Breathing lessons: an evening with Kate DiCamillo

‘He turned over and found Muriel.  She sighed in her sleep and lifted his hand and placed it upon her stomach.  The robe had fallen open; he felt smooth skin, and then a corrugated ridge of flesh jutting across her abdomen. The Caesarean, he thought.  And it seemed to him, as he sank into his dreams, that she had as good as spoken aloud.  About your son, she seemed to be saying: Just put your hand here.  I’m scarred, too.  We’re all scarred.  You are not the only one.’

The Accidental Tourist

Anne Tyler

It has been quite a breathless term.  Partly for work-related reasons; partly thanks to unexpected magic.

Unexpected magic is an especially good kind.  It may sound strong but I want to speak as I find here.  Quite simply and honestly, on the 26th of September 2017, I enjoyed one of the most magical evenings of my life.   I think it would be foolish and dishonest to pretend otherwise, or to try and temper my heart-on-sleeve enthusiasm.  I’ve written here about my love for a particular book by Kate DiCamillo: this might part-way explain the strength of my feelings.   Kate DiCamillo writes books across a range of genres that get to the heart  – the beating heart – of matters with a spare and graceful ease.  Simply put, she is my favourite children’s writer by quite a stretch.  Her imagination knows no bounds and so she refuses to be pinned down to this genre or that, or to younger or older readers.

So it was that in late September, I was fortunate to join a small group of fellow admirers at the offices of  Walker Books in Vauxhall, ready to enjoy the chance to participate in a question and answer session with Kate DiCamillo, hosted by Nikki Gamble.  My invitation had come from Nikki.  I can’t help wondering whether she will ever fully appreciate how grateful I am for the chance to attend this special event.

Rather than use up too many words – here is how the room was set up.  Nikki and Kate at the front, ready to talk books, writing, magic, and Minnesota:

 

At this point  I should mention that I was honoured to be accompanied by two brilliant people both named Jane.  Janes – it turns out – like to go straight to the front row at events such as this.  This is a good thing.  I would have been bashful and gone for a comfortable, middle row seat, but I am glad that the Jane-effect meant that I had the chance to engage with events up-close and,  at times, personal.

Nikki made deceptively light work of hosting the session.   Drawing upon her rich knowledge of literature and her love of Kate’s books, Nikki drew out more insights than I could have hoped to capture.  A few are shared below – the insights that I was able to decipher from my scrawled handwritten notes. These are in no way a full reflection of the wisdom shared on the night.  DiCamillo is a brightly engaging speaker – words spring forth effortlessly beautiful and thoughtful.  Thoughtful in the fullest and truest sense.  Here are just some of the pearls that I was able to capture in the headiness of the moment.

On childhood and moving from Philadelphia to Florida in 1969:

I was like Alice going down the rabbit hole…I grew up on a dead end street with three widow ladies who sat on porches telling me stories…a wonderful place to end up…the community had raised me.

In response to a comment from Nikki that the adults in her books tend to be forgiveably fallible:

I don’t sit down and think and forgiveness, love and community but the story always leads me back to it…The story is much smarter than I am and morally better.

[At this point Nikki offered up a quote along  the lines of ‘Reading can change how you see the world, writing can too’]

It’s true, I’m there and I’m part of it but it’s smarter than I am…

On the recurring question: ‘When will you write a book for adults?’

The job of the children’s book is to speak to the human heart in a simple way – so why wouldn’t that work for the adult?

More was said on the night – spoken and unspoken. How in Raymie Nightingale, Kate was played by Raymie, but how she could have been Louisiana, yet she wanted to be Beverley.  How she is first and foremost a reader more than a writer.   She also alluded to Dorothy Parker in saying that she hated writing  but always liked ‘having written’.

In the course of the evening, there were unguarded moments that got to the heart of what makes Kate DiCamillo such a deeply human writer.

The first came when a member of the audience (one of the wonderful CLPE team) explained why The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane has featured as a staple of CLPE’s Power of Reading.   As the book’s transformative effects were laid out – reshaping whole classes, shifting attitudes, approaches, even behaviours – Kate was visibly moved. It was clear how important her young  audience are to her.   The idea that her writing could change the dynamics, thoughts, and feelings of groups of children seemed altogether too much.

The second moment is where those breathing lessons come in.  I probably need to explain myself here.   This was not the first time that I had met one of my favourite writers.  Several years back this happened:

anne

 Anne Tyler’s writing means the world to me.  She had been something  of a life support system at times in my earlier, bumpier years.  Every few years, I get to look forward to her latest work.  If you are not familiar with her work  or her story,  it helps to know that she has been very private throughout her career and that the chance to hear her speaking about her writing was a once in a lifetime deal.  In the run up to the event, I worried unnecessarily that this notoriously private writer would feel uncomfortable in the public gaze.  I could not have been more wrong.  She was bright, engaging, fiercely intelligent, funny, insightful, and as warmly human as her books would suggest.  It was wonderful – despite my breathing problems when it came to having my book signed.  It turned out that meeting someone who meant so much to me really was to be  overwhelming.  I spluttered a clumsy, awkward “thank you for all your work,” and felt sure there was a flicker of alarm in her eyes, no doubt in response to my strangled gratitude.

I mention all this because it was with this in mind that I prepared to speak to cherished author No. 2.   I have to admit, I’d spent the  evening of the 25th of September rehearsing just how I would ask Kate DiCamillo my submitted question. Just a few times, you know, to be safe.

In fact I did not have to wait till my turn to ask the question.  At one point, Nikki was speaking of the global appeal of Kate’s work and asked her to comment on why her work has been so well-received internationally.  Kate deflected the question, shrugged and suggested that  perhaps the audience might know.

No need for thought. No time for self-consciousness. 

“It’s your humanity,” I blurted out.

I knew I had to elaborate so I took a practised breath.

I can’t remember my exact words, but I can give you the gist.  I explained how strongly  I associated her writing for children (and adults) with the work of Anne Tyler.  Both DiCamillo and Tyler have an easy but penetrating gaze – an X-ray – that nails the essence of their characters with forensic observation and warmth.  Both offer up characters’ thoughts and feelings in ways that strike major, minor chords – the sort that bring you up short in a moment of self-realisation (‘I thought I was the only person that might think like that’) that you are not – in fact – quite as unique as you’d like to think you are.  It might chip away at your sense of individuality, but my goodness you feel connected to something beyond yourself in a way that offers a comfort that goes beyond words.

And then the world turned in on itself in the least horrible way.

DiCamillo: So, you’ve read The Accidental Tourist, right?

Me: [somewhat agog that we are having a conversation; taking in the intensity with which Kate was speaking] Yes!  Yes, I have.  [now nodding, hypnotised]

DiCamillo: So, you know the part where Muriel and Macon are in bed and she places Macon’s hand on her scars?

Me: [Struggling to process that I am engaging in booktalk with Kate DiCamillo; remembering how I had practised breathing and speaking under such extreme conditions; marvelling at how she had happened to refer to a passage that had moved me beyond words] Yes! [further entranced nodding]

DiCamillo: When I read that, I knew I wanted to achieve something like that, something  so simple and powerful and true, so I went straight to the type writer…

[I am paraphrasing here – more was said on the power of  Tyler’s writing there, but I can feel what was said more than I can actually remember it]

During this exchange the world melted away.  It sounds like a cliche but it happens to be true.  As real, formidable, and close as the Janes were, it was as if they had dissolved – soluble Janes –  and I was on my own, one-to-one, chatting all things Tyler with a fellow fan that “got me”. That’s a half decent way of summing up what the moment meant.  There’s no way I could do it justice.

Later on we got to speak more and hug: no big deal.  I was actually dying a thousand tiny deaths but my breathing was good.  This earlier exchange seemed to have struck a chord on both sides of the writer/fan divide. The shared experience of the readers in this equation.  I won’t try to sum it all up any further. How do you sum up such a thing?   I’ll just leave it with the books.  The newly marked books.  The books I will treasure even more deeply, evermore.

 

KDC 7

 

With sincere thanks to Walker Books  – the most generous hosts – and to Nikki Gamble who I will never sufficiently repay.

 

 

 

7 thoughts on “Breathing lessons: an evening with Kate DiCamillo

  1. So eloquent Martin and it was unsurprising that in a room full of fans the two of you connected through shared love of words communicating humanity. I have to say that I gasped when Kate spoke of Anne Tyler to you – knowing how much she means to you.

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  2. So happy for you Martin! You expressed it all so beautifully, thank you for sharing that special moment.
    Kindred spirits for sure. And even matching shirts! I would imagine you two would have amazing conversations.
    x o

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    • Thank you Sarah. Very much. The shirt thing – it does add a sense of grand design to the whole encounter. I will cherish it forever. I don’t mention this in the blog, but she thanked me for my insights. Incomprehensible really. An incredibly generous human. x

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  3. Not (incomprehensible) to anyone who’s heard some of your other insights Martin! It must have been very meaningful for her is all I can say. The whole thing is just beautiful and slightly emotional!

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  4. I concur with what Sarah said, Martin. It is a great talent to be able to express insights with such clarity, and an even greater talent in expressing emotion so calmly and lightly. Well done you!

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