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Because of ‘that dog’

Local author and previous National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Kate DiCamillo talks about the inspiration and motivation for her award-winning books. 

Interview by Julie Carroll  

Ask any young reader to name her favorite books, and there’s a pretty good chance she’ll mention at least one by Kate DiCamillo, author of Newbery winners Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tale of Despereaux, and Flora and Ulysses, as well as the popular Mercy Watson series. 

DiCamillo, who lives in Minneapolis, is a founder of Hamline’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults (MFAC) program, one of only a few of its kind in the country. She also established a scholarship fund for students in the program.

Despite a busy travel schedule, she recently made time to talk with Hamline Alumni Magazine by email about her life and writing process. Below are excerpts from the interview.

Oh, I was such a huge reader as a kid. There were so many books that I loved, and so many authors too. It’s impossible to pick just one. There was a bio of George Washington Carver that I loved and kept checking out of the library over and over. Paddington (the bear from darkest Peru) really spoke to me. So did The Borrowers (those tiny people who live in the floorboards of our houses). And Stuart Little and Ralph S. Mouse! And all of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books! I could go on and on. 

The me that was a huge reader as a kid is a huge reader as an adult. All of which is to say that there are many books on my nightstand and beside my couch and on my desk. In those piles: Best American Short Stories 1964, Cold Mountain, Underground Airlines, Orphan Island, Huckleberry Finn, 1984. 

My stories reflect a lot of the emotional truth of my life. By that, I mean that there are missing parents, deep friendships, hope, and love. I grew up in a single-parent home, and that single-parentedness shows up in every story I write. 

I carry a notebook with me everywhere I go. I write down phrases that I overhear. I pay attention. I listen. I watch. And, I write it all down. 

I’m not quirky as much as disciplined. Two pages a day. First thing in the morning, really early in the morning, on the computer. And there must be coffee, of course.

It’s kind of impossible to pick a favorite [character of hers]. But I have to say that everything that has happened to me as a writer has happened because of that first book, Because of Winn-Dixie. So . . . maybe that dog. 

I believe in bad writing days. I believe that you can have a lot of bad writing days in a row. I also believe that you never know when the good writing days are going to appear, so I just keep writing through the bad ones. 

I don’t do much research. I’ve got mice running around rescuing princesses with sewing needles. It all comes from my feverish imagination.  

 All of The Tale of Despereaux, every bit of it, was hard to write. It was so different from anything I had done before. It was a fairytale. It was plot heavy. And it was complicated. I was afraid most of the time that I was writing, but I learned something huge about showing up every day and not giving up and trusting the story (and the mouse) to lead me. 

I do not Google myself. I haven’t done that for 10 years now. I’ve gotten so many glorious notes from kids and adults. I love it when a kid tells me that he or she hated to read and now they don’t because of one of my books. That’s the best. 

I’m working on a novel! We’ll see. Today was not a good writing day, but I remain eternally hopeful. 

 At one point, in one draft [of Because of Winn-Dixie], there was a hurricane. Yep. The hurricane got cut. 

I wanted to be a veterinarian when I was a kid, but then I realized that I didn’t have the stomach for it. I would be very unhappy if I wasn’t writing. I have found the thing I am meant to do, and I get to do it, and that is happiness. 

On her role as Ambassador for Young People’s Literature: I loved that gig. The biggest thing I took away from it was a sense of community of readers, how stories really do connect us.


More about Kate DiCamillo

National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, 2014-2015

Picture books: Great Joy (2007); Louise, The Adventures of a Chicken (2008)

Series: Bink & Gollie, Mercy Watson, Tales from Deckawoo Drive

Novels: Because of Winn-Dixie (2000), The Tiger Rising (2001), The Tale of Despereaux (2003), The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (2006), The Magician’s Elephant (2009), Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures (2013), Raymie Nightingale (2016)

Two major feature film adaptations of her books: Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux

Newbery Honor, 2001, Because of Winn-Dixie

Newbery Medal, 2004, The Tale of Despereaux

Boston Globe Horn Book Award, 2006, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Theodor Geisel Honor, 2007, Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride

Theodor Geisel Medal, 2011, Bink and Gollie