Video transcript
2017 NSW PRC author interview - Kate DiCamillo

Back to video Back to NSW Premier's Reading Challenge (PRC) 2017 author interviews

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- Good day. My name's Rob Stokes. I'm the New South Wales Education Minister. And I'm here to lend my support to BookFest as part of the Premier's Reading Challenge. Reading is so important to all of us. It's something that I really enjoy to do. It's a way in which I relax and unwind. One of the things I love about writing is the opportunity it gives me to visit places and to meet people that I would never otherwise get to meet.

What do I mean by that? Well I like reading historical fiction and things about geography that gives me the chance to imagine places or worlds that may or may not exist, but also places that did exist in the past but don't exist anymore, but give me the chance to unlock some of those mysteries and some of those untold stories, to learn more without realising that I'm actually learning.

That's one of the great things about reading. It's a way in which we can relax and unwind and escape, but at the same time, we're learning and we don't even know it. So reading is a wonderful pastime. It's a wonderful way to learn. It's a wonderful way to grow and to meet people and go to places that we'd never otherwise get to visit.

- Hi, and welcome to BookFest. And congratulations. We're about halfway through the Premier's Reading Challenge. Already so many books read and so many books still to read in the time that lies ahead. I hope you really enjoy these next few days of BookFest. So many new books to discover, great authors to listen to, and a great opportunity to share good reading ideas with our friends.

Reading is such a wonderful part of my life, and I know it's so important in your lives as well. We only get to live one life ourselves. But through reading, we can explore so many other lives, the lives of great people who've gone before, and fabulous new worlds, new lives, that are created by wonderful authors in their fiction. So thanks for being part of the Reading Challenge. Enjoy BookFest. Congratulations on all you've achieved so far, and all the best for the rest of the Premier's Reading Challenge.

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- Hello, everybody. We are here in Sydney at one of my favourite events in the air. It's the Sydney Writers' Festival. And we've got a really special, special event for you today. The Premier's Reading Challenge buddied up with the Sydney Writers' Festival to bring you [gasp] an interview with one of my favourite authors ever. I hope you really enjoy it.

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Welcome to BookFest. I'm Deborah Abela. And we have a very, very exciting session for you right now. Now before the world knew Kate DiCamillo, she worked at Circus World. She worked at Disney World. She worked in campgrounds and greenhouses. She also thought she wanted to be a vet until a very unfortunate incident in a veterinary clinic involving an eyeball, which put her off for life.

So that was really, really lucky for us because, since then, she's become one of the world's best, most loved authors, and certainly one of my most loved authors as well. So we're really, really lucky to have Kate here this morning because millions of Kate's books are available around the world in over 40 different languages, which is really impressive. But mostly impressive is that she's here with us today. Welcome Kate.

- Thank you. What a wonderful introduction because that was like my whole life width, you know? Circus World? It's like, yeah, I remember that. That was hard. Yeah. Disney World-- I can still do that job. It was telling people to watch their step.

DEBORAH ABELA: That was it?

- Basically. It's not what you would call skilled labour, but I was really good at it.

DEBORAH ABELA: I bet you were.

- Yeah. Yeah. OK, but we'll talk about reading and books.

DEBORAH ABELA: We can talk about whatever you like. Now, Kate, once a year, I say yes to something that really, really excites me, but really, really terrifies me. And I have to say today's one of those days. So when I was asked to interview you, oh my gosh, my heart just pounded, and I got very excited. And then I got equally terrified thinking, [gasp] but it's Kate. I love Kate's books.

- Now that I'm here with you, you know how absolutely, like, unimpressive I am and how you wasted all that time worrying. But I do like the whole thing about-- because of the terror and saying yes anyway is something that's very interesting.

- And I wanted to ask you. So have you said yes to things that have excited you, but have terrified you? And has it ever gone kind of badly?

- Wow. That's kind of like a therapy question. Yeah. But it's interesting to me because my instinct always is I'm a very small and terrified person, and I always unerringly land on no. But then I have to talk myself through it. And to it, I was afraid to come to Australia. That's a really, really long flight. And I thought, I'm going to go so far away from home. But I had to think to myself that to say the yes would give me so much. And so I've decided that being brave isn't, you know, not being afraid. Being brave is being afraid and saying yes.

DEBORAH ABELA: And doing it anyway.

- Yeah.

- Now when I discovered I was going to interview you, I asked a lot of readers, what do you want me to ask Kate? And they just really wanted to know what you were like as a kid.

- I was the world's shyest kid. And my mother was very outgoing, and so she was just forever baffled by how difficult me talking to strangers-- I just couldn't do it. It was like, you know, cat got your tongue. Is that an expression here? But I was also a kid who was really good at making friends. And I loved to read. And I was a professional laugher. So things seemed so funny to me and I was often asked to leave a classroom because I was laughing.

- I've heard your laugh--

- It's terrible.

- --it's infectious, and I love it. And it comes right down from your belly. When was the last time you had a really good belly laugh? Well we were laughing right before we started.

DEBORAH ABELA: I know we did.

- Because there's a lot of interesting people in this room, who y'all can't see. But one of them is a fake David, and one's a real David. But that's all you need to know about that.

- But books were really important as a kid then?

- Oh, I couldn't have lived without books. Was it the same way for you?

- Same. Exact same. They were like a refuge, not just something that was fun and enjoyable and I couldn't wait to get back to and I couldn't wait till I go to bed, it was safe. It was a little haven.

- Absolutely. And it was a way to make sense out of the world for me. And also-- and I have found this as an adult, I wonder if this is the way it is for you-- I feel like I am not fully myself until I'm sitting and reading. That's kind of like when I enter my body. So it has been the greatest gift-- those books. And having a mother who was so tuned into getting me books, that was also-- like, that's something that I can see in retrospect, my mother facilitated so very well. So for all the adults listening, pay attention to what your kids are reading. Don't tell them what to read, but pay attention to what they're reading and see if you can help them get more of those books.

- So because of that, you wanted to be a writer? Did you think, oh, I'll give this a go?

- Oh no. You know, the world has changed so much. When I was growing up, no one really talked about becoming a writer to me. Books were so extraordinary. I didn't really think that human beings had anything to do with it. You know, it's like how could a messy human being make something so wonderful. And in the states, we have writers come and do school visits. Does that happen here?


- But that didn't happen when I was growing up.

DEBORAH ABELA: Same. Absolutely.

- Yeah, so it just never-- I didn't think of it as a possibility. And so when I go in and do school visits in the states, I think my one-- if I can leave and some kid has the thought of, she's nothing special, but yet she decided she wanted to do this extraordinary job-- because I think we're the luckiest people in the world to get to do this-- then maybe that means that I can do it too. But for me, it wasn't until college that I thought that I wanted to be a writer. And it was only an ego spasm when that happened. Do you want me to talk about that at great length-- ego spasms?

- I'm happy for you to.


But I think what I also wanted to say, though, was, yes, I know you then decided that you were going to head off and be a writer, which I've heard you say involved black sweaters and turtlenecks and just looking like a writer. But then when you did actually do it, you are now the proud owner of over 400 rejection letters.

- Oh yeah.

- So how did you keep going?

- You know, it's a question that-- and when I do the presentation to the kids, that rejection number's in there, and invariably some kid will raise their hand afterwards and say, why? And it's a really hard question for me to answer. And I think that part of it is that I had waited so long to start, and I could see so clearly-- and I bet you've had this experience too-- that the race didn't go to the person who was the most talented-- because I've sat in writing workshops and listened to people who could write circles around me-- but the race did go to somebody who refused to give up. And so I thought, well, that's within my control. I can't make myself talented, but I can make myself do the work, and I can make myself be relentless about putting the work out in the world.

- But being persistent, then, encourages that talent, yeah? So if you keep doing it, you do get better at it. Plus, you're an amazing writer so we just have to acknowledge that.

- And that's like-- it's funny to me that no one would expect you to go and be a surgeon, you know. But because we can all write, we all learn to write in grade school, then you think, OK, now I can be a writer. But you have to serve an apprenticeship, and you have to write a lot of really bad stuff. And you have to learn yourself, and you have to learn the people that came before you.

- But I've also read that you find writing a battle.

- Yeah. Is it easy for you?

- No. No. There are moments, I think, where a character really comes to life and the scene just unfolds. But for me, they're like little lovely moments between really, really hard slog.

- Right. And like you, every once in a while, I would get the feeling when I'm working, oh, this is exactly what I'm supposed to be doing and where I'm supposed to be. But for the most part, I don't know what I'm doing. And so that invokes a terror in me. Yeah.

- And so even after all your books, even after winning the Newbery Medal twice, so Kate DiCamillo still will sit down and think, how does this happen? What am I supposed to do now? How does this work, this novel writing business?

- Yeah. Yeah. And I just said to a friend the other day, we drove past somebody building a brick wall, and I said, I wish I knew how to build a brick wall because then I could look at the brick wall and I could tell, yes, I have made a good brick wall. And the next brick wall that I built would be even better because I would-- But each novel-- don't you find this-- you start from-- it's just like all you know is that you've written a novel before. You haven't written this novel, and you never know if it's any good or not. You can't look at it and say, yeah, that's good. You can just see if you're answering to the story.

- So many of your novels I love. And of course, so many of your characters are animals.

- I'm so grateful that you--

- Oh, I'm-- you know, the lovely thing about getting ready for this interview was I had the lovely excuse of just reading and rereading all of Kate's books. So it was just delicious. It was like the best, like, preparation that I could have ever, you know, really done for a job. But it's the animals in your books that often bring the people together or make the people realise they've been a little, you know, hurtful or a bit mean, or they're just not living life properly.

You've got the beautiful dog in 'Winn-Dixie'-- 'Because of Winn-Dixie.' You've got 'The Magician's Elephant.' You've got the little mouse with the exceptionally big ears in 'Despereaux.' I mean, there are so many of your animal characters that are just beautiful and instantly make me love them. But can I tell you one of the animals I love so much is Ulysses.

- Oh, the squirrel. I'm so glad. Gosh, that was fun to write that book.

- So can you tell us about 'Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures'?

KATE DICAMILLO: Yeah. So it's the story of a girl and a squirrel, and the squirrel is a superhero who can do all the typical superhero things. He can fly. He's strong. And he writes poetry, just like every good superhero, right? Yeah.

- Oh no, he's a class above I think because he writes the poetry very good.

- And all books-- almost all the books, as we've discussed, for me are hard. And that one was hard, but there was the bonus of the fact that no matter how many rewrites I did, I kept on laughing. It still made me laugh. And so that was kind of like I couldn't tell if the brick wall was any good or not, but at least the brick wall was making me laugh.

- That's good. That a good sign. But it came about because of a vacuum cleaner and an incident with a squirrel.

- Do you want me to tell that story?

- Would you mind? Because I think it's--

- It's very long, and she asked for it.

- I did ask for it, and it's an amazing book. If you can read 'Flora and Ulysses,' it's so beautiful. The most gorgeous illustrations and part sort of graphic novel--

- Yeah, a little bit of graphic novel in there.

- So when you read it, you will love it. But the beginning is actually almost a whole story in its own right, which I love.

- So what happened was that my mother, who passed away in 2009, in the last year of her life, she talked a great deal about her vacuum cleaner and what was going to happen to the vacuum cleaner when she was gone. And so every day, I would take her lunch, and we would talk about the vacuum cleaner. And I would always say, don't worry about the vacuum cleaner. I'll take the vacuum cleaner, you know? The vacuum cleaner's in good hands. And then she would extol all the virtues of the vacuum cleaner. It's got that, you know, extension and the cord, and it's like-- So my mum died, and I did as I promised. I took the vacuum cleaner. But my mother had the world's most evil cat named Mildew. Do you all know what mildew is?


- Yeah. And I'm allergic to cats. And so this vacuum cleaner of hers was just chock a block with cat dander, so I couldn't bring it into the house. I had to put it in the garage so it could detoxify from Mildew. And so every time I drove into the garage every day, there would be the vacuum cleaner. And I would see it, and it would make me really sad. It would make me miss my mother. And I would think, I need to, like, start using that vacuum cleaner or else I'm going to get a visit from her. And so the spring after my mother died, there was a squirrel who was on the front steps of my house. And this squirrel was clearly in a great deal of distress and dying because I could get very, very close to the squirrel and he wouldn't move. And I'm like, what am I going to do? I don't know what to do. What should I do for the squirrel? And I called one of my best friends, who lives a block away-- who has asked me never to say her name when I tell this story-- so I called Carla

[deborah laughing]

- Because she's all the way over in the States, you'll never find her. And she really is the sweetest and gentlest and kindest person. But I said, I don't know what to do. There's a squirrel who's dying on my front steps. And she said, do you have a shovel? I said, yeah, I've got a shovel. She said, get an old t-shirt, get the shovel. I will come over there, and I will whack him over the head. Well I'm on the cell phone very close to the squirrel as she's saying this, and I'm backing away from him because I don't want him to hear what she just said, right? And I go in the side door, look out the front door, and guess what-- the squirrel's gone. Because, like, he did hear, and he's like, nope, better ways to go, better ways to depart this earthly plane. So he left, and I went and looked for--

Do kids read E.B. White over here? 'Charlotte's Web'? 'Charlotte's Web' is one of my favourite books, but there's also a wonderful essay by E.B. White called 'Death of the Pig.' And I went and looked for that essay because the whole thing with the squirrel made me feel very sad. And then I started to think about something that E.B. White had said about how in writing 'Charlotte's Web,' he was going to feed the pigs, and he started to think about ways to save a pig's life. And I'm like, I want to think of ways to save a squirrel's life.

And so I had the squirrel, and I had the vacuum cleaner. And in my very strange brain, those two things got combined. And there it was. And ultimately, it's a book for my mother because we have had a very similar sense of humour, and we laugh in the same way. So I didn't know what I was doing at the time, but ultimately, that is her book.

- And it's joyous, and it's lovely. And it's about, again, the young people in the book and the squirrel kind of knowing how things should be, and the adults messing it up a bit until they--

- Yeah. The adults do mess it up a bit. And let me tell you if you're a kid listening to this, adults don't know what's going on.

DEBORAH ABELA: And they all mess up.

- Yeah. You think all the time when you're a kid that adults know the answers, and, no, we're just stumbling along.

- Now in 'The Magician's Elephant,' your lovely book, you have a line, and the line is, 'It is a bad thing to have love and nowhere to put it.'

- Oh, that's a nice line. I don't remember that line at all. Yeah. Yeah.

- For me, this is one of the reasons I love your books. Because you've got these small characters, often small in stature and they feel small, and they've got this love. It's like they're holding this ball of love, but they don't quite know where to put it. And I love it because your books, for me, are almost a working out of that.

- Oh, that's a beautiful assessment.

DEBORAH ABELA: Oh, because I was going to ask you is it something you think of as you write. No.

- No. I mean, I have gotten to the point where I kind of have an understanding, and this happened with-- I did a Christmas picture book called 'Great Joy.' And that book culminates in a two-page wordless spread, with people inside, warm, safe, together. And in the dim recesses of my brain, I realised that that's what I'm working towards with every book that I write, yeah, is like I want to get everybody around the table-- with food that somebody else has cooked, mind you, not me. And everybody around a table together.

- And it's warm and it's cosy.

- Right. And you're safe. Yeah. It's not perfect, but you're safe and you're loved. Yeah.

- And that's-- OK, in 'Flora and Ulysses,' too, that's kind of what happens at the end.

- Right. They're all there together.

- Perhaps not Mr. Klaus.

- Right. That's true. The cat is left out. And I'm sure I'm going to hear from cat lovers about that. And there's always a cat lover that comes up to me and says, really I have a cat that's just like a dog. And whoever you are, I'm going to pretend to believe you. I do not believe you.

DEBORAH ABELA: But Mr. Klaus is really evil.

- Yes, he is. And again, that's one of those things-- because you know how you kind of, like, write behind your own back-- that's very much based on Mildew, but I wasn't really thinking about Mildew as I was doing that.

- But you don't want to be in a corridor with Mr. Klaus.

- No, you don't.

- Because it will end badly if you're the human. Yeah.

[both laughing]

- You have to be a squirrel, a superhero squirrel, to survive it. Yeah.

- To defeat Mr. Klaus. Now so many of your characters change because of the people they meet, or in a lot of cases, because of the animals that they meet. Have any of your characters changed you?

- That's a good question. Every book-- and you've probably experienced this too-- deepens your understanding of yourself and changes you because it's a journey. It's like undertaking a journey. And always that thing of, you know, back to saying yes to something that you're terrified of, that's the way it is with every book, you know? It would be easier to say no. It would be easier not to do this, but it wouldn't in any way be as deeply meaningful. You know, anything that's worth doing is really hard to do.

- And so do you approach your characters like that? So at first, they're almost like someone you see across the hall, and then slowly you get to know them.

- Yeah. Do you make people-- everybody writes in a different way. Some people will construct their characters. I'm not one of those people. For me, it's like somebody that I discover. And then, yes, it's like when they start to do things that I do not anticipate, then I know I'm in. Yeah.

- And so you've written characters who've then done something that surprised you?

- Yeah, it always surprises me. Yeah.

- I also read, too, that you never feel like you quite know a character until you work out what they love.

- Yeah. That's true. That's very, very true. And and it takes me sometimes a long time to discover that. Yeah.

- Because if you know what a character loves, then surely you're going to know what they're going to fight for, what they're going to do, their utmost--

- And then you're tempted to start making-- and I don't outline either. Do you outline?

- Yes.

- You do?

- Because I read that you didn't. Because of my author friends, yeah, they're such two different schools. I don't feel confident enough. For me, it's like a track, you know, I've got like a running track. And I allow myself, of course, I'm allowed to let go of different tangents and change it, and even change the whole track. But at least--

- But you can't start out without the track existing.

- Yeah.

- Yeah.

- You don't do that?

- Yeah, I can't do that. And it's not because-- I don't have any confidence either. But it's just if I lay it out, then I have no interest in doing the work of it. Do you know what I mean? It's that wonderful-- Elmore Leonard was a mystery writer in the States and really, really good, particularly good at dialogue. And he always said, I write to find out what happens. And that's, you know--

- And I know authors who don't like to know the ending.

- Yeah. No, I don't know the ending. Usually, like maybe the second or third draft, I start to get a feel for it.

DEBORAH ABELA: That you'll know the ending.

- Yeah.

- So when you draft, you're happy just to keep going and let it take you, but you may finish a first draft and not have your proper ending yet?

- Oh, definitely. And also the first draft makes me look like I'm absolutely out of my mind. I mean, there's a university in Minnesota that keeps all those draughts for children's books writers, and so you can go in and look at them. And it's really-- it would worry-- you would come and look for me and say, let's put you in a mental institution, once you look at those draughts. And people do kind of think, oh god.

But on the other hand, I was at a conference-- I don't know how long ago-- and I was sitting next to somebody who their first book was coming out. And she said, you know, I went to the Kerlan-- that's the name of this collection-- and I looked at your first draft of 'Winn-Dixie,' and I've never seen anything so terrible in my life. I'm like, I agree. And she said, and I thought to myself, if this is where you're allowed to start, then I can write a novel too. And she did. And so that's why they're there. It's not just for me to make an idiot out of myself. Because I think people think that if this is what you're supposed to do, then it should come easily to you. There's a great book called 'Art and Fear.' Do you know that book?

- I just got it. It's sitting by my bedside--

- It's so fantastic. Let me ruin it for you. But it's full of great wisdom, and one of the things that the authors say is that there's one Mozart born every century. One person who hears the music and puts it down on paper. One genius. And guess what-- that's not you, you know? So if you're willing-- if you want to make art, then you have to be willing to make a fool out of yourself and do the work. Yeah.

- But you do have a strict writing schedule?

- I do.

- Yes.

- I do. I'm very rigid about that because I've found if I'm not, then it doesn't get done.

- And you get up at like-- it's something where it's still dark.

- Yeah, it's still dark. Because the world is yours then. And so I get the real work done before everybody else is up, and also before I can talk myself out of doing it.

- And I loved that line because I said that line to another author the other day, and it made perfect sense to them.

- Because if you go through the day, it's just like you can find-- And, you know, the other thing is I think that we all have that voice in our heads-- everybody has this voice-- that says you can't do this. You don't know what you're doing. You're not smart enough to do this. You're a fake. So that voice, for me, doesn't show up until about 9 o'clock in the morning. Yeah. So I beat it out of bed, and I get the writing done before it shows up. And you need that voice later on. You need it when you're editing because it's not a nice voice, but it's a voice that will sometimes tell you the truth. And so you need it. But you don't need it when you're doing those first draughts.

- But I also want to know if you could go back to your younger Kate self--

- How old?

- Say, eight. What would you like to say to eight-year-old Kate?

- You're braver than you think you are, and everything will be OK.

- I love it. Beautiful. And then give her a big hug.


- And I am still that 8-year-old, you know? That eight-year-old's never gone away.

- And is that-- you go to that eight-year-old to write.

- Yeah.

- Yeah. Now can I ask you some-- I'm going to finish with some quick fire questions.

- OK. I'm going to give you a quick fire answers.

- Quick fire answers just before we say goodbye. Favourite book of all time?

- Oh, that's impossible.

- She denied me.

- Can you do that?

- 'The Lorax' by Dr. Seuss.


DEBORAH ABELA: I know. And I think because it's true-- it's too hard to answer in a way. But kids would say, no, come on, come on. And so that's got to be up there, and it's got to be one of them.

- Wow. OK. Then I'll give you back 'Charlotte's Web.'

DEBORAH ABELA: Favourite food?

- Pizza. I love the pizza.

DEBORAH ABELA: Now you've made me hungry. Name one thing you love about being an author.

- I love holding that finished book in my hands. But probably the most exciting thing-- and you know this too-- is somebody standing in front of you kind of like, who's 10 years old and, like, gazing off into the distance and saying, I hated reading, and then I read this book. It is like-- that never gets old.

DEBORAH ABELA: Yes, nothing like it.

- Yeah. Talk about connection, you know?

- Kate DiCamillo, this has been one of my most exciting days of my life. I'm super serious with you.

- I could talk to you all day. It's been fantastic.

- It's been so, so lovely. And I'm hoping everybody out there reads every book Kate has ever written.

- All of them, multiple, multiple times.

- Because they're all amazing.

- There will be a test afterwards.

- Thank you so much.

- Thank you.

[music playing]

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