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About the book

Some questions from Catherine Murdock for the author of Wisdom’s Kiss

[From a Q&A included with the advance review copy of Wisdom’s Kiss (and yes, it’s supposed to be a joke that I’m quizzing myself).]

Click here for an interview on Wisdom’s Kiss with Mitch Teich’s Lake Effect on WUMW.

Spoiler alert! This interview discusses the ending!

Dairy Queen was inspired by your dream of a girl playing football. Princess Ben came from a dream about a girl leaping out of a window. Did a dream spark Wisdom’s Kiss?

I wish! No, this book I had to write the old-fashioned way: I made it up. To be honest, I did have a dream several years ago about acrobats performing on bungee cords inside a balloon, but the logistics were absurd: Where does the audience sit? How does one even get in? but I gnawed away at that image — the emotions it elicited, what they meant. I loved the notion of the heroines fleeing by balloon, and then, appallingly late in the process, I realized the essentiality of Elemental Spells to balloon flight.

Why the eight points of view?

I had intended a simple, traditional novel. But I also wanted the three perspectives of a boy, plus the two girls who love him, told through three distinct genres. Letters seemed particularly useful given that the boy had secrets, and by keeping them out of his correspondence, he was also keeping them from readers. The problem, I discovered almost immediately, was that these three formats (letters, diary, memoir) totally cramped my narration. Princess Dizzy excels at stream of consciousness, but dialogue? No. And Tips is far too modest to explain his phenomenal talent. I therefore added a play to describe important conversations, as well as Tips’s master’s memoirs to describe Tips. The genealogy and court etiquette seemed so didactic that I decided to unleash my inner dork in an encyclopedia. The oyster incident needed better rendering than Dizzy could provide, which led to Ben’s letters. And pondering Wilhelmina’s motivation got me her ghastly Gentle Reflections.

So you see, it was a very organic process, and remarkably plot driven: to accomplish scene x, I needed the perspective (and often the bias or ignorance) of character y. It was rather like assembling a mobile, hanging one element and then racing to counterbalance it, watching this construction swell while growing ever more fearful that it would all come crashing down around my head. The whole time I was writing, I kept telling myself that no one would ever want to read it — but I was having so much fun, I didn’t care! I’m still awed that the book actually got published.

Did you always intend to write a sequel to Princess Ben?

Whoa, Nelly, stop right there. Wisdom’s Kiss is not a sequel. No way, no how, never. It is at best a consequence (my term; very Montagne-y) of Princess Ben, but that’s as far as it goes. No one needs an iota of familiarity with one to enjoy the other. I hope reviewers won’t even mention the connection so readers who are familiar with Princess Ben can discover for themselves that this charming old grandmother is none other than Ben herself, all grown up. I’ll never forget how my ten-year-old heart stopped when I realized that the sprouting streetlamp in C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew was the exact one Lucy Pevensie had found — five books earlier! — in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. If I can give readers one sliver of that thrill, I will consider my life complete.

That said, would you change anything in Princess Ben?

There are a few things — “throne room” wasn’t capitalized; Edwig of Farina shouldn’t have been a baron, which (I did not know then) is the lowest noble rank. Oops. So I had to invent Farina’s ascent from a barony to a duchy. It ended up working marvelously, though, to demonstrate Wilhelmina’s ambition. With enough head scratching and guile, you can always squeeze out lemonade.

The title. Talk to me.

Titles can be so stressful. My working title was Fortitude, Wisdom and Tips, which I knew was wrong because I could not say it aloud. Seriously. Someone would ask what I was writing and I’d gag. We brainstormed for months. Everyone concurred that the title had to be digestible and intriguing; Includes encyclopedia! didn’t cut it. What would interest a bookstore browser enough to pick the volume up? Once we came up with Wisdom’s Kiss, I had to rewrite several scenes to thread in the reference, but I love that sort of work. Had it been asked of me, I would have threaded in references to low-cholesterol butter.

Wisdom’s Kiss includes a glossary of unusual words. Do you feel the vocabulary might be too challenging for your audience?

I worried about this a lot with Princess Ben but was stunned by the number of fifth-graders who brushed it off. Kids, I’ve found — not all kids, but a surprising percentage — can bodysurf through words they don’t know. I certainly did (and Lordy, how I mispronounced them). But if this book doesn’t grip every Dairy Queen fan, I understand. To be frank, I’m more worried that younger readers won’t appreciate the place names (Pamplemousse is French for “grapefruit,” Sottocenere is an italian truffle-flavored cheese). But that sort of trivia doesn’t affect the story — it just provides a bit of a chuckle.

Did your kids get these jokes? Did they help with the book?

They have no interest in truffle-flavored cheese. But they helped so much. Both kids loved Trudy and despised Dizzy for “stealing” Tips; I had to work hard to make Tips’s inner conflict clearer, and Dizzy more sympathetic. The scene in the hot-air balloon when Trudy confronts him — I wanted it realistic, with tears and suffering and silence, instead of Trudy acting as some kind of grrl-power ideal. Well, guess what: the kids hated that and demanded that Trudy tell Tips off. So now she’s spunkier. That’s what my children taught me, that we want our heroes to be the people we wish we were.

Okay, I have to ask: what about your sister?

For the two or three people who don’t yet know, my sister Elizabeth Gilbert wrote Eat, Pray, Love, so, yes, on a certain level I am related to Julia Roberts. Liz read an early draft of Wisdom’s Kiss and could not have been more enthusiastic. She had several brilliant observations, such as questioning the role of Providence (Ben’s daughter; Dizzy’s mom), who in that draft was still alive. Not only did Providence completely gum up the story, but she also violated my rule that Mothers Must be Absent or Dead. (See my article on this subject in the March 2009 issue of Horn Book magazine.) So, pfft, Providence falls off a broom. Problem solved. Liz and my husband James serve as my target audience; when I write, I picture them laughing. Then, when James does laugh, it’s a little bit of Christmas.

Can you provide a little gossip on the different voices?

I thought you’d never ask . . .

Trudy’s memoirs: boy, is third person hard! A first-person narrator uses an odd word or phrase and it only strengthens their character; a third-person narrator not so much. I kept returning to Laura Ingalls Wilder: how did she convey emotion without sounding overbearing, and action without sounding expository? (Note that Wilder had help from her daughter, just as Trudy did from hers.) Both Trudy and her memoirs serve as the central spine of Wisdom’s Kiss.

Felis el Gato: I invented Felis to explain Tips’s acrobatic skills and good looks and swordsmanship, but the man quickly elbowed his way to the center of the story — in his mind, anyway! I hope everyone else enjoys his memoirs title as much as I have; my kids memorized it and would recite that chorus of inanity with me as I read aloud.

The play: Queen of All the Heavens began as a screenplay — a screenplay, which, my agent pointed out (she’s very tactful), was anachronistic and also vile. So I tried playwriting instead, with purposely extravagant dialogue. Inspired by the fact that Shakespeare didn’t write stage directions, I avoided them as much as possible, though “They embrace” from act 2, scene 3, is now a catchphrase in the Murdock household.

Wilhelmina’s diary: Wilhelmina is my first all-out villain; I generally prefer imperfect but well-intentioned characters. Once I realized how far I could take her, however, there was no holding back. After reading an early draft, a friend wrote: “The infectious diseases doc in me laughed out loud that Wilhelmina died of dog-bite sepsis — Go Pasteurella multocida!” Should I ever write another book in this vein, one of the countries will be named Pasteurella multocida.

The Imperial Encyclopedia of Lax: How did I live forty-three years before discovering my passion for pseudocompendious twaddle? I relish the interplay of obscure but critical facts (Montagne’s support of female succession; Circus Primus’s association with espionage) with obscure but pointless details (the Magnanimous Goat incident; mushroom-flavored ice cream). It’s great how often wrong this “authoritative source” is. I’m not saying authoritative sources are wrong; goodness, no. But one should never cede them authority unquestioningly.

Tips’s letters to Trudy: This was another very challenging voice — how to make Tips sound uneducated and tongue-tied but not dim. Plus he’s keeping enormous secrets, and while he loves Trudy, he isn’t in love with her. Hence the crossed-out words to reveal this subtext and his confusion.

Nonna Ben: Writing Princess Ben in 2005, I pondered even then this old woman recollecting her long-ago girlhood. I knew she had grandchildren; surely she would attend their weddings. When I realized how unreliable a narrator Dizzy was, I decided to make Ben my backup. After Trudy, Ben serves as the story’s second spine, although biased in her own endearing way.

Dizzy’s diary: Some people might be frowning right now, wondering why exactly Dizzy is so unreliable — she’s my invention, isn’t she? Can’t an author control her characters? Um, no. Dizzy (rather like D.J. Schwenk of Dairy Queen, and Felis) came out of my fingertips with the inexorable force of a genie; to modify her would require destroying the very story I was trying to create. Dizzy is not a nice person. But she’s a good person, and I loved coaxing out her integrity . . . even if her eschewal of commas tied me in knots.

Did you have a say in the design of the headers? (They’re lovely, by the way.)

Aren’t they just? I adore them, every single one.

I’ve read books told with wildly contrasting fonts, and after a while all I can focus on are the letters: “Oh, look at this g!” I didn’t want Wisdom’s Kiss to have that ransom-note quality; the eight points of view are distinct enough that the text doesn’t need much distinguishing. The headers, however, I consider illustrations — not just Felis’s memoir and the play, but all of them. I wanted the encyclopedia super boring, which is a terrible thing to ask of a graphic designer, but isn’t that what an encyclopedia cries out to be? I was very, very blessed to be allowed to contribute my thoughts on their final appearance. (My editor is doubtless snorting right now; my “thoughts” filled three pages.)

How did Puss in Boots end up in Wisdom’s Kiss? Was that always your plan?

Princess Ben has many fairy-tale references, and I wanted to do the same in Wisdom’s Kiss. I’ve always loved “Puss in Boots,” yet when I reread Fred Marcellino’s lovely edition, I was mostly struck by Puss’s narcissism. Why not distill that feline egotism to its ridiculous extreme, add oblique versions of the other characters, and get myself a knockout ending in the bargain? Which is to say that the ending is a knockout for me — no one else seems familiar with “Puss in Boots.” But I compose a book’s last sentence quite early in my writing process, so I’ll be forever grateful that Felis and Fred Marcellino and Charles Perrault (who wrote the original fairy tale in 1697) provided me with an endpoint to aim for.

What do you consider the book’s moral? Its overall message?

That fairy-tale endings aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Every book I read — or write, thank you — seems to conclude with Happily Ever After. I don’t want my kids considering themselves failures if they reach the ripe old age of sixteen without their own true love. Thus a story about a girl who doesn’t get her guy but who ends up satisfied and happy anyway.

You’re describing a lot of subtlety — obscure references, foreign terms, clues buried within clues . . . Will Wisdom’s Kiss need an accompanying guidebook or decoder ring?

A decoder ring . . . I like that. Twist it counterclockwise three times and the book turns into a white-footed rabbit. Seriously, there is an enhanced e-book to explain the backstory and such, should readers be interested. As my daughter used to say, peel your eyeballs for them.

At the end of it all, who’s your favorite character?

Escoffier. He’s based on our cat Charcoal, who is equally affectionate and vain.

I just finished Princess Ben for the second time and began to wonder if you had planned, or even thought, to write a sequel? Maybe sequel isn't exactly term I'd like. For a lack of better words I'll call it a co-quel. Since Princess Ben is from her point of view I have no idea what is going through Prince Florian's mind unless he speaks it. I think it would a fantabulous read to know what kind of thoughts he had through the whole adventure. Thank you for you wonderful words and gift of story telling.

  1. -Katie