Catherine Gilbert Murdoch, the author of Dairy Queen and its sequel, The Off Season, took a break from writing book three about D.J. and her family with a fantasy novel about a teen-aged princess who must save her kingdom, Princess Ben (Houghton Mifflin). We caught up with the prolific author, who has written a book a year for the past three years, by phone from her home in Pittsburgh, Pa.
I’ve read that Dairy Queen started with a dream of a girl playing football. Was a dream at the heart of the new book?
Very much so. I had a dream about a girl jumping on a broom and leaping out a window and she was being chased by a very scary woman. And that became the centerpoint of Princess Ben, when she flees the castle.
Do you keep a notebook by your bed to write down your dreams?
No. I have to say I very rarely have dramatic dreams. So when it happens, it’s kind of exciting. It just so happened that I was on deadline to write the sequel to Dairy Queen. I knew what I was going to write. I had an outline. But I was daunted by the whole process: by the medical research and by the huge responsibility that comes with writing a sequel, especially when your first novel has been well-received.
I immediately thought, “Maybe I can turn this into a book so I won’t have to write the sequel.” And that was what triggered the writing of Princess Ben. That and the desire to write a book about table manners. I was having some big battles with my kids about table manners and why they matter.
I did notice that there are a lot of eating scenes in the book. Is that why they’re there?
I’m a huge foodie. I wrote my dissertation on women’s drinking in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and because of that I had accumulated all of this information on menus and food rituals that was just gathering dust in my brain. So it was really exciting to be able to tap into that and use it for some of the scenes in Princess Ben.
Food and cooking play an important role in Dairy Queen. We watch crops being grown and cows being milked.
I’m actually a frustrated cookbook writer turned novelist.
And I thought you were a screenwriter before this.
Yes. I like working with words. Let me put it that way. But I was a very bad screenwriter. I’m a much better cook than I am a screenwriter.
Was part of the idea behind the book to write a personal take on fairytales?
Very much so. The text in my mind is a fairytale. End of story. I’m not an expert on fairytales by any means, but it has all these fairytale elements and references to other fairytales. It has a moral, which to me is a very important element to fairytales. A lot of fantasy stories are very plot-driven. The whole time I was writing it, I was thinking of it as a fairytale. When I sent it to my agent, she mentioned something about the fantasy market. And I was literally dumbstruck. The thought that it was a fantasy story had never occurred to me.
In Princess Ben you turn a lot of fairytales on their heads. She kisses the prince; he’s in the glass coffin.
My favorite is her buying the cow for the beans. Everyone has their favorite little moment. My daughter is nine and the way she describes this book is: “You know Cinderella? Well, in this book she throws her shoe at the Prince.”
The straw into gold was in there, too.
Yes. And that was pure joy. I would go through my kids’ fairytale books. And I thought, “Have I forgotten any?”
Did this book come quickly to you? It reads so breathlessly.
Very quickly. Between the dream and the end of the first draft was 16 days. But then it needed a lot of revision. I’m not saying that the book was done in 16 days. It was like a drop of water crystallizing into a snowflake. It just happened immediately. All these ideas came to me, and I was in a daze. So much fun to write.
Princess Ben and D.J., the heroine of Dairy Queen, struck me as similar types of women. They break a lot of traditional rules. Even their names are pretty nontraditional. Were you trying to create a particular type of woman as a role model for young children?
If I had to do it over again, I would give D.J. a more feminine name—if you can go back and erase your books and start again. At the time when I was developing the character, she struck me as someone who would value having a very gender neutral, if not masculine, name. It says a lot about her character at the beginning of the story. She really thinks of herself as a boy and wants this boyish name.
And then with Ben. I love the name Ben. I have a nephew named Ben. It’s a great name. And there it was like, ooh, I know what her name’s going to be. It’s also driven by the plot, because she has to spend about a quarter of the book as a boy. It makes that a lot easier. But I’m very self-conscious about the fact that I’ve created two strong female characters who have male names. I’m not sure what it means. I wish I could tweak it a little bit.
Ben and D. J. are both large women, who like to eat.
I’m so sensitive about teen girls and body image. It doesn’t matter, and no one dislikes you. Don’t worry about it, accept who you are. That was actually a big message for both books.
Who was your favorite character in Princess Ben?
Sophia, the queen. When I started writing the book, I actually started with her, with this stepmother figure. And I got about two or three chapters and I thought, wait a minute, this is a much more interesting woman than I’m giving her credit for, than the archetype gives her credit for. What motivates her? Who is she? I began developing her as a powerful figure who has no childrearing skills at all, but a lot of other skills that come out over the course of the story.
I liked the fact that she went against the grain of being the wicked stepmother.
And that meant a lot to me, to be able to explore how Ben was a victim in the first half of the story, and for the reader to be able to look back. She isn’t a victim; she’s a pain in the neck. It was a writing challenge but in the best possible sense.
You’ve been writing so fast, one book a year. When will the third book in the Dairy Queen trilogy come out?
Front and Center was supposed to come out in spring ’09. Luckily my editor said let’s slow down a bit and have it come out in the fall of ’09.
Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. Houghton, $16, 978-0-618-95971-6 ages 12-up