2016 National Book Award Finalist, Young People's Literature
National Book Foundation: Who did you write this book for?
Kate DiCamillo: I started Raymie's story knowing two things: 1. Raymie's name (Raymie Clarke) and 2. the name of the pageant she had entered (The Little Miss Central Florida Tire Contest). I thought it was going to be a funny book, a book about an inept child and a beauty contest. But then two other characters showed up (Beverly Tapinski and Lousiana Elefante), and I discovered that Raymie's father was gone, and the story turned and became an examination of loss and hope and joy and friendship. So, I guess I wrote Raymie Nightingale for my own heart, and for the hearts of my friends.
Raymie Nightingale is an incandescent chronicle of friendship between three girls. Raymie, Beverly, and Louisiana are utterly different and initially skeptical of each other, but they share the bewildering challenge of navigating a world made by carelessly indifferent adults. Every moment of this book unfolds with understated precision; every chapter offers wrenching and absurdly wonderful epiphanies.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Raymie Clarke has come to realize that everything, absolutely everything, depends on her. And she has a plan. If Raymie can win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, then her father, who left town two days ago with a dental hygienist, will see Raymie's picture in the paper and (maybe) come home. To win, not only does Raymie have to do good deeds and learn how to twirl a baton; she also has to contend with the wispy, frequently fainting Louisiana Elefante, who has a show-business background, and the fiery, stubborn Beverly Tapinski, who’s determined to sabotage the contest. But as the competition approaches, loneliness, loss, and unanswerable questions draw the three girls into an unlikely friendship — and challenge each of them to come to the rescue in unexpected ways.
About the Author
Kate DiCamillo’s Lora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures was on the National Book Award Longlist for Young People’s Literature in 2013, and she was a National Book Award Finalist for the same category in 2001 for The Tiger Rising. She won a Newbery Medal in 2004 for The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread. DiCamillo served as the Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young People's Literature for 2014 and 2015.
- FACEBOOK: facebook.com/KateDiCamillo
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Interview by Shara Zaval
When Kate DiCamillo and I were talking on the phone, she described having two halves. In most parts of her life—as a friend, an aunt, the owner of an adorable goldendoodle puppy named Ramona—she’s a “rule follower,” and always has been. It’s only when she writes that she becomes a “chance taker and a stepper-off-a-cliffer”—there’s no outlining, no plotting, no planning. Just instinct, instinct, instinct, and, eventually, a voice, characters, a plot, and a story.
There’s no greater proof of this than Kate’s latest novel, Raymie Nightingale. When she set off, she knew only two things: the names of her protagonist and a slightly off-kilter local beauty pageant. What developed, though, is the story of an indelible friendship between three girls learning to simultaneously depend on themselves and lean on one another, discovering that protection, goodness, and bravery aren’t always what they seem.
Below, she describes why writing with her gut is the only way she knows how—and why “not dropping the cup” is way more difficult than finding closure.
Shara Zaval: You’ve mentioned that writing a novel isn’t like building a brick wall—the process doesn’t get any easier the more you do it, and “each time you start over, you just have the language, and the idea and the hope.” What did you hope for when writing Raymie Nightingale?
Kate DiCamillo: I started with the name Raymie, and I started with the Little Miss Central Florida Tire Contest, so I started off hoping, I guess, that I was going to write a story that was fun and funny. I do think that maybe it’s funny, but it also went into places that I did not expect at all, and it got heavier and also lighter at the same time. I set off hoping to do something kind of madcap, and instead I ended up doing what I always hope, which is putting my heart on the page.
SZ: You share some similarities with Raymie—you also didn’t grow up with your father, you were introverted, and you loved to read. Did you share any similarities with Beverly and Louisiana, as well?
KD: Oh, definitely. With Louisiana, absolutely, in that kind of relentless hope and the willingness to believe in the impossible. But Beverly is more of the kind of kid that I wanted to be; I wanted to be tough like that. And, to me, Beverly does one of the bravest things in the book where she takes Alice Nebbly’s hand [in the nursing home], so there’s this tenderness to her at the same time that there’s this toughness and world-weariness.
SZ: So much of this book is about Raymie trying to find herself and her truth, but she can only do that through her friendships with Beverly and Louisiana. Do you think Raymie would have been able to find herself without them?
KD: No, I don’t even have to think about it. It’s about discovering yourself and how to be in the world through your connections with other people.
SZ: Do you think those connections are particularly important for children this age?
KD: Well, I think they're important no matter how old you are, but maybe at this age, you enter into those kinds of friendships without making as many judgments. I think as we get older we think, “oh, I wouldn’t be friends with that person, that’s not my kind of person.” These girls are actually very different and come from very different circumstances, and if they were older, they might be inclined to “move in different circles.” You’re open to things at that age in a way that you’re not when you’re older.
SZ: I found it fitting that the book Florence Nightingale served as a catalyst to Raymie’s Beverly’s and Louisiana’s friendship since your platform as National Ambassador was “when we read together, we connect.” Was it intentional to use a book to help bring the girls together?
KD: I can see that and it’s a beautiful point, but it never occurred to me! And I write all the time without knowing what I’m doing, and of course you can see in retrospect that it’s a book that connects them because that’s what I believe so passionately in my heart, but I didn’t do it on purpose.
SZ: Raymie has to complete a good deed to compete in the Little Miss Florida Tire Contest and it doesn’t end up going the way she imagines. But she, Beverly, and Louisiana naturally end up doing good deeds to support one another. What is your definition of a good deed?
KD: My definition of a good deed is in the nursing home, when Beverly takes Alice Nebbley's hand.
I guess it’s more like seeing people and responding to who they are then going and doing something specifically to be good. It's being present with people and connecting with them in the moment. It takes a lot of bravery to do that, though, and that’s why I admire Beverly so much.
SZ: Louisiana tells Raymie that sometimes she “reads the words she wants to be there instead of the words that are actually there.” As a master storyteller, did you ever do this as a child, either in a literal sense or when thinking about the world at large?
KD: No, and this is something I admire about Louisiana—her absolute insistence on being herself and making the world be the way she wants it to be. I loved it when Louisiana did that…I thought, “what a kid!” But I was very much one of those kids who colored inside the lines, and as an adult, I’m still very much a rule follower.
The only place that I don’t “read the words that are on the page” is when I’m writing. That’s when everything gets turned upside down—I’m not going about it in the traditional way, where you know in advance who your characters are and plot out what’s going to happen.
SZ: I found the adults in this book incredibly interesting. Each of the caregivers had some pretty serious issues, but Raymie had deep relationships with her elderly neighbor, her father’s secretary and her former lifesaving coach. How carefully do you consider the adult characters when you write for children? Is your process for creating adult characters any different than your process for creating young characters?
KD: I don't consider it at all, and this goes back to what I said earlier, about how I don’t know what I’m doing and then I have it pointed out to me! When this book came out and I started to do the interviews, I found out just how reprehensible the adults were in this story. And they’re not even reprehensible, they’re just checked out.
I think there’s a part of me that’s writing for my eight-year-old self, and my eight-year-old self had the shocking realization that these people who were ostensibly in charge of the world really didn’t know what they were doing. I think that that realization colors a lot of the adult characters.
SZ: Although Raymie Nightingale is realistic fiction, there’s something almost dreamlike about the writing; the very short words, the repetition, the ineffable Louisiana, the penchant for the absurd. Does voice come naturally as you’re writing? How are plot and voice connected?
KD: For me, there’s no plot without the voice. And I remember when I started on this book, I just had mountains and mountains of pages, and a writer friend read it for me and started stripping it down and showing me where the voice was. Once I know for a fact that the voice is there, then plot comes from the voice. But I can’t proceed without the voice.
And, again, here we are back in esoteric-land, because there’s no way to define voice, except that it’s how the story sounds and those short sentences and all of it was just this attempt to plug into how it feels to be a kid. And that thing where you said there’s almost something dreamlike about it is interesting to me, because it does feel like you’ve got a foot in both worlds when you’re a kid. Then you enter into the adult world and you put both of your feet here and you forget that ability to have a foot in each world.
SZ: Most of your books have a visual element to them but Raymie Nightingale doesn’t. Why did you choose to go for text only?
KD: It was so clear to me so early on. I remember saying to my editor before she even read it, “I know this is not going to be an illustrated one.” It just felt like it wasn’t, it felt like everything had to be words, and they didn’t disagree. In a weird way, it’s a soul-baring book. Raymie’s soul is bared, my soul is bared, and if there’s nothing but the words, that makes it clearer. It was a feeling.
SZ: Saying goodbye and finding closure is a major theme in Raymie Nightingale. How do you find closure when you finish a novel? Do you have a hard time saying goodbye to your characters?
KD: It’s funny, because I never think about closure because I always feel like, particularly when I get towards the end of a book and I see that I’m going to be able to finish it, that I’m carrying something that’s like a cup. Oh boy, I can’t believe I’m going to tell you this, but this is how it feels. It feels like I’m running and I’m carrying a cup with something in it that I don’t want to spill. I’ve been entrusted with this thing and I have to get it to the finish line. So, I never worry about closure. Instead, I worry about not dropping the cup—that’s where all of the emotional weight goes. And then much, much later, after the book is done and I’ve gone through rewrites, I’ll start to think about those characters and where they are. But mostly, there’s just this massive feeling of relief when I finish.
You got way more out of me than you should have—I just keep thinking about how stupid I’m going to sound talking about this cup with something in it that I can’t drop!
SZ: I’m also sure that because you go on so many interviews and you visit so many schools, that you don’t say goodbye to your characters because you’re talking about them all the time!
KD: Right! And also, happily, I don’t say goodbye to them because if you’re lucky, they go on and live in so many other hearts. And people talk about them like they’re real. They’re always present.
Shara Zaval is the U.S. Publicity Manager for two British-based publishing companies, Faber & Faber and Icon Books. She has also done publicity for the book distributor iPg and worked as the editor of Teenreads.com and Kidsreads.com, websites that review and celebrate young adult and middle grade literature. Shara has also edited manuscripts for the young adult publishing house Month9Books and is a member of the Bank Street Children's Book Committee.