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Transcript from an interview with Kate DiCamillo

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Kate DiCamillo. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Kate DiCamillo

From novels to picture books

My name is Kate DiCamillo, and I've written four novels, and I'll have a total of six easy readers soon enough. The novels are Because of Winn-Dixie, Tiger Rising, Tale of Despereaux, and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. And the easy readers are all about a pig named Mercy Watson. I've just finished the sixth one in that series, and I've got a picture book that will come out this fall, called Great Joy. I've written mostly novels, but I'm branching out into other things.

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An outsider

When I was in college, and professors said, "Hey, you should think about graduate school. You've got a way with words."

I thought, "Super. I've got a way with words. I'm gonna be a writer. I'll be rich and famous."

So then I bought a lot of black turtlenecks and started looking sophisticated and world-weary, and I spent the next ten years that way, until I realized that I wasn't going to be a writer unless I wrote something.

So, I didn't actually start until I was almost 30. But I decided that I wanted to do it in my twenties. Sad story. Wasted youth…

I worked at Disney World. I worked at Circus World. I worked at a campground. I worked in a greenhouse. And the whole time, I said, "I'm gonna be a writer" — but I wasn't writing.

At the time, I was certainly a lost soul, but all of those jobs at the margin of society were a profound influence on me and became a way of looking at the world. I became an outsider, because the rest of my friends were moving along a very prescribed path, and I had fallen off the track. So it was actually a good thing. I didn't know that at the time, though. Nor did I believe it. It's like, "Man, I'm a loser. What a loser. I'm a loser." And then I would say, "Look down and watch your step," which was my job at Disney.

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Persistence

Why would somebody bother to keep on sending stuff out after that many rejection letters? I don't have an answer. I'd waited so long to start. You know, a whole decade of my life went by with me saying that this is what I wanted to do, but not doing it. I had reached such a critical level of self-disgust. I didn't want to die saying, "I think I could have done it."

Since I was doing the work of telling stories, it was then an easy enough thing to then send the stories out and to keep on doing it, so I didn't have to say some 50 years hence, "I think I could've done that."

Well you know, I've been in so many writing workshops, writing classes, and to the right of me and to the left of me, there's always somebody much more talented than I am. And what I figured out is they're not willing to go through the rejection, which is enormous, and then the compromise that comes with editing your work. I decided a long time ago that I didn't have to be talented. I just had to be persistent, and that that was something that I could control — the persistence. I've always been kind of persistent.

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The Newbery call

That was unbelievable, you know, because the amazing thing about the Newbery is that, as far as literary awards go, it's something that the layperson recognizes. People who aren't in the book world know that award and pick up a book because of that award, and I, as a child, knew to look for that medal on a book — that it guaranteed me that I was going to like the book.

And so to think that that would be on something that I had written — the first thing that I'd written — there's no describing that feeling. Hysteria.

I can't remember where they were that year. It must've been on the West Coast, because the call came relatively early, and I was hysterical, and then I went off to work at the bookstore. It was a life-changing thing, and I hadn't understood the implications of how it was going to change my life.

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Because of Winn-Dixie

I wrote Because of Winn-Dixie during what was at the time referred to as the "worst winter on record" in Minnesota, which is a considerable statement for Minnesota, which is roughly the equivalent of Siberia in climate. And because I'd grown up in Florida, it was a double shock to me. I mean we had a week where the high didn't go above 20 below, and so you walk outside, and you open up your car door, and pieces of it fall off because it's so cold.

So, at that point, I was thinking, "Hmm. I wonder what things are like in Florida." And so I was homesick, and it was the first long period in my life that I'd been without a dog or access to a dog. I desperately wanted a dog, so I made a dog up, and I went back to Florida — all of that happening without any conscious decision on my part. I can look back and see what was at work now, but then I just knew that I was longing for home and that I wanted to write a book…

When I got to the set, they were filming the scene with Dave Matthews playing a song for Opal in the pet store. And I'm not a weeper, but I sat there and just cried like a baby, which delighted Wayne Wang, the director. He was so pleased.

It's an astonishing thing, because, you know, you're in your little room, in your little apartment at 4:30 in the morning making things up, and then all of a sudden five years later, there it is in everybody's mind, so it was very unsettling and very moving.

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Great Joy

Great Joy is a picture book — a Christmas picture book — and it started for me with a sentence, "This was in a dark time, when music was seldom heard." And that sentence never made it into the final manuscript that I sent to Candlewick, but it kind of informed the whole book in that it was a — a dark time, but there was — there was some music.

And it's a very simple story about a little girl in a Christmas pageant and — and an organ grinder and a monkey. And writing a picture book is a profoundly different experience than writing a novel. Every word has to be exactly right, and it has to be in the right place, and the art is the dominant thing. You write to the art, and you write to the page turn.

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A love-hate relationship

I always quote Dorothy Parker: "I hate writing. I love having written." And so every morning, it's the first thing I do when I wake up. And every morning, I wake up and think, "Oh, God. I don't want to write today." But I just go ahead and do it anyway. And then for the rest of the day, I can think, "Oh, I got that done." And then I start the battle over again the next morning…

Why do I write? Because life makes more sense when I write, because even though it's a struggle for me every day, at least once a week I'll be sitting there, and a feeling will wash over me of, "This is what I'm supposed to be doing." And I feel like I'm incredibly lucky that I get to do it. I feel like I'm incredibly lucky that I found what I'm supposed to do. And just because it's hard for me doesn't mean that it's not what I'm supposed to be doing.

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Reading aloud and modeling

Anything teachers can do for the struggling readers in their classroom? Read to them. I know that's incredibly hard to do now, with standardized testing — that there's not enough time in the day to do that. But if you can read aloud…

And parents, it doesn't matter if the child is reading on their own, if you continue to read aloud with them each night. And, again, for parents, if the child sees you reading a book for your own pleasure, rather than screaming at them to read for 15 minutes, and then you're sitting out there, watching TV — if you can model for them that it a profoundly moving experience for you to read a book for yourself, then that, I think, will encourage the child to read.

And beyond that, I don't know, because I was such a reader myself, you never had to beg me to read. It was how I made sense out of things.

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Advice for young writers

If you want to write, you should read — a lot. And not only in a certain genre, but outside of what you're interested in. If you like realistic fiction, you should read fantasy. You should just read across the board. And if you want to write, you should write, which seems kinda like a no-brainer, but it took me about ten years to figure it out. That means making some kind of commitment to doing the work of writing, even if it's two pages a day; if it's a page a day; if it's, you know, just some kind of goal that you set for yourself that's reachable.

If you want to write, you should pay attention to people — everybody has a story — and listen to people when they talk. Not because you want to steal their story, but because almost everybody's interesting if you give them a chance and if you ask them the right questions.

So, that's it. Listen. Write. Read. Pretty simple.

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"I used to walk to school with my nose buried in a book." — Coolio