National Book Awards

November 22, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The winner in the young people’s literature category this year was Kimberly Willis Holt, for "When Zachary Beaver Came to Town." Set in the Texas Panhandle, it tells a 13-year-old boy’s story of friendship and loss, and manages to be very sad and funny at the same time. Holt began writing fiction just five years ago. Her first book was "My Louisiana Sky," also a young adult book. She lives in Amarillo, Texas. Thank you for being with us and congratulations.

KIMBERLY WILLIS HOLT, National Book Award, Young People’s Literature: Thank you, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The first line of your book reads: "Nothing ever happens in Antler, Texas but in fact a lot happened in the summer of 1971 to young Toby Wilson." Just briefly tell us the story.

KIMBERLY WILLIS HOLT: It’s about the summer of 1971, set during the Vietnam War. It’s a home front story. But it’s about when Zachary Beaver, the fattest boy in the world, who is a side show, comes to a Texas Panhandle town and everybody is affected by it because he’s abandoned there. Some of the same people who pay $2 to gawk at him are some of the same people who end up befriending him. One of those people is Toby Wilson, and he’s the main character.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Toby has a lot happening in his life this summer too. Tell us about that.

KIMBERLY WILLIS HOLT: Well, one of the things that happens is that his mother goes off for a contest in Nashville and she wants to be a country-western singer. He thinks she’s just going because of the contest but she’s really decided to leave his dad. And, of course, that means leaving Toby also. He has to adjust to that. At first he’s in denial about it. And by the end of the book, he’s able to accept it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us where this image of the trailer– it’s a very stark image in your book. A trailer pulls into town and a boy who is called the fattest boy in the world is in this trailer and he sits there day after day after day after he is deserted. Where did this idea come from?

KIMBERLY WILLIS HOLT: Well, the first seeds of the inspiration come from my own life. When I was 13 years old, I paid $2 at the Louisiana State Fair to see the fattest boy in the world. And I didn’t know that I was going to grow up and write a book about this, but that image was very strong in my mind. A few years after I saw that young man, a friend of mine befriended him. He was parked in their shopping center near their work where she worked. She would pay $2 every day and eat her lunch and visit with him. She made friends with him. I was really impressed by that. I thought that was… it was interesting because I was kind of like one of the characters in the book. And I was very nosey and asked all sorts of questions. I remember thinking when she told me about her friendship with him that I had not reacted the same way.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ms. Holt, read something for us, please.

KIMBERLY WILLIS HOLT: I’m going to read from a part where it’s early on in the book and this is before Toby realizes that his mom has really left for good. "All that food reminds me of the night she packed for her trip. I sat on the edge of her bed watching her. Every pair of cowboy boots she owned lined the wall, including the turquoise ones with red stars. She formed all her western shirts and skirts on the bed and dropped lipstick tubes from under her sick into a small suitcase. I swear she packed like she was going for the whole summer instead of a week. About the only thing she didn’t pack was the pearl necklace that once belonged to her mom. She told me that some day she would give the pearl necklace to the woman I married so it would stay in the family. Mom sang, ‘Hey, Good Looking’ as she packed. And the entire time I couldn’t help wondering if moms were supposed to be that happy to get away."

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You know what I thought about in this passage and others, you have passages when Toby is trying to talk to his father or his father is trying to talk to him, I should say and there’s a silence between them that you describe so well. How do you get into a 13-year-old boy’s head?

KIMBERLY WILLIS HOLT: I really don’t know. One of the reasons I write is to be in other people’s skin. And I don’t start to write until I hear the voice. Sometimes I’ll get a premise, you know, for a book. In fact I get those quite often. And I don’t commit to it until I really know the voice of that character. It’s almost as if the character is speaking to me. And that’s really what happened. The first words of the book came to me and they were in Toby Wilson’s voice. And I just tried to be true to what a 13-year-old boy would do. I tried to be honest through the whole book and think through Toby’s eyes.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why do you think these are young people’s voices that you’re speaking through, because I know you’ve also written short stories for adults and other works for adults too?

KIMBERLY WILLIS HOLT: I think it’s because I never got over being 12 years old. I really — most of my ideas are coming of age stories. Those were hard years for me. I think that I felt like an outsider. I always tend to write about outsiders. And what’s been fun for me is as I travel around and visit schools is that other kids that feel the same way relate to some of my characters and so I hope in some way that’s helping them when they want to read about somebody that they can relate to.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And I assume from this that you wanted them to think about what it would be like to be the fattest boy in the world and to have compassion for him?

KIMBERLY WILLIS HOLT: Well, I hope now that the story is finished that they do. But when I’m writing it, I really don’t write with that in mind. I really just write to be true to the story and true to the characters. It’s sort of a selfish act, if you will — as I write. I really try to keep all… everybody out of it, even the kids that I’ve met. And, so after it’s done, you know, in fact, I remember one time I was visiting a school and that was asked of me: What are my books about? What is the theme? And one little girl said I think your books are about acceptance, accepting others. And that was really the first time anybody pointed that out. Maybe they really are.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I thought a lot about why this book is considered a young people’s story. One could say this is a book for an adult. I mean I enjoyed reading it very much. It has a very spare style. It’s very dark in many ways. What makes it a young person’s book do you think?

KIMBERLY WILLIS HOLT: Probably just the fact that it is a true coming of age story. There’s so many things that happened to Toby that summer. He gets his heart broken. He, you know, his mom leaves, his friendship with his best friend is tested. And those are things we all can relate to from our own childhood. Of course, 12 and 13-year-olds are going through that now. So that’s what I think makes it a young person’s book.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You just started writing about five years ago, is that right, or at least writing books of this….

KIMBERLY WILLIS HOLT: Yeah, five-and-a-half years ago.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How do you explain your rapid progress. Not everybody wins a National Book Award in five years.

KIMBERLY WILLIS HOLT: I don’t think I’ve quite realized it myself yet. But I really started looking… writing was of course something that I wanted to do since I was 12 years old, writing fiction. So I didn’t commit to it so much later after that and so I really was committed to it. I looked at it as a job from day one. Sometimes I didn’t want to do it but I did it because it was my job.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us how you do work. What’s your method of working?

KIMBERLY WILLIS HOLT: When I’m not on the road — because the last six weeks I’ve been on the road a lot — I will write early in the morning. I try to start writing around 7:30. I wear my pajamas. That’s the thing I love most about writing. I don’t get changed until I actually have to go out of the house. I’ll write and take a late lunch or go to a coffee shop when I get where I can’t stand the four walls anymore. That’s pretty much my day. I’m pretty much finished by 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What difference will this award make to you?

KIMBERLY WILLIS HOLT: Well, it makes a tremendous difference to me just because it means somebody has recognized a body of work that, as a writer, we can’t always tell if it’s good or bad. So it’s nice to be accepted by others especially people that, you know, the judges are people that look at children’s literature all the time. They have wonderful reputations. So it means acceptance to me.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what next? Are you working on something right now?

KIMBERLY WILLIS HOLT: I’m working on another book that is set in East Texas called "Dancing in Cadillac Light."

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I thought the depiction of the town in Texas by the way was one of the great parts of this book. You really, really got the feeling of this town.

KIMBERLY WILLIS HOLT: Well, thank you.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Congratu- go ahead – I’m sorry.

KIMBERLY WILLIS HOLT: It was one of those little towns. I always pick towns that they say if you blink you might miss it. Claude and Memphis – and I kind of combine towns. Those are small towns like that. And I try to peel back the layers and show the specialness of them, so I appreciate that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You achieve that. Many thanks for being with us and congratulations.