
11b) I’ll never finish it.
11c) Maybe someone will finish it for me?
11d) [Crying]
11e) [Set up a system of accountability — maybe a sticker chart to measure poem count or word count]
11f) Focus.
12) Draft is finished!
13) I hate it!
13a) Walk away from it
13b) Read some books.
13c) Stop reading because the books are so good, and so inspiring, they make me want to be a better writer/make me jealous/make me feel competitive.
14) Start revising.
15) Huh. I don’t actually hate this.
16) Well, I hate this part.
17) It’s fixable, though.
18) I love these characters.
19) It’s getting so much better.
20) I love this job.

I can’t stop laughing—and crying! That’s wonderful, Kari Anne. Thanks for sharing it.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to ask about the difficult school visit experience earlier this year, which you wrote about for Publishers Weekly. Can you talk about what strengths you bring to the table that helped you decide how to handle this experience?

This was a tough experience because it took me completely by surprise, and that made me feel naive and a bit dumb. I hate feeling naive and dumb, so I’ve had to work my way past those feelings in order to get to some deeper, more meaningful outcomes. Does that make sense at all?

I think, when I was younger, I would have wallowed in the anger at feeling naive and dumb. I would have replayed the entire experience over and over, trying to figure out how and why I was so surprised. Those are all valid ways to feel and to react, but it’s easy to get stuck there.

The conversation could have easily been relegated to me shouting at the school for censoring me, the school denying it, me getting more angry, the school continuing to deny it, the end.

I feel like I’ve been lucky in my life, in that I’ve experienced some very difficult circumstances. Those difficulties taught me to think creatively in every kind of situation, not just in storytelling. I seek out gray areas. I look for the Venn diagrams of every day life that connect us all. I try to use those overlapping areas to create conversations and solve problems.

I could have argued and fought with the school, or I could have taken the experience, made it public, and turned into a story many people could relate to. Maybe it’s a kind of patience that comes with getting older? Or maybe it’s a kind of confidence you get when you’re a woman and you’re in your 40s? Or maybe it’s just me.

I want the conversation to be big and loud, but I also want it to be smart and thought-provoking. That’s another naive thing I can’t shake, I guess. I do believe people’s minds can be changed. I do believe conversations can spark empathy.

Do you feel these strengths were inborn? Or have you discovered or created them as you’ve grown and gone through the vicissitudes of life?

Random House Books for Young Readers

I’ve always had a way with words. That is probably something I was born with. I work hard to hone it, to use my powers for good and not evil [this said with a wink].

I also think I was born as a glass-half-full kind of person. I’m always giving people the benefit of the doubt. I’m always trying to put myself in other’s shoes, I always think there’s a solution, I never want to give up.

And life…I mean, at times life has done a good job of trying to dissuade me of this positivity. Sometimes you have to feel helpless and hopeless and terrified and panicked. You have to lose the ability to see your way out, so that when you do find your way out, you have an intense new perspective. Perspective isn’t really something you can teach. It’s a gift, if you think about it.

For me, perspective allows me to stay positive, it allows me to write deeply flawed and deeply caring characters, it allows me to see colors a little brighter and feel feelings a little deeper. It’s exhausting, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.

How do your strengths help you generally in your writing life?

Honestly, I don’t think I can separate my life and my writing life. I breathe, I eat, I write. I couldn’t not do it. I’m just lucky that my life has had twists and turns enough to inform my writing. And I’m lucky that my writing is reaching enough people now, that it allows me to join in the kinds of conversations that need to happen.

Thanks for this open and heartfelt interview, Kari Anne! All good wishes for your two 2019 books, Redwood & Ponytail (Chronicle, 2019) and I Wonder (Random House, 2019), and continuing success for your previous works, too!

Cynsational Notes

Kari Anne Holt is the award-winning author of many middle grade novels in verse, including the #ownvoices Redwood & Ponytail (Chronicle, 2019). Her other other works include: From You to Me (Scholastic, 2018); Knockout (Chronicle, 2018); Typewriter Rodeo with Jodi Egerton, David Fruchter and Sean Petrie (Andrews McMeel, 2018); Gnomeageddon (Simon & Schuster); House Arrest (Chronicle, 2015); and Rhyme Schemer (Chronicle, 2014).

Her debut picture book, I Wonder, illustrated by Kenard Pak (Random House) will find its way to bookshelves in October, 2019.

Kari Anne lives with her wife and three children in Austin, Texas.

Carol Coven Grannick says of herself: 

I love words, written and spoken, that connect us to the world we live in and to one another.

I love the times words come out ‘just right’ but I also love working and re-working words until they become‘just right’.
I love reading stories to and with children, and having conversations with them about how the stories connect to their lives.

As children’s author and clinical social worker, I’m particularly interested in the creative inner journey, how we navigate and negotiate the ups and downs of our writing journeys and lives. Perennial resilience holds me steady as a writer in a business and a world that requires endurability.

My MG novel in verse will debut from Fitzroy Books in 2020, and my poetry and fiction for very young children appears/is forthcoming in Cricket, Ladybug, Babybug, Highlights, Hello, Roar! Magazine for Kids, and once on the north suburban Chicago buses!

I am a columnist for the SCBWI-Illinois Prairie Wind (“The Inside Story”) and Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations blog (“The Writer’s Heart”). I am honored now to be a member of the wonderful GR.OG. (group blog world)!