How do writers give birth to their stories? We interviewed Kimberly Willis Holt to find out.
Suffering from writer’s block after having signed a contract with a publisher, novelist Kimberly Willis Holt didn’t have a plan for her latest book, Dear Hank Williams. Ironically, she crafted the voice of 11-year old Tate P. Ellerbee early in her writing career. She had collected bits and pieces of her newest, and certainly bossiest character, and filed them away for safekeeping.
Years after writing the voice for Tate, Holt read an article about the Goree Girls, an all-girl string band formed in 1940 by women prisoners at the Goree State Farm in Huntsville, Texas. She hung on to the article, not yet knowing it would impact Tate’s story. Finally, after visiting her grandmother’s grave in Butter Cemetery, Holt began to ponder how these two ideas could come together.
With a masterful voice, Holt weaves the two sentiments together to create the fabric of Dear Hank Williams. Set in the fictional town of Rippling Creek, Louisiana, Tate P. Ellerbee is assigned a project to write letters to a pen pal during post-World War II reconstruction. In one-sided correspondence, Tate writes to Hank Williams, an up and coming country music star whom she listens to on the Saturday night radio show, Louisiana Hayride. Tate reveals her unwavering admiration for Hank and learns how to conquer her pain through her letters.
Starting with the voice
Despite winning a National Book Award for her novel, When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, Holt is a self-proclaimed failure at plotting a story. Twenty-five years after winning, she still starts with the voice of her main character.
“Voice is like a fingerprint," she says. "Each one is unique.”
The first draft of Dear Hank Williams came together quickly. She wrote it in nine days, but then spent three-and-a-half years with revisions. When shaping the voice of a character, Holt asks herself, “Do we see what we read? Or do we hear what we read?”
After mastering the character's voice, she begins the story with the beginning and ending in mind. Holt does not outline, but instead hand writes a discovery draft. She explains, “The journey is in the middle. The answers are in front of us. We trip up over them sometimes.” Often, her stories are based on personal histories, although she tries to keep her settings fictional in nature. She admits, “Sometimes you can put someone into a book, and you don’t even realize you’ve done it.”
Writing doesn’t always come easy
Holt didn't always plan to become a writer. Growing up as a military kid, she was a slow reader in school and often got into trouble for daydreaming in class. It wasn't until junior high, when a poem she'd written about a Vietnam soldier was shared by her friend with a science teacher, that she believed she might have a future in writing. Still, she received 17 rejection slips before finding a publisher for her first book.
“My work wasn’t ready,” she observes. “I sent it out too early. I was too eager.” After reading The Weekend Novelist by J. Robert Wray, writing key scenes came easier. She finds ideas for her books by listening, and occasionally eavesdropping at the airport or a local coffee shop. Each day is an opportunity for her to put these tidbits into her stories.
Her best advice for curing writer’s block is to do something different: take a bubble bath, bake a pie, or go for a drive. Holt knows if she can find the voice of the character, she will eventually find the story.
— Freelance writer Jennifer Boren is a Collierville school librarian who has worked in education for 13 years. She aspires to one day to add published novelist to her resume. Read more at gracingmemphis.com.