A Chat with Kate DiCamillo

TFK talks to author Kate DiCamillo about her new book, Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures

Dec 09, 2013 | By TFK Kid Reporter Kristen Rigsby
COURTESY RIGSBY FAMILY

Kid Reporter Kristen Rigsby meets with author Kate DiCamillo in Illinois.

Ever since she was young, Flora Belle Buckman has claimed to be a "natural-born cynic." She can’t imagine herself with any other personality. However, one day, Flora rescues a squirrel that has been sucked into a neighbor’s vacuum cleaner. And after examining the squirrel, Flora realizes that it has superpowers!

For the first time since her parents divorce, Flora can’t help but feel excited. Flora decides to keep the squirrel and names him Ulysses. And while on different adventures around town with Ulysses, Flora learns not only about the squirrel’s amazing talents—like typing and flying—but also about the prospect of hope. Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures author Kate DiCamillo recently spoke with TFK about the new book.

TFK:

What gave you the idea for such a unique story plot?

KATE DICAMILLO:

Unique is a kind word. It’s a strange story plot. My mother had a vacuum cleaner that she loved, and before she passed away, she kept on insisting that I take it. After she passed away, I took the vacuum cleaner, and it was in my garage. Every time I pulled into the garage, I could see the vacuum cleaner sitting there and it made me sad. Also, there was a squirrel who decided to die on my front steps. So I’ve got the dying squirrel and I’ve got the vacuum cleaner, I’m missing my mother, and I want to laugh. And that’s how it all started.

TFK:

Which character in your novel do you most closely identify with?

DICAMILLO:

The funny thing is that one of my very best friends said, “Flora is you.” And I said, “Really? I’d never really noticed that.” As I stared thinking about it, I noticed a lot of similarities, so I told that to my editor, and she said, “That’s fascinating. I always thought that you were the squirrel.” So I’m either the girl or the squirrel.

TFK:

How did you develop Flora’s distinctive personality?

DICAMILLO:

 I didn’t really know what I was doing. But when I think about the comment that my friend made, a lot of what Flora does really comes from me and a lot of that is me.

TFK:

This story contains frequent references to three comics that Flora enjoys: Terrible Things Can Happen to You!, The Criminal Element, and The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto!. Did you enjoy comics as a child?

DICAMILLO:

I did, but there wasn’t really a superhero comic that I was fascinated with. I was fascinated with (the comic strip) Peanuts. There were these great Peanuts treasuries at the library and my brother and I took turns checking those out. We read that over and over again. Charlie Brown more than anyone else is my superhero. 

TFK:

Do any events in the story relate to experiences in your life?

DICAMILLO:

No, not in a direct way, but in an indirect way that kind of a lot of the emotional experience of being me [is] in there; there’s hope, cynicism, fear, hunger. I’m like the squirrel—I’m always hungry.

TFK:

If you had a superpower like the squirrel, what would it be?

DICAMILLO:

If I had a superpower, I would like to not worry. I’m a hand-wringer and a worrier, and I know it’s a waste of time. But I can’t seem to stop worrying, so not worrying would be my superpower.

TFK:

What do you want readers to take away from this novel?

DICAMILLO:

I write the book, but it’s not complete until you read it. What I hope you take away from the book is that terrible things can happen to you and wonderful things can happen to you, and in the meantime, things are really, really funny. There’s a lot to be afraid of, and there’s also a lot of love.

TFK:

How did you become interested in writing as a career?

DICAMILLO:

I had a long journey to become a writer. There was an English professor in college who told me I should go to graduate school for writing, and instead of doing that, I decided I was going to be a writer. Which then, I didn’t do. So from the time I was 20 to the time I was 30, I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t write. When I was 30 years old, I was old enough to see that I could go the rest of my life talking about it, but not doing it. At 30, I started to write by doing two pages a day. But I knew for a long time that writing was something I wanted to do.

TFK:

What words of advice can you offer to aspiring writers?

DICAMILLO:

I say the same thing to kids and adults because I think the rules of what you need to do are pretty simple. You have to read a lot, and you have to find some way to do the writing, which was the thing that eluded me from the time I was 20 until I was 30. So for me, it was just two pages a day- that’s the deal I made with myself and I still stick with it.

TFK:

Do you have any plans for future novels?

DICAMILLO:

I do have a future novel plan, but I never talk about it until I’ve turned it in to my editor. It’s kind of like naming a baby before it’s born- it makes me nervous. But I’m working on something. And there are also a couple novels in Mercy Watson books for younger readers that are coming out pretty soon.

 

TFK Editor Update: Flora and Ulysses received the American Library Association's prestigious John Newbery Award on January 27, 2014. This story was updated on February 3, 2014, with a book photo depicting the medal and additional edits throughout.