OK gang. You came to the right place today. I’ve got the best interview with Catherine Gilbert Murdock, author of Dairy Queen and The Off Season. On offer: a peek at her writing space (and her cat), the author she’s addicted to, and an actual snippet of her upcoming new title, Princess Ben. Onward!
What inspires you (situations / works of art / places / foods / people)?
Everything. I really do find all sorts of things inspirational, as in giving me ideas. I’m increasingly of the opinion that curiosity is one of the most important traits a writer can have. This got me in serious trouble in the past – as a kid I stuck my nose in everything – but wondering about things and people and how the world works certainly pays off in all sorts of ways.
In terms of inspiration with a capital I . . . hmm. Not sure. Although the promise of book tours (two weeks alone in hotel rooms? No refereeing children? Bliss!) can get me out of bed when nothing else will.
Is your writing space a place of loveliness? Describe where you work. (Pictures also welcome!)
I work in many different places – God bless laptops, although I’ve been advised that an actual desk might help with the back issues. So here’s a picture of my office complete with the dangerously alluring guest bed and kitten Millie on my lap. And, yes, that’s a MacBook Air, which I raced out and purchased without an iota of guilt because I lug my laptop everywhere, and those back issues need all the help they can get.
I also work in the den, which truly is a place of loveliness in the winter because it’s the only warm room in the house. I’ve worked in hotel rooms (see above), airports, Starbucks, libraries . . . As long as the folks around me can control their imbecilic cell-phone conversations, I’m okay anywhere there’s heat.
Name 2 writers you admire – one writer for grown-ups, one writer for children / young adults.
Garth Nix, and Garth Nix. Last week a man I met in a bookstore said to me, rather plaintively, “I never meet Garth Nix fans; I just meet Garth Nix addicts.” Yep.
Given your comments in previous interviews, it sounds as if you actually like to read your own books and write them (imagine that!), and that you don’t find the writing life especially torturous. So what’s your secret to enjoying both the writing process and the result?
Yes, I really do enjoy writing, which is lovely, because it means I get paid to do what I adore. I think the most important “secret,” if you will, is never to look too far down the road. First ideas, then outline, then first draft, then revision, then readers’ comments, then second revision, then more comments, then third revision, then copy editing . . . I can’t tell you how many times I have said, aloud, as I stare at the computer screen and realize that a good 30% of the 50,000 words I’ve just composed will end up discarded, “Don’t think about that!” Because if I do, I’ll get so depressed that I’ll quit. There’s a description in Dairy Queen where D.J. describes bailing hay and how you can’t ever think about how much work you still have left . . . That came from life. From my life. And it applies to writing just as much as farm work.
I also truly enjoy editing, even more than writing, which makes me psychotic, I believe, or so I’ve been told by other writers. Perhaps it’s due to the fact I enjoy puzzles so much, because revising a manuscript is really solving a puzzle (the one I’m working on now, the third D.J. book, really was a puzzle – the document looked like a patchwork quilt for a while there as I moved all the different chunks around, I’m still amazed I didn’t accidentally delete it all). If I approach it as a puzzle, then it’s fun. If I say, “But I’ve worked so hard on this already,” then I might just as well go downstairs and play with the cats, because I sure won’t be getting anything done in the office.
Have you seen any movies lately with screenplays you wished you’d written?
Michael Clayton. That script was sheer brilliance. I’m still in awe. I also very much enjoyed Hot Fuzz, which is deliciously referential.
In one of the zillion interviews posted on your website, you wrote that grad school is the best method for destroying any love of reading. (Betcha you don’t even remember saying that!) I remember some exquisitely painful undergrad afternoons slogging my way through Clarissa or some similar Doorstop Classic. Are there any “important works of literature” that you feel very guilty about because you’ve never read them?
Oh, trust me, I very much remember saying that. And it’s true! As far as important books I’ve never read, I think it would be easier to list important books that I have because that list would be much, much shorter. Remember, I was never a lit person – I studied architectural history in college and American history in grad school, when I was supposed to read Moby Dick (skimmed it at best) and Last of the Mohicans (never opened it), but even those were to be analyzed historically rather than artistically. And these days I far prefer – can I stress how much I prefer? – children’s lit to grownup books, which I tend to find long-winded, depressing and lacking in resolution. This says an enormous amount about my emotional development and attention span.
What books do you wish you had not yet read, so that you could experience the pleasure of reading them now for the first time?
If I dwell too long on this, I’m sure I’ll get weepy . . . My kids are at great reading ages, 9 and 12, where they’re discovering so many amazing books, so the thrill of vicariously living their reading journeys is good enough. I paid my son $5 to read the first chapter of Watership Down, and $10 for the first chapter of Trickster’s Choice — he would never have touched them otherwise as they didn’t have boys with swords on the cover. Each time he’d then disappear for a week, emerging from his bedroom glassy-eyed to report on how good one particular scene was. (Did I not know this?) Last week my daughter read Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, and we had a great conversation about important the book was to me when I was her age because it showed me what it feels like to be afraid of water (a completely foreign notion to the two of us).
In The Off Season, when a whole whack of things start to go wrong for D.J. and the Schwenk clan, she fights it all before realizing that some things are beyond her power to control. D.J. discovers that while she might never have chosen the journey she’s on, she can choose how she behaves in her situation. Do you believe that things happen for a reason in life, that life leads us towards experiences through which we learn and change?
Oooh, big question. I guess I would say that while I don’t believe things happen for any specific reason, I believe it’s immensely important to ponder well each fork in the road. In other words, yes, life very much leads us toward experiences that change and educate us, but we are our own masters. Which is very sobering but also very empowering.
D.J. learns a lot of tough life lessons in The Off Season. What’s one lesson you wished you’d learned in high school that you now know?
Lemme get out my list . . . One of the big ones is that socially, high school is irrelevant to life. I suppose if I were in some Survivor episode, or worked in, I don’t know, fashion, all that backbiting and insecurity would relate to late adolescence, but out here in the real world no one cares what your shoes look like, not enough to gossip about it behind your back. If they ever in fact even did.
At the end of the story, D.J. thinks about the kind of guy she deserves to be with. She wants someone who acts with integrity in tough situations. If you were going to set D.J. up with a character from another book, who would you choose for her, and why?
Another good question. I’d originally envisioned D.J. ending up with Aaron, but then I realized how weird it would be from his perspective, to be a college sophomore – an important football player at that – dating a high school student. Even though we all know she’s worth it, it would still look inappropriate. Whoever D.J. ends up with, he has to make her feel good about herself. That’s the main thing, that all of us need.
Genie in a bottle time. You get 3 wishes (but not all for you):
a) What would be your wish for yourself?
b) What would D.J. wish for herself?
c) What would be your wish for D.J.?
Hmm. I don’t have much to wish for personally – that’s always dangerous – but I have some strong views on the ’08 election. Let’s just hope the majority of voters agree with me. Given her insecurities, I have a feeling D.J. would wish that she survives college classwork. I’m much more interested in her finding a guy who’s worthy.
Dairy Queen takes a good look at communication, in families and relationships. You show how the Schwenks become better communicators. Part of the reason why D.J is attracted to Brian is his ability to express his feelings with openness. In The Off Season, you take the theme of communication in new directions. Could you explain how communication features in this book, specifically as it relates to D.J.’s growth as a character?
It’s always so interesting when someone discusses my books. It’s like living in a house for years only to have a guest mention the view of the firehouse from the kitchen window – holy cow, you can see the firehouse from the kitchen?
In other words, I haven’t really given communication in The Off Season that much thought, not like I did in the first book. But you’re absolutely correct, communication does matter. There’s no way that D.J. could have initiated so many important conversations near the end of the book without having grown up so much. I’d say that in Dairy Queen D.J. learns that communication matters, and in The Off Season she learns to have faith in her own communication ability.
Give readers a teaser for your Spring-release book, Princess Ben.
Love to! This ships in April, by the way. This scene is from fairly late in the book – normally I don’t like to give so much away, but I just adore this conversation.
Across the room, Queen Sophia was observing me closely; if nothing else, I must do her proud. Suppressing a groan of frustration, I assembled my questions, formulated this afternoon, on the proper cultivation of fruit trees. The king led me to the center of the dance floor. He bowed; I curtsied; we began.
“Sophia is a most handsome and capable woman.” Renaldo said. He must have witnessed our wordless interaction.
“Indeed she has every possible attribute a woman of her position could require.”
“And several more. She is, I have heard, quite adept at military architecture.”
This feint caught me quite by surprise, and for a moment I could manage only a laugh. “Is not the fairer sex best equipped to recognize the harmonious union of esthetics and practicality?” I considered this response quite brilliant, particularly as it neither confirmed nor denied his statement.
“So, you believe fortifications to have an inherent beauty?”
“Certainly – when they succeed.” I paused long enough to allow this jab to sink in. “Of course, even their failure would not faze our queen. Were the castle under attack and without defenders, she would yet stand on the ramparts launching arrows at her foes.”
“And you, Princess, where might you be found? In your chambers attending your needlework?”
“Oh, I have no skill whatsoever with a needle! No, without a doubt you would find me at her side, boiling oil.” I smiled sweetly, revealing the teeth behind my lips. “But such talk of warfare has no place here. Tell me, your majesty, do you happen to know if a plum when intended to become a prune is left on the vine or plucked ripe?”
If you could be amazingly good at something in addition to writing (which would be totally unfair BTW), what would it be?
Healing. I would definitely want to be good at healing. In fact, I’d be tempted to exchange completely writing prowess for the ability to repair my own cartilage.
Did I lie? Was that not a completely lovely interview? Thanks so much to Catherine for her brilliant answers, and for agreeing to hang out a while here at Shelf Elf. It was a treat. Visit Catherine’s website to find out anything and everything else about her and her books. Oh, and introduce D.J. Schwenk to everyone you know.