Readeo’s Jenny Brown Talks with Kate DiCamillo

Kate DiCamillo author of Mercy Watson
Kate DiCamillo received a Newbery Honor for her first novel, Because of Winn-Dixie, and the 2004 Newbery Medal for The Tale of Despereaux–both were made into major motion pictures. Here she discusses her beginning reader series starring Mercy Watson, a pig who loves “hot toast with a great deal of butter on it”–a passion that often leads Mercy by the nose into adventures–and sometimes trouble.

How did the character of Mercy Watson come to you?

Mercy Watson popped into my head when I was on an airplane. I have a little notebook, and I took it out and drew a pig face and wrote her name underneath. I knew right away that she was a pig that lived with Mr. and Mrs. Watson, who were not pigs. I worked on it for two years.

What about the “hot toast with a great deal of butter on it” that Mercy loves so much?

I was driving Alison McGhee to the airport. She got into my car with a piece of toast, and it was very buttered. I said, “Must you eat that in my car?” She said, “You don’t understand toast,” and she talked the whole car ride about how good it was and how it should be buttered all the way to the edges. On the way home, it clicked in my head as the thing that made it all work with Mercy Watson. So a pig pops into my head with a name attached, and then I had to wait 2 years for toast to show up. After that, it was the easiest writing experience ever, because you think of the experience and put the pig
in it.

Speaking of Alison McGhee, I hear you have a new book coming with her.

We sure do, it’s a book about a tall girl and a short girl. I’m short.

It’s a book about friendship called Bink and Golly. And Bink’s the short one: is your hair curly and do you wear striped socks?

You’re onto me, Jennifer Brown. I am Bink. Bink c’est moi.

Now back to Mercy. Do Mr. & Mrs. Watson think that Mercy is their child?

If we had to psychologically analyze what was going on with those two, we’d say in some dim recess of their brains they know she is a pig, but mostly she is their child and that’s how they treat her. It happens all the time with dogs, and I’ve heard rumors of it happening with a cat. That’s what’s happening with the Watsons. It’s a family.

Is it more challenging to write longer books like Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux than it is to write about Mercy Watson?

Mercy Watson is, I have to say, easier. It’s not because of length, it’s because there’s a rhythm to it and the words fall into that rhythm. It’s also easier because I know the characters, and when I’m writing the novels I’m learning the characters as I go.

Did the artist Chris Van Dusen draw Mercy the way you had pictured her?

The first sketch that Chris did of Mercy was of her looking petite with a bow on her head. And I said, “No no, you must tell him she is a Pig.” Then in the second sketches, there she was: big, self-centered, domineering and kind of loving in her own way.

When we talked with Chris Van Dusen, he said: “The Mercy Watson books were really fun because Kate DiCamillo gave me full range to create these characters…. It was almost like casting a movie.”

He did a great job. The great thing about doing all six of these with Chris, is that what was in my mind was replaced with his world of Deckawoo Drive–his Mercy and his Eugenia and Baby, who are a delight. That made the stories even easier to write. Then I thought, who can I come up with next that Chris is just going to knock out of the park? I couldn’t’ wait to see who he’d come up with. And in that last one [book six], he had to bring everyone back, and he did it!

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