author interviews

Kate Di Camillo on Writing Routines, Process, and Craft

Exciting! I’m starting a new series of interviews with writers about their process, craft, and routines. And who better to kick it off than the marvelous, effervescent, wonder-full Kate Di Camillo. Kate’s new book, Raymie Nightingale, comes out on April 12th (it’s delightful, funny, sad, thoughtful, and charming– but more on that next week), and I caught up with her via email to talk about all things writing.

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(Kate at her writing desk. Photo credit Ben Garvin, New York Times)

What does your writing routine look like?

Like this: the automatic coffee maker (heaven) is set to go off at 5:30.  i come downstairs, pour a cup of coffee, and boot up the computer.  i write two pages, and then i go back upstairs and write in my journal and read some poetry.  if i am working on a later draft (4th, 5th, etc.) of a novel, i will do multiple two page sessions in a day.

Where do you find inspiration for your stories? (Related: Have you started the story about the elf door yet? I loved that Facebook post!)

oh, inspiration is everywhere.  i carry a notebook (always).  sometimes things pop into my head (names, images).  sometimes i see something or hear something that i think might work.  it all gets written down.  (alas, no elf door story.  yet.)

Elf Door post via Facebook

Do you ever get writer’s block—and if so what do you do?

i don’t call it writer’s block.  i call it a bad writing day.  sometimes there are many, many, many bad writing days.  but i just keep showing up and writing.

Do you outline?

i do not.  i can’t, in fact.  i find out what is going to happen by writing the story.

How do you flesh out your characters?

i listen to them.  so much of what i learn about characters is gleaned through listening to them talk.  to each other.  and to me.

Because of Winn-Dixie characters

Any hints on climbing inside the Middle Grade mind?

i am, at heart, a 10 year old. so i never have to think about it.  i’m just *there,* i guess.

How does you stay current on trends/slang/school norms? Or do you not worry about this?

acck.  i don’t think about this at all.  it would distract me too much.

What are some of your favorite books about writing and/or books you’d recommend for others writers?

*art and fear* by bayles and orland.

and *bird by bird* of course.

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Do you revise just 2 pages a day? Do you draft one book while revising another at the same time?

yes.  just multiple sessions of 2 pages in a day for the revising. in the down-time between rewrites, i will work on another story.

If you’re on a roll and want to go past 2 pages, do you?

i don’t. i always have those words from hemingway in my head: be kind to the writer you will be tomorrow.

if i’m on a roll, it will be easier to start the next day.

I read this tidbit below about Anthony Trollope’s writing habits (in the New Yorker article “Blocked”),  and it reminded me a bit of your routines. Any thoughts on how this relates to the writing routine you’ve set for yourself?

  • Every day for years, Trollope reported in his “Autobiography,” he woke in darkness and wrote from 5:30 8:30 a.m., with his watch in front of him. He required of himself two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour. If he finished one novel before eight-thirty, he took out a fresh piece of paper and started the next. The writing session was followed, for a long stretch of time, by a day job with the postal service. Plus, he said, he always hunted at least twice a week. Under this regimen, he produced forty-nine novels in thirty-five years. Having prospered so well, he urged his method on all writers: “Let their work be to them as is his common work to the common laborer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving,—as men have sat, or said that they have sat.”

i read this, too!  i loved it.  i’m not that disciplined. but it resonates with me. and i love trollope.

I read on your Facebook page that you usually have eight or nine drafts of a project, how do you know when it’s finished and you’ve hit upon what the story is supposed to be?

it’s the same feeling that you get at 3 am in college–when you know that if you keep studying, you are just going to undo everything you have crammed in there.  i get the feeling with a story that if i keep working on it, it will become lesser.  then i know it is time to let it go–imperfections and all.

You have quite a wide range of styles & books. Which is your favorite? 

oh, i just love writing middle grade novels.  but i love the shorter things, too.  they are kind of like sorbet in between courses–a place to relax.

Any other parts of the process you’d like to share?

maybe this:  i have been writing for 21 years now.  and it is still hard and scary.  but also joyful. that seems like a good thing to me.

Any other advice for writers?

be kind to yourself.  listen to people when they talk. to paraphrase flannery [o’connor]: there is nothing that does not require your attention.

What are you reading right now? Do you read a lot in your genre or widely?

i am reading jane smiley’s second novel in her trilogy about america.  i read mostly adult literary fiction.

and i would be lost without a book.

Kate on Books via Facebook

Many thanks to Kate for taking the time to chat, and thanks also to my fellow Middle Grade writers in the Pitch Wars Facebook group who contributed some of these questions. More soon!  -J


Henry Winkler Interview….

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Henry Winkle recently for Although I was a little bit star struck, his warm, casual demeanor quickly put me at ease, and we had a wide-ranging, funny, thoughtful conversation.

Henry Winkler and elephant

Most people know Henry Winkler for his iconic role as the Fonz inHappy Days or for his many other acting gigs since. What most people don’t know is that Winkler barely graduated high school, and that although he was great at memorizing scripts, reading them was a challenge. He’s struggled with dyslexia his entire life, only getting a diagnosis at age 30. Now, he travels around the world talking to kids about his early years and raising dyslexia awareness.

To that end, Winkler has written a wonderful series of children’s books about a dyslexic boy named Hank Zipzer. Hank’s smart, funny, and resourceful; but, like Winkler as a child, school and reading are a huge challenges for him.

The books are printed in a special font that makes it easier for dyslexic kids to read them, and although they concern the adventures of a dyslexic child, they will appeal to any early-middle grade reader. The newest book, You Can’t Drink a Meatball with a Straw comes out March 8, 2016. I highly recommend reading it with your kids— it’s laugh-out-loud funny, extremely clever, and you’ll find yourself cheering for Hank throughout the story. I caught up with Winkler recently to talk about his books, parenting, his recent trip to Asia, and more:

Meatball through a Straw

How did you get started writing books and what is your writing process like?

I never saw myself writing books—I carried the mantle of being stupid for so long— but an agent suggested it to me, and then I met my wonderful co-writer Lin Oliver, and the rest was history. We work only in person, so every morning since 2003, I’ve gone to Lin’s office for a few hours. I sit in the same rocking chair I’ve been sitting in for the last 13 years, and we do the outline of the book. We are intertwined in every rhythm, word, and story. I talk and she types, then she reads it back to me, and we argue over every word. We ask questions like, “What does Hank do well?” and then we’re always surprised by where the story takes us.

We just started working on a short story for the magazine Boys’ Life—which I find incredible because I got my first copy of that magazine years ago when I was a Cub Scout. I couldn’t read it at the time, and now here I am writing for them!

What was school like for you as a child?

I remember it all—the shame, the fear, the anxiety, the embarrassment. My brain is like a Magic 8 Ball, sometimes it’s all gobbledygook. Sometimes there’s no answer there, and sometimes I get it right. When I’m writing the Hank Zipzer books, I relive those moments like I’m 8 years old. I’ve not forgotten how painful it was to have done things like memorized all my spelling words for a test and then get to school, and not be able to remember any of them.

Is reading easier now?

It really depends on the kind of book. I’m great with thrillers (Daniel Silva is a favorite), and the style of writing can make the work of reading easier. I don’t have any favorite children’s books because I didn’t read as a kid. In fact, when we were reading The Tale of Two Cities in school, I poured water over the pages, so it looked like I was really diving into it.

Would having a dyslexia diagnosis have helped you as a child?

Absolutely, yes. My life was like a stainless steel cylinder with no footholds, no handholds. I tried like a frog to crawl up the wall towards the sun, and kept sliding back down.

Read the full interview here:


Book Review: “The Thing About Jellyfish”

I just started writing book reviews for the Middle Grade Mafia’s website!

My first review is of Ali Benjamin’s The Thing About Jellyfish for MGM. Here’s the link, and here’s the review:

Thing about Jellyfish


Ali Benjamin’s debut Middle Grade book, The Thing About Jellyfish, is luminous.

And that’s a terrible pun, I know, but truly this book glows with a subtle inner life, much like the jellyfish that float throughout it.

The bones of the story are simple: our narrator Suzy and her best friend Franny drift apart as they enter middle school. Increasingly, Suzy feels isolated as the things that interest her—science facts and the world at large— pale in comparison to Franny’s interests— makeup, boys, and fitting in with the right social circles. The last time Suzy saw Franny, she played a cruel prank on her friend. Then, over the summer, Franny drowns. Suzy never got to say good-bye, and she tries to carry on and make sense of Franny’s death.

This book is permeated by a strong sense of the senselessness of loss and the hopelessness of grief. It’s heavy stuff for a Middle Grade book, and sometimes, the weight of this sadness was too much for me. I often wept silently as I read, and, accordingly, it took me a long, long time to finish such a short book. (I averaged about a chapter a night).

And that’s partially because the story itself is sad. And it’s partially because Benjamin’s lyrical sentences transported me back to middle school, reminding me of losing a friendship that was dear to me. And it’s also because Suzy grapples with a lot of real-world things that I find terrifying and overwhelming.

Like jellyfish blooms. And here I must pause and admit that I knew nothing about jellyfish blooms—or jellyfish—until I read this book. But since Benjamin grew this novel out of a non-fiction essay on jellyfish, it’s full of interesting facts about jellyfish that Suzy mulls and applies to her own life. As Suzy thinks about her friend’s death, wondering again and again how a strong swimmer like Franny could have drowned, she concludes that it must have had something to do with jellyfish. Which due to global warming are spreading like a plague, and moving silently in tremendous numbers throughout the world’s oceans.

Jellyfish blooms

The thought of those silent hordes of poisonous goo taking over the oceans makes me panic—much like it does Suzy—and it makes me feel quite overwhelmed by things I cannot control.

Which when I consider this as a metaphor for the tragic and inexplicable loss of a child, it kind of takes my breath away. Because it’s perfect. And sad. And strange. And something I’m still making sense of.

I could go on, but I’ll leave you with my strong recommendation: read The Thing about Jellyfish.

It will take your breath away. It will stir your middle school insecurities, and make you think great thoughts about life, love, and loss. You will see why it was nominated for a National Book Award, and why it’s also being hailed as a book that will make girls like science again. If you’re a Middle Grade writer, I bet you’ll find yourself jotting down Benjamin’s sentences and taking notes on the clever science-experiment structure she uses, praying you’ll be able to perform similar feats of syntactical magic in your next book.

And if you find yourself panicking as you Google “jellyfish blooms” late into the night—like I still do— let me reassure you that there’s enough hope at the end of this book that it will sustain you even in the face of things we can’t control, like loss or jellyfish.