Stephanie Campisi

Children's author. Sneaky poet. Maker of puns. Dropper of eaves. Dealer in whimsy.

Stephanie Campisi. Children's author.

Describe yourself in five words.

Unashamedly, unapologetically full of surprises.

What books/authors have influenced you?

I have a particular passion for poetry – it’s so pure and rich, and I love that the shape of a poem is so important in driving its meaning

I own far too many editions of Beowulf (so others say), and while "influence" might be a stretch, it’s definitely inspired me. The language is so remarkable, and the thought that a story can still resonate and touch people over a thousand years after being written down is just astonishing.

Fast forwarding a little, and more towards prose, I love the melancholy of Shel Silverstein, the spunk of Dodie Smith and the gentle poignancy of The Little Prince.

What do you do for fun? 

I’m an espresso aficionado, so I spend a lot of time sitting in cafes and eavesdropping – the trick is to only overhear snippets. (A recent overheard of note: "My only regret is giving it all up for a Blade Runner umbrella".)

Other than moonlighting as a cafe spy, I dance tango and have recently taken up Olympic weightlifting, because a good spy is both nimble and strong.

Why did you want to start writing books? 

I have a very odd mind that has a tendency to make the strangest connections between seemingly unrelated things, and I think on some level I worry that if I don’t write the stories that those ideas demand, then no one else ever will. (Maybe that’s a good thing, but I’d rather not take the chance!)

For me, stories are the way that I try to make sense of both myself and the world around me, and hopefully my weird little ideas can help someone else do the same.

What was the inspiration for The Ugly Dumpling? 

My stories almost invariably start with just a title, in this case one I scribbled down and stuck to my desk so it couldn’t escape.

The book is definitely a hat-tip to the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, although I might have taken just a few liberties in its telling (I suspect a cockroach would have fared less well had it befriended a duckling).

The setting came about mostly because a steamed bun seemed like the natural "swan" equivalent of a dumpling - and The Ugly Pierogi or The Ugly Gnocchi didn’t quite have the same ring.

Also, now I can claim steamed buns as a tax expense.

What made you choose to re-tell The Ugly Duckling fairytale and why is The Ugly Duckling an important story? 

It would have been a travesty to pass up a title as ridiculous as The Ugly Dumpling – that, rather than the retelling aspect was probably the main factor in my decision to write the book. (Sorry, Hans.)

It actually took me about six months to come up with the right way to tell the story, probably in part because I was trying to keep it true to the original fairy tale – and that just wasn’t quite working.

I wanted to tell a story where the protagonist actively questioned its place in the world not just because of the difficulties it faced, but also because of the difficulties faced by others.

I wanted its actions, not its context, to be the source of its beauty, and I wanted it to decide that it’s okay not to belong in the way that we feel we should – and that it’s okay not to belong at all.

I think the ending of the Andersen story does address this in an understated way, but I wanted to take that conclusion and extend it a little – with hopefully a more empowering result.

Why, of all things, did you choose a cockroach to befriend the Ugly Dumpling?

The Ugly Dumpling is a story about the unloved and the unwanted, and it’s hard to think of something more maligned than a cockroach. Except maybe two cockroaches.

I wanted my dumpling to have a companion who had a similar kind of outsider status, but who was comfortable in its identity – comfortable enough that it had moved from solely looking inwards to being able to look outwards as well.

The Ugly Dumpling’s travels seem to be important in it figuring out its place in the world. What role do you think that travel and new experiences play for people? 

New experiences are instrumental in shaping who we are. Even our everyday experiences are novel, really, because we’re all changing little bit by little bit, and the person who experienced yesterday’s events is a little bit different from the person experiencing today’s events.

Travel speeds up those changes and creates large shifts. Being in a new environment makes you reflect on the one you come from and on the differences between the two. It makes you consider the things you take for granted and question the ways you have of doing things. When you travel you become an other and an outsider – which makes you actively consider your place and your identity, exactly like the Ugly Dumpling does.