I still remember my first experience reading When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt. I’m pretty sure that’s when a Larson family un-favorite recipe, Burned Broccoli, was invented. Who could blame me for completely forgetting the vegetable steamer was on the stove when I’d been utterly transported to Antler, Texas? Kimberly graciously agreed to visit Friend Friday in celebration of her 25th book, The Ambassador of Nowhere Texas (Henry Holt and Company Books for Young Readers), which is a follow-on novel from Zachary Beaver. After you digest Kimberly’s insights below, hop over to Instagram-IGTV to listen to a replay of our conversation about emotional truth and the creative process.
One of the reasons I decided to write a companion novel to When Zachary Beaver Came To Town was the time setting. Toby, the main character in Zachary Beaver could realistically have had a twelve years old in the early part of this century. A post 9/11 story about his daughter, Rylee, could show young readers the impact that event had on a town almost two thousand miles away.
Initially I thought it would be the time marker and had no plans to make the terrorists’ attack a major storyline in The Ambassador of Nowhere Texas, but as usual, a writer’s journey is filled with surprises. Research and happenstance led me there and kept reminding me of the importance of emotional truth.
Like most people alive on September 11, 2001, I witnessed the attack on the Twin Towers through radio and television coverage. I felt deeply for the people that lost loved ones in that tragedy, but several months later, a friend told me her dad had been one of the victims. Meredith spoke of that sad day and how her family had coped since. She made the incident more real to me. When I started to write Ambassador I made the tough decision not to contact her. I was afraid any sign of her possible discomfort would break my ability to write the story.
I struggled to write about that day anyway. So I wrote around it until I couldn’t avoid it any longer. The New York Times did an amazing job unfolding that day by the minute and slowly, carefully I wrote the scene.
My early draft of that day felt heavy and awkward. I couldn’t seem to get the tone right. It wasn’t until my daughter suggested I write the scene with a spare style, that I gained confidence to conquer it. One thing that helped me show how a devastating hour could change us was by writing an earlier scene at home with Rylee getting annoyed with her little sister and her mother. When she witnesses the attacks on television, all she can think about is making it right with the people she loves. To me, Rylee desperately trying to reach her sister and mother attached meaning to what had happened on 9/11 and was an example of how people were affected around the country.
I had work to do on newcomer Joe, too. In early drafts, Joe’s jabs at small town life and Rylee’s defense of its virtues made writing those scenes fun. However for the story to develop, Rylee had to find out about how Joe’s dad had died as a first responder on September 11th. From the beginning there is such a verbal pingpong between Rylee and Joe that when the truth is discovered, the serious moment creates a pause that I thought was enough. It wasn’t. That was clear to me when I attended a talk by former FBI agents who had PTSD because they had witnessed 9/11 up close. The horror of that day was still evident in their voices and on their faces. I thought of Meredith who lost her father too. It was clear I hadn’t done justice to Joe’s story.
I returned home and wrote a scene where he shares what happened that day with Rylee. Joe’s dad had given him a bike and it reminds Joe of him so much, that he can’t stand to look at it. The day his dad dies, Joe leaves the bike outside and when no one takes it, he gives it away. Just as I used Rylee’s 9/11 turnabout over her annoyance with her sister and mother, the bike story became a device that enabled me to show Joe’s grief. The Ambassador of Nowhere Texas taught me that while imagination is a crucial part of my writer’s toolbox, empathy and listening to those who have been touched by real events are also important. To me, achieving an emotional truth in my stories is why I write. That truth provides a gateway for readers’ to understand others better and maybe themselves, as well.
Over twenty-five years ago Kimberly Willis Holt stopped talking about
wanting to be a writer and started to pursue her dream. She was born in
Pensacola, Florida during a hurricane. Because of that and her family’s
Louisiana roots she considers herself a southerner, but her father’s military
career took her places beyond the South, including Paris and Guam.
Holt’s books are for a wide range of ages, from picture books to middle
grade and young adult novels. Her stories have won awards and honors,
including the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for When
Zachary Beaver Came to Town. Her twentieth-first book, The Ambassador
of Nowhere Texas. Today she writes and gardens in a small town in the
Dallas/Fort Worth area.