The Novelist Catherine Gilbert Murdock Scores Again
Thank goodness D.J. Schwenk is back! This no-nonsense, funny, honest, and most of all determined heroine returns in The Off Season, the highly anticipated sequel to the best-selling debut novel Dairy Queen.
Life is looking up for D.J. Schwenk. She's in eleventh grade finally. After a rocky summer, she's reconnecting in a big way with her best friend, Amber. She has kind of a thing going with Brian Nelson, who's cute and popular and smart but seems to like her anyway. And then there's football: she's starting for the Red Bend High School team the first girl linebacker in Wisconsin, probably.
Which just shows you can't predict the future. As autumn progresses, D.J. struggles to understand Amber, Schwenk Farm, her relationship with Brian, and especially her family. As a whole herd of trouble comes her way, she discovers she's a lot stronger than she or anyone else ever thought.
The New York Times called Dairy Queen "a breath of fresh air" and "a tonic for adolescent angst." Independent Booksellers named the book the number-one pick for their Children's Summer Reading List; Borders honored Murdock with the Original Voices Award for young adults; and readers nominated her for a 2006 Quill Award in the young adult category. Teens all across the country embraced D.J. Schwenk and her story, writing letters to Murdock about how they "couldn't put the book down" and begging her for a sequel. The Off Season will not disappoint.
Catherine Gilbert Murdock: A Biographical Essay
I grew up in small-town Connecticut, on a tiny farm with honeybees, two adventurous goats, and a mess of Christmas trees. My sister claims we didn't have television, but we did sometimes only the set was ancient, received exactly two channels, and had to be turned off after forty-five minutes to cool down or else the screen would go all fuzzy. Watching (or rather, "watching") Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds was quite an experience, because it's hard to tell a flock of vicious crows from a field of very active static; that may be why I still can't stand horror movies.
My sister, Liz, who is now a Very Famous Writer with a large stack of books, was my primary companion, even though she was extremely cautious she wouldn't even try to jump off the garage roof, which involved crouching right at the edge for ten minutes working up your nerve and then checking when you landed to see if you'd broken anything and she learned early on that losing at games was easier in the long run than putting up with me losing. Now she travels all over the world collecting stories and diseases, while I stay at home scowling over paint chips and losing on purpose to my kids. So the cycle continues.
People sometimes ask if I played football in high school, and I always collapse on the floor laughing. No. I did not play football in high school. I ran cross-country and track, badly, but I have absolutely no skill whatsoever with ball or team sports. Plus my high school didn't even have a football team. Instead, I was part of the art clique taking extra art classes, spending my study halls and lunch periods working on my latest still life. (Please tell me this was not a unique experience.) I didn't do much writing my sister was the anointed writer but I read my little eyeballs out. I was the queen of our library's YA section.
Dairy Queen was the first creative writing I had done since high school, not counting several earnest years attempting to craft movie scripts. I recommend screenwriting to everyone as a top-notch way of mastering the art of storytelling. Just don't pin any hopes on seeing your work on the big screen, because it probably won't happen but you'll learn so much in the process that it won't matter.
Catherine Murdock is the award-winning, best-selling author of Dairy Queen (May 2006) and The Off Season (June 2007). A graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the University of Pennsylvania, she lives in suburban Philadelphia with her husband and two children.
A Conversation with Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Dairy Queen was very well received, and readers fell in love with D.J. Schwenk and her family. Did this make it more challenging to write another story about her?
The challenge, I have to say, came much more from the responsibility of writing a second book at all. I've been told by several people that sophomore books are the hardest, and I completely agree. Dairy Queen I wrote as an exercise, for myself; I never dreamed it would be published and certainly never imagined it would get such a positive reception. The sequel, however, came with all sorts of pressures: my editor's and agent's expectations, the fact that I was being paid (what if I screwed up? I'd have to return the money!), that looming deadline (I had no deadline whatsoever with DQ) . . . all of those made for a very painful experience. So the responsibility of treating D.J. correctly was incidental in some ways to all this other trauma. I knew that once I got through this agony I would treat her well though whether everyone else will agree is another story.
How did the sequel to Dairy Queen emerge? Did you always intend to write a sequel?
Actually, I had no intention of writing any more about D.J. My mother finished an early draft of the book and said she couldn't wait for the sequel, and my response was "Oh, well." (But in a nice way, because she's my mom.) To my mind, there really wasn't much room for a sequel, certainly not for the dramatic character evolution of Dairy Queen. At the end of that book, D.J. was "launched," to use one of my favorite terms. She developed so much over those thirty-one chapters that I really considered her a full-fledged . . . well, not an adult because she's only sixteen, but a full-fledged human with an enormous capacity for mature emotional insight.
However, I did have a pang whenever I thought about Curtis, because I cared about him so much and I really wanted to make sure that he was going to be okay. And I felt bad about leaving Amber in the lurch like that there she was with a new girlfriend, a pretty cool girlfriend, and that story just ended. And I wanted to know more about D.J.'s older brothers. (This is where my eight-year-old daughter would say, "But Mom, you already know about them! You wrote the book!" She still believes that authors are omniscient. Ha.)
So even though I considered D.J.'s story complete, I recognized that there were other stories left to tell. (And this doesn't even bring in what was going to happen between D.J. and Brian. I've had dozens of e-mails and questions from girls desperate to know the future of their relationship. That story didn't interest me quite so much, but it obviously interests others!) And then my wonderful agent called me in the middle of this publishers' bidding war over Dairy Queen well, not a bidding war, really; more of a bidding skirmish and asked if I'd ever be interested in writing a sequel because sometimes two books are easier to sell than one. I was skiing at the time, with my daughter between my legs because she's fearless and will shoot down the hill if I don't restrain her, and I'm holding her with one hand and talking on my cell phone on the other, and right when my agent asked if I had any ideas for a sequel, the thought of spinal cord injury popped into my head. And of course I immediately rejected it because it's so huge and tragic and would require so much work, but I said "Sure" to the sequel idea anyway. Over the next few days, that SCI idea (though of course I didn't know the term SCI at that point) kept coming back, taunting me to take it on, to take the sequel to a level far beyond the girl-meets-boy conceit of Dairy Queen.
Anyway, that's how the sequel began.
Are you finished with D.J and her family?
For the moment, yes. I love D.J., I love her family, I adore Dale and Maryann, but they need to rest for a while, find their own paths. At some point I would like to write a third book exploring college sports recruiting if you think spinal cord injuries are challenging and painful, whew but not for a few years. This stems in part from my interest in other writing projects, but also because I love the experience of hearing from readers. I finished The Off Season before Dairy Queen even came out, and I was dumbstruck by the variety of responses I received, and the insights. I'm very much looking forward to the same thing with The Off Season, and I can't help but think that I'll learn a great deal to apply to a third book.
The Off Season addresses the financial challenges many contemporary American family farmers face. Is this something you are concerned about?
Yes, it is, for a number of reasons not only because I sympathize with the plight of small farmers but also because I have a lot more faith in small farms than in agribusiness. I'd rather eat a pig raised with two other pigs on table scraps than a pig raised in a warehouse and fed a diet of corn and antibiotics. So I guess you could say that I'm concerned for very selfish reasons. If, after reading The Off Season, kids and adults think a bit more about what goes into their mouths and recognize that the decisions they make in the grocery store or farmer's market can have a profound impact, well, I wouldn't consider that the worst thing in the world.
D.J. is a very responsible young woman. Do you think this is typical of teenagers today?
Yes I believe she is more responsible than many kids, but in large part that's because she's forced to be. The entire second half of the book, when D.J. is basically on her own dealing with this tragedy, comes about because her mother is incapacitated. If her mother were present, it would be a very different story. You can't rise to the challenge if a challenge isn't there. She didn't want that responsibility, but she had no choice but to take it. That's an important lesson, I think.
That said, I've heard from several mothers who use D.J. as an example to their own kids. And a few months ago I found my son in the basement washing the floor with a mop (so that he could set up his toy soldiers). "Am I like D.J.?" he asked. Yes.
You used your screenwriting experience when writing Dairy Queen. Did you do the same with The Off Season?
Absolutely. For one thing, don't mess with success, and for a second thing, it's the only form of storytelling I know! I'm sure I sound like a broken record, but screenwriting is such a phenomenal way to learn the craft of telling a story well. When I was first studying screenwriting and my kids were little, I'd have these epiphanies as I read aloud to them: Curious George is three-act format! The Three Bears is three-act format! "Three-act format" is screenwriting jargon. It simply means that the first quarter of the story is used to introduce characters, make us care about them, and present their foibles; the middle half of the story entails an escalating series of conflicts in which the main characters have to confront their foibles; and the last third has a glorious resolution (heartily unrealistic, because what in real life ever gets resolved?) in which the main characters become better people. Or monkeys. Or bears. Not that all these details are in fairy tales, mind you, but screenwriting in its purest form is simply a rarefied and highly structured form of storytelling. The dialogue has to be tight you don't have five pages to wander through pointless conversation; you have perhaps eight lines total. The descriptions have to be evocative and brief one or two lines to make a character compelling and tangible. And of course screenwriting is for that most visual of media; learning how to write visually is critical, especially these days. So, yes, I did use my screenwriting lessons in The Off Season, and to this day I think of several of the scenes more as film scenes than book scenes.
How do you know so much about spinal cord injury?
Research, research, research. Thank heavens, once again, for the Internet I found several blogs that helped enormously, and through those Web sites two critical books: Travis Roy's autobiography (he broke his neck in a college ice hockey game), and the story of Adam Tagliaferra, a Penn State cornerback with a C4 injury. Originally I'd intended to base The Off Season at a specific hospital, but those people turned out to be so snotty about it not to call a spade a spade or anything that I ended up creating a fictitious hospital, which was much better. And then I connected with Magee Rehab in Philadelphia and had the best experience there. When I was writing Dairy Queen, I very much wanted to make sure the football was accurate, and the farming. But spinal cord injury is another level altogether. It mattered intensely that I be correct in every possible way I cannot stress this enough. My fear of failure led to months of incapacity (this is why I've never managed to assemble a photo album, by the way), and another complete novel (see below), but in the end I did hunker down and get something written.
Did you always know D.J. and Brian's relationship would end the way it did?
That was probably the second hardest part of The Off Season, after the medical research. No, I didn't know how their relationship would play out except for a vague sense that it needed to go beyond "happily ever after." Na´ve and optimistic as I am, I do recognize that two people from such different worlds would have a challenging time making a go of it. And frankly, I'm not sure myself what's going to happen in the future, where they'll end up.
The book jackets for The Off Season and the paperback edition of Dairy Queen feature photographs instead of artwork. Do you like this?
I love it. When I first began working with Houghton Mifflin on Dairy Queen, I was insistent that the cover not feature a girl, because I didn't want that face to be D.J. I wanted everyone to come up with his own D.J. Now I recognize that the cover model is simply one representation of her. Every reader will still have her own internal portrait.
That said, I am intensely jealous of the eyebrows of the girl on the paperback Dairy Queen. As someone who has always been eyebrow challenged, I find it a bit annoying, the same way I feel about people with naturally curly hair: do you have to show it off like that?
What are you working on now?
A wonderful, delectable fairy tale featuring a princess locked in a tower, an evil queen, a handsome prince . . . the whole works. I don't know if anyone else will read it, but I just adore this story. I came up with the idea one Sunday morning last November and wrote the first draft in sixteen days it just poured out of me. (Can anyone say procrastination?) It's too bad, actually, how The Off Season suffers from middle-child syndrome. As I was writing The Off Season, I was also intensely involved in early promotion efforts for Dairy Queen. Now, when I should be focused on promoting The Off Season, I'm enraptured with Princess Ben. Not that I don't love The Off Season as well I'm very much looking forward to rereading it; it's been a couple of months but it has never had my undivided attention.
What's the biggest surprise to come from Dairy Queen?
Well, one very big surprise is how seriously I'm taken now. That kind of astounds me, how frequently I hear from neighbors or parents at school that I'm a "writer." I always was a writer certainly I was for those nine years of screenwriting but somehow having a legitimate book in legitimate bookstores gives me a new level of authority. I personally don't feel that different . . . although I do relish that I now can put "writer" on that "Occupation" line on forms without guilt. And that I now have an acceptable excuse for getting out of the PTO.
So many people have contacted me about their own farming experiences that's something I never would have predicted, the amazing number of Americans who still have some personal connection to the farm, through a childhood friend or a relative, a community . . . The soil isn't nearly as far away as I had thought. I also get a charge out of hearing all the interpretations that readers come up with this is what I mean about writers not being omniscient. For example, I gave a copy of Dairy Queen to my dentist, and on my next visit he told me how great it was that I captured Curtis looking at his hands. (During the ride back from Madison, when he and D.J. are talking about his wanting to be a dentist, Curtis studies his hands.) "Hands are so important to a dentist," my own dentist said. "You really nailed that." I nodded, but actually I'd had no idea I was simply trying to convey that Curtis was embarrassed. My dentist also said that he'd collected animal skulls when he was a kid, and agreed that it was very hard to locate intact mandibles. So that made me feel a little better, that just from my imagination I managed to produce a real-life detail. That sort of serendipity keeps me going.