Dumplin’, Fort Worth author Julie Murphy’s tender and funny story about a reluctant beauty pageant contestant in a West Texas town, was a breakout hit—both the bestselling 2015 young adult novel and its 2018 film adaptation. Starring Jennifer Aniston and Danielle Macdonald, with a soundtrack by Dolly Parton, the movie was an indie favorite. Entertainment Weekly compared it to “a pillow cross-stitched with sassy aphorisms . . . kitschy and squishy and, if [you] let yourself, pretty sweet to sink into.”
Now Murphy is back with Pumpkin, a novel set in Clover City, the same fictional West Texas town where Dumplin’ took place. The setup is similar to the first book: both feature a plus-sized teenager reluctantly competing in an event that usually upholds traditional beauty standards. While Dumplin’ followed Willowdean, a shy outsider who signed up for a beauty pageant, the new novel’s hero is Waylon, a gay teenage boy who finds himself accidentally in the running for prom queen. It’s light, fun, empowering reading, as is the other companion novel from 2018, Puddin’, set in the same community. Murphy spoke with Texas Monthly about how her San Antonio childhood shapes her work, what she’s writing next, and her love of Dolly Parton.
On how she discovered Selena, and the inspiration behind Clover City
I am originally from Connecticut and moved to Texas when I was seven or eight. I remember moving to San Antonio and having no idea who Selena was. [One day], they pulled all the kids into the lunchroom and said, “We have awful news; Selena has passed away and some of your parents are on their way to pick you up.” The whole city really shut down when that happened, and I remember saying to my mom, “I think someone’s cousin died.” We were so confused and it took us a few days to process what was going on. Of course, posthumously, Selena is amazing, and kids should be sent home from school on a day like that.
There’s a very specific culture in Texas that I quickly fell in love with and that became part of my identity. When I first set out with the Dumplin’ series, I knew that I wanted to create a world that was very real, very fleshed out, and there was no world that I knew better than Texas. A town like Clover City is a mashup of all my favorite Texas things. It’s fictionalized and set in a very specific part of the state [West Texas], but I also get to draw on my background and time living in San Antonio and DFW.
On saying goodbye to the Dumplin’ universe with Pumpkin
I feel immensely grateful to be in this position where I’ve created this world, and not only has the readership for that world grown, but because the readership has grown, it’s meant that I continue to write in that world. Closing out the series is a little bittersweet. I think I am ready to move on; I have really exciting projects in the works. But I think Clover City is the kind of thing I will never fully say goodbye to. It’s been a life-changing series and it’s hard to fully close that door.
Pumpkin is about a boy named Waylon who has big aspirations, hopes, and dreams. He is an openly gay, fat boy in Clover City, and he hasn’t found his group just yet. In a rash moment, he decides to make an audition tape for his favorite drag queen show and the tape accidentally gets leaked to the student body. This leads him to garner a nomination for prom queen. His twin sister’s girlfriend, Hannah, winds up getting nominated for prom king, and these two unlikely candidates run, because what else have they got to lose?
On writing queer characters
As a bisexual woman, I am very aware of the challenges the queer community faces. It’s something I have contended with personally. It’s really important for me that my books are really full of joy and show that people who are used to being marginalized and on the outskirts of life are experiencing joy, and not just this constant loop of inspiration and challenge. Sometimes the queer kids at school like to have a wild and raucous party, just like everybody else! That is what it really comes down to for me—finding those human moments we all remember having at some point in our adolescence.
On giving fat people a voice
Sometimes when I talk to people, they conflate body positivity and fat positivity to be the same thing, and they are definitely not. Fat positivity was created by fat people and is a political movement that pushes for the rights and equal treatment of fat people. This includes protections against discrimination and equal access to all the same things that straight-size people have access to, like clothing, seating on airlines, and health care. Body positivity was born out of fat positivity. It is less concerned with activism—more so with feelings and the emotions tied to our bodies. It can be a great thing, but it has also been appropriated by corporations and can often exclude the very people who created the movement to begin with.
I also think that in order to hook people, you kind of have to give them a little bit of the fun, feel-good stuff too. That is what I hope my books do. I feel like we’ve made these huge, spanning steps throughout the time I have been writing, and it is really wonderful and inspiring to see younger generations embrace iconic women like Lizzo, someone who I admire. That being said, the body shame and all the negative things we have learned from society and the patriarchy about our bodies is still so prevalent and has a choke hold on all of us.
On her love of Dolly Parton
I am really lucky as a writer to have gotten to meet my favorite, most admired people in the world. When I moved to Texas, the only things I knew were Dolly Parton and Steel Magnolias. It was fortuitous that she became this centerpiece of Dumplin’. [The protagonist of Dumplin’ is a Dolly Parton fan, and Parton wrote the soundtrack for the film.] I remember sitting down to write the book, and futzing with the first fifty pages over and over again, and nothing was really clicking. I always try to give my characters something that I am obsessed with, and Dolly Parton seemed like the perfect fit. She is a guiding light in many ways, and I still don’t have the words to define what that whole experience has meant to me. Being so inspired by Dolly Parton, and for that situation to flip, and for her to be so inspired that she wrote a whole soundtrack based off the movie is one of the coolest full-circle moments of my entire life.
On her next project
I am working on a book and screenplay for Disney right now, If the Shoe Fits. It is part of a new line of adult romances that they are releasing, and this book is a very loose Cinderella retelling coming out in August. If everything goes to plan, the sequel to Faith, a superhero line of books, will be out in November.
On advice for readers struggling with body image
If you are looking to reframe the way you are thinking about your body, you’ve got to understand that the journey and that whole process is never going to be straightforward. Every day is a new challenge when you are looking at yourself in the mirror, and trying to come to terms with who you are. It is okay to fail some days; it is okay to feel like you aren’t comfortable or at home in your body on certain days.
The other piece of concrete information I have is to get online and see who you are following on social media. If you look at your social media follow list as a room of people, you want that room to be as wildly diverse as possible. The sooner you normalize different types of bodies and different types of people, the faster and easier it is to not only come to terms with yourself, but to see through a little bit of the bias you might have.