The first adult novel from YA superstar author Julie Murphy (Dumplin’, which was adapted into the hit Netflix film) is both right on trend (Rom-coms are big, have you heard?) and timelessly appealing. If the Shoe Fits takes its cues from the iconic fairy tale Cinderella, but its buoyant humor and good-hearted outlook are all Murphy. She talked to BookPage about the liberating experience of writing grown-up characters and why her version of the wicked stepmother is more complicated than conniving.
How does it feel to have written your first adult novel? Did the writing process feel different at all?
I am so incredibly excited to be dipping my toes into the adult waters. It's something I've hoped to do for quite some time, and this seemed to be the perfect crossover project to start with. Of course If the Shoe Fits is an adult book, but I think it's a really good first step into adult romance for teenagers as well. The romance is exciting and steamy while still maintaining a lower heat level, so I've really found it to be the perfect access point for new romance readers.
As I was drafting, I had this really great lightbulb moment. As a YA and middle grade author, I spend a lot of time on the page working with and sometimes around adult characters, but this time my main character is the adult. There's no curfew or grounding to stand in her way, but that also means the safety blanket of turning to someone older and wiser is pulled out from under her in some ways. I actually found the process to be really liberating and exciting!
This is the first installment of Meant to Be, a series of Disney princess retellings, each written by a different author. Are you able to tell us more about what’s coming up?
I can promise exciting things ahead! Each book will reimagine a different Disney princess, and while I can't tell you exactly who is writing the next book or which princess it will be, I can tell you that you will not be disappointed. The next author is one of my all-time favorites, and it's been really hard for me not to completely fangirl over this princess-author pairing.
“I never got the chance to see a chubby girl get swept off her feet by Prince Charming.”
Was Cinderella your first choice for this romance? Why did you want to revise this fairy tale? (I love the nods to the source material on the cover!)
Yes! The moment this series was pitched to me, I told my agent that I had to have Cinderella. The story of Cinderella was so iconic to me growing up.I spent so much time in a make-believe space pretending that my mom was forcing me into child labor (she wasn't, I swear!), that my older sister and cousins were my mean stepsisters and that I could talk to birds and small, adorable rodents. But the spell of my childhood imagination always broke the moment I looked in the mirror and didn't see a tall, thin blond girl staring back at me. Later on, I discovered my love for Ursula, and that really helped me reshape how I felt about myself, but she was also the villain. I never got the chance to see a chubby girl get swept off her feet by Prince Charming. Even though Cinderella wasn't the first Disney princess, she was my first Disney princess, and that's why it was so important to me that I reinvent her story with a plus-size lead for a modern audience.
Would you want to adapt another, non-princess fairy tale or Disney property in the future? If so, which one?
Are you kidding?! I would love to! This process has been such a joy from beginning to end. Though The Little Mermaid is a princess fairy tale, I would love to see a contemporary retelling from Ursula's point of view. I'm a kid of the ’90s though, so I keep finding myself thinking of Heavyweights and how amazing an updated version of that might be. I also think a modern Peter Pan set in a skate park would be so fun and—I might be going out on a limb here—but I would absolutely die for a chance to see a Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog rom-com.
A common theme in your books, including If the Shoe Fits, is plus-size main characters and body diversity. From the standpoint of a writer who's been in the industry for several years now, do you feel acceptance of larger body types and plus-size main characters has increased? Are there places where you think publishing still needs to improve?
I can definitely feel the shift, but as with all important changes, it doesn't feel like it's happening quickly enough. I think it's happening more readily in contemporary spaces, but I'm ready to see it happen in fantasy and sci-fi and all other types of genres, too. We also need to see a more diverse lineup of plus-size characters from race to sexual identity. I also just want to see more plus-size people behind the scenes as editors and designers and publicists. Lastly, I want to see space for stories with plus-size bodies that aren't issue books and that create space for body size to be a fluid part of a story and a character's identity.
Cindy becomes a last-minute contestant on the reality dating show "Before Midnight." Are you a fan of reality TV? Are there any shows or TV moments that inspired you?
I was a huge fan of “The Real World” and “Road Rules” growing up, but I was only a casual viewer of reality television dating shows. So beyond rewatching every version of Cinderella I could find to prepare for writing this book, I also had to beef up on shows like “The Bachelor.” Thankfully my editor, Jocelyn Davies, is a huge fan and was able to guide me through the many, many seasons. And now I'm a devout fan. In fact, I'm currently deeply invested in the newest season of “The Bachelorette.” (Is anyone else a little weirded out by the cat guy? And I like cats!)
Making Cindy’s stepmother, Erika, a producer on "Before Midnight" was a genius idea, given that there’s often a stereotypical, meddling executive behind the scenes in depictions of reality TV. But she's more than just a one-dimensional villain. Why did you want to complicate the figure of the wicked stepmother? At what point in the writing process did you start realizing there was more to unpack with her character?
From the beginning I knew that a really compelling way to complicate this story would be to give Cindy's stepmother some more dimension. Without even adding in the other elements of the traditional Cinderella story, the relationship between a stepchild and stepparent is already so interesting. I also really loved the idea of Cindy knowing a slightly softer side of her stepmother than the rest of the world does.
The thought of being Cindy's age, where you're technically an adult but still turning to your parents in many ways, was an added layer that I was really excited to dig into. Cindy's parents are gone. The only parental figure she has is a woman her father married a few years ago. All of those ingredients made the relationship between Cindy and Erika really thought-provoking without even having to go for the more obvious villainous tendencies.
In addition to TV production, If the Shoe Fits also explores the world of shoe design, which is Cindy's dream career. Was there any research involved in getting the details of both those industries just right?
Spending time on the set of Dumplin' really primed me for the reality TV aspect. It also gave me easy access to lots of people who could give me some great insight. I also found Amy Kaufman's book, Bachelor Nation, immensely helpful.
As far as the design aspect, it really came down to good old-fashioned research. When I graduated high school, I was actually accepted at and planning to attend the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising but had to back out at the last minute because of a family financial crisis. Even though I never did make it to design school, I had a really strong understanding of the expectations and what that sort of career path might look like. So making Cindy a shoe designer ended up a really natural fit.
Cindy’s appearance on "Before Midnight" throws her into the spotlight and makes her a body positivity icon. Do Cindy’s experiences and insecurities around becoming this de facto spokesperson of a movement mirror your own as a writer who focuses on body positivity and diversity?
There are so many incredibly talented and creative voices out there addressing body positivity and fat positivity (because they are truly two different things), but in some ways the success of Dumplin' did make me and my work some people's first interactions with the idea. That does come with a lot of pressure and responsibility, but it's also so, so important to remember that there's no one single fat experience. Every plus-size person out there sees and experiences the world through a different lens, and I think that's important for creators and public figures to remember, but also audiences. If someone learns about body and/or fat positivity through me, I hope that I'm only the first step and that they continue to learn more and experience more. I'm only one fat white lady from Texas, and I can't and will never speak for fat people as a whole. All that said, if all my work amounts to is widening a path for more plus-size creatives, then I'm happy. Lord knows someone came before me, and someone came before them.
What can we expect from you in the future?
It's been a really exciting time in my career. During the pandemic, I found myself writing even more, because it's my passion and I find it so comforting. This year, I released the third and final book in the Dumplin-verse, titled Pumpkin. I also have the second half of the Faith duology, Faith: Greater Heights, coming out in November. Next year, I'm launching a really different and exciting project, and I can't wait to talk about it. I'm literally bursting at the seams! And lastly, I'm currently working on an adaptation of my middle grade novel, Dear Sweet Pea, for the Disney Channel. I'm happy! I'm busy!