Five questions for Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Photo courtesy of Catherine Gilbert Murdock.

In The Book of Boy (Greenwillow, 9–12 years), we meet a young goatherd accompanying the pilgrim Secundus on his quest for relics, traveling from France to Rome in 1350. Boy is on a quest of his own…and as readers gradually learn (and Boy learns with them), both travelers have fascinating secrets.

1. We've seen some very creative Middle Ages–set stories in the past couple of years — The Book of Boy, The Mad Wolf's Daughter, The Inquisitor's Tale, The Passion of Dolssa. Why do you think medieval adventures are trending right now?

CGM: Perhaps it's because we as a culture are starting to recognize how important it is to address faith, even (or especially) if we don't share the views of the people we are writing or reading about. Trying to understand the Middle Ages without religious faith is like trying to understand paint without color. The rest of it — castles, clothes, people (blacksmiths! knights! ladies-in-waiting!), food (pottage, meat pies, whole roast everything) — enthralling though it may be, doesn't really count if we don't get the basic fabric. Or it could just be cosmic dust drifting over from the medieval universe of Game of Thrones.

2. Was it tricky to write about the fourteenth century from the mindset of the twenty-first without distorting the past?

CGM: It mattered enormously to me that I capture the fourteenth-century mindset, both because I find it fascinating and because I believe it's so important to understand that people in different cultures have different values, priorities, and mores. It helped that with Boy I had a narrator who was both naive and broad-minded, so he (and thus the reader) could marvel at everything: "Now I'm sleeping in a bed with mostly clean sheets…" I love that detail of "mostly clean" — two small words encapsulate medieval hygiene. Boy at one point describes a room so luxurious that "glass covered the windows." For fourteenth-century Europeans, a window was a hole in a wall to let in light, a hole that wealthier folk might cover with cloth or cow horn (really!) to block the wind. But the concept that you'd cover that hole with glass, well, that was luxury.  These are small details, to be sure, and some readers will probably miss them. But I far prefer small details to lectures or bludgeons.

3. How did you balance historical accuracy with accessibility for today's readers in the dialogue? There's a bit of "'twas," but it never feels archaic.

CGM: Thank you! I've learned that with dialogue, a little goes a long way. In writing contemporary stories, for example, the word "like" should be applied with caution, compared to what you might find in an actual transcription. One "like" per paragraph makes the point just fine. Similarly, it takes only a couple "forsooths" to alienate readers, especially younger readers chary of vocabulary. I was greatly inspired by Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell; Susanna Clarke captures Napoleonic England not only with phrasing, but with delightful spelling tweaks such as sopha for sofa. The Book of Boy is sprinkled with 'twas and 'tis, and gems like betwixt, and the use of pilgrim and crutch as verbs. And of course I tried to evoke the era with somewhat old-fashioned idioms — "a crowd such as this has busy fingers," for example. But I went out of my way during the revision process to replace more obscure terms so that even these sentences were composed of accessible words. The goal, as with all prose, was to season lightly.

4. In a story with so many surprises, how do you decide how much to reveal and when?

CGM: That's the essence of storytelling, isn't it? Especially in this type of book, which has a couple of huge reveals that I hope are loaded with detail and nuance. I had originally intended for Boy's secret (don't worry; no spoilers) to occur at the very end, with a Final Beautiful Sentence. My agent, who is omniscient, pointed out that this was far too late: readers would want time to experience and process this secret, so I moved that revelation to the middle of the story. But then the ending petered out — or rather the endings, because I wrote possibly a dozen different ones. None of them came close to working. At the eleventh hour my agent, in her omniscience, gently asked, "Where does Boy end up?" and I wailed "I don't know!" — which of course was the problem. You can't write an ending if you don't know where to go. I slept on it, and woke the next morning with the final chapter of the book, culminating — ta da! — in one Beautiful Sentence.

5. Which animal voice/personality was the most fun to invent?

CGM: The animals were wonderful to write, every single one! Trying to figure out how a goat would speak (answer: smugly), or a wolf (softly), or a songbird (quickly, with lots of repetition). If I had to choose, I'd select the skinny old dog who near the end of the book meets Boy at his very lowest point. Poor Boy is in complete crisis, trying to figure out who he is, what he is, and where and how he's going to live, and he's joined by a dog who's only slightly brighter than a brick. When Boy tells her there's a bone in her future, her ears prick up: "A bone? What's future?"

Even now, it makes me chuckle. We all know a pet who's too dim to master the fundamentals of time and space — I've got a six-year-old cat who has trouble with stairs. But they galumph their way through life, being rescued from odd shadows and brown paper bags. I'd like to point out that the animals in this book don't solve Boy's problems: they're not magical plot-driven assistants. Nor are they insecure or fearful. They go about their lives with matter-of-fact ease, either dismissive of humans (the birds call people "earth crawlers"), or simply unconcerned. I'd like to think that their confidence inspires Boy to make peace with himself, and maybe it will inspire others too. We don't need approval from other earth crawlers. We just need to live, and find joy where we can.

From the July 2018 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Sarah Ellis and Shoshana Flax

Sarah Ellis is a Vancouver-based writer and critic, recently retired from the faculty of The Vermont College of Fine Arts. Shoshana Flax is assistant editor of The Horn Book Magazine.

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Wonderful! I'm ordering your book, Catherine. I wish it had been around when my sons were growing up. They'll enjoy it now (as adults) anyway.

Posted : Jul 11, 2018 07:45


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