Let’s step into the sweet, if slightly off-kilter, world of best-selling author Kate DiCamillo. Her main characters have included a smiling stray dog (Because of Winn-Dixie), a lovesick mouse (The Tale of Despereaux) and a mute, indignant china-doll rabbit (The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane). How to top those?
Here the funny, self-effacing Minnesota-based writer – whose plucked-from-the-slush-pile debut in 2000 with Winn-Dixie still causes her to pinch herself and refer to other authors as ‘real writers’ – chats about her latest novel. The Magician’s Elephant concerns a pachyderm who crashes through an opera-house ceiling, and an orphaned boy, Peter, who looks to the beast for help finding his long-lost sister.
A few years ago, before you started on The Magician’s Elephant, you said you were waiting for the thing that makes the divining rod tremble. What was it that finally inspired you?
Wow, that makes me sound smart! “The divining rod tremble”. And that’s exactly the feeling. I was in Manhattan waiting in the lobby of a hotel, and this image of a magician who was down on his luck and wanted
to perform real magic just popped into my head. It was followed very quickly by him conjuring an elephant by mistake, and also on purpose. I remember going to lunch afterward and not being aware of anything I said or did because I was so excited by that image.
That sounds a bit like your inspiration for Edward Tulane, which you’ve said came to you in a dream. How often does that happen?
Whether it shows up in a dream – and that doesn’t happen often – or it’s just something that pops into my head while sitting in a lobby, I know when something has resonance for me. When I woke up, the image was still so powerful – Edward facedown on the bottom of the ocean with no clothing on. Every once in a while, you can have a dream about a naked bunny and it doesn’t go anywhere, but this one happened to work out.
Things don’t always work out happily in your books. I’m glad that The Magician’s Elephant doesn’t end so tidily, with the noblewoman getting out of the wheelchair and walking.
It can’t happen. And it sounds weird for me to say it can’t happen when it’s a book of magic. But that’s the thing about telling the truth to kids – that would be too much. There’s only so much that can be undone. I never thought that she would get to walk again. But, like you, I kept on thinking: How in the world is this going to end? How am I going to get out of this?
You did seven or eight drafts of The Magician’s Elephant. Do your stories tend to change a lot as you go through revisions?
At the University of Minnesota there’s the Kerlan Collection, where you can look at children’s writers’ drafts. If you look at the first draft of this book or any of my books, you think: You should try to find some other way to spend your time because you’re obviously not a writer. What the first draft is, and what the final thing is, there are so many changes in between, and so much of me talking to myself and trying to figure it out on paper. From the very beginning, the elephant and the magician stayed the same. But it took me a long time to figure out Peter and his sister.
Not long ago, a friend of mine met somebody who said her book was just getting published. This woman had gone into the Kerlan Collection, and the rough draft of Winn-Dixie was on display in a case. And she looked at it and thought, ‘Good grief, if that’s all you have to do to write a book, then I can do that!’ I think about that all the time, because it’s embarrassing to have your stuff on display – it’s like somebody’s looking in your underwear drawer. But there’s a mistaken notion that if it’s something you’re supposed to do, it should come out right the first time, or it should be easy. And I don’t think any of that’s true.
The Magician’s Elephant is on sale in hardback at Bookworm (04 368 9822), Dhs60 and at book stores across Dubai. Other Kate DiCamillo titles are also available.