Author Interviews, Book Resources

Kimberly Willis Holt Interview Transcript

  • Grades: 6–8

With the guidance of discussion questions, students and teachers talked about Kimberly Willis Holt's award-winning book When Zachary Beaver Came to Town and Dancing in Cadillac Light. Then Kimberly Willis Holt herself joined in the conversation. The discussion took place January 24-February 11, 2005.

Let's Talk with Kimberly Willis Holt

About When Zachary Beaver Came to Town

General Questions for Kimberly Willis Holt

About When Zachary Beaver Came to Town

Discussion Question: How do you think Zachary felt to have people pay to stare at him?

  • Student response: I think Zachary Beaver felt bad about people paying just to see how fat he is.
  • Student response: I think Zachary Beaver really didn’t care that he was overweight and people stared at him.
  • Student response: I think he probably didn't care because if he did he would try and lose some weight.
  • Student response: I think he felt bad because he was being made fun of.
  • Student response: Why would people stare at a fat boy for money? Wouldn't that hurt his feelings?
  • Student response: He didn't feel because he ate so much junk!
  • Student response: How do you know? You're not the fattest kid in the world. You don’t know. It might bother him.

Questions for Kimberly Willis Holt

Why did Zachary’s mom leave his dad?
I think you might mean Toby's mom. Opalina left to follow her dream of becoming a singer. If you meant Zachary, he never knew his father.

I want to be a journalist and I guess writing books and writing for a column in the newspaper aren't that different. They are both telling a story. But how do you get to the point where people know who you are and want to read your stories?
That's great that you want to go into journalism. You're right: writing fiction and writing articles have a lot of things in common. Even though writing articles relies completely on truth, you still must tell an interesting story. You can't worry about people knowing who you are and whether or not they want to read your stories. That will eventually come if you learn to be a good writer. Study your craft; work hard at it and you will have readers.

What’s your favorite character in When Zachary Beaver Came to Town?

  • Student response: Wayne is my favorite character.
    • Kimberly Willis Holt: I love all the characters. My biggest disappointment is that once I'm finished working on the characters I really do expect to see them in the flesh one day. That, of course, will never happen.

Who is your favorite author?
Harper Lee.

Do you have kids?
I have one daughter. She is seventeen years old.

First of all thank you for writing the book. It is very good! What I want to know is how long it took to write a book like this one? Did you enjoy writing it? I am sorry I am asking you all these questions! Can’t wait to see the movie!!!!!
It took a little over a year to write this book. And since this is the book that I struggled with the most, I didn't enjoy a lot of the process. Once I had my story's plot down, though, I did begin to find pleasure in the rewriting.

Are you from the city or country?
I live in a small city, but I will always be a country girl at heart.

How does it feel to have your book in a movie?!
It's a very interesting process. Since I've been through it once before I knew kind of what to expect. However nothing compares to the feelings I have for my books.

Hi. How many books have you written that take place in Texas? Also, do you get offended in the SpongeBob SquarePants episode where they make fun of Texas?
I have written two books that take place in Texas — When Zachary Beaver Came to Town takes place in the Texas Panhandle and Dancing in Cadillac Light takes place in east Texas.

How does Wayne die?
Wayne died in the war during battle. And like many soldiers of the Vietnam War and other wars, the details are not known.

Just out of curiosity how does Zachary feel about being so fat and why doesn't he try to slim down a bit? He would be much happier if he did.
I don't believe Zachary has to lose weight to be happy. I think he has found his own contentment and has accepted his life. I think other things have contributed to Zachary’s grumpiness. One of those things is the loss of his mother.

I wanted to know if Scarlett was really your older sister or did you make her up?
I am the oldest sister, but believe me, I'm no Scarlett. I made her up. I wanted to create a girl who was pretty and popular, but had a heart. I think that even though Scarlett can be a bit shallow, she did try to reject Toby in a nice way.

How long have you been writing books and have you ever gotten stuck and felt like you could not write any more?
I've been writing books for 10 years. And although I get stuck on a certain story, I've never wanted to give up writing.

How old are you?
I'm 44.

How much did Zachary Beaver exactly weigh?
That's in the book. At least that's what he claims to weigh.

Did you feel bad when you paid two dollars to see the “fattest boy in the world?” —Shelbi
Did the boy look like he was happy to be there or did he look sad? —Sarah
Did a little girl really use the restroom in the trailer? —Deanna

I didn't feel bad about paying two dollars until years later when a friend visited the same boy and became friends with him. I remember thinking I had not been very nice to him with my nosy questions. I made up the part about Tara in the trailer.

Are the characters in When Zachary Beaver Came to Town based on real people?
Although Zachary was inspired by the sideshow boy that I visited years ago, he still has many elements that I made up. I make up all my characters but I sometimes take tiny bits from people that I have observed.

Which one of your books do you like the best? And why do you like it the best? Thanks.
I don't have a favorite. They are all special.

How long did it take to write the book and how old were you when you started it?
I was in my thirties and it took me a little over a year to write the book.

Why do those people pay $2 just to see the fattest boy in the world? Was he the really the fattest boy in the world?
The admission was two dollars and the people were curious. So they paid the money to satisfy that curiosity. Zachary claimed to be the fattest boy in the world, but since he had a problem lying, we're never really sure if was.

Hi, I was wondering what the first book you ever wrote was? I have tried to write a lot of books but I end up not finishing them! My best idea yet was a book I thought of last year but I never finished it! Do you think you could finish it for me? The book’s name was Rich to Ruins and it’s about a girl named Katie. She lives her life having people do everything for her then her parents die and she is forced to live with her grandma she doesn't even know and when she gets there she finds out that she’s going to have to do all the work! Please respond! Thanks for your time.
The first book I wrote was My Louisiana Sky. I'm sorry, but I stay busy enough trying to finish my own books. I wouldn't be able to finish anyone else's. If you're having trouble finishing a book, it might be that you're trying to fix it as you go. Just finish the story, no matter how terrible you think that first draft is. Then let it cool off. In other words, don't look at it for a while. Then you can rewrite it. Another hint to help you finish a story is to try and think about what the ending is before you begin writing. That way you have an anchor.

When Toby writes Wayne because Cal won't, I think that was a great act of kindness.

  • Student response: I agree with you totally, Whitney.
  • Student response: I agree, I think Cal was rude not to reply to his brother.
  • Student response: We totally agree. It was very sweet, BUT what if Cal or Wayne finds out? There would be an ocean of confusion and a lot of angry/harsh words? What about that? Huh? Huh? Maybe we're just being paranoid, but come on, it's happened and I'm sure it'll happen again. Peace!
  • Kimberly Willis Holt: I've enjoyed your discussion about Wayne's death. I think Cal was like a lot of people. He was just lazy about writing letters. I think he took for granted that he could always write Wayne. But sadly, he found out differently.

How do they get Zachary Beaver in the trailer?

  • Student response: Hello Cody, it's Erica. How’s it going? He went out sideways.
  • Kimberly Willis Holt: Remember how Zachary had to squeeze out of the trailer sideways? I guess that's he got inside, too.

Why didn't Cal ever write Wayne?

  • Student response: Because he didn’t want to take the time to write him.

I wanted to know how it felt to see the fattest boy in the world? Why? Was it worth the two dollars you paid? Do you think it hurt his feelings to be stared at?

  • Student Response: Well, what do you think it would feel like? Would you like to be stared at while you ate or tried to have your own privacy? BUT on the upside, you also making $2 a pop, so hey?! I would do it. Making money for people to look at me. It's like free money! Everyone could use more of that!
  • Kimberly Willis Holt: When I was 13 years old I saw the fattest teenage boy in the world at the Louisiana State Fair. I'm embarrassed to say that I enjoyed that experience, but I did. I had always wanted to go to a sideshow and when I finally had that opportunity, I was excited and didn't think about that young man's feelings. I'm also ashamed to say that I acted like Cal did when he visited Zachary's trailer, asking a lot of nosy questions. He was a bit annoyed with me and I think that's how I got Zachary's sassy attitude. So even though I made the story up, there are traces of truth laced within that book.

I wanted to know how long did it take to write the book?
It took me a little over a year to write When Zachary Beaver Came To Town.

What is your favorite book from another author and why?
My favorite book is To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It is multi-layered and I see something new in it every time I read it.

What are some differences between the movie and the book? How do you feel about these differences?
I'm probably the last person to compare a movie with my book. The movie of My Louisiana Sky is very much like the story. I was very pleased with the outcome.
Though there are more changes in the When Zachary Beaver Came to Town movie, I do believe the heart and soul of the story remain.
A movie can't be the book and a book can't be a movie. They are different.
The one thing that I love about writing books is that those are my words on the page and though my editor makes excellent suggestions (and I use most of them) and shares a vision for the story, ultimately it is my story. That's not the same with a movie. A lot of hands are involved, a lot of visions.

Does any one in the book When Zachary Beaver Came to Town remind you of someone you know?

  • Student Response: Zachary is a sad teenage boy that has a lot in common with teenagers in general. A lot of teenagers feel like they don't fit in for one reason or another.
  • Student Response: He reminds me of normal fat kids. Sometimes they don't really care if they are fat and sometimes it crushes them to pieces, because they feel as if they don't belong in normal society.
  • Kimberly Willis Holt: When I wrote about Zachary I didn't set out to transform people's opinion of obese people. What has been interesting is that I have heard from a lot of readers who say that the book made them rethink how they treat others who are different than them.
    Most of my characters have aspects of people I've known or merely seen somewhere, like in a restaurant. But those aspects are only jumping off places. In other words, I believe all my characters are original (with one exception — Granny in My Louisiana Sky who is very much like one of my grandmothers).

Why did Wayne have to die?

  • Student Response: I think it adds a twist to the book. I think it was very sad though.
  • Kimberly Willis Holt: I know this sounds strange, but I didn't know that Wayne was going to die. Since I was writing a story that took place in the seventies, I knew that I needed to include something about the Vietnam War. To not do so would have been sloppy. Originally I decided that I would have a hometown boy be off serving in the war. Then I thought, why not make it Cal's brother. Gradually Wayne became very important to the story. The day I wrote about his death, I cried. It took me by surprise, but I knew I had to keep it in. Death is a reality of war.

Why is Zachary so fat?

  • Student Response: Probably because he eats a lot and doesn't ever get to do anything.
  • Student Response: Because he doesn’t eat his vegetables and he doesn’t exercise and he eats a lot of junk food too!
  • Student Response: He made some bad decisions and ate a lot.

I read this book (Mister and Me) with my online book club last year and liked it a lot. What made you decide to tell this story from a little African American girl's point of view?
That's the way the characters came to me. I couldn't have done it any other way. It would be like changing one of my characters into a girl when the character reveals himself as a boy. I will admit that I was afraid the book would never be published since I was a white writer writing from a black girl's point of view. But when I expressed those concerns to my husband, he said, “What have you got to lose?” One thing that I did to make sure the story was truthful is that I interviewed African Americans who lived and worked in the sawmill town during the forties. After those interviews, I gained the confidence I needed to tell Jolene's story.

What is the one thing you would like to have known as an unpublished author that might be useful to others who are interested in becoming a children's book writer? Thank you!
You can write about anything when you write for kids. Kids go through the same things that adults go through, they just experience them through a child's eyes.

Many people ask me how I pick the age level I'm writing a certain story for. I don't. I just write. So just write. Your story will find the right readers.

Really listen to the way kids speak. I'm not talking about slang. I'm talking about listening to what they are talking about and how they are talking about it. Dialogue that doesn't seem natural can kill a story with a great plot.

If you're an adult, remember what it was like when you were the age of the character you are writing about. When I had a twelve-year-old, well-meaning people would say, “Oh, that's why you can write from a 12-year-old's point of view.” I'd say, “No. I can write from a 12-year-old's point of view because I remember what it was like being 12.”

Just because a lot of editors and agents turn you down doesn't mean your story isn't going to get published. If more than five reject you, though, you might want roll up your sleeves and try another rewrite. I received 17 rejections before I got an offer on my first book. And then I had a major rewrite to do before it was publishable. My editor gambled on me and I will always appreciate that. The agent I work with is the only agent who offered to represent me. But she believed in me and worked hard to sell my story. She's been the perfect agent for me.

One last helpful point — M&M's are brain food.

When you get stumped on some portion of a manuscript, what do you do to get moving again?
Sometimes I take a long bath. Sometimes I take a long drive to Happy, Texas. Those two things help relax me and often help me think about what's going to happen next. But the one technique I love to use is webbing. I use it to outline my stories and I also use it to brainstorm when I’m stuck.

How does the book When Zachary Beaver Came to Town reflect your life?

  • Student Response: I won't stare at a fat kid if he came to my town.
  • Kimberly Willis Holt: When I was thirteen years old I visited the Louisiana State Fair. While there, I paid two dollars to see the fattest teenage boy in the world. Those moments stayed with me and inspired that book. I didn't become friends with that boy, but that's why I like making up stories. I made up some characters who became friends with Zachary.

I read the book When Zachary Beaver Came to Town! Does it have any affect on your life?
That book changed my life. I wrote such a terrible first draft with When Zachary Beaver Came to Town. And that's okay for an early draft, but I forgot that for a while and became depressed. I didn't think I would ever finish the book. But I had a contract to write that book and I did. That book taught me the beauty of rewriting.

I read this book in second grade. I loved it very much, but didn't understand some of it because I couldn't read some of the words. So, in fourth grade, I picked up the book again and loved it even more!! Thanks for your great books!!!!!!! Your fan, Padro S.
Padro, thank you for sharing that. Sometimes I think we read books when we're not ready for them and then we don't return to them because we think, “I've already read that.” But you did. Thank you for being curious enough to return to Dancing in Cadillac Light.

Kimberly Willis Holt! How does your book inspire people in your life? I think this was a good book to write. My name is Maya T. I am from Michigan and I had to get your book and bought a copy. I think this is fun to email you and tell you about your book!! Well I hope you get this message today or when ever. I hope that this message is the best to you to!! I hope that you have a wonderful life and that you will be safe forever and ever and ever and ever and ever!!!!!
Thank you for your kind comments. I don't know how my books inspire others. I just hope they do.

Why did you start writing? What inspired you? Is there anything you like to do besides writing? I have read a few of your books and I really liked them. I really liked the book When Zachary Beaver Came to Town.
Although I can remember as far back as second grade the pleasure of putting words down on a page, it wasn’t until seventh grade that I considered becoming a writer. Several things contributed to that. One was I read a great book called The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Her characters were so realistic that I thought the book must be a true story. It wasn’t. She was just a masterful writer. I wanted to write stories with characters like that.

Another thing that inspired me was that I had encouragement from my English, Creative Writing, and my science (yes, science) teachers.

Also my mother thought everything I wrote was wonderful. That helped tremendously.
When I'm not writing, I love to read, go to the theater, and putter in the garden.

Do you like writing your books?
I love writing. I have the best job in the world. Writing is great when you really get into it its like you are living what you are writing.

  • Subjects:
    Changes and New Experiences, Literature, Literature Appreciation, Writing, Homelessness and Poverty
  • Skills:
    Writing
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