Art Talk: Margaret Cardillo

by Jennifer Hoesing

Today’s Art Talk is a conversation with Miami author Margaret Cardillo. Margaret’s book, Just Being Audrey, was the recent winner of the 2011 gold medal for Children’s Literature in the Florida Book Awards. Margaret took a moment from her busy schedule to chat with me, via email, about her love for Audrey Hepburn and the Sunshine State, as well as her work with First Lady Ann Scott.

Margaret Cardillo headshot

Margaret Cardillo

DCA: You were just honored with a gold medal in the Florida Books Awards for your book, Just Being Audrey. How did you decide to write about the iconic Audrey Hepburn as a young girl?

I fell in love with Audrey when I was 10 years old when I watched Roman Holiday for the first time. When I read more about her life outside of the screen, I loved her even more. She survived war-torn Holland during World War II. She built a movie career anyone would be proud of. She created a whole fashion movement with the Audrey Look. She was always kind and she was always herself—she never tried to be anyone other than Audrey. And then she did something that not many actors did at that time: she chose to use her fame to help others. She dedicated her life to UNICEF and traveled the world bringing aid to children in need. This was long before Angelina Jolie and Bono. She saw the opportunity to help children and she took it in a big, life-changing way.

Whether it was her acting, her style or her activism with UNICEF, Audrey is famous for all the right reasons. She inspired me as a young girl and I wanted to inspire a new generation of fans.

Just Being Audrey. Image courtesy/used by permission of Margaret Cardillo.

DCA: You hold an assistantship at the University of Miami, where you are working on a Masters in Screenwriting. How does screenwriting differ from writing for children and from short stories?

On the one hand it is completely different and on the other it is very similar. Whether it is a children’s book, a short story or a screenplay you have to figure out what the story is and tell it in a compelling and emotional way. In that way it is very similar. However, each craft is different. There are many more parameters for a screenplay than a written narrative—it is a more structured medium. It is a gift to be able to think about real people acting out your words. Children’s books are just beasts unto themselves. The cardinal rule is not to talk down to children. They can sniff it out like a dog and a bone. When you have three or so pages of text, every single word is precious. Short stories are freeing while at the same time very constrictive. Weaving a narrative in order to leave it up to the readers’ imagination is as once frightening and fascinating. And novels, well, the possibilities are endless. That’s why I love writing: there are so many ways of doing it. The only consistency is the challenge of producing good writing.

DCA: I know you’ve studied in Boston and worked in New York City. What is the best thing about returning to Florida?

Socks. I don’t have to wear socks anymore. Or wash them and wonder where they all go. Seriously though, I miss Boston and New York all the time, but when I thought about moving back to Florida I knew it meant two things: 1) being close to my family (I was born and raised in Naples and my parents still live there) and 2) being able to write outside. That is the best thing about moving back to Florida. Living here, on the other hand, is a collection of a million “best things”. Among them: sunshine, walking with my husband through the jungle of Coconut Grove, the Everglades, mangroves, key lime pie, the seven mile bridge, University of Miami, Plant City Strawberry Festival, outdoor movies in March, people watching on Lincoln Road, the Naples beach, finding my dog Zampano through a dog rescue center.

DCA: You have teamed up with First Lady Ann Scott to read your book to kids. What was your takeaway from that experience?

That kids are so smart and ask the funniest questions and are shorter than me…and I love them for all of those reasons. The reading was a fantastic experience. First Lady Scott is a big reader herself and is dedicated to encouraging the young people of Florida to pick up a book. And you know what? They do. The participating kids were well versed in a myriad of books and topics. They were also very curious about the writing process, as many of them love to write on their own. And while the kids were the highlight, the teachers that brought them to the mansion are heroes. I could tell just by watching their interaction with the kids: the students look to their teachers for guidance and, in turn, the teachers are encouraging them to ask questions and speak up. Speaking to children is definitely one of the best parts of being an author. They have unparalleled clarity and great curiosity. On my class visits we’ve written whole stories together or we will sit and talk for over an hour about Audrey, life, books and writing. Their imagination is inspiring.

DCA: The Division of Cultural Affairs believes in the motto Culture Builds Florida. What do you think when you hear that phrase? Why do you believe arts and culture are important to our state?

I think that when you have a state as diverse as Florida, culture makes itself important. It really is a melting pot of hundreds upon hundreds of different cultures coming together and living amongst each other. When they blend and collaborate and celebrate each other is when the good stuff happens. Florida’s history lends itself to being a cultural haven. We’ve been inhabited by so many walks of life over the years that there was never a set-in-stone way of life. Sure there are some drawbacks to that, but having that kind of open-door policy on culture creates a safe zone for people to express their heritage, their history and their voices.

It bothers me when people say Florida is devoid of culture. Their preconceived notions are getting in the way. I am an Italian American who will go to the opera at the performing arts center as soon as I’ll go to the Miami Book Fair as I’ll go to Shark Valley in the Everglades or the lake district in the middle of the state. There isn’t any one thing that defines Florida, which is what I love so much about it.

In a modern sense, arts and culture are important to Florida because recognition of culture keeps us relevant. The minute we rest on our laurels and stop paying attention to culture, in whatever form it presents itself, is the minute we stop progressing as a state. Books and art and film and museums, among other things, are what keep our collective heart beating. We can’t forget that. Our unique culture is what sets us apart.

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