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KATE DiCAMILLO says she wanted to be a vet when she grew up – but she never grew up. Now the author of 20 books, she’s most famous for her children’s stories featuring animals, such as Because of Winn-Dixie. ANGUS DALTON meets the Philadelphia-born author at the Sydney Writers’ Festival to talk about Kate's new novel, Raymie Nightingale.

As an 8-year-old I devoured 'Goosebumps', 'Deltora Quest' and 'Tashi' books faster than my book-hoarding grandma could deal them out. Once I’d read and re-read every adventure, I dug through my room and found a slim book I hadn’t noticed before. The cover was an illustration of a tiger streaking through a dark forest with a girl on its back; it seemed promising.

What followed was the strangest story I had ever read. It was sad. And not sad at the end or in the middle for a bit like other books. It was sad from the get-go; the main character, Rob Horton, was a lonely 12-year-old with rashes on his legs, no friends, and a dad who slapped him for crying at his mother’s funeral.

It was also weird. Weirder than the fanged multi-eyed slugs I encountered in 'Deltora Quest' and the horrifying brain-controlling mask in 'Goosebumps'. The first thing that happened was Rob finding a tiger pacing in a cage in the woods behind the motel his dad worked in. Rob describes the creature: 'He was orange and gold and so bright it was like staring in to the sun itself, angry and trapped in a cage.'

See? Weird. Was this supposed to be real life or fantasy?

I read the whole thing in one go by a solar-powered nightlight on the windowsill that was bright enough to read by, yet soft enough that it didn't spill incriminating light under the door. When I finished reading I stayed up until the light flickered out, and fell asleep with the book hugged against me. Strange as it seemed at first, the writing had a way of making me feel as if the orange glow of the night-light had transferred into my chest. It became my favourite book.

Fourteen years later, I hadn't glimpsed the cover in years until I started researching Kate DiCamillo, of Because of Winn Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux fame, for an interview at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The cover leapt out at me when I googled her name: The Tiger Rising, Kate DiCamillo.

When I walk in to the lobby of the Pier 1 Hotel at Walsh Bay I have a newly-bought copy of the novel tucked under my arm, plus Kate’s latest book, Raymie Nightingale.

A woman with wiry grey hair who barely comes up to my elbow leaps up from a chair, shakes my hand, introduces herself as Kate and compliments my tartan shoes in a southern-tinged American accent.

I admit to her it was a shock to discover that she wrote Tiger Rising. It felt like this strange little book that was just mine, so it was weird finding out that so many other thousands of people must have read it too.

‘But it is yours,’ insists Kate, sitting with a slate-grey harbour behind her. ‘In the states, the first book for me was Because of Winn Dixie and then there was The Tale of DespereauxTiger Rising was the second, and it’s very much the quiet child sandwiched between these two over-achieving books. It’s a discovery. Any time a kid comes up to me – or an adult – with Tiger Rising and says, "this is my favourite book", I’ll say, are you a writer? And the answer is always yes.’

Kate’s 2003 novel, The Tale of Despereaux, follows a bookish mouse who wields a needle as a sword. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is about a china rabbit who spends 297 days on the ocean floor, and Kate’s 2014 Newbery Medal-winning story, Flora & Ulysses, charts the friendship between a girl and a squirrel who is sucked up by a vacuum cleaner and spat back out with super-strength and a penchant for poetry.

Even Kate’s early short stories for adults – the first published one was called This is Me, Lona Bretweiser, Leaving the Amusement Park of Love – were ‘surpassingly strange’.

‘I came to Florida as a six-year-old before Disney, when it was all strange little amusement parks like Weeki Wachee, which had an underwater mermaid show, and Gator Land, where you could walk through the giant cement mouth of an alligator. That kind of stuff hit me at a very impressionable age and distorted and stretched my imagination,’ says Kate.

Raymie Nightingale doesn’t have the overt surreal happenings of Kate’s other books, but there’s room for a little of what the author calls ‘peripheral magic’.

‘It’s magic you can catch out the corner of your eyes. That is allowed and accepted in kids’ books in a way that isn’t in writing for adults.’

Kate’s latest story begins with three girls lined up in front of Ida Nee, an irascible 50-year-old baton-twirling instructor with fluorescent yellow hair and white thigh-high boots. One of the girls is Raymie Clarke, whose father has recently eloped with a dental hygienist. By her side is the waiflike Louisiana Elefante, whose parents were legendary trapeze artists, but now she lives with her tiny daredevil-driving grandmother. Louisiana faints in front of the baton-twirling teacher, either due to the central-Florida heat or sheer terror. The third girl rolls her eyes. Her name is Beverly Tapinsky. Her father is a cop and she carries a knife.

The book was intended as a comedic spiel about a girl competing in a Little Miss Florida pageant and ‘making a mess of the whole thing’. But the book took a right-hand turn when Kate decided that Raymie wanted to win the competition and get her photo in the paper; if she’s successful, her dad might just want her back. The author soon realised that for the first time, she was telling her own story.

‘I was like, oh crap. I didn’t realise how much I was revealing,’ Kate says of writing Raymie Nightingale. ‘As I’ve started to talk about the book, I realised it’s me laid bare. Like Raymie, I thought it was on me to get my father back. I’ve had 80-year-old women telling me they needed this book because they were dealing with the fact that their father left too. It’s deeply gratifying. The bareness of my heart has made other people bare their hearts in return.’

To the readers who comment that at times, Kate’s books are too dark – or perhaps, too real – Kate says: ‘Any kid who gets on a bus and goes to school every day knows everything there is to know about cruelty. Where do you think they’re living? To pretend that there aren’t these dark things is patronising and a kid feels lied to. My work is to tell the truth and make the truth bearable.’

Kate has never shied away from tackling the big questions in her books. Raymie Nightingale confronts death and loneliness and the mystery of existence in a way most adults aren’t comfortable with.

‘I’m writing for that 10-year-old me. You’re so alive at that age. You need to forget feeling like that by the time you’re old enough to have your own kids because you don’t want to remember how painfully alive you were as a kid. You want your kids to feel safe. You don’t want them pondering infinity because it makes you nervous.’

Raymie Nightingale culminates in a rescue mission executed by the three girls in the dead of night. Kate says Raymie’s heroism is a lesson she’s writing back to her 8-year-old self.

‘I felt so lost as a kid, and I don’t think that’s an uncommon thing. But you’re capable of things have no idea. There are wonders inside of you. Telling a story – not to sound overblown and grandiose – is saving a life. If you see your experience reflected in someone else, you’re pulling them out of the water.’

At the end of our interview, Kate pumps my hand for half a minute before going off to introduce herself to a little dog that’s inexplicably trotting around on the polished tiles of the lobby – a little peripheral magic. I step back out into the city, a signed copy of Tiger Rising hugged to my chest, grinning like an 8-year-old who’s just met his favourite writer.

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo is published by Walker Books, rrp $14.99.

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