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Catherine Gilbert Murdock Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Photo: Greg Martin

Catherine Gilbert Murdock

An interview with Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Catherine Murdock discusses Dairy Queen, her first novel for teens about a football-loving 15-year-old who takes over running her family's small Wisconsin dairy farm when her dad is injured.

How did you come up with the idea for this book?

It always sounds goofy, but I really did have a dream about a girl playing college football against a boy she loves passionately. When I woke up, my first thought was "What an amazing premise for a story!" Followed by "Babe, you don't know one thing about football." But that kernel stayed with me, just kept growing in me for days, as I thought about it and worked it — dream or no, the story idea was just a lump, and I had to do a lot of shaping. I immediately tossed the college notion — that was ridiculous — and I spent hours trying to figure out where to place the story: Texas was out of the question because football is so important there, D.J. might get killed. I toyed with western Pennsylvania and California and then finally came up with Wisconsin. I say finally because I have family in Wisconsin — I have cousins who played football there, in schools about the size of D.J.'s. So I was leery at first of writing about Wisconsin self-consciousness combined with obstinacy — but I'm so pleased now. Then of course I had to develop the characters . . . The heart of the story, its essential moment, if you will, remains this dream-moment, when D.J. looks across the football scrimmage at Brian. All my work went into building up to that eye contact, which ultimately was only a couple of sentences, but I had to make it as real, as full of emotion, as I could. Hence the first twenty-eight chapters.

The reader learns a lot about life on a dairy farm — did you have to do much research?

My mother grew up on a dairy farm, smaller than D.J.'s but with that same feel of family labor (and family tension). When I was a kid we lived up the road from the sweetest, cleanest dairy farm I've ever seen. My sister and I would bike down to buy their amazing ice cream, we'd hunt for kittens in the hayloft and feed the calves, climb a perfect maple tree outside their back door. As I was writing the first draft of Dairy Queen, I kept a long list of dairy-related questions, and then last summer I visited Art Webster — he's the dairy farmer, retired now — and quizzed him for several hours. He couldn't have been nicer or more helpful. He's one of the people I dedicated the book to; he's always been a surrogate grandfather to us.

Communication is hard for everyone in the Schwenk family, and the reader sees only D.J.'s thoughts. Is it a challenge to write about characters that don't say much?

The bigger challenge was explaining the characters from D.J.'s point of view. Her feelings for her father are so complicated that they really obscure his identity. For example, he's a good cook (burnt French toast notwithstanding), but we don't learn that until the end of the book, when D.J. finally figures it out. I had the same trouble with Brian; I had so much trouble getting inside his head because I was too busy seeing him through D.J. Curiously, I've received a lot of criticism from readers about how passive and uncommunicative D.J.'s mother is. Each time I hear this, it surprises me. Has everyone else in the world been raised by articulate, self-aware women? The fact that D.J.'s mother is disappointing is quite different from saying that the character is unrealistic. I like D.J.'s mom a lot — I like both her parents — but their lack of communication skills doesn't strike me as unusual. Neither did I find it challenging to develop the characters without their speaking much; that part was really fun, actually.

Did you always intend to include Oprah Winfrey in the story?

Meaning, did I dream about her on the sidelines, cheering my girl on? No. But she was so easy to integrate — her role came so naturally, much more smoothly than most of the other characters'. D.J.'s family might be tough farmers, but they can't identify or even give credit to their feelings, and it's destroying them — the family is collapsing. D.J., by trying in her own inarticulate way to tap in to Oprah, recognizes — or begins to recognize — that talking about emotions and pain and resentment, all those hot buttons, isn't self-indulgent or whiny, but essential. Really, I'm using Oprah to epitomize the emotional development of the American psyche. The novel's juxtaposition of old-fashioned self-reliance and heartfelt reflection is to my mind the most important theme of the story. I'd like to take credit for it, but it blossomed of its own accord — a higher power was at work. Probably Oprah.

Curtis is a very quiet but important part of the book — how did you come up with his character?

Ah, Curtis. I'm not going to say he's my favorite character, but to this day every time I think about him, I melt a little. Like many last children, Curtis came into being by accident. I knew from the get-go that D.J. needed at least one older brother who played football — that would explain her knowledge of and passion for the game. I also knew that she realistically could not perform all the required farm labor by herself — no one could, not at fifteen. So I "added" a little brother to the family to help her out. But I also had this notion, critical to the story, that D.J. would be increasingly isolated as the summer progressed, in order for her thinking and decision making to evolve, and of course her relationship with Brian. That's why D.J.'s mother works full-time — if she were home, she'd sniff out the Brian-D.J. thing in a second. And so as I was writing, Curtis played this walk-on role, really, of showing up to help when the workload called for it and then disappearing. Possibly the dullest, most two-dimensional character ever written. He never even spoke. Gradually I realized I had to address this somehow, and so I made his silence part of the story, part of the entire family dysfunction. And then I had the breakthrough that his selective mutism stemmed from some specific reason, a secret explanation. I tossed around a bunch of ideas and came up with, well, my favorite scene in the book.

Why don't you give names to D.J.'s parents?

It's great — so many people don't even realize this, and then later they'll ask, "What was D.J.'s mother's name again?" For the record, both parents do have names in my head. But I was quite tickled by the notion that D.J. wouldn't ever provide them. I mean, why would she? She's still at an age where they're übermom and überdad. She doesn't see them having identities separate from her own.

You don't skirt around the complicated relationship D.J. has with Amber.

No, although it's not like I'm breaking new ground. I knew from the beginning that I'd have to address homosexuality at some point. Writing a story about a large, strong, assertive girl playing the hypermasculine sport of football really brings that issue to the fore. But — given the inspirational dream I'd had — I very much wanted D.J. to be straight, and I loved the contrast between the "butch jock" stereotype being forced on her and her own passionate feelings for Brian. In a way, she's forced to break just as many boundaries in her yearnings for a handsome, popular boy as Amber is in her yearnings for D.J. That said, I didn't originally intend for Amber to be gay, either. But, again, I really felt D.J. needed to become increasingly isolated over the course of the summer, even from her best friend, and this seemed like such an appropriate way to develop her estrangement.

How do you feel about the huge role football plays in so many towns in America?

I was a lot more opposed to it before this book. I used to attend football games at the University of Pennsylvania, all the fan rituals and hoopla, but I wasn't impressed — I was in grad school, after all, and too busy deconstructing the event to enjoy it much. I was pretty far along in Dairy Queen before I even had the courage to read Friday Night Lights, because I knew how disturbed I'd be. In point of fact, I really enjoyed the book, and the movie, which did a phenomenal job of distilling the story.

I don't object to football per se as much as to the pressures being put on young children to compete in all sports, and to the professionalization of high school sports. By professional, I mean being expected to earn one's way through college. I ran cross-country and track in high school, but I also worked on the play and the yearbook and tons of homework, and I fear — I can see — that many other worthy activities (including hanging out and sleeping) are getting sucked into this sports vortex.

That said, I loved describing the football scrimmage in Dairy Queen — my blood still races when I read it — and I understand what a catalyst these events can be for the entire community. I just feel badly that so much stress is being put on kids — both the kids who can perform and the kids who can't — so that a bunch of adults can get excited.

Shouldn't you mention your own athletic endeavors here?

Endeavor is an awfully high-powered word for what I do. Part of my bias against ball sports, I freely admit, stems from my own ineptitude. Researching Dairy Queen, I realized that not only do I lack skill, coordination, fast-twitch muscles, and resolve, but I also have no ability to mentally visualize other players on the field. (Even biking, I get flustered when someone's behind me.) My problem is cognitive! I finally figured out I have an excuse!

I can, however, swim, bike, and run, and four years ago I began competing in triathlons, without much skill but with great enthusiasm. This experience has really helped to shape my empathy for D.J. and organized sports generally, the rush of training and the glory of competition. I composed Dairy Queen's workout scenes — her training with Brian, the scrimmage — while peddling away on my stationary bike. I don't know if I needed the adrenaline to build my enthusiasm or vice versa, but I certainly came off the bike steamy with excitement and thrilled to write.

For the past year, though, I've been struggling with a bad knee, with one surgery already and a second probably on the way. That, too, has given me more respect for the specter of injury that always looms over sport.

Is D.J. the kind of person you would have been friends with when you were fifteen?

I wish! I would have been extremely impressed with her, particularly the football, and I would have admired her greatly. But I'm not sure we could have gotten to know each other because we'd move in such different circles — I a fine arts geek and bookworm, and she into team sports, probably vocational agriculture, and not too interested in weird, mouthy, college-bound kids like me.

I've had a number of friends over the years who were phenomenal athletes blessed with coordination and strength and speed, and they had no idea! That is, they knew they were good at sports, but they didn't give themselves any credit for it and were just as full of sniveling insecurities as the rest of us. So many YA heroines are clever, gawky introverts — probably because so many YA readers, myself included, fit that mold. I relished creating a heroine who diverged from that, and yet who revealed this truth within teens — within all of us, really: the inability to recognize, let alone to cherish, our own gifts.

You've done a lot of screenwriting. How was writing a novel different? The same?

Let me clarify that I've done a lot of mediocre screenwriting. I originally set out to make Dairy Queen yet another screenplay, but I'd been burned so many times trying to market scripts that I decided to take the plunge and try a novel instead, though I hadn't written so much as a short story since high school. The experience was amazing! When D.J. had a thought, I could just write it down instead of figuring out how exactly I was going to have to convey that thought via speech or gesture or voiceover. It was enormously liberating.

I love writing screenplays. I love the craft of it, nailing the scene description and the dialogue, streamlining the page. One thing screenwriting teaches you — it taught me, anyway — is how to go into every sentence and make it as tight and clear and powerful as possible. That was invaluable. I've also learned so much from writing dialogue, where you get only a half a page to create a critical, moving, believable conversation. That was even more precious. In the end, though, novel or screenplay, the writing experience remains the same. You're telling a story. You have to make it good.

So would you like to see Dairy Queen made into a movie?

Good question. I wrote the book (to use my one snippet of screenwriting jargon) in classic three-act format, as it was the only framework I knew, and I've been told that many of the scenes are cinemagraphic. That's kind of inevitable, I think, in this culture; we're so used to the medium of film that it's hard not to write visually.

I have to say, though, I have mixed feelings about seeing Dairy Queen made into a movie. How many books do we know that have been mangled en route to the theater? But I would deeply, deeply love to see the trailer. I adore trailers. If movie theaters showed an hour of trailers before the feature, I would show up an hour early every time. I've given so much thought to it — I think I even wrote it up once — and I believe, enthusiast that I am, that this book would produce one heck of a two-minute preview.

Has writing Dairy Queen changed you in any way?

It's made me a more forgiving person. One of my all-time favorite books is A Girl Named Zippy. I was so impressed with how empathetically Haven Kimmel treated all her characters, and I tried to apply that empathy and forgiveness in my own writing, to my interpretations of people, and even to my own past. For example, it's easy to be bitchy about cheerleaders, but I decided early on that I wouldn't. For one thing, D.J., by that point in the story, is going through so many traumas with her family that I couldn't pile on any more high school angst. But I also went to school with cheerleaders, I took classes with them, I was friends with a couple, and as far as I could tell they had blood and hearts and feelings just like the rest of us. It meant a lot to me, how supportive the cheerleaders in Dairy Queen were of D.J.

Also, I've become quite the milk drinker, even though I was a big soy fan before this. And I now read the sports section every day. I'm pretty sure I'm never going to paint my face green, but I was as pleased as anyone (well, not anyone — Philadelphia has some pretty rabid football fans) when the Eagles made it to the Super Bowl.

D.J. is a fresh, funny, unique voice — different than a lot of teens in current young adult books — but she's also instantly believable. How did you capture being a teenager so well? Do you read a lot of young adult literature?

As a teen I was wracked by hyper self-consciousness and self-criticism, acne, parental issues, loneliness, height . . . Miserable as I was at the time, I can see now that a lot of that pain is universal (except maybe the tall part). It wasn't too much effort to channel it through D.J. Before I started Dairy Queen, I bought an armful of YA books just to get some sense of what I should be aiming for in terms of length, content, acceptable bad words, etc. I also reread a lot of my favorite authors from way back, such as Anne McCaffrey and Susan Cooper (I used to be a fantasy buff). But I'm not a voracious reader. I was pretty squeamish about the all-I-want-is-a-boyfriend books when I was a kid, and I'm afraid I still am, at least as a dietary staple, though they're fun as a condiment sometimes.

Your sister, Elizabeth Gilbert, has a very successful writing career. What's it like writing a book with a well-known author for a sister?

Completely awesome. Liz could not have been more supportive; she has been for years, encouraging me to write more. On the other hand, I was rabidly paranoid. For example, I was hugely concerned that when writing dialogue I'd end up with a column of said . . . said . . . said . . . said . . . going down the page. Just a little bit obsessive on that one. At the time I was writing Dairy Queen, Liz was in Europe and Asia researching Eat Pray Love, and we were sending long e-mails back and forth every day, and finally late in the summer I mustered my courage and mentioned that I was, you know, writing this little thing, and maybe she could take a look? I'd made this deadline for myself that I'd finish it so she could read it on the plane back to New York, and I really threw myself into getting that accomplished, and then FedExing it to Bali, which is much less difficult than you'd think, and then of course I paced the house, wondering if she'd received it, and what she thought, and on and on . . . She called me the morning after she landed and said, "It's great, it's perfect, what can I do to help you get it published?" Later, whenever I mentioned that I'd changed a chapter or added a scene, she'd shake her head and say, "It was already perfect." (It wasn't.) Plus, she found me an amazing agent.

What are you working on next?

The sequel, of course. When I finished Dairy Queen, I thought, "Well, D.J. has her life in order. She's launched now. End of story." I still had ideas about other characters — I was very disappointed that I couldn't explore Amber more and see Curtis through to happiness — but there just wasn't room. Then when the manuscript was sent out to publishing houses, my agent asked if I had any ideas for a sequel in case that was an option. Well, I did . . . in fact, when I thought about it, I had a lot of ideas. I had pretty much an entire book of ideas. As it turned out, many readers wanted to learn more, too. So that's how we ended up with a sequel. The working title is The Worst Thing in the World. I also have a couple of other stories I'm kicking around, but they're just sprouts yet, nothing edible.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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