The Metaphoric Matrix: Kate DiCamillo

By Elizabeth White

What is a metaphoric matrix? 

A metaphoric matrix is a newly-coined term used to describe a novel-length metaphor that supports and catalyzes a character’s growth. 

In this series, we will be exploring how authors discover and craft metaphoric matrices in their novels.

Examples of metaphoric matrices include the tree that Melinda draws and visits in Laurie Halse Anderson‘s Speak and the tiger that Rob frees in Kate DiCamillo‘s The Tiger Rising

Below, I interview Kate about how she discovered and stayed true to the metaphoric matrix of the tiger.

From the promotional copy of The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick, 2001):

Walking through the misty Florida woods one morning, twelve-year-old Rob Horton is stunned to encounter a tiger–a real-life, very large tiger–pacing back and forth in a cage. What’s more, on the same extraordinary day, he meets Sistine Bailey, a girl who shows her feelings as readily as Rob hides his. As they learn to trust each other, and ultimately, to be friends, Rob and Sistine prove that some things–like memories, and heartache, and tigers–can’t be locked up forever.

Spoiler Alert: this interview references some character and plot points from Kate’s books.

In online interviews, you share that in writing The Tiger Rising, the character Rob came to you before the idea of the tiger. At what point during the writing process did you realize that Rob’s release of the tiger was connected with his need to release himself to grief?

Yes. Rob came first. He was actually a secondary character in a short story I wrote called “The Kentucky Star.” I finished the story and Rob kind of haunted me, but I didn’t know what he wanted until my mother called one day and told me that a tiger had escaped from a zoo in Florida. And then I knew that was what Rob was waiting for, that tiger.

I didn’t ever connect the release of the tiger with the release of his grief until way after the book was done. Isn’t that shameful? I never know exactly what I’m doing. I just knew that Rob had to let the tiger go.

Wow. Were you just sitting there thinking about the story and thought, “Oh, yeah,” or did someone point it out to you?

Almost always, these things have been pointed out to me by others. Usually teachers or librarians. Sometimes critics. And sometimes (oh, most lovely of all) by a child.
I don’t know who led me to to make those after-the-fact connections with tiger, but I can bet you it wasn’t me.

What was one of your favorite or most surprising moments as you were writing about the tiger?

Visit Kate DiCamillo

I hated seeing that tiger in the cage. I hated writing about him in the cage. It drove me nuts. So the relief of Rob releasing him . . . that was profound for me, too.

The tiger is tied metaphorically with birds, creatures that do, literally, rise, such as Willie May’s parakeet Cricket and the bird Rob’s father shot. Did you see this wonderful connection and then foster it, or did it come to you as a surprise?

I could see these things (the bird Rob’s father shot, Cricket, the tiger) out of the corner of my eye. They were, I realized, a constellation. I didn’t look at their connection too closely (for fear I would mess things up), but I knew that they were linked, glowing.

This inspires me. It’s a relief to think that I don’t have to “figure everything out.” Perhaps the more we relax, the better we can tell our stories.

Yep, I think it’s a mistake to talk about things too much or analyze them too much (at least when it comes to writing stories. At least when it comes to me writing stories).

The story is always smarter than I am.

Did you use charts, sticky notes, lists, or any other methods to help you keep track of the many moments in the story when the tiger works its silent magic, or how else did you manage to catch and keep alive the metaphorical magic?

If there is any metaphorical magic that is kept alive, it is done through sheer ignorance. How’s that for a helpful answer? I was aware (as with Cricket, the tiger, Rob’s bird) of constellations out of the corner of my eye. But I never turned and looked at all those metaphors directly for fear that I would take a misstep. I could feel them and that was enough. Does that make sense?

From Kate’s office

Yes, that makes sense. I have referred to Rob’s tiger in writing as a “novel-length metaphor,” but I’m not sure whether the term “metaphor” even applies, because the tiger is a he–and he is alive and big and breathing. At the same time, the tiger doesn’t seem like a “character,” either, since his emotions aren’t, and needn’t be, explored. As you wrote about the tiger, did it feel like you were writing a metaphor, a character, or something else entirely?

I like this question a lot because I was very certain as I was writing that the tiger was a flesh-and-blood tiger. And that he needed to remain so.

You’re right. He’s not a character. But he does function as a metaphor.

This is something (again) that happens out of the corner of the eye, his metaphor-ness. The reader feels it. The writer felt it. But the tiger stays a tiger.

Winn-Dixie seems “human” in many ways. As you wrote him, did he seem more like a character than the tiger did?

Winn-Dixie is definitely a character. I have known many dogs, but I have never known a tiger. I think it is impossible to know a tiger. That darkness, that mystery, that unknowability of something wild keeps us at a distance.

Has there ever been a time when you have connected so deeply with an animal, an object, or an activity that the relationship has galvanized you and provided transformational experiences, such as Rob’s experiences? 

Writing, telling stories, has galvanized me and provided transformational experiences. Each and every time I work to tell a story, I am changed, transformed.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about the tiger or about how aspiring writers can become attuned to and proficient with metaphor?

Well, obviously I can’t shed much insight into becoming attuned to metaphor since it so often happens behind my own back as I write. I would like to say something else about Rob, though.

Rob has that terrible rash on his legs. I wrote that book and re-wrote and re-wrote it and re-wrote it and Rob’s rash was always present, always front and center. And it wasn’t until after the book was done, that I remembered my own eczema, how it bedeviled me as a kid (not that I had forgotten the eczema, only that I hadn’t connected it with Rob’s eczema). I didn’t know what I was writing about, but I was writing about my heart.

So what I want to say is that I think it’s okay not to know.

The metaphors and the meaning will rise up naturally if you work to write your heart.

Have you always been able to listen to your heart, or do you ever do any conscious work to reconnect?

Oh, I am a big old mess, me. And if I am able to listen to my heart, it is only by listening to the story. This, in turn, (the writing, the working to tell the story) seems to push my heart open more.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers as to how to reconnect, so that we write our hearts?

Advice: Look at the world and work to love it.

Cynsational Notes

Elizabeth White is currently at work on a young adult novel about a teen artist who discovers her own voice. She is a student at Vermont College of Fine Arts and has an M.F.A. in Poetry from Texas State University.

Her poems have been published online and in small journals, as well as in two handmade poetry collections illustrated with her woodblock print drawings.

6 thoughts on “The Metaphoric Matrix: Kate DiCamillo

  1. Thanks so much for this interview, Kate. What a relief it is to know that an author of your stature often creates without always knowing what everything might "mean". I have had the experience of being told my illustration work is symbolic, and I have had no idea what was meant by that. I'm not saying it isn't but if it is, it was on a subconscious level. I also think that once a work is created the viewer or reader brings their own experience into creating the story they are reading or the drawing they are looking at. That makes a piece of art just a bit different for every individual, something I find wonderfully mysterious.

  2. Thank you,Varsha, Diane, Linda, and Lin for your comments. I'm glad you guys enjoyed the interview. Isn't Kate incredible? This interview has changed the way I write–no kidding. I'm more relaxed, more trusting–so far, it's been a lot more fun writing like this, instead of trying to comprehend and control every word that flows through my fingers.

Comments are closed.