In 2015, author Julie Murphy published her second book: Dumplin’. The YA novel about a Texan teen became a runaway hit, reaching number one on the New York Times Best Seller list, and gaining legions of fans (and a spinoff book, Puddin), in part thanks to the irresistible spirit of its heroine, Willowdean Dickson. Willowdean, a Dolly Parton-loving high schooler whose plus-size body is central to the premise of the story but refreshingly, not presented as a problem to “overcome,” Is now the star of a feature film. Netflix’s adaptation of Murphy’s novel premieres on the platform and in select theaters today. The film, which stars Patti Cake$’ Danielle MacDonald as Willowdean and Jennifer Aniston as her mother Rosie, follows “Will’s” roller-coaster ride of an entry into the beauty pageant that’s the pride and joy of her small, ultra-Texan town. With the help of a few fonts of encouragement (including old friends from school, new friends from a local drag bar, and plenty of Dolly Parton tunes), Willowdean discovers new layers of her relationship with her mother, and deeper levels of her own confidence. As the film makes its debut, Murphy talks to FF2 Media about the experience of seeing her passion project reinterpreted onscreen.
Rachel Mosely: What sparked your inspiration to write the book? Was it a story that you had inside you for a long time?
Julie Murphy: I had a book that came out prior to Dumplin’ [Side Effects May Vary], and it's about a thin, straight, white ballerina who's dealing with cancer, and also this bucket list of doom that she's created. That was actually a really fun story to write—I had no real personal connection to it, so it was like there were no stakes in it for me personally as a creator. But I knew I always wanted to write a ‘fat book.’ I also knew there were things that you don't write about yet, because you're not ready to. And I felt like I was never going to be ready to write a fat book. So I had the idea for Dumplin’ sitting on the back burner for a long time. Then at one point I was in a frenzy, just pitching ideas to my editor and she kept passing on everything. Finally, in frustration, I was like, ‘Okay, well fine, I have a fat beauty pageant book, do you want that?’ And she was like, "Uh, yeah. Right now." And then I was like, ‘Oh my God—I actually have to do the emotional labor of being ready to write this book and confront my own feelings about my body. But I knew that I wanted to write a fat book. Because growing up, every fat representation I saw in media, the fat person was the butt of the joke. They had to be the funny fat best friend and serve a purpose in that way. Or the worst was when they were in a fat suit. It’s like ‘you’re so disgusted by fat people that you couldn't even cast a fat person? Or when a fat person has to lose weight in order to be at all redeemable, and change their whole existence. They couldn't just exist and have a story. The anger that I had surrounding that was a lot of what brought me to Dumplin’—my anger at not being able to see myself. I think we're seeing that a lot right now, there's a lot of angry people who have been sitting on stories for a long time, and it's awesome and I'm here for it.
Rachel Mosely: Was it difficult to trust that Hollywood would be able to execute it in the way that you wanted it to be done?
Julie Murphy: Yeah, I was terrified. I was like, "I'm going to be staunch, and I'm going to tell them that they can't mess with this.’ [I figured] some people in Hollywood would find a way to tell this story with a size four person. I was totally terrified. There were even moments where I hadn't signed the contract yet, and I was like, "Should I even be doing this?" I just realized that I wouldn’t know whether it would be a bad representation or a good representation. But we're never going to get this opportunity until someone says yes. So I had to say yes and let go of the story.
Rachel Mosely: How involved did you want to be?
Julie Murphy: Really, the thing that I was most concerned about was casting. I just wanted to make sure that we were casting fat people, and with the representation of fat, and how we were portraying Willowdean and how she felt about her body. So I said I wanted to be involved in that sense, but I wouldn't have really a high expectation for involvement, because I know so many authors who have just been thrown to the wayside on this. Kristin [Hahn, the film’s screenwriter] is truly the engine behind this film. She was so determined to get this thing made.
Rachel Mosely: Was it hard for you to relinquish control of the story to another writer?
Julie Murphy: I know Kristin will probably laugh when she reads this, but the first thing I did was Google Image search her and I was like, "Is she at all fat?" And then she's not, not even, like, a smidgen fat.
Rachel Mosely: Were you worried about that?
Julie Murphy: I was a little bit worried.
Rachel Mosely: I can understand that.
Julie Murphy: Yeah, at first I was like, "Oh no—this thin white lady is going to be adapting my book!” But then I was like, "Julie Murphy, give her the benefit of the doubt. There's a reason why they hired her.” Everyone, in some sense, knows what it means to be othered, and Kristin was able to bring that experience. She's fantastic. She got Jennifer [Aniston] involved in this whole process, because they're best friends, and then they brought on Anne [Fletcher, the director]. There were a couple different screenwriters auditioning for the project, but she was the one that really, not only got it, but also brought something new to the table that would give the film that extra 'oomph' that it needs. A film can't just be a transcription of the book, that's just not how it works. She really knew what chords to pluck out of the book and how to make it resonate as a film. This was written, directed, created by women. There were some great guys that helped us out on the way, but this is a female-centric project.
Rachel Mosely: Was that important to you? Because women supporting women is important to the story of Dumplin’ too.
Julie Murphy: I feel like, as an author, you have to choose your battles, and my thing that I was most concerned about was that the screenwriter was a female. And then beyond that, everything else was a bonus, because I knew that asking for an all-female team, like I got, was a really big ask.
Rachel Mosely: Isn't it crazy that it's such a big ask?
Julie Murphy: I know! It is crazy, but I don't want to say it happened organically, because it didn't, because people really fought for this to happen. But it all happened because people wanted it to. Which means a lot to me.
Rachel Mosely: What inspired you to make Dolly Parton such a big part of the book?
Julie Murphy: I'm originally from Bridgeport, Connecticut. We moved to Texas when I was a kid, and the only thing I knew about the South was Dolly Parton in Steel Magnolias. The only thing I could imagine was that there would probably be dirt roads, and women who looked like Dolly Parton. After that, I actually feel like Dolly Parton was never a huge influence in my life necessarily , until I got older and had gotten over the pain of moving to Texas. Of course, there was like that moment—the few years in my life where I was like, "I hate everything about Texas. I hate country music—I can't even bring myself to listen any of it.’ And then finally, in my later teen years, I started to be like, "Okay, well maybe not all country music is bad," and, "Oh this ‘Jolene’ song's pretty great.” That's when Dolly Parton started to seep back into my life. When I'm deciding to give a character a hobby, it's a big commitment. Because I know that I'm going have to dive in full-force and really research and know what I'm talking about. So when I was thinking about doing Dolly Parton as her obsession, I was like, "You know, I know a lot about Dolly Parton and I'm a big Dolly Parton fan, but can I do this justice?" And it took just one day of a little digging deeper research to realize, like, "Oh my God—I'm obsessed with Dolly Parton too!" So the Dolly Parton obsession came so much more naturally than I ever expected it to. It sort of uncovered the maniac Dolly Parton fan inside of me.
Rachel Mosely: Netflix had a earlier project this year, Insatiable, that was also about beauty pageants and weight, and it was pretty controversial. Did that enter the conversation at any point?
Julie Murphy: I don’t think I'll ever be able to avoid getting comparisons to it. We're under the same roof. But I think, love it or hate Insatiable, it's safe to say that Dumplin’ is the antithesis to it in lots of different ways. I haven't seen Insatiable, but from what I can tell, it's very satirical. Dumplin’ is really more about pulling on the heartstrings.
Rachel Mosely: Does it frustrate you that they're compared to each other?
Julie Murphy: It only frustrates me if it stops people from checking out Dumplin’. Because if people, in their head, are like, "I've seen this story,"—no you haven't. You have not seen this story.
Rachel Mosely: Was the use of the term "fat" a difficult thing to navigate? Especially because the book is popular with people of different sizes.
Julie Murphy: In the first chapter of the book, Willowdean very aggressively says, "You know, I'm fat. We say the word fat, we call people all these other different things, why can't I say I'm fat and it not be an insult? It's not an insult to me—why is it an insult to you?" And I have that same philosophy, as a lot of fat people are starting to have now, too. I knew that it would alienate some readers, but I know that if people feel alienated by it, it's work that they have to do on their own. I hope that my book can move them forward—push that dial a littler further for them, but I can feel really good about the fact that I know that it's a problem with them and not me. And it's taken me a really long time in my life to get to that point. People are trained to hate that word because we are trained to believe that 'fat' is a negative thing. It was actually a harder thing to nail with the movie. It was so easy for me to forget that we had the visual medium to help us along. I was constantly like, "Where's Willowdean's monologue about the word 'fat'?" And they were like, "Her monologue about the word 'fat' is her body existing on screen.’ For me, that was this great lightbulb moment. Like, "Oh my God, Julie, you're thinking like a novelist, not entering into the film world." So taking that novelist hat off sometimes is really what I have to do to get past some of those bigger obstacles.
Rachel Mosely: It seems like it’s been a really positive adaptation experience—you’re pleased with the way it turned out. Has that affected the way that you'll approach projects in the future?
Julie Murphy: I've always thought about stories in a really cinematic way. As a kid, I was obsessed with, and I'm still obsessed with, movie trailers, and how they're spliced together. I've always taken inspiration from that. But I actually try really hard to shut that possibility out of my head. Because, at the end of the day, I want to write a good book. And if a good book has the opportunity to turn into a movie, that's a great thing. But my job is to write the book.
© Rachel Mosely (12/7) FF2 Media
Stills courtesy of Netflix
Author headshot courtesy of Wunderkind PR