Catherine Murdock on the Honest Happily Ever After

Catherine Murdock is the author of Wisdom’s Kiss, a novel about a reluctant princess, a gawky knight, and a no-nonsense lady-in-waiting who escape their castle in search of greener pastures (and which you can begin reading for a limited time on Figment here). She answers a few of our questions below. Warning: don’t accept a book Catherine lends you—she’ll just try to take it back from you.

What book is on your bedside table right now?

Hmm, let’s see: a 300-puzzle KenKen book, as I must do several KenKens a day to preserve my brain; Bill Bryson’s At Home, a wonderfully gossipy history of home life (that man can craft a sentence like nobody’s business); Nancy Farmer’s Sea of Trolls, which my son recommended and which I’ve stopped reading because it’s getting scary; and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which I read this summer and which my son is reading now. Every time he describes an exciting part, I have to borrow it back to re-savor.

Do you find your writing influenced by the YA books you read?

Oddly, I don’t read a lot of YA, as in books “written for 15-year-olds”; my tastes (as you can see) lean toward middle-grade, or to adult nonfiction, or to fantasy, which is basically ageless. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell blew me away. I cried at the end, simply because the book was over and I’d never have that intimacy again. If I could write like that, even one chapter, I’d levitate with joy. So will Susanna Clarke influence me? Absolutely. Forever.

I sometimes refer to other YA titles to get a sense of the vocabulary (both sophisticated and adult) I can use, and the themes I can explore, but I’ve learned that you can do whatever you want so long as you’re willing to fight for it—and to put up with the pushback.

You recommend writing screenplays of works-in-progress in order to track plot development. Are your screenplays something you hope to see produced, eventually? 

Oh, good heavens, no! My screenplays were absolute dreck. I didn’t know that at first—well, I might have suspected it, but I kept working anyway. And there might be kernels buried within them that are worth exploring. But all in all, screenwriting is a learning experience, not the final product. I don’t write scripts any more in any sort of finished form, but I do utilize the outlining process, and sometimes the character-development exercises.

Not to get all Internet-creepy, but we’ve heard you’re a Virgo! Happy star-sign! Do you ever think about the astrological signs of your characters?

Never ever, I’m afraid. Age is very important to my characters, but not birthdates, unless they relate integrally to the plot.

Your characters in Wisdom’s Kiss have such great names. Did the names come first, or did the personalities?

In general, the personalities come first, though a good name will go a long way to fleshing out a personality: “Princess Dizzy” suggests a very different individual than does, say, “Princess Joyce.” I have a basic idea of who I want such-and-such a character to be, and then I must find every name before I can go any further. It’s a pretty hairy couple of weeks: I read obituaries; I copy names off trucks on the interstate; I check every street sign. The names sometimes change later, but it’s rare—the characters might as well have been issued birth certificates and social security numbers. Because once they have names, they’re people, you know?

Was it hard to write about a trio?

By this you mean a three-way love interest, yes? I have to say it was a lot easier than I’d have thought. It’s much more of a challenge for me to write a traditional “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back”-type romance, where you have to contrive an initial antagonism and/or a separation and/or a tempter figure and/or a misunderstanding … I remember as a kid describing to my mother a novel I was reading, in which the heroine didn’t like the town doctor. “They’ll end up together,” my mom answered; “If they fight in the beginning, they always do.” And dang if she wasn’t right. So really it was quite refreshing to write a story in which the heroine and hero have a falling out and stay fallen out! It was a wonderful breath of fresh air. That said, I had to work extra-hard to make the third person in this triangle a sympathetic character instead of simply a boyfriend-stealer. And based on some of the reviews I’ve seen, bloggers aren’t as universally enthralled with this fresh air as I am: they want their Happily Ever After, thank you, no matter how unrealistic or disingenuous or relentless it may be (and I say this as someone who’s written two bona fide Happily Ever Afters). Here’s hoping my readers are savvy enough to appreciate that Happily Ever After doesn’t always have to mean tying the knot at age 16.

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