April 2016

Kate DiCamillo

Sharing pieces of herself in an open-hearted novel, fears and all
Interview by
Kate DiCamillo is a nervous Nellie. You’d think that after winning two Newbery Medals, the publication of a new children’s book would be old hat. “It’s like putting your kid on the bus for the first day of school, and you don’t know what’s going to happen,” she says. This time, the “kid” is Raymie Nightingale, her most autobiographical book yet.
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Kate DiCamillo is a nervous Nellie. You’d think that after winning two Newbery Medals, the publication of a new children’s book would be old hat. “It’s like putting your kid on the bus for the first day of school, and you don’t know what’s going to happen,” she says. This time, the “kid” is Raymie Nightingale, her most autobiographical book yet.

DiCamillo, who launched her acclaimed career with the publication of Because of Winn-Dixie in 2000, quickly points out that writing such a personal book wasn’t part of her plan. “I thought I was going to write something funny and lighthearted about someone Ramona Quimby-like entering a beauty pageant,” she says during a call to her home in Minneapolis. “And then bit by bit, all of these pieces of me came in there, and it became a heavier story than I had intended.”

DiCamillo needn’t worry; her new novel is a gem, full of laugh-out-loud situations, heartfelt moments of kindness and genuine heartache.

The novel’s heroine, 10-year-old Raymie Clarke, is taking baton-twirling lessons during the summer of 1975 with the goal of becoming Little Miss Central Florida Tire. She hopes such acclaim might lure back her father, who has run off with a dental hygienist.

There are parallels aplenty between Raymie and the author. In a note at the beginning of the novel, DiCamillo writes: “Raymie’s story is entirely made up. Raymie’s story is the absolutely true story of my heart.” 

“Raymie’s story is the absolutely true story of my heart.” 

At age 6, DiCamillo moved with her mother and brother from Pennsylvania to Clermont, Florida (near Orlando), to try to end DiCamillo’s frequent bouts of pneumonia. Her father, an orthodontist, was supposed to sell his practice and join them, but he never did. 

As soon as DiCamillo realized that her manuscript-in-progress was becoming a story about a girl whose father had left, her response was, “Uh-oh.”

But that, it turns out, was actually good news.

“I’ve been doing this long enough to know that when the uh-oh shows up, I’m in business,” she says. “It means that the story is in charge and not me. So when something happens that I’m totally unprepared for, I also know that I’ve got something that matters.”

When she was 7 or 8 years old, DiCamillo competed in the Little Miss Orange Blossom contest, which, alas, she didn’t win. She remembers being at the pageant and thinking, “This is not where I should be.” And even before the pageant, during baton-twirling lessons, she realized, “This is just not who I am.”

Raymie’s baton lessons don’t go well either, but they introduce her to two lively, endearing characters: the tough-as-nails Beverly Tapinski, who plans to sabotage the contest, and the ever-optimistic Louisiana Elefante, who lives with her grandmother and claims that her parents were known as the famous Flying Elefantes. Before long, Louisiana has dubbed the unlikely trio the “Three Rancheros.”

Their subsequent adventures form the heart and soul of this novel, with madcap exploits that include secret nursing home visits and a night raid on the Very Friendly Animal Center in search of Louisiana’s beloved cat, Archie. (Animals are a necessity in every DiCamillo book!) But while the novel is full of action, the text has an exquisitely spare quality. Despite the outlandish predicaments they get themselves into, the Three Rancheros’ thoughts and dialogue always ring true. 

“Those characters,” DiCamillo says with a chuckle. “Just get out of their way because I don’t know what they’re going to do and what they’re going to say.”

It’s fitting that the words that pop out of these characters’ mouths—surprising even the author—are the actual seeds from which she begins creating their personalities. “As they talk to each other, that’s how I find out who they are,” she says. “Like when Beverly says at the beginning of the book, ‘Fear is a big waste of time. I’m not afraid of anything.’ I’m like Raymie; I just idolize people like that. I can’t conceive of not being afraid.”

That’s something DiCamillo shares with one of her literary heroes, E.B. White. “I’m super neurotic,” she says, “and I think that maybe he was, too, from what I’ve read about him. But he did things with words that very few people do, and I can’t figure out how he did it. And I think if I asked him, he wouldn’t be able to answer.”

DiCamillo says she wonders whether White’s apprehensions affected his writing. “It’s just that everything is burnished with love for him, and he manages to convey that to us. So the question is, does all the worry get in the way of the love, or does the love win over the worry? Because it looks like it did, from what he wrote.

“I sure would like to worry less,” she adds with a cheerful sigh.

DiCamillo believes the writing process helps her overcome certain personal shortcomings by keeping her eyes and heart wide open. “It’s my connection to my better self,” she says. “You have to pay such close attention to the world and people, and it changes how you look at the world.” Storytelling keeps her gaze outward, even as it teaches her more about herself. 

Does this process of paying attention mean that she’s always on the lookout?

“I am,” she admits. “And I think a lot about a friend that I grew up with named Kathy Lord, who is interested in everything and everybody. She liked to sharpen her pencil as much as she could in the classroom because that gave her a chance to walk to the front of the room, and not for something to do, but to look at what everybody else was doing. Other people were so fabulously interesting to her. I think of her sometimes when I’m out in the world. Pay attention that way. Make like Kathy Lord on the way to the pencil sharpener. Every little detail of somebody is interesting.

“And Kathy Lord’s mouth was always slightly hanging open as she did it, because she was just so gobstopped by people and what they were doing. And I think about that with me, and then I have to be careful sometimes to close my mouth as I’m staring at the world.”

As Raymie grapples with her father’s departure, she’s surrounded by a host of helpful adults. A young DiCamillo also benefited from such reassuring presences, including three kind, widowed ladies who kept close watch over the many children who lived on her dead-end street. “That’s one of the things that I was aware of consciously when the book was done,” DiCamillo says, “that this was kind of a tip of the hat to all those adults.”

When she tells fans about her childhood, DiCamillo is often delighted by young readers who come up to her and ask: Do you think that if your father hadn’t left that you would be a writer? Do you think that if you weren’t so sick all the time as a kid that you would have become a writer?

“I never say that explicitly,” DiCamillo says, “but that they get there is astounding.” These are her most satisfying encounters with kids, when a child walks away knowing that things that once seemed so hard and impossible actually helped shape her.

As for Raymie and her struggles, DiCamillo says, “The same thing that happened with Raymie happened with me. I found what friendship can give you. And there aren’t always answers, but there’s love and friendship.”


This article was originally published in the April 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Get the Book

Raymie Nightingale

Raymie Nightingale

By Kate DiCamillo
ISBN 9780763681173

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