Interview: Children’s-YA Author Kimberly Willis Holt

Kimberly Willis Holt, photo by Shannon HoltKimberly Willis Holt blasted onto the children’s book scene with the middle grade novel MY LOUISIANA SKY (Holt, 1998), which won the Boston Globe-Hornbook Award for fiction (among other awards). She then published MISTER AND ME (Putnam, 1998), a chapter book for younger readers, followed by National Book Award children’s novel winner WHEN ZACHARY BEAVER CAME TO TOWN (Henry Holt, 1999). Visit: Kimberly Willis Holt.

This interview was conducted via email in 2002.

What were you like as a child?

I was a shy and quiet child who daydreamed in school. My shyness was a result of my father’s military career that caused our family to move every couple of years. I was always the new girl. I was an average student that didn’t seem to excel at anything. But I do remember the pleasure I got from writing stories and poems.

What sorts of books did you enjoy as a girl?

Some of the books I read early on were the LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE books, biographies, and LITTLE WOMEN. I read LITTLE WOMEN so often that it frustrated my dad. “Is that the only book you read?” he’d ask. For a while it seemed to be. When I was 12, I picked up a copy of THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER by Carson McCullers. It was like no other story I’d read before. The characters seemed like people my parents had talked about growing up with. After reading that book, I wanted to write stories that seemed true even though they weren’t.

What books are your favorites today?

My all time favorite is TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. A couple of years ago I reread it with my daughter. I believe it was the best gift I’ve ever given her. That book has so many layers. I also love JACOB I HAVE LOVED by Katherine Paterson (my secret mentor), SARAH PLAIN AND TALL by Patricia McLachlan, THE GRAPES OF WRATH by John Steinbeck, THE COLOR OF WATER by James McBride. And many many more. I’m also a big fan of short stories. I love Eudora Welty’s work, as well as Zora Neale Hurston’s.

What inspired you to begin writing for children?

I always say that I didn’t choose to write for children. The stories chose me.

My Louisiana SkyWhen I first started writing, I wrote adult short stories. Then the voice of Tiger came to me. She’s the main character in MY LOUISIANA SKY. Since she was 12, I thought it would be a book for young people. I had to reacquaint myself with middle grade and YA literature. Since my daughter was still in picture books, I headed to my local library. With the help of a great youth librarian, I left with a stack of YA books. PRAIRIE SONGS by Pam Conrad was in that stack. Conrad taught me that you can write about anything for children. There are no limits. I will always consider her my first mentor, and it is one of my biggest disappointments that I never got the pleasure of meeting her. I did write her though. It was in the last few months of her life. I wanted to tell her how much her work had meant to me. I hope she received the letter.

Could you tell us about your own path to publication?

Like many writers, my path to publication included rejections, both from agents as well as editors. This may sound pollyanna, but I didn’t get discouraged. I knew that when my story was good enough it would be accepted for publication. Maybe one reason I felt encouraged was I received interest early on in my story. But it always resulted in rejection. When my agent asked to represent my work, things started to change. Finally an editor at Henry Holt (who had read the story a year before in a different draft) offered to buy MY LOUISIANA SKY. Still the story needed a major rewrite. By this time I’d probably rewritten the story twenty times or more. Thank goodness I love to rewrite!

Can you tell us a bit about the story behind the story of DANCING IN CADILLAC LIGHT?

DANCING IN CADILLAC LIGHT is probably more autobiographical than I’d care to claim. The sister relationship reminds me of my sister and my relationship even though we aren’t like the characters. The grandfather is a composite of both of my grandfathers as well as someone from my imagination. One important aspect of the story stems from a conversation I had with my parents while researching this book. My parents were telling about their humble childhoods in Louisiana. After my father talked about being poor, my mother said, “Well, we were poor, too. We just didn’t dwell on it!” To which my dad replied, “Oh, ya’ll always thought you were better than us because you lived on a blacktop road!” I loved that! Here were two families who were both poor, but they still had class distinctions. And it had to do with tar!

How did the novel change during its various drafts?

The story grew from a short story that I wrote several years ago. The first draft of the novel was rather brief and lacked specific details. The second draft was about structure–getting the story down. This is always my biggest challenge. After that I enjoy the process. Each draft brings my story closer to the vision I originally had of it. It is like polishing silver. You know there’s a gorgeous teapot under all that tarnish. It’s just a matter of polishing enough, using enough elbow grease to get there.

How is it different now working on a novel than it was in the beginning with MY LOUISIANA SKY and WHEN ZACHARY BEAVER CAME TO TOWN?

I wish I could say it was easier. It’s not. What has changed is my growth as a writer. I can usually tell what is wrong with my story. The hard part is figuring out how to fix it. For me, that takes time, sometimes time away from the story.

MISTER AND ME is your only chapter book. Do you have an interest in writing more books for this age group?

I would love to write another chapter book, but most of my stories need the room that a novel provides.

Can you tell us anything about the story behind this story?

MISTER AND ME grew out of the stories that my dad told me about the sawmill town where his two grandfathers worked. I was intrigued by the setting and visited with people who had lived or worked there. When I came home from that Louisiana trip, it was as if Jolene were telling me her story. All I had to do was write the words. The story is not any of the stories the people I interviewed told me, but their stories breathed life into Jolene’s.

How has winning the National Book Award for ZACHARY BEAVER affected you as a writer?

When Zachary Beaver Came to TownMany people expect me to tell them I now feel pressure as a writer after winning that award. Instead it gave me confidence. I actually went through self doubts after I wrote my first book, MY LOUISIANA SKY. I wasn’t expecting the kind of recognition that the book received. All that hoopla made it difficult to write Zachary. It was the worst first draft! I remember feeling hopeless at my kitchen table as I shuffled the chapters. Through the magic of rewriting it became a story I was proud of whether it won an award or not. The fact that that story won a major award taught me to never ever give up. As a business person? I’ve enjoyed all the people I’ve met as a result of winning that award. And I know that the NBA made it possible for more people to read that book. That’s a nice feeling. But a writer is only a writer when she is putting words on a page, not when she is talking about being a writer. That’s the business of writing.

MY LOUISIANA SKY was made into a Showtime original movie. On behalf of authors and readers everywhere, how cool is that?

The first time I watched the movie was in L.A. at the premiere. It was exciting, but strange. Here was a story that I wrote by hand at my kitchen table, something I had felt very intimate with. But in that moment, I never felt so detached from it. Don’t get me wrong. I’m proud of the movie, it’s just I wasn’t involved with it at all. Maybe that’s the way I will feel when my daughter is grown and leaves the nest. I’ve loved her, taught her all I know, but she will be on her own.

Do you have any advice for authors who might find themselves signing a movie deal?

Make sure you have a good agent. My agent prepared me for the fact that the movie production could be very different from the book. Thank goodness, my experience was a positive one. I thought they did a lovely job. Each time I viewed it I respected the screen writer and the director even more.

Can you share some of the responses from young readers to your fiction?

One of best letters I received was from a twelve year old boy who said, “I like your stories because you write about things that could really happen.” Kids need fairy tales, lots of them, but they also need to read about “real life” too. Adults? I receive a lot of mail from adults who tell me they read my books with their kids and were surprised to find that they liked my stories, too. That’s nice to know.

For you, what is the hardest part of being an author?

Trying not to eat M&M’s when I’m writing.

What do you love about it?

I love the fact that I can stay at home in my pajamas and make up stories. Is there anything better?

Where do you work now?

I write in my office, in my bed, in the bathtub, at a coffee shop, at McDonald’s, on the plane, in my hotel room.

How is the space conducive to triggering your imagination?

Hmmm….does it have M&M’s? Is it messy, but not too messy?

Do you have any future children’s or young adult books in the works?

I just mailed my latest manuscript to my editor. It is YA (I think) and set on Guam. Believe it or not, it’s a contemporary.

What advice do you have for aspiring young authors (children and teens)?

Keep reading good books. You will learn from them. Keep writing a part of your daily life, even if it means writing a letter to your aunt, and live your life: climb a tree, try sushi, dance in your room when no one is looking and don’t be afraid to rewrite.

How about for grown-ups seeking to break into publishing?

Same as above. Make sure you’re in love with the process, not just the thought of being published. Keep learning your craft. Join SCBWI, go to workshops and writing conferences.