Her name is Kate DiCamillo, and three winters ago when temperatures in Minneapolis hit 30 degrees below, as pieces of her car door were falling off due to the freezing cold and a strong case of homesickness for her native Florida was setting in, she got an idea for her first novel. This is what happened: she was just about to go to sleep when the book's narrator, India Opal Buloni, spoke to her, saying, "I have a dog named Winn-Dixie." DiCamillo says that after hearing that voice, "the story told itself." The story became Because of Winn-Dixie (Candlewick), and its author says that the spirit of it remains, just the way Opal (as the book's heroine calls herself) told it to her.
Each morning, DiCamillo rolls out of bed, with the coffeemaker timed to start the day with her, and heads to her desk. When she first started writing, she treated it like her workout routine: five days a week, one hour a day. But that didn't work. So she switched to five days a week, two pages a day. "If you read [those two pages], you'd think it was like The Shining. I don't stop for punctuation, capitalization or anything," she says. Then she puts it away and waits a month before reading it.
However, she says that she d s follow Hemingway's example in order to pave the way for the next day's work: "I leave off in a good place to pick up." When DiCamillo started writing Because of Winn-Dixie, she had a good idea of what she wanted to shoot for lengthwise from studying other middle-grade novels. Fourteen single-spaced pages took her halfway through the first draft. She put that first half through three to four drafts, then went back to finish the manuscript, completing Opal's story in two distinct segments.
"Perseverance is the one word you could use to sum me up," DiCamillo says. How she came to publish Winn-Dixie is certainly a story of tenacity, but also of opportunity. The author had published some adult short stories in periodicals like the Alaska Quarterly, but her day job working on the children's floor at The Bookman, a Minneapolis book distributor, had reawakened her interest in children's books. At The Bookman's annual Christmas open house, she mentioned a picture book she'd been working on to Candlewick sales rep Linda Nelson; Nelson told her she'd get it to an editor and sent the manuscript to Candlewick editor Amy Ehrlich, who ended up rejecting the picture book in the end. When DiCamillo finished Winn-Dixie and sent it to Ehrlich, Ehrlich forwarded it to a fiction editor who worked from home; that editor subsequently left the company and sent boxes of incomplete manuscripts back to Candlewick. Fortunately the box containing Winn-Dixie landed on the desk of Carol LaReau. "She is an incredible editor," DiCamillo says of LaReau. "It's so amazing to have someone take a chance on you. She has been my shield and armor."
DiCamillo says that the outpouring of positive reviews and attention on her first book has changed her experience of writing. "Before, I knew full well I was hitting my head against a brick wall," she says. "Now when I sit down to write, there's a Greek chorus behind me: 'This isn't like Winn-Dixie' or 'She's writing the same story over and over.' I don't want to disappoint people, but I want to write what needs to be written." DiCamillo has a young adult novel, The Tiger Rising, scheduled for publication in March 2001 from Candlewick, "written before the Greek chorus," she adds. It concerns a boy who finds a caged tiger in the woods one morning and a girl who moves to town on the same day. She describes the novel as "considerably darker, but there's light and redemption in it."
DiCamillo's father was not a preacher (as Opal's was) and she is not Southern Baptist, though she did grow up in Florida and confesses, "I'm smitten with dogs." As a child, DiCamillo had a standard poodle named Minette that she used to dress up in an "old glittery green tutu." In college, DiCamillo got a dog from the pound that was traumatized but blossomed under her new owner's tutelage and devotion. However, Winn-Dixie is not based on either of those dogs but on Opal's description of him. "The story passes through you and pieces of you cling to it, but the story existed before me," DiCamillo says. "I just feel grateful that [Opal] chose me."