Cover Reveal and Interview: What’s Catherine Gilbert Murdock Up To These Days?
About all my brain is capable of processing on this, the day after the election, is children’s books. Particularly books by authors I already admire. When Catherine Gilbert Murdock won a Newbery Honor for her title The Book of Boy it was the surprise win I needed. Since its publication she’s been quiet, working on a new book. A book set in the past. A book illustrated by Caldecott Award winner Paul O. Zelinsky. A book . . . with cats.
Here’s the description from the publisher:
Newbery Honor author Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s Da Vinci’s Cat is a thrilling, time-slip fantasy about rewriting history to save the present. Two unlikely friends—Federico, in sixteenth-century Rome, and Bee, in present-day New Jersey—are linked through an amiable cat, Leonardo Da Vinci’s mysterious wardrobe, and an eerily perfect sketch of Bee. This novel will engross anyone who loved When You Reach Me and A Wrinkle in Time.
Federico doesn’t mind being a political hostage of the Pope, especially now that he has a cat as a friend. But he must admit that a kitten walking into a wardrobe and returning full-grown a moment later is quite odd. Even stranger is the man named Herbert, apparently an art collector from the future, who emerges from the wardrobe the next night. Herbert barters with Federico to get a sketch signed by the famous painter Raphael, but his plans take a dangerous turn when he hurries back to his era, desperate to save a dying girl.
Bee never wanted to move to New Jersey. When an elderly neighbor shows Bee a sketch that perfectly resembles her, Bee, freaked out, solidifies her resolve to keep to herself. But then she meets a cat and discovers a mysterious cabinet in her neighbor’s attic—a cabinet that leads her to Renaissance Rome. Bee, who has learned about Raphael and Michelangelo in school, never expected she’d get to meet them and see them paint their masterpieces.
This original and compelling time-slip adventure by Newbery Honor author Catherine Gilbert Murdock is full of action, mystery, history, art, and friendship—and features one unforgettable cat.
Naturally, this kind of summary raises a whole host of questions. Questions I was lucky enough to post to the author in question. So before we reveal the cover of this book, let’s delve a little deeper into what we’re talking about here.
Betsy Bird: Catherine! Pleasure to speak with you. Before we proceed any further, I just want to tell you what a relief your book is right now. I don’t know if you’ve seen the middle grade novels that came out in 2020, but basically it’s a parade of misery. Well-written, beautifully penned misery, sure. But misery. Your book is about two kids in different centuries and the time traveling cat that connects them. That just sounds fun. Can you give us an idea of where the idea for the book came from?
Catherine Gilbert Murdock: Ah, 2020. . . . IS THERE NO JOY ANYWHERE in this awful year? The idea for Da Vinci’s Cat actually began way back on a 2008 family trip to Rome, on a day that the kids weren’t having very much fun. We were seated outside waiting for lunch, sweaty and exhausted and testy, and to fill the time I told the story of the tensions between Michelangelo and Raphael, and the legend of Raphael sneaking a key for a midnight visit to the Sistine chapel where “the sight shook him to the bones” (Mauro Lucentini, ROME, my fav guide/history book). The kids loved it!
Over the years I’d poke at this little tidbit, trying to figure out how to turn an anecdote into a novel. Wouldn’t it be great to have a kid in the Sistine Chapel, watching Raphael? Maybe even a modern kid, to provide modern perspective? I made very little headway on the story, however, until I came across a biography of Pope Julius II (he hired both artists), and found a parenthetical mention of a young hostage in Julius’s palace.
Say what? There was a kid already there??
I threw myself into learning about Federico Gonzaga, which was easy because there’s almost nothing, and virtually nothing about his boyhood. Which in a way is very liberating. Da Vinci’s Cat certainly won’t face wrath of the International Federico II Gonzaga Fan Club.
So now I had a real-life kid and a real-life event, and some interesting characters named Raphael and Michelangelo and Pope Julius II (whose narcissism makes Donald Trump look like a finger puppet), and the realization that da Vinci knew all these people and could easily have built a time machine — he’s da Vinci, why not — so I could in fact bring in a modern sassy kid who asks lots of questions and marvels at the Renaissance. From there the book just came together with a click.
BB: Ho ho. Guess I needn’t renew my Gonzaga Fan Club membership then. Now when last we heard from you you’d penned the Newbery Honor winning title THE BOOK OF BOY. That story traipsed around the edges of Christianity with its pilgrims, churches, miracles, hellkeys, and the occasional saint. In this, your latest book, you’re doing fun things with Popes. It seems that medieval Europe has its hooks in you, but do you involve religious settings for a particular reason or simply because they were such an important element in day-to-day life back then?
CGM: It’s not just that medieval Europe has its hooks in me—it’s the city of Rome. Any time I can figure out how to get a story out it, score. As with The Book of Boy, I had no choice but to include religion because religion was the lifeblood of the era. In Da Vinci’s Cat, I tried to work in a scene where two kids attend Mass as they wait for dusk. But we’re talking Mass that’s not only pre-Vatican II, it’s pre-Council of Trent! Which means it would be profoundly different from anything Catholics know today. I’d have to explain the ritual to readers who might not know or care for religion, AND to readers who know it by heart. That was a challenge too big even for me. Instead the children visit an aviary.
BB: Good move. So I spy with my little eye the fact that the illustrator of this book is none other than Paul O. Zelinsky. Considering his own flirtations with Italian Renaissance painting (his Caldecott Award winning Rapunzel comes to mind) it’s sort of a return to his roots. Did you specifically seek out Paul or was this one of those editorial godsends we hear about from time to time?
CGM: PAUL O. ZELINSKY!!!!! An absolute editorial godsend. I have the first draft of his cover pinned over my computer, and every time I look at it, I beam. Paul Zelinsky! I know he has an enormous and brilliant canon, but chez Murdock we know him best for Toys Go Out, a top-five classic in this house. And the job he did on Da Vinci’s Cat! That paw drooping over the cornice slays me. The entire thing. Every detail. I’d sent my editor a crude 2” sketch I’d made of the wardrobe, and Paul turned it into that gorgeous centerpiece. For two years I’ve boasted that Greenwillow’s production of The Book of Boy is THE BEST COVER EVER, but now I’m torn.
BB: When I think of time traveling cats I tend to think of Lloyd Alexander’s Time Cat first and foremost. Of course, in that book the cat was a talker. In your book, your cat appears to be very much a regular (albeit ignoring the rules of time and space) feline. Are you a cat person? And how did I not know that Da Vinci did studies of cats?
CGM: Oh, lordly, I’m a cat person. And I did know that da Vinci sketched cats—they’re even on a UK postal stamp. Here is the funny part. Years ago—like, 15 or 20, when my sister and I were just starting out as writers, she said, “Hey, we should write a book about cats in Rome and time travel.” We were in Rome at the time noticing all the cats. I pointed out Lloyd Alexander’s Time Cat, and we had a good laugh, and that was that. Elizabeth Gilbert goes on to write Eat Pray Love etc., Catherine Gilbert Murdock goes on to write Dairy Queen etc., and now it’s 2019 and I’m working on a book about a kid in Rome observing Raphael’s reaction to the Sistine ceiling. A modern kid, somehow. A modern kid who needs to find a time machine, so she needs to find the house with the time machine in it. Thus Bee’s concern for bird health, and her knocking on Miss Bother’s door to return the cat. For a long time, it wasn’t even Miss Bother’s cat, just some random neighborhood feline. But I needed Bee to go upstairs. What if the random cat bolts inside, and Bee has to bring it back and follows it up the stairs? Nice.
At the same time, I’m trying to figure out the logistics of the time machine, and thought it might be neat for Federico to have a spooky moment watching da Vinci’s kitten grow into a cat. A cat would also be a nice way to demonstrate his friendlessness and loneliness. And when Bee arrives on the scene, Federico’s cat could force them to collaborate.
Do you notice that at no point in these MONTHS of outlining do I realize that it could be the same cat. That the cat could show the children how to use the time machine. That the cat could in fact be a central actor in the story. That the book could actually be called Da Vinci’s Cat. Only very recently (like, June?) did I realize that I had in fact written exactly the book my sister and I dreamed of decades ago, and that it echoes Time Cat, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, especially inadvertent imitation. Though Juno in Da Vinci’s Cat doesn’t speak. She vocalizes.
BB: Oo. I like that distinction. My cats “vocalize” with aplomb. Travel restrictions being what they are, I wasn’t initially sure when you wrote this, though you’ve cleared a lot of that up. Were you able to take a work related holiday to Italy to study up for this in any way? If not, how did you do your research?
CGM: I wrote the first draft of the manuscript in early 2019, the goal being to get it on my editor’s desk before the Newbery Awards. Then in September 2019, those halcyon Before Times, my husband and I took a trip to Europe in part to visit Mantua and see where Federico grew up. The city was preparing for a vast exhibit on Giulio Romano, an artist and architect who worked for the adult Federico. (He gets a tiny cameo in Da Vinci’s Cat; watch for it.) Because of this upcoming exhibit, we didn’t get to see Federico’s rooms, or his mother’s famous studio. But we saw enough. The Gonzaga had so much money that whenever they decided to update their palace, they didn’t tear anything down but just built another wing. It has 500 rooms spread across four centuries of architecture. It’s crazy. And every molecule of the place felt like Federico. What a relief to know that I got the kid right.
When not gorging—er, researching—my way through Italy, I work in a small home office. By this point I have a good library on medieval and Renaissance and Roman history. So when I’m actually writing/editing/outlining, I have to be here. I’m always popping up from my desk to find that one diagram, or the nineteenth-century floorpan of the Vatican Palace, or the description of the wedding banquet of the pope’s daughter. . . . . I really need to write a fantasy novel set in the present day where I can make everything single thing up, and write it while sitting on a beach under an umbrella.
BB: Considering the degree to which I enjoy your books, I cannot root for that to happen. Okay. Tough question now. Let no one say I don’t pull out the big guns. If you could grab a meal with Raphael, Michaelangelo, or Leonardo, whom would you choose? This may actually be an easy question, but I’m curious about the pros and cons of each choice.
CGM: A meal with Raphael, Michelangelo, or Leonardo . . . not an easy choice! Michelangelo obviously would need a bath first, and some Xanax. I cannot stop wondering how modern pharmacology could have helped him. Raphael would be absolutely charming and the perfect guest, but that’s what makes him annoying. With the exception of Michelangelo, EVERYONE who ever met Raphael described him as perfect. Maybe I’d take the bait and eat with him just to see what they’re talking about . . . and probably fall in love with him and have my heart broken but in a kindly way because he’s perfect. And Leonardo would be tough because he’d spend the whole meal playing with the food processor and the lemon zester and the toaster.
I think I’ll go with Michelangelo, just to boost him a little. He needs boosting.
BB: Well, this has been just an absolutely pleasure. I’m quite sad to ask my final question: what are you working on next? Or can you say?
CGM: At the moment I am working as a Seasonal Data Operator for Pennsylvania’s Delaware County Board of Elections. I’m getting out mail-in ballots and checking discrepancies in voter information . . . yesterday I learned to operate the envelope-opening machines! It’s the perfect job for me timing-wise as I wait for the DVC galleys, and also because I really need to feel that I’m helping the universe, and doing something is so much better than just chewing my nails. I might even be on TV, because the county is broadcasting the counting process live. But today (yes, Sunday) will be nine hours of filing. Good thing I’m a writer because I really know my alphabet!
Ha! And here I thought I could get away from the election. Not possible, of course.
Well then, let’s get to the moment you’ve all been waiting for. The cover reveal to beat the band . . .
Many thanks to Virginia Duncan for spearheading this reveal and to Catherine for taking the time to answer my questions with answers I’ll be rereading a couple times over.
About Betsy Bird
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