Kate DiCamillo has a history of her children's books morphing into motion pictures; she penned "Because of Winn-Dixie" and "The Tale of Despereaux." She'll kick off her national tour for her newest book, "The Magician's Elephant," on Long Island on Saturday, Sept. 12; it also has been optioned to be made into a feature film.
DiCamillo, who is 45 and single and lives in Minneapolis with her dog, a poodle-terrier mix named Henry, talked to Newsday about her newest story. It's about a 10-year-old orphan named Peter Augustus Duchene who is told by a fortuneteller than an elephant will lead him to his missing sister. That elephant appears after a big "oops" - a magician conjuring up a bouquet of lilies brings forth an elephant instead.
A number of contemporary children's books feature orphans - "A Series of Unfortunate Events" and "Harry Potter," for instance. What is the particular appeal of an orphan?
Nothing happens in a book for kids until you get the parents out of the way. It could be that - that it opens up the door to possibility. Also, at any given point, kids think, "Gosh, I wonder if I'm in the right family and who I really belong to." I think it addresses that deep psychological question.
You say it's important to have a belief in the impossible. Why?
It gives you hope. Hope is everything for me. That whole notion that at any given moment everything could change is a wonderful concept. Something as impossible as an elephant crashing through the roof of an opera house.
The book's story came to you while you were sitting in a hotel lobby?
I know, it kind of makes me sound kind of like a seriously disturbed person. I did not literally see a magician, but I might as well have. It was just like the impression of this magician was so strong I could practically - this sounds gross, too - smell him. That air of desperation, hair pomade, all of that. It's just one of those moments that you wait for when you're writing, because it's kind of electrifying, you never know exactly where those things come from. But the elephant part of it, I reached into my bag to get my notebook out to write down the bit about the magician and I had a gift that I was going to give my agent, a notebook with an elephant on the cover, that's how I got from magician to elephant.
For kids who like to write, what advice do you have on how to get from that kind of inspiration to a completed story?
No one's going to like the answer. You work really hard. It was a little bit over a year and eight drafts before I turned it in to my editor. I do that two pages at a time. It's just kind of showing up day after day and not giving up.
How long does it take you to do those two pages a day? It sounds like that's not much.
It isn't. That's why it's a deal that I made with myself, because it's a meet-able goal. I never sit down and think, "I'm going to write a novel." I just think, "I'm going to get two pages done and then I can get up." It takes me 45 minutes to an hour, a little bit over an hour.
All your book characters have incredibly interesting names, and then your own dog is named Henry. Why?
(Laughs.) I don't know. I can tell you that everything about writing is incredibly hard for me. Character names come to me very easily, they pop into my head. Why Henry has such a boring name - and he just got up and left, he was sitting beside me on the couch and he leapt off, he was, like, "I'm not going to stay here and be insulted" - maybe I try to keep myself contained in day-to-day life.
Why do animal characters play such large roles in your books?
I don't know. . . . It's an astonishing array of animals now, from mice to elephants. They just keep on showing up.
Why do you think you understand children so well if you don't have any?
I am one. We all carry around that kid inside of us. I guess maybe it's just closer to the surface for me, that 10-year-old who believes in the impossible.
MEET THE AUTHOR: Free reading, signing and question-and-answer session, 2 p.m. Saturday (numbered bracelets will be given out, beginning 9 a.m.), Barnes & Noble, Country Glen Center, 91 Old Country Rd., Carle Place; 516-741-9850, bn.com
Kate DiCamillo will sign up to three books per customer, with one of them personalized. No posed personal pictures may be taken with the author, but attendees can take pictures of DiCamillo.
OTHER WORKS BY KATE DICAMILLO NOVELS
"Because of Winn-Dixie" (animal character: dog)
"The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane" (animal character: bunny)
"The Tale of Desperaux" (animal character: big-eared mouse)
"The Tiger Rising" (animal character: tiger)
The Mercy Watson Series (animal character: pig)
"Mercy Watson to the Rescue"
"Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride"
"Mercy Watson Fights Crime"
"Mercy Watson: Princess in Disguise"
"Mercy Watson Thinks Like a Pig"
"Mercy Watson: Something Wonky This Way Comes"
"Great Joy" (animal character: monkey)
"Louise, The Adventures of a Chicken" (animal character: chicken)