This year’s Twin Cities Book Festival, sponsored by the literary journal Rain Taxi, was once again a hybrid event that included a series of virtual author appearances, followed by a day of programming and a book fair, held at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds located between Minneapolis and St. Paul. Packed with high-profile authors of both adult and children’s books, the virtual program kicked off on September 16 with Mary Roach in conversation with Erik Larson about her latest book, Fuzz, and culminated on October 14 with Kate DiCamillo and Sophie Blackall in conversation with Ann Patchett. The three discussed The Beatryce Prophecy, the new middle grade novel that DiCamillo wrote and Blackall illustrated, as well as the creative process and the importance of love and courage both in one’s life and in one’s career as an author, and in Blackall’s case, an artist.
“This book is such a treat. If you already have a favorite Kate DiCamillo book, be ready to add this to the list,” Rain Taxi editor Eric Lorberer declared while introducing the three authors to almost 400 online viewers (though there were probably many more people watching and listening with those 400), who hailed from all over the U.S. and from as far away as Portugal and South Korea. “Kate DiCamillo is a Minnesota treasure,” he said. “Around here, she is as treasured as the Mississippi River.”
“Kate, Sophie, I am really glad you two are here,” Patchett said, “and we get to talk about this book.” She added that before The Beatryce Prophecy pubbed, DiCamillo had confessed to her feeling nervous about its reception. “And I said, it doesn’t make any difference when the book comes out,” Patchett recalled. “This is a book that is going to be around forever and forever. It’s a classic. A book can be great, but a book can’t very often be a classic. And that is thanks to [DiCamillo and Blackall], and the intersection of your gorgeous work.”
The Beatryce Prophecy (Candlewick, Sept.) received a starred review from PW, which described it as an “engrossing medieval fable” that is “tenderly illuminated” by Blackall in her first collaboration with DiCamillo. After being found, covered in blood and dirt, in a monastery barn, Beatryce and her protector, a goat named Answelica, are sent by the monks out into the world to evade the realm’s evil king. Fearing that she represents the fulfillment of a prophecy of “a girl child who will unseat a king,” the ruler is intent on finding her and will stop at nothing to do so.
Explaining that she had re-read The Beatryce Prophecy in the days immediately preceding the event, Patchett started off the discussion by noting that she had been “marveling at the structure” of the novel, rather than simply “being swept away” by the story. “The way it’s put together, both in terms of the writing and the illustrations and how they play together, I could give an hour-long lecture just on the first chapter of this book and how it’s structured—which is perfectly.”
In response, DiCamillo pointed out that, unlike Patchett, who outlines her story arcs, she does not “know in advance what’s going to happen,” as she weaves tales; she simply writes.
Discussing the text and the illustrations, Patchett noted the contrasts in both, that there’s either “propulsion forward,” or “stillness and symmetry.”
DiCamillo responded, “I’m always going instinctually towards that feeling in every story, not just the goat and the girl and the book. That’s part of what telling a story is for me—this chaos—and going towards that thing where you are bringing everything together.”
As for the illustrations, Blackall said that while she was “immersed in the manuscript,” she was also “thinking about the relationship of being friends and collaborators and compatriots—so I had them balanced. [DiCamillo’s] stories have these meandering parts, and roads, and journeys, and processions and parades. I think of it all as this dynamic trajectory.”
While the trio discussed the illustrations, Patchett noted that she appreciated how Blackall “pulls back [on her art] when there’s a lot of action,” and “then, at the end, when you are really moving into resolution, you get these gorgeous full pictures of all these people.”
DiCamillo acknowledged that she had not realized this, and described Blackall’s technique as “like a crescendo—it becomes symphonic.” She also noted that she and Blackall did not make decisions together, and did not collaborate at all on text and art while creating The Beatryce Propecy. “We are purposely kept apart,” DiCamillo said of the typical relationship between an author and an illustrator.
Disclosing that Candlewick originally only wanted “six, or 12, or something” illustrations for The Beatryce Prophecy, Blackall recalled thinking at the time, “That’s not nearly enough.” She explained that when she reads a manuscript she has been contracted to illustrate, she reads it from the point of view of somebody who loves illustrated books and also tries to understand it from a child’s perspective: “What do I really want to see on this page, who do I want to know what they look like? What does that tree look like? When they climb up in the tree, where are they, and what does the inside of the tree look like? That’s how the pictures ended up where they are,” she said, noting that, especially in the beginning of the story, there’s such momentum in the text that “you don’t need [illustrations] so much there, you’re just rollicking along through those pages.”
The Writer’s Life
As is to be expected when two or more authors talk shop, the conversation switched to the creative process. Citing Because of Winn-Dixie, Patchett noted that DiCamillo repeatedly writes stories with a child protagonist and their primary relationship with an animal that nobody else can tame, and laughingly asked her if she is “in a rut.” Denying this, DiCamillo explained that one common thread running throughout her books is “the transforming power of love. That is one of the themes that I keep on unwittingly end up turning over again and again in every story. It seems to be a preoccupation with me and I’m not aware that I’m doing it.”
Despite the online presence of hundreds of audience members, the conversation became an even more intimate discussion of the writing life after Blackall referred to a comment made by Patchett earlier. “Why were you nervous about this book coming out?” Blackall asked DiCamillo, “I was just the opposite: I could not wait for people to read this book, because I knew they would love it.”
“I always feel like it’s going out into the world without any armor at all,” DiCamillo responded, referring to all of her published books, not just The Beatryce Prophecy. “You have to take off all the armor to write it, and then you get to put the armor back on. And then when it goes out, anybody can say to you, ‘I do not like that,’ and it hurts because it’s a part of you.”
Noting that she has participated in hundreds of signings throughout her career, Patchett recalled that nobody has ever given her a good review of one of her books that they had cut out of a newspaper or magazine, but that she has many times been given copies of negative reviews of her books by people at signings. “That is a real thing that happens,” Patchett reported. “If you get one bad review for a book, everyone’s going to cut it out, and very quietly give you the news.”
Sharing a memory of somebody who once stood in line “for two hours” just to criticize The Tale of Despereaux to her face, DiCamillo explained that “in order to do it right, you have to go out unprotected. You can’t protect yourself in order to tell the story and you can’t protect yourself when you go out into the world, because otherwise the whole thing is pointless.”
Patchett disagreed, insisting she refuses to let herself take criticism too personally, explaining that someone once wrote to her, complaining that Bel Canto was so badly written “’that not only will I not be able to read one of your books again, this book is so bad that I don’t know if I will be able to read fiction again.’” In response, Patchett sent him “two tens, a five, and a one” and informed him that she was refunding his money. “And then he writes me back,” returning her money, and promising to read all of her books because she had “’real moxie and I like that.’”
“It takes huge courage to create,” DiCamillo said, prompting Blackall to add, “Part of the courage is letting it go, and knowing when you are willing to say, ‘it’s out of my hands’—that’s one of the hardest things for me.”
“You know it’s never going to be this beautiful thing that’s in your head, it’s always going to be a shadow of that,” DiCamillo responded, referring to the creative and publishing process, “It’s never going to be perfect. I could work on this and try to make it perfect, and it’s going to start unraveling if I keep at it. It’s time to let it go.”
“In visual art, there’s a much better understanding that you can ruin something by over-working it,” Patchett pointed out, “whereas writers always believe that they can somehow magically scroll back three drafts. Things have an energy and a life force that if you take it too far, you will kill it.”
“I’m very good at letting things go,” Patchett said. “I would rather let things go two or three percent before it’s as good as it could be, rather than take it two or three percent past where it should be.”
As the conversation concluded and before the three answered audience questions, a clearly appreciative Lorberer returned to the screen, marveling that so many people had had an opportunity to listen to “three of the greatest living creators in their respective genres. You are electrifying all of us watching. We are so grateful.”