Monday, September 21, 2009

In the Attic with Kate DiCamillo

Kate DiCamillo is the author of children's books, including Because of Winn Dixie and The Tale of Desperaux. Her new book, The Magician's Elephant, was released earlier this month. She will be appearing at the National Book Festival on Saturday.

You went to the National Book Festival in 2002. Have you been to any others? What was the experience like, and how is it different from other book events?

I went one other year [2004], so I’ve done it twice. Both times it just got a huge turnout and people are really passionate there. I felt a little like a rock star there which is kind of nice but also disconcerting.

Animals play such important roles in your stories. What are some differences between how you create animal characters versus human characters?

Sadly none at all. [laughs] Animals are just another character and they seem as real to me as the human ones, which reveals how psychologically disturbed I am. I never thought about that, but they’re the same as human characters.

Do you have a pet of your own?

I’m leaning on him right now. His name is Henry and his eyebrows just went up. He’s a poodle-terrier mix, a mutt.

You create such a wonderful sense of place in each of your books. What are some places that are particularly inspiring to you?

I was recently just in your neck of the woods. My aunt lives in Arlington and my brother and I visited her. Our mom passed away recently and we went to spread her ashes in the Chesapeake Bay, and that will probably show up in something. It’s so gorgeous there. We went to where she grew up, which is like part of Annapolis, Bay Ridge. That was just great and I keep thinking about that.

Florida is always in the back of my mind, and the landscape here in Minneapolis, up north on the shore of Lake Superior is always in my head and my heart.

Where did the inspiration for The Magician’s Elephant come from?

I was in the lobby of a hotel in New York waiting to meet someone and an image of this desperate magician appeared before me. This was a magician who was third rate and wanted to perform real magic, so I got out my notebook to write a description of him. When I was reaching into my purse, I saw another notebook, one I was giving to someone as a gift that had an elephant on the cover. I went from the magician wanting to do real magic and an elephant appearing and it seemed like a story to me.

In what ways is this new book different from others you’ve written? Either the book itself or the process of writing it.

It just about killed me. It was so hard to write and Edward was the last novel and that kind of wrote itself. That doesn’t happen very often. But this was more like Desperaux, and I was so focused on all the different characters and I had all these different balls in the air, and I had no idea how it would work out. When I look back on writing it, it was a long rocky road.

I think your books are great for all ages and everyone can enjoy them, but how did you know you wanted to write books that end up in the children’s section versus books for adults?

Thank you for saying that! That’s my pie in the sky dream, that I can be a storyteller for everyone. It happened roughly when I moved to Minneapolis and I got a job in a book warehouse. I was assigned to the third floor with all the kids’ books. I went around picking books off the shelves and as a reader you’re bound to start reading what you’re picking up, and that’s what I did. I fell in love with what you could do with books for kids. The first novel I read that was written for kids was The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 and I thought I wanted to try to do something like that.

Did you always write?

I did, I started where most people start, which is short stories for adults, thinking that it’s shorter and therefore easier. I still occasionally write short stories for adults, and some have been in literary journeys, but it’s far more enjoyable writing for kids, and I think part of that is the potential for magic.

What do you think about the way the country is going in terms of literacy? How can we encourage more people to read?

I always came at it from my own bias, which is the power of story and I was one of those kids who felt like again and again what I got in the library saved me and it was stories that helped me understand the world I was in. When parents say ‘how can I make my kids read?’ I say, ‘Do they see you reading books for your own pleasure?’ I think that reading can sustain you for a lifetime and it helps you talk about your in the world and understand your place in the world and help you dream and that’s what I think reading should be.

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