A princess discovers the keys to her kingdom
Catherine Gilbert Murdock considers herself a failed screenwriterbut she's quite happy with the course of her career. If it weren't for screenwriting, she wouldn't have developed her storytelling and dialogue-writing skills. And if a screenwriting career had worked out, she probably wouldn't have written two acclaimed novels for young adults, Dairy Queen and its sequel, The Off Season. "Screenwriting is so structured; it doesn't allow you to be lazy," Murdock says from her home near Philadelphia. "You have to have tight dialogue, a plot that works, a lot of conflict, and it has to escalate and have a really good resolution at the end." She managed to incorporate all those elements into her award-winning debut novel, Dairy Queen, which features D.J. Schwenk, a feisty Wisconsin farm girl who tries out for her high school football team. Morgan's latest novel, Princess Ben, takes readers in a different direction, though the heroines of the two books share some similarities. "It's a huge departure for me," Murdock says of Princess Ben. "My other books are contemporary coming-of-age novels, but this one is pure fantasy. It's much closer to my heart. I love my other books, but these are my peopledragons, princesses, magic brooms." Like D.J., Princess Benevolence isn't just a young woman with the courage and smarts to save the dayshe can be impetuous and snippy sometimes, too. "With both of these characters, I wanted to make them heroic but also very humanly flawed," the author tells BookPage. "It was important to me as a writer to do that, to make the characters balanced." Murdock says she filled Princess Ben with the things she loved as a childand still does. But the specifics of the novel arrived via her subsconscious: "I had an amazingly vivid dream about a girl plunging out the window on a broom, and I thought, wow! I spent the next day creating the story in my head." In that story, we meet Princess Ben, a young lady whose parents are assassinated, thus making her the heir to the kingdom of Montagne. Queen Sophia, Ben's aunt, takes her in, and promptly begins to strategize about finding Ben a husband. She banishes Ben to a room in a locked tower, and it is there that Ben discovers there's something strange about the wall: She is able to move through it. On the other side, she finds a staircase that leads her to all sorts of adventures that are decidedly unbecoming to a princess. Murdock's descriptions of Ben's escapades are vivid and thrilling, and her detailed descriptions of the castle and its remarkable passages will give readers reason to look more closely the next time they're in an architecturally dramatic structure. In college, Murdock says, "I studied architectural history, not the craft itself, but I love buildings and spaces and the vocabulary for discussing them. I actually had another dream, many years ago, about castles. I love castles, and when I had the dream about the girl [and the broomstick] all these jigsaw puzzles clicked." Murdock was careful not to get too caught up in the architectural details, though. Her two children, a 12-year-old son and a nine-year-old daughter, helped her strike the right balance. She read Princess Ben aloud to them and, if a monologue went on too long, "their eyes would just roll back in their heads. When they get antsy, I know it's too boring." The author also shares her manuscripts with her younger sister, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the memoir Eat, Pray, Love: "We read each other's work, absolutely, every time. We go back and forth on the phone saying, 'My job is harder; no, yours is.' We do agree that revising is much harder than writing." The importance of sharing, civil conversation and other forms of politesse have a strong presence in Princess Ben, and intentionally so. "A lot of this book grew out of my efforts to get my kids to really think about table manners," Murdock says. In addition, Ben learns that "whatever you radiate comes right back at you"something that's central to the positive changes in her relationship with Queen Sophia, and her ultimate ability to solve problems for herself and the kingdom. The princess also discovers that intellectual strength is a powerful weapon, a message that's important to Murdock. She says, "I wanted Ben to save the country in a female way, instead of being the girl who takes the sword and does the guy thing." She adds, "The most important scene to me is when Ben is at the ball talking to the king [of a neighboring land] and they have a war of words with all of this subtext. It's a really female way to express power, by talking. That's one of Ben's big realizations, that knowing how to speak is very, very important." And a good lesson for teenagers to learn.