Friday, October 31, 2008


My grandfather has always been a plant man--a man that appreciated the way a brilliant pink faded to cream in a camellia. But a few years ago he fell in love with amaryllises. That affection spread to all bulbs. So instead of receiving ties and puzzles for his birthday, he opened boxes of apple blossom amaryllises and blue jacket hyacinths.

Even at 94, he never considered not planting them himself. He designed the beds, hauled in the dirt, and dug holes. He labored hard and his efforts showed. Still as I watched him look on at his work, I could see the wheels turning. Was he pondering what the garden would be like if he'd shaped it another way? Or maybe he was thinking how nice it would look with a few tulips, if only the climate allowed them to grow in Louisiana.

I understand his restlessness. When I finish a book, I'm not finished thinking about it. I'll wash the dishes and imagine the perfect line my character could have said. Or a piece of description pops into my head while I'm driving to the coffee shop. Only it's too late. Perhaps it's the curse of all artists.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Have you ever met someone with a name that didn't fit them? Whenever I do, I have trouble remembering their name. Names should fit characters, too. The nice thing is writers can control that.

I keep a notebook for every book I write. On the first page I list the characters. If you look at any of my lists, you will discover scratches through some of those names because as I write and learn more about them, I often realize their name doesn't belong with their personality. It keeps me from getting to know the real character. So I'll change their name. And when I get it right, the characters start to become more fully developed.

(Double click on image to enlarge)
In When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, Cal's last name originally was Pringle. Then early in the first draft I realized his family had Irish roots. They became the McKnights. The entire family had red hair except for the mother. They were hard-working folks and Mr. McKnight expected his children to work in the fields on weekends and during summer breaks. All that came about after the name change.

The Bowl-A-Rama owner, Ferris Kelly was once Carter Kelly, then Fenton Kelly. For whatever reason, he became Ferris. Now I couldn't think of him by any other name.

Another ritual that I do when I start a story is that I write the characters name on a dry marker board. It hangs on the left wall of my office, visible from my desk. Just reading one of those names reconnects me with my story. With each draft those names become more powerful. Not necessarily in their character, but in their capability of drawing me into the story. They become real people. Real people with a name that fits.


If you would like to have a chance to win a signed hardback copy of When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, send your name and SNAIL mail address to Two winners will be chosen at random. The deadline is Friday, October 31 at 5:00 PM, Central time.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


If you live in the San Antonio area, I hope you will consider attending my presentation at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Here are the details:

Thursday, October 30, 2008
7:00 PM
Retama Auditorium University Center
2.02.02 1604 Campus
San Antonio, TX

Hope to see you there!

Friday, October 24, 2008


"I'm like a radio that picks up the waves. Somehow, if I move the dial very carefully. I'll pick up the wave and get the story. But the story doesn't belong to me; it's somewhere out there floating."--Isabel Allende

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


The Korean edition of Waiting for Gregory arrived a couple of weeks ago. I was delighted to discover Gabi Swiatkowska's illustration of Iris on the cover. I've always loved that illustration because it was the first one my editor sent me. I stared at Iris for months before I saw any of the other pictures.

In the American version that illustration is on the copyright page. Another change the Korean publisher made was to add in some fine art illustrations of mothers in the back of the book. I never thought that I would have my name on a book with a Mary Cassett painting!
But I have to say Gabi Swiatkowska's art belongs on a museum wall. At least I can brag that I have a Swiatkowska of my very own.

Monday, October 20, 2008


Most people might expect five women coming together at a ranch for five to six days to develop a sensible plan of action, especially when it comes to kitchen duty. The plan would include grocery, cooking and cleaning lists. The lists would be specific and name each retreater's tasks for the week. These same people would probably suggest posting the list in a prominent location such as the refrigerator.

Thank goodness sometimes virtues abound by not being sensible, because that is not the way we go about kitchen duty at all. The only lists that exist at the annual writing retreat are the grocery lists we create impromptu. Yet somehow stomachs are nourished, dishes get washed, and floors are swept.

From that first retreat on, a rhythm developed in the kitchen so naturally it was as if one of us started to hum and the rest of soon followed with the same tune buzzing on our lips.

Lola said, "I'll cook pasta and veggies on Sunday."

Then I said, "I'll make chicken scampi on Monday."

Not a picky eater exists among us. Well perhaps one, but she is so polite about it, we forgive her.

When Lola asks, "Does everyone like asparagus and broccoli," Kathi, Jeanette, and I say, "Yes."

Rebecca answers, "I love asparagus." She simply prefers to state her dislikes by emphasizing her preferences.

For dinner, we settle at the kitchen table which appears as if one end will collapse any moment. We talk about food, family, words. We share information about upcoming books, stories we wish would sell, school visits, and conferences. We are different writers from different places, but when we gather around the table for our meals, I can't help but think how I have more in common with these four women than anyone else on the planet.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


The leaves are changing colors in Somer, New York. But that is not the only thing that is brilliant there. Today I visited Somer Middle School. This is a return trip and coming back was a pleasure. The students are the kind of kids that greet you in the hall if you pass by. This is a rare occurrence. I should know. I visit a lot of middle schools.

Cathy Gelman is not only a great librarian, she is a champion of raising funds for breast cancer. All of over school, teachers wore sweats in honor of the race for a cure because of Cathy's enthusiasm for the cause.

Two other reasons behind my visit are Sallyann and Laura, moms extraordinaire. During signing books and eating lunch, I got to hear about Sallyann's Irish roots and Laura's South Carolina's one. Later Laura emailed me and asked, "Does your accent get deeper when you go back home?" "Oh, yes," I wrote back, comforted that someone else experienced this too.

As I travel around the country, I'm reminded, again and again, how our roots define us through accents and stories. And though my time with these ladies was brief, today we shared them over Reuben sandwiches, salads and Sallyann's Magic Bars. I love talking to kids about writing, but these moments give me more reasons to treasure school visits.

Friday, October 17, 2008


Yesterday I spent the day at Henry Holt. I'd not visited since they relocated to the Flatiron building. That morning, I was greeted by Kathy in the reception area. If there was a Receptionist of the Year Award, Kathy would win. She made me feel welcome and even pointed out my book displayed on a shelf.

It was wonderful to see my editor. When I started working with Christy twelve years ago, my daughter was nine and Christy was married with no children. Now Shannon is a grown woman in college and three sweet peas run around Christy's house these days. We've been through lots of life and books together since My Louisiana Sky .

Before going to lunch, I said hello to some old friends and met some of the folks I talked with on the phone, but never face to face. Then it was off to lunch where Christy and I talked about the historical. It is music to a writer's ears when her editor tells her that she loves the new manuscript. Days later the writer catches herself recalling the words when she should be listening to her husband inform her about the broken range.

Over baba and dumplings, Christy told me what she liked and what she thought I needed to work on. The beauty of stepping away from a story for awhile is that it allows me to look at it with a fresh view. Yes, I agreed with her. And I can't wait to roll up my sleeves and work on it again.

By the time the beignets in orange blossom sauce arrived we targeted January for the new draft. When I turn it in, I'll share the title with you.

We returned to the office to talk about plans for Piper. Then Christy showed me some art for an upcoming picture book I'm doing with Laura Huliska-Beith.(Wow! Laura is innovative.) More details to follow on both those topics. Let's just say 2010 is going to be a very active year for me in publishing.

When I left the Flatiron, I felt like I was floating down 23 Street. Does it sound ridiculous for a 48 year old woman to believe she is having a Holly Golightly moment? This was the kind of day that writers dream about, but seldom happens. Movies make it appear as if writers and editors eat beignets with orange blossom sauce all the time. The reality is we work in separate corners of the country and seldom see each other. But it is a good thing to reconnect in person regularly. Sitting in a writing chair alone too often can make a writer lose perspective. Yesterday I was reminded not only of the important role Christy plays in my work, but of all the other Henry Holt folks that make it possible for my stories to become books. Managing editors, copy editors, sales and marketing--they are vital to books. It's good for a writer to remember that.

While I walked toward 8th Avenue, I called my friend, Kathi Appelt to congratulate her on her National Book Award nomination.

"I'll have to get some tips about what to wear," she told me.

"Oh, goodness, Kathi. That was a long time ago. I'm not sure I did it right back then."

A couple of minutes later, I looked down the street and saw Jerry walking toward me, smiling. We made our way down 23rd, returning to Pad Thai on Eighth. Again, we sat at the table closest to the sidewalk because New York City is the best people watching place in the world. It was our last meal together before I headed to Somer and he headed home. For a few days, we got to live like a New Yorker on a quiet stretch of 22 Street. I can't wait to return.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


Kathi Appelt

and Laurie Halse Anderson

for being nominated for the National Book Award!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


may have eaten breakfast at Tiffany's, but I could eat any meal in front of an ABC Carpet & Home display window.

Here's a peek inside:

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


I'm in New York to meet with my publisher and speak at a school on Friday. That means I have a little time off to enjoy the city. Before this trip, I'd only stayed in Midtown, but I longed to experience another New York. The New York where Meg Ryan lives in You Got Mail. So I chose a place in Chelsea on a quiet street.

Jerry flew in from Amarillo and I flew in from Saint Louis. As usual he is sleeping in while I'm gearing up to spend a morning working on Piper 4. The temps are mild here this week. I'm sitting by an open window, listening to the birds chirp and a neighbor hose off the sidewalk. This is the New York I've dreamed of.

Yesterday we met Gail Carson Levine for lunch at Pars. We ate various dishes of lamb as we caught up with our writing lives. Gail brought up the idea of doing a bus tour with other writers to towns around the country. "Wouldn't that be great?" she said.
I agreed. Gail and I got to know each other on a bus, taking us to an event. Then we both quickly added, "But it is for someone else to organize."

We are dreamers. We write. We show
up at events and talk. Other people do the hard work.

When the waiter handed us the dessert menu, the three of us immediately decided on the baklava, and we're immediately told it was still baking. We settled on something else, but our palates felt deprived of the honey and nuts wrapped in flaky pastry.

After lunch, Gail headed toward the train and we headed toward Greenwich Village. Destination: Bonnie Slotnick's Cookbooks. I'd been on the lookout for a cookbook shop and last summer I found an article on Bonnie in Victoria magazine. Bonnie's quaint shop is filled with out-of-print & antiquarian cookbooks.

Upon meeting her, I asked about my recent obsession. "Do you have A New Cookbook for Poor Poets?"

"Not today. But I've had so many copies of that book in the past."

It didn't matter. I stayed and perused the shelves and stacks. Jerry knew what was before him so he said, "I'm taking a walk. What time do you want me back?"

"Thirty minutes," I said. Twenty five minutes later, I called him. "Could you give me thirty more?"

He laughed, not the least bit surprised.

Some people have to run a mile on the treadmill to raise their heart rate. Not me. All I have to do is read titles like How to Eat Better for Less Money and Picayune Creole Cookbook.

On a shelf, behind Bonnie's desk, titled OLD BOOKS, I found Ceremonials for Common Days, which is not a cookbook, but is certain to delight. Among it's chapters is On the Eve of Being Bored. A favorite bit from this chapter:

I always feel inferior when I begin to be bored. It is as if I have not the power to live up to the occasion.

I can tell you this. Not one bored moment existed among yesterday's minutes. We even satisfied our craving for baklava on the way back to the apartment.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


This is a strange business. A year ago an old college friend met me at a book festival where I was speaking. Later I went out to the tent for the signing. The signing was one of those unusual times when I had quite a few people in line. I was still signing when my time was up, and the bookstore asked if I would continue signing. Heck yeah! I knew what a rare treat this was and I never ever refuse to sign a book(unless it isn't mine).

My chum didn't realize this was rare and later said, "I felt sorry for those other authors. Some of them didn't have but one or two people in their lines."

I told her, "Kim, that was me last week."

She laughed. "No, it wasn't."

"Yes, believe me, it was. I wouldn't joke about something like that."

It seems no matter how long many of us have been published and on the road, we can never feel completely confident about the turnouts for events and signings.

I was reminded of this point Saturday when I spoke The Big Read in Saint Louis. The festival was beautifully organized, every step thought out. The day started with an author breakfast at the hotel, giving us a chance to mingle with each other. Later a driver met us in the lobby, someone else escorted us from the drop off point and walked us to our event. The moderators gave lovely intros. All the volunteers were cheerful and thanked us for participating. This was a festival that ran as smooth as soft icing on a warm cake.

But...I had the misfortune of being scheduled the same time as Linda Sue Park's presentation. Linda Sue and I write for the same age group. My turnout was puny and when I stopped early to take questions, I found myself with half of the original audience. I'd made the assumption there would be lots of questions about getting published. That had been my experience with other festivals. The young man who had asked me questions about When Zachary Beaver Came to Town before the presentation, had left when he realized my talk would center around the Piper Reed books.

This morning at the airport, I was still licking my wounds, while I perused the magazines at the newsstand. I grabbed a copy of the special fiction issue of The Atlantic before rushing to my flight. It was just what I needed.

After buckling in, I read Ann Patchett's essay about book touring titled
My Life in Sales. If you are a writer, new or seasoned, dash to your nearest bookstore and pick up a copy. Patchett's essay alone is worth the six bucks. Patchett explores her life on the road and the ups and downs of turnouts. She reflects on Allan Gurganus' wise remark--"The only thing worse than going on book tour, is not going on book tour." The ending made me cry because it was a reminder of why I do say yes to these events when there will always be the possibility of low turnouts. There is always the possibility of the sweet moments, too.

And there were some sweet moments this weekend. Laurie Keller and I had a progressive dinner on Friday night. We ate appetizers at two restaurants before heading to Ben and Jerry's. Laurie is one of my favorite picture book writer/illustrators and it was fun to spend some time catching up with her.

Saturday night Linda Sue Park and I ate dinner about a half mile from the hotel.

We talked about our current projects, and how we'd never had a favorite book of our own until now. Linda Sue's is her new book, Keeping Score. Mine is the historical manuscript I turned in to my editor last summer for the second round.

That night I returned to my room and checked my e-mail. There was an invitation to be a keynote at an event. Had they not heard what had happened in Saint Louis? With all the ups and downs, it is easy to think you have a successful career one minute and the next think you are a complete failure. Indeed, it's a strange business. And I love it.

Friday, October 10, 2008


Today my post is called Critique Groups: One Writer's View. It can be found at A Good Blog is Hard to Find. This blog is made up of Southern writers. I'm honored to be invited to post every six weeks.

Thursday, October 9, 2008


This sign just about sums up my day in San Diego.

Thank you Mary Hayward from Yellow Book Road for arranging visits to Miller Elementary and Angier Elementary Schools. Most of the students were military kids which meant we had a lot in common.

When I signed their books, I asked them where they were born. They told me Japan, Hawaii, Florida, Maine, Australia, Texas, Virginia, Washington D.C. On and on, they named places that most couldn't remember much about because they had moved while they were very young.

We talked about grandparents. They wanted to know how often I'd see mine growing up. I told them that sometimes I went years without seeing my grandparents because at times, we'd lived overseas. They nodded, understanding because it had been that way for many of them, too. Those students helped me recall what it had been like to be --Kimberly Willis, Navy Brat

Thank you Rebecca Grose, my author escort for the day.

Not only did you get me where I needed to be on time(special thanks to Madge, too), but you gave me a glimpse into San Diego. And oh, what a glimpse it was!

**If you live in the Saint Louis area, I hope you will come see me at the The Big Read on Saturday. For more details, check my schedule page.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008



Well She likes Him
and Him likes Her
and Her likes That Guy
Don't you see?

(That Guy likes She)?
It's crazy as can be.

Three, four -
What's a few more?
That Guy's in the corner, cakein' on She.

Cakein', definition:
Being so sweet on someone
That the tooth aches
The body shakes
Tongue salivates
For just a taste
of that person

And I'm certain
that love is somethin'
like a powdered sugared doughnut
full of jelly - it's mighty messy.
Once you get that stuff on your clothes
it's not coming off
and your stuck there,
sitting in confectionery.

Yeah, yeah!
Betty Crocker knows-
knows all about that sort of thing.
When she was 23
she found love to be
worse than a flour-covered apron
and in the middle of making out
with Boyfriend #3,
decided she'd rather be baking cake
or cookies or something
ANYTHING other than kissing

'Cause kissing made her feel
so mixed up inside,
like unbaked brownie batter
being hit with a wooden spoon

and there was just no-
no more room
for her to feel-
but a craving for cake,
so she took her rolling pin and said goodbye
to Boyfriend #3
then made a bundle of dough
putting heart into sweets
for you and me.

C'est la Vie! That's life you see,
We all want the same
same thing, a - m - o -r -e spells

Which explains why
no matter who or what or where we are,
we share this infinite hunger
to dive into each other hearts
and wind together
like strands of Twizzlers

Until we are nothing
but one
of Pure.

-Shannon Holt

You can read more from Shannon at her blog The Dorm Room Diner.

Monday, October 6, 2008


As much as I adore shoes, I prefer not to wear them inside my home. On Guam, when we visited someone, we slipped off our shoes before entering their house. You could tell who was having a fiesta by how many pairs of shoes were outside their door. I had forgotten about that tradition until I returned to the island and attended a friend's party. Everywhere I looked I noticed bare feet.

After the first birthday party I gave for my husband, my mother-in-law commented, "Do you realize you never put on your shoes the entire time?"

I hadn't considered putting on my shoes, but I guess my comfort had made her uncomfortable.

A couple of years later while I was expecting my daughter, my husband and I hosted a dinner party for a few friends. One of our guests asked, "Is Jerry trying to keep you barefooted and pregnant?" Maybe most people expect their hosts to wear shoes. This isn't Guam after all.

So last week when I asked a few friends over for lunch, I considered slipping on my flip-flops. Then I thought, if they're my friends, it won't matter if I wear shoes or not.

It was a nice lunch. We ate chicken soup I'd made from my editor, Christy's recipe. And later finished the meal with I-45 cake. Charlotte shared about the upcoming event with writer Rick Bragg she was helping coordinate. Jenny talked about the writing class she would begin teaching that night. Robin discussed her return to Amarillo. No one mentioned my feet.

I missed my morning writing session because I was cooking and doing some last minute straightening. But I could work later than usual because Jerry had an appointment that night. After my friends left, I walked outside to get the mail before I started to write. When I tried to reopen the storm door, it wouldn't budge. We'd had trouble with the latch sticking the last couple of months, but had neglected to oil it. I looked at my dog, Bronte, on the other side. She is such a smart dog. On command, she can sit, lie down, twirl, walk on her hind legs. She can even play dead when we say, "Bang, Bang!" But she cannot open a door.

Why hadn't I put on my garden clogs before stepping outside the house?

I walked to my neighbor that lives diagonally across the street from us. I knocked at the door and stared down at my toes. At least I'd had a recent pedicure. But I was almost relieved she wasn't home.

Then I went to our next door neighbor's home. Ann answered the door, but I knew right away I'd awakened her. Poor Ann had sinus problems and was taking a nap. She was so groggy she didn't notice my feet. She hunted around in her kitchen drawer and found a knife. And a few minutes later I was able to slide the blade between the door and the casing, unjamming the latch. Thank goodness for napping neighbors with sinus problems.

Inside my home, I dished up some soup and cut a couple of pieces of cake for Ann and Ray. But before taking them over, I propped open the storm door with a watering can and slipped on my clogs.

Here's the recipe I use for I-45 cake. It's the easiest cake in the world to make. I recommend you keep one on hand at all times to payback good deeds from good neighbors. You may want to put on a pair of shoes before delivering some though.

I-45 Cake

1 Stick of Butter (I guess you could use margarine, but why would you?)
1 Yellow Cake Mix
1 8 ounces of cream cheese
1 16 ounce package of powdered sugar
4 eggs

Mix melted butter with cake mix. Mix in two eggs. Pour into a greased 9x13 inch baking pan.

Mix softened cream cheese with powdered sugar. Beat in two eggs. Pour on top of cake mixture. Bake at 350 for 30-35 minutes.

For a look beyond my block, visit Travis Erwin's My Town Monday

Saturday, October 4, 2008


A few quotes from an ideal candidate:

We have too many high-sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.

Great necessities call out great virtues.

I am more and more convinced that man is a dangerous creature and that power, whether vested in many or a few, is ever grasping, and like the grave cries, 'Give, give!'

Friday, October 3, 2008


Yesterday I visited South Lawn Elementary School in Amarillo. They were the first recipients of the Mitchell-Willis Scholarship. The scholarship is named in honor of my grandparents and awards the winning Texas panhandle school an author visit from me.

If you are a Texas Panhandle school and have not had an author or illustrator visit in four years, and would like to apply for the 2009 scholarship, please contact me for details at

Thank you, South Lawn for a wonderful kickoff. And a special thank you to fourth grade teacher, Michelle Sanders. I had a Get Off the Bus day at your school!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


I'll be heading on the road next week for a month of school visits and events. If you live in any of the areas I'll be visiting, I hope you will consider attending one of the below events. I love meeting my readers.

Wednesday, October 8

4:00 PM

Q&A about Writing
and Signing

The Yellow Book Road
7200 Parkway Drive
Suite 118
La Mesa, CA 91942

Saturday, October 11

The Big Read

Campus of Clayton High School
at Mark Twain Circle & Topton Way
Saint Louis, Missouri

Thursday, October 30

University of Texas at San Antonio
7:00-8:00 PM
Presentation and signing
Retama Auditorium
University Center, 2.02.02
1604 Campus
San Antonio, TX