Kimberly Willis Holt’s 1999 National Book Award-winning novel, When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, follows a boy named Toby in the small town of Antler, Tex., during one life-changing summer in 1971, when his best friend Cal’s brother dies in the Vietnam War and a sideshow act featuring a boy named Zachary Beaver come to town. In this companion novel, The Ambassador of Nowhere Texas, Holt introduces readers to Rylee, Toby’s daughter, who is set on finding out what happened to Zachary after 1971 while navigating her own shifting friendships and the aftermath of 9/11. Holt spoke with PW about returning to Antler for another story, why the emotional impact of 9/11 is important for children today to understand, and the places and themes that she finds herself coming back to again and again.
What prompted your return to the characters from When Zachary Beaver Came to Town?
I didn’t think I would ever return to these characters. At school visits, the kids would often ask me when or if I’d write a sequel. I’d ask them what they thought happened. Whatever their response, I’d tell them, “Well, that’s what happened.” They were never really satisfied with that, but my point was, it’s your right as a reader to take the story where you want it to go. But I would tell them that if they ever see another book with these characters, it would be because I had to write it.
A lot of people asked what happened to Zachary, but one day I began wondering what happened to Toby. I wondered who he would have married and whether he would have stayed in Antler. When I thought about who he could have ended up marrying, it cracked me up: I thought the pairing would make the most interesting child. At first I thought Toby’s child would be a son; I could write a book about Toby having a son and Cal having a son and how they would be best friends. Then I thought, oh I’ve written that book! I realized Toby needed to have a daughter, but I didn’t know who she was going to be. Then I started thinking about how Zachary could play a role in this new story.
The other thing that made me excited about writing this story was that I started doing the math for when Toby’s daughter would be in middle school and I realized that it would be around 9/11. I thought, this is a confirmation. Just like the Vietnam War was part of the setting of When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, post-9/11 could be the background of this story. I knew then that I was going to write it.
What was it like to revisit these characters as adults, while introducing characters to the mix?
I loved it! I revisited Zachary Beaver because I hadn’t read it in a long time; I both read and listened to it. There were little things that I had forgotten, especially about the minor characters. I wanted to be true to those original characters and really think about who they would be as adults. They couldn’t be children, of course, but I wanted people to recognize them.
Bringing in the new was fun, too. Deciding what would change was an open book. I knew early on that there was going to be a character from New York that would come to Antler and that their life was going to be affected by 9/11. I thought, to really convey what 9/11 meant, I needed to have a character who lived in New York City when it happened.
Why was it so important to you to set this story during 2001 and the 9/11 tragedy?
There were a lot of people who were either not alive when 9/11 happened or were young and don’t remember. I think that’s important for us to remember. One thing that kept playing in my head was a comment made my editor [Christy Ottaviano] shortly after 9/11, who lived in the Brooklyn area. She said to me, “I just don’t think people outside of the city really know what it was like.” I thought, but we do! Of course, we couldn’t know it like someone who had been in the city, seeing it firsthand and experiencing the devastation. The rest of the country saw it through the TV. This helped when I was writing because I felt like Joe [the newcomer to Antler from New York] would feel that way too. But I also wanted to show what was happening outside of the city; that the rest of us did know what was happening and were trying to do things to help. I hope the book shows that people outside of New York were touched by 9/11, too.
Did you feel any additional pressure in telling this story, knowing how widely read and acclaimed Zachary Beaver has been?
I did. I think that’s a big reason why I didn’t want to revisit these characters [at first]. I’m one of those writers who tends to write their first drafts fast, then do a lot of rewriting. I got to the point where I was lost with this book. I have such a wonderful editor, so I sent it to her and, while she will say this isn’t the case, I think I scared the heck out of her. It was still so rough and there was no warning. There were things in there that I knew didn’t belong, but I had kind of sold it on some of those things and thought I was stuck doing it. But she said, “Oh no, get that out of there,” which helped. I’m fine now because I’ve finished it and I feel good about it, but I know there will be readers out there who will feel the book isn’t what they thought it would be.
Relationships between family—and friends that feel like family—are often at the core of your novels. What draws you to exploring these relationships?
I don’t think I even give it much thought. I always say, “Care about what you write about” and those are the things I care about, so they keep repeating. Family can be defined by a lot of things. It doesn’t have to mean blood; it can mean friends that have become family or neighbors who are like family. Those sorts of relationships interest me. I couldn’t begin to define why I do that; I just know that it’s where I tend to go.
Setting is an important part of your novels as well, with many of them taking place in Louisiana and Texas. What resonates with you about small towns in these two states? Do you usually find your characters or setting first?
I think the setting comes along with the character, but occasionally I’ll want to set a book in a specific place. Louisiana is important to me because that’s where my family’s roots are. My dad was in the Navy and we moved all the time, but it was the one place we always returned to. The little town that I base many of my books on is Forest Hill, Louisiana. It’s a very small town, like 400 people. That place means so much to me. Even though my family only lived there for a short time, I already knew everyone and, if I hadn’t met them, I knew them because of the stories told by my family. It’s a rich place for me to draw from; it’s in my life well. Same with New Orleans, where we moved when I was in ninth grade. I always say that my family gave me wings because we traveled so much, but they also gave me roots through stories and family.
My parents moved to Texas before I did, then I followed a few years later and met a Texan. I married him and it’s hard to get Texans out of Texas. I’m not in the panhandle anymore, but I love this state. The town of Antler is based on the town called Claude, Texas, if it were moved to where Memphis, Texas is located.
What do you hope your readers gain from the stories you tell?
When my readers close a book, even if things didn’t work out the way that they thought they would, I want them to feel a sense of hope, that things are going to be okay. I also want readers to feel acceptance. It’s funny: I don’t write to deliver a message, but it just sort of happens. I remember visiting a school in Louisiana, where someone asked the theme of my books. I didn’t have an answer, but a young lady, probably a fifth grader, raised her hand and said, “I think your books are about acceptance.” She was right. Maybe it comes from being an army brat.
Speaking of interacting with readers, have you been able to during this pandemic?
Yes! I’ve been doing some virtual school visits. School visits have always played a really important role in what I do and I’m glad because it helps my work live on. As a writer, you think you’re saying goodbye to characters when you finish a book, but, doing author visits, you’re always talking about or introducing your characters to new readers, so they stay real.
I think it’s beneficial too, to be in that environment and to actually interact with young people. Children are often the same, as far as emotions, but what occupies their time and minds is different and ever-changing. I’m not saying anything new here, but I think we’re in danger of being robbed of imagination because of our gadgets and stuff. One of the reasons I’m a writer is that I didn’t have other stuff to occupy my head all the time; I was bored! And that’s great for the creative process.
Has your writing changed in response to this shift in the lives of young people?
I’m not that sharp; I can only write what I want to write and am able to write. I was scared to death when technology really started going crazy, thinking how I would add these things into my stories.
I have always relied on librarians, educators, and booksellers to sell my books because I’m not the type of author who writes books like Harry Potter. When fantasy and stories like that started taking off, I worried that I wasn’t writing books that kids wanted to read, but I got a letter from a young man in elementary school. He said, “I like your books because they’re about things that really happen.” It came to me at the right time and it stayed with me. I think for writers, if you’re interested in something, someone else will be too. You can’t write for the world, but you can write the things that sing to your heart and that you want other people to hear. So, I don’t try to change with the times, I just try to reach readers.
What are you looking forward to in the new year?
I’m working on a book set in the Westbank neighborhood of New Orleans, about three friends born the year Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana. It’s pretty much contemporary, with the setting being around 2018. I’m excited about it!
The Ambassador of Nowhere Texas by Kimberly Willis Holt. Holt/Ottaviano, $16.99 Jan. 12 ISBN 978-1-250-23410-0