Kate DiCamillo talks writing, healing herself with new novel 'Ferris'


By AGENCY

'I would hear ‘the books are dark,’ and it would always surprise me because I would think the books are funny. Or the books are just telling the truth about what it’s like to be here, which is, it’s really hard to be here. And it’s also beautiful here,' says DiCamillo. Photo: AP

Children's writer Kate DiCamillo is known for beloved stories like The Tale Of Despereaux and Because Of Winn-Dixie, about kids and animals trying to navigate the world and make emotional connections.

Her trademarks include a strong voice, humour, and a tinge of sadness.

But her latest book, Ferris is a departure, and a surprise even for DiCamillo – the story of a happy family.

“People have opened their hearts to me. It’s been this long, beautiful kind of thing, where I have been able to let myself be loved because of the stories. So now I can write a story that is all love,” said the author.

The middle-grade novel – out now from Candlewick Press – chronicles the adventures of a 10-year-old girl named Ferris living in a small town, trying to manage her quirky family members, including her daredevil little sister Pinky and glamourous grandmother, who insists she’s being visited by a ghost.

Ferris still has many hallmarks of a DiCamillo story – small town simplicity, the slow pace of a hot summer, a trusted best friend, and an adorable dog with a freakishly high emotional I.Q. Most of DiCamillo’s books teach life lessons through humour and common experience, but characters also deal with loss, grief and loneliness. DiCamillo says she didn’t recognise those themes until fans pointed them out.

“I would hear ‘the books are dark,’ and it would always surprise me because I would think the books are funny. Or the books are just telling the truth about what it’s like to be here, which is, it’s really hard to be here. And it’s also beautiful here,” said DiCamillo, 59.

How DiCamillo writes

The Newbery Medal winner laughed as she admitted how little planning and preparation goes into starting a new book. She says her writing process is “instinctual” and she often learns about her story themes while promoting her books.

“I don’t do character development. I don’t ... think out the plot in advance,” said DiCamillo.

“I have usually the name, I have an image or two and then it’s like walking down a dark hallway and I can see a little strip of light at the end of the hallway. That’s the door. And so I’m just kind of like feeling my way through it.”

DiCamillo has had 44 million books in print worldwide, translated into 41 languages, and many have been adapted for the stage and screen. Yet self-deprecating to a fault, DiCamillo claims she often thinks her first drafts are “terrible” but has faith they’ll improve.

DiCamillo’s human characters are usually 8 to 10-years-old and when fans wonder how she gets inside the mind of a child so authentically she says her 8-year old self is still very present in her heart. Her newest character, Ferris Wilkey (nicknamed after her mother gave birth to her next to the Ferris wheel at the state fairgrounds) is heading into fifth grade and adores Grandma Charisse, but senses she’s not well.

'Ferris' is DiCamillo’s 34th book and she has two more coming out later this year. She’s also working on a collection of fairytales. Photo: AP'Ferris' is DiCamillo’s 34th book and she has two more coming out later this year. She’s also working on a collection of fairytales. Photo: AP

“You’re aware of everything and you haven’t gone over into cynicism yet,” DiCamillo said of that age. ”She’s seen the world, and is so open to all the magic of it and also seeing ... people that you love can get sick.”

Ferris has her own room, two parents, and an extended family who demonstrate their love, creating a safe and happy home. DiCamillo says she got the idea for the story after a close family friend gave birth to a daughter and was surrounded by love when she brought the baby home.

“I just had this thing of like, what if I wrote a book about a kid who was absolutely, positively loved from the second that she came into the world?” said DiCamillo.

She believes in the importance of being candid with kids about all the complexities of being human.

“The world is a beautiful place. It’s a terrifying place. It’s a place filled with sorrow,” she said.

“But you also have to talk about the sad things, because you need to be able to find that in a book, because it makes you feel less alone.”

Reckoning with her own childhood

DiCamillo suffered trauma as a child growing up in Pennsylvania and Florida, and has only recently shared that her father was verbally abusive, manipulative, and threatening, creating a “terrifying” environment at home. She says therapy and some closure around her father’s death in 2019 have helped her heal.

Even labelling her experience as domestic abuse has taken time to process.

“It’s the moment of reckoning for me to call it that. But I think it’s important,” she said. ”It’s good that we can all talk about it, and somewhere in somebody’s classroom or somebody’s library, there’s a kid that is experiencing that now, and so we can give them, a safe place and a book.”

Connecting with kids and adults through her books has also led to this more secure place. DiCamillo says writing has helped her work through her emotions and Ferris is evidence of that.

Not just books for kids

Bestselling novelist Ann Patchett calls DiCamillo a “beautiful writer” and says once she discovered her books, she couldn’t put them down.

“It’s her willingness to engage and her willingness always to talk about what kids need. We need to be read to,” said Patchett.

“We need to have that community in literature so that we can also go off and have the experience by ourselves.”

DiCamillo had long admired Patchett before meeting her and now the two are close friends who read each other’s work in progress.

“I call her Swiss Army Annie,” said DiCamillo with a smile.

'Ferris' still has many hallmarks of a DiCamillo story – small town simplicity, the slow pace of a hot summer, a trusted best friend, and an adorable dog with a freakishly high emotional I.Q. Photo: AP'Ferris' still has many hallmarks of a DiCamillo story – small town simplicity, the slow pace of a hot summer, a trusted best friend, and an adorable dog with a freakishly high emotional I.Q. Photo: AP

“Whatever it is that you need done, she knows how to do it. I go to her with all of my problems of being human and my problems of writing.”

Patchett – who owns a bookstore in Nashville – says just because DiCamillo’s books are aimed at children, doesn’t mean adults should miss out. She often recommended DiCamillo’s books during the pandemic when people were having trouble concentrating.

“I was like ... read these books because you can have the whole experience of a giant, very important piece of American literature, but you can finish it in two hours. And people were incredibly comforted by that fact and by the books themselves.”

The power of reading aloud

When she’s not writing, DiCamillo travels around the country meeting kids and reading to them.

She says her biggest inspirations growing up and today are her mother, teachers, and librarians – people who read aloud to children. She vividly remembers her mother buying her books, reading to her, and taking her to the library.

“And I remember my second-grade teacher reading aloud. We read novel after novel every day after lunch,” said DiCamillo, tearing up.

“I think, boy, if it mattered that much to me, a kid who was getting it lots of other places ... I think it can change lives.”

The author receives hundreds of fan letters from kids and she reads and answers each one. Despite an outpouring of love, DiCamillo had a tough time receiving praise, but that’s recently changed.

“Any time I’m on a stage now, there’s more proof there, that I cannot get off the stage without crying at some point because, yeah, I’m letting it in,” said DiCamillo.

“I’m deeply moved by it, so I’m not uncomfortable with it as much as I’m astonished by it.”

Rachel Person, event director for Northshire Bookstore in Saratoga Springs, New York, has met DiCamillo several times during her book tours. Person organised an event in 2016 for more than 550 people and when she started selling tickets, she began to worry because people were so emotional about meeting DiCamillo.

“They were saying all these things and I was like, I don’t think anyone can live up to what these people are expecting from this woman who’s coming to town,” said Person.

“But she somehow found a way to truly connect emotionally with every single person who went through that line ... to be present, in the way that these people with this intense emotional connection needed from her, which is amazing to watch.”

More DiCamillo books on the way Ferris is DiCamillo’s 34th book and she has two more coming out later this year. She’s also working on a collection of fairytales.

Patchett calls DiCamillo “freakishly hardworking.”

“No matter what, she gets up in the black hours of the earliest dawn and goes to work,” said Patchett.

Person says when people talk about the books that shaped them as a person, it’s often stories they read as a child, and DiCamillo is one of those writers who’s made an impact.

“The number of kids who have a little piece of Kate in their soul is high, and that’s a really hopeful, lovely thing for our world.”

“I feel like it’s the greatest gift in the world because I’m a reader myself and I know, how books have saved me,” said DiCamillo.

“I say to kids sometimes ... most of the time we’re never even going to meet, but still we know each other because of those stories, you know? It’s a miraculous thing to me.” – AP

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