Kate DiCamillo: “It’s Easier To Do The Work Than It Is Not To Do The Work”

Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, talks with The National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and recent John Newbery Medal winner Kate DiCamillo about children’s literature, profound failure, and kitchen appliances.

One, congrats. Two, BuzzFeed asked me if I was up for interviewing you. Wanna do it?

Kate DiCamillo: I do! Do you?

Yes, let’s. We could do email or phone, whatever’s easiest.

KD: Email? Email. Email. Every time I type the word it makes less sense. But then: what makes sense?

Alrighty then, first question — how did they tell you you won the prize?

KD: They called me. It was 5:30 in the morning. I have my coffeemaker set to go off at 6 o’clock. My coffee maker is my alarm, all of which is to say that I was still asleep at 5:30. I answered the phone and it was the whole committee on the phone and they told me this incredible thing and all I did was cry. I think I thanked them. And then when I hung up the phone, I wondered if maybe I had just dreamed the whole thing.

Do you have childhood memories of reading the Newbery books? I remember my school librarian telling me about the award and I thought, Surely those are boring books.

KD: Ha! Well, you are a tough customer. Yes, I knew about the Newbery as a kid. I knew to look for that medal on a book. I knew it guaranteed me a good read.
You didn’t say how you are. How are you?

I am very well, thank you. Scratching in the ground at a new book idea, but we will see if it makes sense. I like this part, the very starting-out part with a book. What’s your favorite part of writing?

KD: Hmmm. I like the starting-out part, the scratching around in the dirt part, but I suppose I am most happy when I have an idea of the shape of the thing and can settle into the work of making it better. That would be somewhere around the third or fourth draft, when things are starting to coalesce, cohere.

You’ve written a bunch of books now. Do you feel more confident at it? Or are you scared every time?

KD: I am scared every time. I want you to answer that question. Are you scared every time too?

Of course, and I try to tell myself that I should be glad to be scared — it keeps me on edge or something — but I’m still not glad I’m scared. How do you feel when you look back at prior work? How do you feel now about your most recent book?

KD: How do I feel when I look back at prior work? Hmmm. I think: I tried to do the best I could do. It’s not perfect. It will never be perfect. And then I think: I want to try again. As for what I am working on now: It always amazes me that you never really learn how to write “a novel.” You just learn how to write that novel. Do you know what I mean?

Yes, exactly, it’s like a kitchen item you go out and buy for a specific recipe, and then for the rest of your life there’s a weird pan or a tiny bottle of some crazy extract that won’t help you with the next meal or the next or the next. I mean, though, how do you feel now about Flora & Ulysses? I always think publication is strange, because the book goes out into the world some months after you’ve put it to bed, so people start to think about it just when you’re done thinking about it. And then, more time goes by and here you are winning a big prize for the book. But where is the book sitting in your mind?

KD: Ah, how do I feel about Flora & Ulysses? Well, to me this is one of the great things about writing kids books: the illustrations. So when I think about the book now, I see the characters Keith [illustrator K.G. Campbell] drew — the furless squirrel and the cynical girl and Dr. Meescham opening her door — and I feel warm and fuzzy. Does that make sense?

Yes, I always like it when sketches first start to come in. I have no visual sense, so I never have a clear picture of my characters. It’s fun to watch someone take a few phrases of mine and go to town.

I started out as a poet. What kind of writer did you start out as?

KD: I did not know this, that you started out as a poet. Me? I started with short stories. Thinking (ha!) that they are shorter, therefore they are easier.

Was this in college? What kind of stories were you writing? What writer did you want to be?

KD: I didn’t really start to write until I was almost 30, and I started with the short stories. And then, pretty soon after starting to write, I moved to Minnesota and got a job in a book warehouse and was assigned to the third floor as a “picker.” The third floor was all kids books. I kept writing (and sending out) short stories but I started to read the kids books. And I thought: I want to try this. So here we are.

So then who were you when you were 25? 20?

KD: Ah, yes. Well. I was someone who wanted to be a writer, but who wasn’t writing. I was someone buying books on writing. I was someone telling people that I was writer. But I was not writing. I was working at Disney World, Circus World, campgrounds, greenhouses. That is who I was. Who were you then?

At 25 I saw myself as a profound failure. I was working half-time answering phones and writing a novel I couldn’t sell. The thing that got me through was another dream, that in retrospect the time in my life would look free and bohemian rather than pathetic, and that has in fact turned out to be the case. Were you miserable then or were you happy?

KD: Oh, I love that story. You were braver than I. Me? Then? Utterly, completely miserable. I knew that I wanted to do something and I was afraid to do the thing that I knew I wanted to do.

What would you go back and tell your younger self, prize in hand?

KD: I would say: Look at this! Can you believe it? Come on, come on. Come sit here at the desk. It’s easier to do the work than it is not to do the work.

Sometimes we think, Only do things to make our previous selves feel better. I was at a table once with a bunch of writers and we all went around saying what age we were stuck at. I was the oldest, at 23. What age are you stuck at?

KD: I am stuck at 10 years old. I think. Although the general stuck-ness of my twenties haunts me to this day.

So what kid were you at 10?

KD: Shy. Hopeful. Terrified. Hopeful. Laughed a lot. Big-eyed. Hopeful.

Oh, hopeful. I like that. What were you hoping for?

KD: Hopeful that everything would work out right in the end.

***

Daniel Handler is the author of four novels and, under the name Lemony Snicket, too many books for children, including the forthcoming File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents.

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