The idea for Catherine Gilbert Murdock's first novel came in a dream. She saw a girl playing football against a boy she was in love with. "It was such a graphic image—I saw her in that three-point stance which, at the time, I didn't even know was called a three-point stance—and their eyes met across the line of scrimmage," Murdock recalls.
Her first thoughts were cinematic, since she had been writing screenplays—which hadn't sold—for years. "But I realized, what's going to happen is, I'm going to write a screenplay, and it's going to wind up in a box, so let me just try a novel. I wrote it as an exercise for myself, and lo and behold."
Dairy Queen (Houghton Mifflin) follows the exploits of D.J. Schwenk, the lovable, put-upon daughter of a dairy farmer, who is forced to spend her summer mucking out the barn and teaching Brian Nelson, the rival high school's quarterback, the meaning of hard work.
The path to publication started with Murdock's sister, novelist Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love), who read a draft and said, "We need to find you an agent." Jill Grinberg of Anderson Grinberg Literary took the manuscript but had Murdock revise twice, suggesting that D.J. be 15, rather than 17, and asking for more about D.J.'s long-suffering mother.
"She really felt we had only one chance to send it out," says Murdock, who put her final draft in the mail and went on vacation, since Grinberg had said finding out if there was a buyer would take "about a month."
"A week later, I got a call. It was like a caricature—me on my cell phone on the bunny slope, holding my daughter between my knees, and Jill saying she had sent the manuscript to 11 houses and nine of them were bidding."
The winner was Margaret Raymo at Houghton Mifflin, who pointed out things Murdock knew but hadn't addressed, like the fact that D.J.'s best friend, Amber, disappeared midway through the book. "She made me add a scene with Amber at the end, and now I just love that scene," Murdock says.
The two clicked and Raymo is now editing a sequel—A Whole Herd of Trouble—which begins an hour after Dairy Queen ends. It is scheduled for spring 2007 release.
Despite growing up in Connecticut, Murdock insists she drew on her own experience in creating the Schwenks' Wisconsin farmstead. She based it on a dairy near the Gilbert sisters' childhood home in Litchfield.
"We spent hours there, looking for kittens in the hayloft, playing with the cows, climbing the trees," Murdock said. "So I had a very clear mental picture of dairy farming. My dad has a Christmas tree farm, and you can walk away from that for a few months, but dairy farming is work every day, so I decided that would be a good way to force D.J. and Brian to work together."
Murdock also knew sports—she is a former triathlete sidelined by a knee injury—but she just didn't know football, so she turned herself into an Eagles fan, and set her story in a region that wasn't football-crazy, to make a storyline about a girl playing for the high school team more believable.
"It turned out I had the end first, and I had to figure out everything that led into that moment when their eyes meet, which now actually doesn't happen until Chapter 27," she says.
Ironically, of course, now that Murdock's published her novel she's heard "murmurs" about film interest. But she's not getting her hopes up. "A girl trying out for the football team is an after-school special, but a girl saving her family after having an existential crisis about being a cow, that could be a film," she says. "But it would be a challenging script to write because so much of the story is D.J.'s internal monologue, and that would be tough to show without it being contrived. I'd settle for seeing the trailer. I'd love more than anything to see the trailer."