Playful, sophisticated and intensely witty, Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s latest fairy tale, Wisdom's Kiss, bears all the trappings of a high Victorian yarn: protracted chapter titles, characters named after virtues and a fast-paced, wildly convoluted plot. A veritable chorus of narrators greets readers as the florid cast of protagonists and antagonists alike reveal their schemes and desires for love and power in the Empire of Lax.
Murdock got so caught up in describing the sagas of Trudy and Tips, Wisdom, Ben, Escoffier the cat and the dastardly Wilhemina, that she not only employed a variety of genres—drama, letters, diary, even encyclopedia entries—within the novel, but found herself creating a vastly expanded set of hypertext enhancements for the work’s electronic release. When we spoke with the author, her infectious enthusiasm for the project still knew no bounds.
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This novel incorporates so many narrative voices and different styles. Was it difficult to compose?
The book is very complicated, and the whole time I was writing it, there was this little voice saying “no one’s going to read this.” It was so much fun to write and I’m a real puzzle person. Literally, my kids get up in the morning, and I’m like, “I’ll get your breakfast in a minute—let me finish my KENKEN.”
This is very much like a KENKEN, where all the little pieces fit together, and that was incredibly satisfying. If it weren’t, I don’t think I would have written it this way. I would’ve done it as straight third-person narrative or something, but I couldn’t figure out how else to tell the story.
I needed things to be withheld from the reader, and I’m not adept enough as a writer to figure out how to do that using one first-person or third-person voice. So by having multiple people tell the story, they each have secrets and are immersed in themselves most of the time.
I think I liked the challenge of having multiple voices. I have a color-coded outline on my website, and to this day I have a nine-color outline taped below my computer because I had to keep referring to it when writing the enhancements. When Houghton publishes the electronic version of the book, they’re releasing along with it an enhanced edition that has about 50,000 words of content.
Tell me more about the enhancements…
The enhancements grew because, as I was working on the book, there was all of this advance press about Kindles and iPads and how the reading experience was going to be transformed in years to come. Normally, I’d say, “Oh poo! Reading’s reading,” but I was working on this book, and it was so incremental and nonlinear that it really shouted out for the kind of flexibility a nonlinear platform offers. So I approached Houghton, and they said to go for it. The enhancements include more encyclopedia entries, several recipes mentioned in the book, other ancillary characters and some supplementary information.
I got the whole thing done, added it up, and it was like 52,000 words. I thought, “This is why I’ve been so stressed—I’ve written another book!” Houghton’s also including some author commentary I recorded for the audiobook, and I believe they’re going to fold in several of the other voices from the audiobook, so you can hear the actors reciting the plays in the enhanced version.
Your epigraph says: “Truth has many voices.” Did you choose such a diverse cast of narrators to reveal more about the nature of storytelling?
I chose such a diverse cast because, to my mind, the story required it in order for me to get the plot to work. It wasn’t that I needed it to illustrate something about storytelling so much as I needed the storytellers to tell the story that way. I’m not enough of an abstract thinker for that. I’m much more concrete. I wasn’t really thinking about the big picture so much as how I was going to keep the scenes as dramatic as possible. For instance, I knew very early I wanted to do the scene with Tips and the spy having the swordfight on the balcony, but I couldn’t figure out who would tell it. I needed to create a voice to do it justice.
My real driving goal was to tell a story in which the main character doesn’t end up living happily ever after with the boy she loves. If there was any sort of overarching agenda on the part of the author, it was that. Because my kids are getting up to that age, I wanted to make the point that the person you’re in love with at age 16 is not the eternal center of your universe.
So, given that all does not end well here, what makes this story a fairy tale?
For me what makes a fairy tale, and what differentiates a fairy tale from a fantasy novel, is that in a fairy tale, there is a much stronger concept of a moral. It’s not just that the characters grow up but that the story can be used as a learning tool for the reader in becoming a better person.
That was certainly what I was trying to do in Princess Ben—enable her to realize that she had to grow up and recognize her own inadequacies. Here it’s very similar. That, to me, is what really makes a fairy tale, along with the concept of a happily-ever-after ending, even if it’s not the couple riding together on white horses off into the sunset. I taught a writing course once, and one of my students said, “I want the story to end with a big red bow.” I really appreciate that image. In a fairy tale, there has to be a big red bow at the end.