sarahsullivan (sarahsullivan) wrote in thru_the_booth,




Today Thru_the_Tollbooth welcomes National Book Award-winning author Kimberly Willis Holt.  Kimberly was kind enough to take time out from her book tour for Skinny Brown Dog and Piper Reed Navy Brat, to talk about her writing process.  


Author of seven novels and two picture books, Kimberly is also the winner of numerous awards and honors, (check out her website at including a National Book Award for When Zachary Beaver Came to Town and a Josette Frank Award for My Louisiana Sky which was also a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor Book.  Her novel, Keeper of the Night was a "Best Book of the Year" selection from School Library Journal, Kirkus and Bank Street College


Don't ask me to pick a favorite.  I love them all.



Welcome Kimberly.  Please tell us a little bit about your two most recent books.


Skinny Brown Dog is a picture book about a dog that wanders into a bakery. Right away, the baker tells him "The bakery is no place for a dog,"  and maintains that he's not his dog. But each day the baker's heart softens toward the idea.


Piper Reed Navy Brat is an early novel about a middle child of a Navy Chief. When Piper's dad announces that he's been assigned to the base at Pensacola, Florida, Piper has to make a new life for herself there. She wonders how she will make new friends. All military kids experience this challenge.



You grew up in a military family and moved a lot when you were in school.  How much of Piper Reed is autobiographical?


The framework of the situation is definitely autobiographical. My dad was a Navy Chief. And like Piper, I'm one of three girls. Although I'm the oldest--the serious bossy one. I didn't think that would make an interesting point of view for a young reader. My middle sister was the funny one, the clever one. That's why Piper is the middle child.


The setting is Pensacola, Florida because I was born there. The plot is pure fiction, but I was inspired by the dynamics of my own family.


Do you think you will write about Piper Reed again?


There will be at least two more Piper Reed books. I've finished the second one(It comes out in August 2008) and I'm working on the third.



You mentioned somewhere in an interview that it was during a school visit that a young student came up to you and said that she thought the theme of your books was acceptance of others.  Do you think that's true and, if so, are you aware of this as you write?


I do. But I'm not aware of it when I write. It's funny, even Skinny Brown Dog is about that. And I didn't realize it until a couple of weeks ago. I'm sure being "the new girl" my entire childhood had a lot to do with that.


You wrote an essay for a book published by the International Reading Association which is a collection of essays by children's writers and teachers about creating character.  The title of the book is What a Character! Character Study as A Guide to Literary Meaning Making in Grades K-8 and the title of your essay is "The Power of Small Moments."  In it, you talk about how small moments often reveal a lot about character.  Could you tell us what you mean by that and perhaps give an example of how you have used small moments in your work.


Human behavior is interesting. What we do says more about us than anything. Sometimes that is revealed in a small moment.


As writers, we can use those small moments in our stories to develop a character or to move plot along. In My Louisiana Sky, I wanted Tiger, the main character, to realize how fortunate she was to have her parents even though they were mentally challenged. I hope I accomplished that in the scene where she witnesses them in a tender moment on the porch. Her mother, Corrina had been depressed after Granny died. After days of staying in bed, Tiger and her father, Lonnie, discover Corrina sitting on the porch, peeling potatos.


"Daddy eased up behind Momma and touched her hair. Without turning around, she dropped the potato in the bowl, grabbed hold of his hand, and leaned her cheek against it, closing her eyes. Just the sight of the two of them together like that made something powerful fill up in me. For a moment I stood there watching them and smelling the sweet air and listening to the frogs croak while the radio softly played in the background."


To me, in that one small moment, Tiger feels loved and protected. Something she's longed for. Of course, she's had that security all along, but that moment reminds her of it. At least that's what I hope I accomplished with that scene.





People sometimes say that writers write about things that they need to understand or figure out.  Do you think that's true?


I don't know, but it seems to be. I'm afraid to examine it too closely. In most of my stories, my characters are trying to find home or redefine home. Also there is usually a thread of acceptance running through the pages. But those themes happen naturally, perhaps because they are concerns of mine.


Your books have very different settings and yet, each of these settings forms an integral part of the work.  There is Louisiana in My Louisiana Sky and in Part of Me.  There is small-town Texas in When Zachary Beaver Came to Town and there is the island of Guam in Keeper of the Night.  How important is a sense of place to your writing process and how closely is it tied to character development? 


Setting is an important element in my writing. I think moving my entire childhood has a lot to do with that. I've heard it said that people are the same everywhere. I don't agree. People may share emotional experiences, but I think setting shapes people. I live in the west. Though people are friendly here, there is a toughness and sturdiness that is a part of them. This is rugged country in the Texas Panhandle. Years ago, it took a certain kind of person to journey here and survive. I think traces of those qualities exist in their descendents.


When a writer decides she's going to have her story take place in a setting other than one that she's known, she needs to become familiar with that setting. To me setting goes beyond physical details of a place. It also includes the people. When I was researching for When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, I made frequent visits to Claude, Texas. I hung out at the Dairy Queen. I listened to how the people spoke and learned the things they cared about.


Before Dancing in Cadillac Light was a novel, it was a short story. I set the short story in East Texas. I hadn't spent much time in East Texas and I made an assumption that East Texas was like Central Louisiana. East Texas is not  Central Louisiana. I discovered that when I researched there for the story.



You now have nine books in print, seven novels and two picture books.  Your novels are written in several different forms.  In fact, one might say you created the form used for Keeper of the Night.  How did you come up with this form?


It wasn't a conscious decision to use that spare form. Before I committ to a story I have to hear the voice of the main character speaking to me. Usually that comes with the first lines. In the case of Keeper of the Night, it began with "My mother died praying on her knees." I wrote the chapters on index cards. They were so spare that I thought I'd be fleshing them out. Most of my first drafts are spare. But these had a certain rhythm and once the words made it to the paper, I realized that was going to be the form .



Do you think you will use it again?


I'd love to use it again, but it will have to come to me that way. It can't be forced.



I know many writers do not like to talk about works in progress, but if you don't mind telling us, what are you working on now?


In addition to the third Piper Reed book, I recently turned in a historical novel. It's about a boy in the 19th century. That's all I can tell you at this early stage.



Thank you for taking the time to talk with us.  It's been a pleasure.  We wish you all the best.


Thank you, Sarah, for your questions about craft. It's one of my favorite subjects to talk about.


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