Empathy, Falling in Like, and Voice: Joy Interviews Middle Grade Author K.A. Holt

Article by Joy

I’ve been a fan of K.A. Holt (who also writes as Kari Anne Holt ) for a number of years now. She’s a brilliant poet, a creative mind, and a huge genre fan (anyone who loves those thirteen episodes of Joss Whedon’s Firefly as much as I do earns my undying loyalty!). She's also a fierce advocate for numerous causes and one of the fiercest, bravest writers I know! She’s got two books coming out this Fall - a delightful and quirky picture book called I WONDER, and a truly ground-breaking, novel-in-verse middle grade, REDWOOD AND PONYTAIL, that arrives in October. I was so happy that she could take a few minutes out from being rock star author in residence in Singapore (!) to answer some questions and give us some extra insight into her story of Kate and Tam and their coming of age and growing awareness of both their sexual identity and each other. 

 

Joy Preble: I know it’s the usual author question, but I do think it’s one I really want to know for REDWOOD AND PONYTAIL. What were your inspirations for writing this story? Was there any one moment when you were like, hey, I’ve got to write Kate and Tam’s story, and I’ve got to write it in this particular way?

 

Kari Anne Holt: The number one reason why I wrote this book is because I wish, wish, wish I'd had a book like this when I was in middle school (or high school) ((or college!)). When I sat down to write it, I wasn't sure at first how I was going to tell the story. Then, both characters started talking at once, and I knew it was going to be a dual POV story. Kate and Tam are both are so different, but still so similar; I loved the idea of being able to express their universal feelings of friendship and falling in like in two separate voices. Then, as I was crafting the poetry, it seemed natural for them to share some of the poems so that the reader could see how their perspectives were the same in some ways, but differing in other ways.

 

JP: “Falling in like.” I think that’s a perfect phrase for this.  It’s part of why I adore REDWOOD AND PONYTAIL: because it feels so real to that pre-teen/early teen age, this slow awakening to one’s sexuality and to those feelings in general. 

To shift topics a bit,  I love that Tam is friends with Levi from your previous books, KNOCK OUT and HOUSE ARREST. Was that your intention as well to place this new novel in the same general world as those other books? And since Tam could be connected to those characters in a variety of ways, why did you choose Levi? What made you feel (and correctly so, as far as I’m concerned!) that he would work well in this new novel?

 

KH: Well, Levi had to go in this novel, because Tam and Kate are both in KNOCKOUT. I was drawn to the idea of setting REDWOOD & PONYTAIL at the exact same time as KNOCKOUT so that my readers could see why Tam and Kate acted the way they did in KNOCKOUT - and so that readers could have context for why Levi acts the way he does in REDWOOD & PONYTAIL. I loved the idea of showing so many different perspectives around the same events.

 

JP:  Yes, I love the multiple perspectives! I also love the pinkies! I adore the device of the pinkies for letting us see the slow and initially tentative burn of Tam and Kate’s relationship and growing feelings for each other. Can you talk a little about writing those scenes and moments?

 

KH: There are these wonderful moments in life when you feel a connection to another human for the first time. Whether it's romantic, or friendly, or both... it's such a beautiful and magical feeling. I wanted to be able to convey the beauty and magic in a way that was realistic and that unfolded in almost real-time. Linking pinkies seemed like the perfect way to do that. It's not quite holding hands, but it's maybe a little more than best friends.

 

JP: You also utilize a sort of Greek chorus in REDWOOD AND PONYTAIL, which is something I did not expect when I opened the book. Tell us about why you chose to use those other voices in the novel.

 

KH: I think when you're in middle school, it feels like you're in a fish bowl. It feels like everyone is watching you (even when they aren't). I wanted to convey this feeling by having the Alexes *actually* watch everything all the time. And I also wanted some touchpoints for the reader, to see how other kids might be reacting to Kate and Tam. 

 

JP: Yes! Middle school is such a fish bowl! Because everyone is finding themselves and feeling so insecure! 

Shifting to matters of craft, like much, but not all of your work, REDWOOD AND PONYTAIL is a novel in verse. What draws you to write in this form? What draws you to poetry in general for your artistic expression?

 

KH: Verse is such a magical way of connecting with readers. It allows them to fill in details that aren't in the text. I use my limited words to describe feelings and emotions, and I trust my readers to fill in details about what the characters look like, and what their day-to-day lives might be like. This makes the readers part of the story-telling, and part of the story. It's a partnership that you don't get with prose, and I love that verse requires this trust between writer and reader. When someone reads a poem about universal emotions like love or anger, and they are able to color the scene with their own personal details, then it becomes easier for that person to put themselves in the character's shoes. Boom, we have empathy! (Or at least a good start towards empathy.)

 

JP: Empathy is a good thing, for sure! What else should we know about K.A. Holt and what’s coming next?

 

KH: I have a new middle grade project in the works that's different than anything else I've written. It's been so much fun to work on. I can't say a lot about it right now, but I am very, very excited about it. I've even done some illustrations for it! Stay tuned for more details soon....

 

JP: We can’t wait! Thanks for such a grand interview!! 

 

For more about K.A. Holt, click here

 

And pre-order your copy of REDWOOD AND PONYTAIL (which is getting all sorts of starred reviews!) below:

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