"Every story is a love story."

That line recurs throughout "Ferris," the Kate DiCamillo novel that will be in stores Tuesday. It's the first of three books published this year by the Minneapolis resident. One of the world's most beloved writers for young people, she broke through with "Because of Winn-Dixie" in 2000 and has subsequently won the Oscar of children's books, the Newbery Medal, twice, for "The Tale of Despereaux" and "Flora & Ulysses." All three of those books, along with "The Tiger Rising" and "The Magician's Elephant," have been made into movies.

The first time we read "Every love story is a love story," a grandmother says it to the title character, who's having an eventful summer before she begins fifth grade. (It's easy to imagine Ferris being pals with the protagonists of DiCamillo's "Winn-Dixie" and "Louisiana's Way Home.")

But "Every story is a love story" could also be the tale of readers talking about their affection for the prolific writer, whose work is cherished by book lovers of all ages. Or it could be the award-winning author talking about readers, who she believes complete her work.

DiCamillo, 59, frequently has written about resourceful children, usually girls, who are missing parents. The title character of "Raymie Nightingale," for instance, believes winning a contest will persuade her father to return to the family he deserted, and the heroine of "Winn-Dixie" mourns the loss of her mother, who abandoned her family several years before the book is set. But up until a profile in the New Yorker last year, she hasn't discussed her private life much, something she said has opened up new avenues of communication with readers.

The writer spoke with the Star Tribune about several varieties of love, as well as staying busy in the pandemic, rising early and what her characters — and her readers — teach her. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Q: You've said "Ferris" is a different sort of book for you. In what way?

A: I wanted to write about a kid who knew she was loved absolutely from the minute she arrived. That was a very clear objective and when I was done, I could see, "Oh, this is the first time I've written a book with a happy, complete family."

Q: Do you know why you wanted to write that? Is it related to the things you spoke about with a New Yorker interviewer last year: reconciling with your father as he was dying, as well as his violence and abandonment of your family?

A: One was my dad passing away. That exchange I had with him, that I talked about in the New Yorker, I said those things you're supposed to say to someone who's dying: "I love you," "Thank you," "Will you forgive me?" "I forgive you." [Pauses.] Sorry. I should get my game face on because it touches on a lot of stuff for me.

Q: Take your time.

A: He passed away in November 2019 and then on the last day of 2019 my best friend I grew up with, her daughter gave birth to a little girl named Rainey. And it was the first day of the new year — she came in at about 3 in the morning on December 31, and December 31 is my father's birthday. So this child arrives and here are these pictures of the child arriving, surrounded by mother, father, two sets of grandparents. I looked at this kid and thought, "The love is just right there. I want to try to tell that story," as opposed to the story of —– my dad's childhood was truly terrible, I think. I only know a part of it. But I thought, "What if I could make things better?"

Q: Why did you decide to discuss your childhood, which you haven't discussed much in the past?

A: I didn't. [New Yorker writer] Casey Cep arrived, we talked and maybe it wouldn't have gone that way if my father was still alive, but the right person showed up and asked the right questions. It was a really profound experience.

Q: Have you received much response?

A: I've heard from a lot of adults who said it mattered to them, and kids who had gone through what I guess is domestic abuse. Casey said that to me at one point and I said, "Wow, really? I guess it was."

Q: You also spoke about reconnecting with your brother. Do you think that had anything to do with wanting to write a two-parent family in "Ferris?"

A: I would not discount that at all but it's that thing of me not knowing what I'm doing, writing behind my own back all the time. So much of it is not conscious with me and I learn about myself through the characters.

Q: They help you heal?

A: Yes. I wanted to get at this earlier in talking about this being a different kind of book. Part of the reason I was able to write an intact family is because of what has happened to me as a writer and how I've been able to connect with so many people, how it has opened me up and made me feel loved.

Q: Did the isolation of the pandemic also play a part in how "Ferris" turned out?

A: To have this story of love and connection was hugely comforting. That house where Ferris grows up, I didn't want to leave that house. I didn't want to leave that family. My big hope is that's the way a kid [who reads "Ferris"] will feel, too.

Q: So, in a way, Ferris has the family you wish young Kate had?

A: Yeah. That's it. I get to give it to the reader and I get to give it to myself.


Q: You published "The Puppets of Spelhorst" and "Mercy Watson Is Missing!" last year. You have two more books coming this year, "Orris and Timble: The Beginning" in April and "The Hotel Balzaar" in October. Is it fair to say the pandemic was great for you, workwise?

A: I'd like to rephrase that. I felt chagrined the whole time. Everybody I talked to was, like, "I can't do anything." For whatever reason, I could and it saved me. I don't know why it worked that way for me. Before the pandemic, so much of my life was traveling and then I was here and the stories, I needed them and they showed up.

Q: Is there anything you absolutely need in order to write?

A: The coffeemaker is set to go off very early in the morning and I come downstairs. Nothing happens without that.

Q: You're a morning person?

A: That's where all the action is and it's also where I'm the most optimistic. So I write before I do anything else. I have found that the critical part of my brain isn't an early riser. So I get up and do the work before that part of my brain shows up to say, "You're not doing this right. You don't know what you're doing. This will never work." That part doesn't show up until 9 or 10.

Orris and Timble: The Beginning
Orris and Timble: The Beginning

Q: Ferris' grandmother, Charisse, tells her: "Every story is a love story." Can you talk about that?

A: That's one of those happy things where the character says it, not me. She says it and I think, "Really, Charisse?" But I believe it by the end of the book. That was not something I thought of. That was something that came out of Charisse's mouth and I turned it over and turned it over and I do believe it to be true.

Q: So you did not know where "Ferris" was going to take you?

A: I arrived knowing the name of the character [who was born by a ferris wheel] and that she was loved from the minute she arrived in the world, but then I feel like the thing I need to do is get out of the way and let the rest happen. All of these people start to show up, which I know makes me sound a little unstable. But, one by one, they come in — Pinky [Ferris' rambunctious younger sister] being someone I had not anticipated at all. And she's one of those characters who, if you're not careful, could take over the story and who delighted me from the minute she showed up.

Q: Same with the ghost that appears to Charisse, seeming to foreshadow her death?

A: As I worked my way through the story and spent time with these people, it was like, no matter what, to love means you are going to lose. That's what it is to be human. I could feel that and the ghost maybe is the intimation of that.

Q: You believe in ghosts?

A: I don't not believe in ghosts. That ghost has been in my head for, I don't know, 50 years because the first house I remember, in Philadelphia, we had a room we called the playroom and the dog we had at the time would not step into that room. That's something I've kept at the back of my mind. I guess that makes me someone who believes.

Q: There's a great scene in the book when Ferris' teacher, Mrs. Mielks, upbraids her cat exactly as if she were correcting an obstreperous student. All of your books are funny but you have this gift for understatement, for not underlining the jokes.

A: One, thank you for the compliment. And, two, I think it's that thing of me listening to their voices. Oh, it also may be the way I work, where I rewrite so much and by rewriting — I don't think you and I have ever talked about this — I mean I am retyping. Once I have a first draft, I print it up and when I start the second draft, I retype and when I do the third draft, I retype again. So I'm always taking away. I'm never adding. Maybe that's where that comes from? When you retype like that, it's very easy to see what doesn't belong.

The Hotel Balzaar
The Hotel Balzaar

Q: Is it hard to send a book into the world, where it belongs to readers?

A: I have to let it go. It's kind of like having a kid and I'm so aware of it when I'm at this point. It's going to go into the world. It's like putting your kid on the school bus the first day and you hope your child can make their way.

Q: Let's go back to your morning optimism. There must be days when you think, "That really worked," like the day you wrote Charisse's comment on life: "It's all inconvenience. And then, suddenly it's over. And you find yourself thinking that you wouldn't mind a little inconvenience."

A: No, I don't think that. No. The most positive feeling I ever have is — let me be absolutely truthful here — I will sometimes think, "This is a story that is worth telling. I will summon my limited capabilities and try to do it." I'll see that the story itself really needs to be told and wish I had more skills but will do what I can with the skills I have. And one of the skills I have is showing up, doing the work and not giving up.


By: Kate DiCamillo. Publisher: Candlewick, 225 pages, $18.99. Event: 6 p.m. March 7, DiCamillo and "Louder Than Hunger" writer John Schu, O'Shaughnessy Education Center, 2115 Summit Av., St. Paul, $18.99 (ticket price includes copy of either book), eventbrite.com.