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Behind the Book

Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Catherine Gilbert Murdock burst on to the scene of young adult literature with her debut novel, Dairy Queen, winner of Borders' Original Voices Award, the 2007 Midwest Booksellers Choice Award, and the 2007 Great Lakes Booksellers Children's Literature Award. Reviewers, booksellers, and readers from across the country embraced Murdock's main character, D.J. Schwenk, rejoicing in her refreshing honesty, wit, and, most of all, determination to do something different. Dairy Queen's sequel, The Off Season, soon followed and met with the same success, prompting emails from teens celebrating the return of D.J. and thanking Murdock for creating someone to whom they could relate.

Her latest book, Princess Ben, was published in May 2008 and is a refreshing, new fractured fairy tale that will be welcomed by fantasy lovers everywhere. Catherine Gilbert Murdock and her sister, the best-selling novelist Elizabeth Gilbert, grew up on a tiny farm in Connecticut. She now lives outside of Philadelphia with her husband and two children, where she is hard at work on a third book starring D.J. Schwenk.

For additional Catherine Gilbert Murdock titles, log in to TITLEWAVE.

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Follett: How does Princess Ben differ from other not-so-typical fairy tales with a feminist twist?

CGM: Can we pause, right off the bat, so I can say what *fantastic* questions these are, and thank you for asking them?

There. Ahem. How does Princess Ben differ . . . Well, to tell you the truth, when I first wrote Princess Ben I had not read many contemporary feminist fairy tales meaning "anything written after about 1982 when I stopped reading fun stuff." I'd heard of Ella Enchanted and The Goose Girl and Tamora Pierce, but I just hadn't made the time for them yet, in great part because my kids were still too young—I'm using motherhood as an excuse to catch up on three decades of reading. So I really didn't know there was a tradition, if you will, of grrl-power princesses. If I had known this, I'm not sure I would have been brave enough to write Ben—I would have been too sensitive to accusations of mimicry or redundancy.

Having now taken the time to read many of these wonderful stories, I can say that Ben differs from many of the kick-butt girls (that's a literary term, right?) in that she—unlike D.J. in Dairy Queen—is not a tomboy, a fighter just as good as any male. Any ability she has comes either from her magic, which is relatively insignificant, or her wiles. I was going to write "feminine wiles," but wiles are actually gender neutral. Women just have to resort to them more frequently.

Beyond that, however, I don't think there's a vast difference in character between Ben and many of these other not-so-typical heroines. The greater difference—to my mind—lies in the story itself, in the language and vocabulary and the entire mannered quality of the narration. That's what I personally adore about the story. I mean, I love Ben, and the queen, and I'm quite smitten with Florian, but it's really the words that make my heart beat fast.

Follett: Do you think fairytales are anti-feminist? Do you think their message is comforting or deceiving to children?

CGM: I certainly used to think that—it's a difficult conclusion not to reach sometimes, especially with the more traditional versions of these tales, and the psychological analysis of Cinderella's small feet and all that. Yeech.

My opinion about the whole prince-in-shining-armor bunkum softened somewhat when a high school student thanked me for Dairy Queen because it reassured her that someday she could meet a great guy too. Oh! I realized, it's not that girls want a prince, necessarily, it's just that they want someone, and fairytales reassure them that this will happen.

That said, I'm increasingly convinced that this entire princess fascination is only about the clothes. Really. You mention "prince" to my daughter and she retches like she's just eaten slugs. But princess outfits—wearing them, drawing them, designing them—keep her occupied for hours. Maybe that's why proms are so popular; whether or not the prince measures up, every girl gets to spend a couple of hours playing royalty.

Follett: Given that there has been such a wealth of fairytale stories that seek to reinvent the depiction of females, do you think there will ever be a similar attempt to retell the tales from other genres, such as religion and mythology, from a feminist perspective?

CGM: The Lightning Thief, set in contemporary America, features the half-god daughter of Athena and a human man. Yet to the best of my recollection, the Athena of classical mythology was a virgin. The notion of the goddess of wisdom as an unwed mom—you've got to admit that shakes the tree just a bit. Both Bartemaeus and Children of the Lamp feed off Middle Eastern myths. Not to mention enthusiasm for Pocahontas and Sacajawea and other cross-cultural female role models. So to me, this re-telling with fresh or freshly nuanced interpretations is very much happening already. As the mother of a boy, I'd like to see a similarly fresh and nuanced interpretation of mythic male role models—showing how great heroes are also good fathers and good leaders able to hear differing viewpoints and to listen to women, capable of admitting their own failures and faults . . . Is that too much to hope for? I mean, talk about shaking the tree . . .

Follett: Why do you think fantasy has become increasingly popular among today's adolescents, girls and boys?

CGM: I wasn't aware the genre was ever unpopular. It certainly was popular when I was kid, at least in my circle of friends. That said, I believe kids these days—and realize I'm basing this on the Murdock family reading list—may be seeking out fantasy because the heroes are clear-cut. Who wants to read about sports with all the doping and arrest scandals? Or historic Americans who have been exposed as racist or sexist or even genocidal? Or expose themselves to that genre I call "Really Depressing Stories," which deal with grave social issues in such a way that all the reader wants to do after finishing is leap in front of a bus? Not us, that's for sure. Whereas a guy with a sword beating up some inhuman creature—enemies are so much more digestible when they aren't human—is pretty easy to cheer for, and feel good about.

Not to mention the thrill of vicariously experiencing magical powers.

Follett: Your website says that you are currently writing a third D.J. Schwenk book to follow Dairy Queen and The Off Season. How does working with the same characters limit or enhance your ability to tell a story?

CGM: Another good question. I'll admit it was fun to return to D.J.'s no-nonsense voice after all the literary embroidery that Princess Ben required. And I was glad to reunite with Curtis and Brian and Smut and all the other characters, dig up some anecdotes and storylines I hadn't had an opportunity to use yet. The biggest challenge by far—and I'm sure I'm not alone on this—was figuring out how to explain what happened in earlier books without sounding like a total doufus. I get quite jealous of authors who get to provide an explanatory preface. At one point while writing The Off Season I stated in the first paragraph, in so many words, "If you don't know what happened last summer, go read Dairy Queen." But my editor made me take it out. And there are times when I did wish D.J. had a slightly larger vocabulary. I love, just love, graphic action verbs, and the poor kid doesn't know nearly enough to satisfy me.

Follett: In other interviews and in book reviews, D.J. Schwenk and Princess Ben are both referred to as "strong female characters." In the 21st century, why can't we just take for granted that females will stand up for their principles and protect themselves? When do you think we might finally see strong female characters become the rule, rather than the exception?

CGM: Hmmm. Well, I think there are a lot of strong female characters out there right now, but the problem is that most of them are totally bitchy. I'm thinking about some of those alpha-society-girl books—which I've never opened, I will confess, though I have read the back covers—where the main characters sound as mean as snakes.

Part of the issue here may be that strong characters are inherently more challenging to create. That's just a basic law, going back to the invention of storytelling. Who wants to read about someone who's super-competent and perfect? We tremulous, insecure readers desire protagonists with whom we can identify, and the easiest way to accomplish that it to make them—duh—tremulous and insecure. It's really tough to create strong female characters who also appear sensitive and human. (A problem not unknown to women in real life either.)

Follett: Do you see other parallels between D.J. and Ben? How does Ben compare? With which character do you think readers will more closely identify?

CGM: Speaking of tremulous and insecure . . . Both girls of course have body image issues, which is only natural given that this is such an element of the contemporary female psyche. Several reviewers have accused me of selling out Ben by making her end up thin (which by the way she isn't, which you would know if you read the book with even half an eyeball). But to me, the most important lesson of both Dairy Queen and Princess Ben is that both girls come to peace with their bodies. They learn to say, "I know I'm not the ideal but I'm okay with that, I like who I am." More than that, they recognize themselves as attractive, and come to accept this as well. I just love how football makes D.J. more feminine, and how living as a boy does the same to Ben. They both realize that it's okay to be a girl. That it can even be fun.

In terms of whom readers will identify with more . . . No idea. I continue to be amazed that sixth graders are even reading Ben—I was sure the vocabulary would stop them cold. But kids apparently are far more flexible and resilient than I am. I do hope that the readers who do identify with her will pick up some appreciation for table manners. Or that my kids will at least.

Follett: The name D.J. is gender neutral, while Ben is traditionally a name for boys. Do you tend to shy away from overtly feminine names for protagonists in your novels? Why do you think the naming is significant?

CGM: I had nothing to do with D.J.'s name. She named herself. I wanted her to have a girl name, actually—I really liked Dorrie, which she had been called when she was little, and I tried to revive it in The Off Season and then again in Front and Center, but no dice. The girl just wants to be D.J. She's the one who shied away from the feminine.

(At the moment I'm listening to Linda Sun Park's Project Mulberry. She, brilliantly, interlaces each chapter with a dialog with the main character about how little control authors have over their stories. The anecdote above is exhibit A.)

The title Princess Ben just came to me, very early in the writing of the book, and I fell head over heals in love with it. Ben, remember, spends a chunk of the story as a boy, so it made sense plot-wise to give her a name that could easily cross. I also liked, in my twisted way, how Ben the girl and Florrie the boy got to know one another. That was fun.

If I had to do it over again, I'd insist on giving D.J. a more feminine name and not let her push me around like that.

Follett: How did you switch gears from realistic fiction (Dairy Queen, The Off Season) to a fantasy story, Princess Ben? Was it a difficult transition?

CGM: The best part of writing fantasy is making stuff up. You need something to happen? Well then, invent a magic spell, a religious ceremony, an entire freaking kingdom if you want. It doesn't matter. Whereas dairy farming and American football and spinal cord injuries are things you really can't fudge, research-wise, because knowledgeable people will seek you out and tell you, loudly, how wrong you are. So the transition to fantasy wasn't difficult, it was heavenly.

The more challenging problem—though I'm loathe to call it a problem, it was a problem if "we can't finish this homemade chocolate frosting, can you just take it home?" is a problem too . . . the more challenging issue was switching writing styles. With Dairy Queen and The Off Season, the goal was to shrink the vocabulary to suit this inarticulate, stumbling farm girl. Why use six words when I could use three mixed with a couple of um's and I don't knows. With Princess Ben, on the other hand, those six words needed to be replaced with twenty-two, twenty-two words as rich and polysyllabic and cadenced as possible.

Follett: We love that you include your playlist for the time period you wrote your novels. Do you often relate your own soundtrack to a particular book? If so, is the song choice dictated by the characters or the plot?

CGM: The Off Season's playlist was completely determined by plot. The list I've developed for Front and Center was derived for a specific character who is so into these specific songs. Most of these songs are mentioned in the book, or at least quoted. I had so much fun working on this. Knowing that character's favorite tunes really helped me understand him as a person. I've never had that experience with any other character, but then I've never had a character who cares so much about music. I've had friends, and boyfriends, who did—there's a personality type—so I'm pretty good at getting it. I still listen to this character's playlist, and every time I think about how much he must like it. I'll post it on my website closer to the pub date.

Follett: Do you see your books as primarily written for girls? In general, do you think there are "girl books" and "boy books"? Or can books simply speak to all?

CGM: I really, really, really do not like this whole "girl" and "boy" book business. Not one bit. My 12-year-old Nick who came to reading late but hard, and getting him to read quote-unquote girl books—this is a sensitive kid with loads of female friends and zero interest in sports—is worse than pulling teeth. When I gave him Trickster's Choice, I had to pay him $10 just to read the first chapter. Then he devoured it, and Trickster's Queen right afterward. But he wrapped the books in brown paper because he didn't want the boys at school teasing him about the gigantic female face on the front, which might as well have been a battery-powered neon sign announcing "I'M READING A BOOK FOR GIRLS." The Trickster series has great male characters and humor and tons of fighting, but no acknowledgement—note the cover—that the other half the reading public might enjoy it as well. So this ridiculous bifurcation is just exacerbated by publishers' pink-and-glitter versus muscles-and-weapons marketing.

That said, the problem isn't just marketing. Too many stories feature either intense female-centered relationships or two-dimensional males bashing each other. It is such a joy to read someone like John Flanagan, who is fastidious about including interesting and spunky female characters in his boy-centered Ranger's Apprentice series—perhaps because he has daughters. My books aren't nearly that thoughtful, which is a shame, and a poor reflection on me. Some boys do read Dairy Queen (its cover aside), and it's a delight to hear from them; hopefully it opens their eyes a bit to the mindset of a girl farmer jock. I'm hoping, however, to write something in the next few years that speaks more directly to the Nicks of the world.

Follett: How much writing did you do before you published Dairy Queen? Do you have a stack of manuscripts that haven't actually been published, but you still credit with getting you where you are today? Do you have any advice for aspiring young adult authors?

CGM: I have crates of screenplays, though most of them aren't worth the matches it would take to light them on fire. A few have some kernels of interest I might expand upon at some point. Screenwriting—I've said this before, many times—is such a phenomenal way to learn the craft of telling a story. I can't think of a more appropriate vehicle for mastering character development, dialog, pacing . . . So those crummy scripts did a great job of educating me, much as I cringe now at the thought of them.

In terms of advice for aspiring authors . . . I have a page on my website addressing this, as I get the question so often. Just yesterday I received an email from a high school student asking how to get her novel published. (A novel in high school? I was thrilled when I got my homework in on time!) My biggest concern with aspiring authors—and here I'm addressing adults just as much as teens—is that the writer tends to move too quickly. "I've written a book; how do I get it published?" misses a critical—if not the critical—step in this entire creative process, which is: "I've written a book; now how do I make it the very best book it can possibly be?" No publisher or literary agent will undertake that editing process, particularly with an unknown entity. It's the writer's job to make it perfect, as perfect as possible, prior to submission. This stinks, sure, but it's the only way I know—beyond being an international celebrity, which has its own challenges—to get your name on a dust jacket.

For additional Catherine Gilbert Murdock titles, log in to TITLEWAVE.

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