Culture / Entertainment

The Fort Worth Author Behind Jennifer Aniston’s New Netflix Movie Tells All

When Hollywood Embraces a Young Texas Author

BY // 12.13.18

A new feel-good film has hit Netflix and it’s based on Texas novelist Julie Murphy’s best-selling young adult (YA) book, Dumplin’. The book came out in 2015 and film rights were quickly acquired thereafter. The story follows a plus-size teenager (Danielle Macdonald, Patti Cake$) who enters a Texas beauty pageant that’s run by her former beauty queen of a mother (Jennifer Aniston).

The Fort Worth-based author has written several books including Puddin’, Ramona Blue and Side Effects May Vary, but this is the first to be adapted into a film. Although designated as a teen comedy, Dumplin’ touches on more serious topics such as grief after losing a loved one, self-doubt, and finding oneself again.

The story begins about six months after Willowdean Dickson (Macdonald) loses her favorite aunt Lucy. Her best friend and closest confidante, Lucy always encouraged Willowdean to be herself. The two also shared an extreme love for Dolly Parton.

Her mother, Rosie (Aniston), not yet accepting the grief of losing her sister and somewhat blaming Lucy’s death on her weight, dives back into her glory days of pageantry.

With the addition of a few unexpected oddball pals, another overweight, overly peppy girl and an outsider, goth-looking teen, Willowdean decides to compete in the pageant as a protest. But she also does it to try to feel closer to her late aunt after finding out that Lucy had wanted to join the pageant as a teenager, but never turned her application in.

Dolly Parton songs, drag queens, and witty one-liners complement a heartfelt story that needed to be told. I got to speak with author Julie Murphy about the adaptation process, the movie premiere in Los Angeles, her cameo at the end of the film and much more. Here’s the Q&A:

PaperCity: First of all, how was the movie premiere in L.A.?

Murphy: It was a whirlwind experience! Absolutely incredible. I’m glad I was surrounded by loved ones who I could later rehash all the details with, because left to my own devices, my memory of it all would be a blur. It was truly a celebration.

PC: How involved were you in the process of adapting the film? Was there any collaboration with screenwriter Kristin Hahn?

Murphy: I was involved and did work quite a bit with our screenwriter and producer Kristin Hahn. I wanted to make sure some key elements were handled with care, but I also wanted to give the project a little bit of distance so it could develop into its own thing separate of the book. I would say I was involved to a comfortable degree without crowding anyone.

PC: I really liked how your story touches on grief and the identity crisis that comes along with it, which isn’t always expressed in teen material so well. Why do you think it’s important for young adults to learn about?

Murphy: Thank you! The world of young adult books is actually really rich with books that attack all sorts of subjects with nuance, including grief, which means I never have to look far for inspiration. I think it’s really easy to isolate stories about teens and assume that many of things teens experience are specific to a coming of age experience, but things like grief are incredibly universal.

That said, the first major loss in someone’s life is always incredibly formative. The great thing about young adult books is that they give teens a safe place to experience the world and heavy topics they’ll be confronted with. So for me, I hope a teen will always walk away knowing more about themselves through the process of observing someone else’s experience.

PC: Why did you choose Dolly Parton as the big connection between Willowdean and Lucy?

Murphy: I’ve always loved Dolly. My first memory of Dolly was actually Steel Magnolias and I was immediately smitten. I knew I wanted someone iconic to be the through line between Willowdean and Lucy and Dolly was the perfect fit. She’s very savvy and stands out in a very deliberate way and I think Willowdean had something to learn from that.

PC: Are you originally from Texas? Why did you choose Texas as the setting of the story?

Murphy: I’m not originally from Texas, but it’s been home for over 25 years now. I was born in Connecticut and all my extended family is still there. DUMPLIN’ was actually my first try at writing setting. Prior to that everything I’d written had been set in sort of an Anywhere, USA. Something about Dumplin’ though seemed to speak to a very specific type of resilience I’ve found in Texas. In the end, Texas really became her own character in the book.

PC: Will Puddin’ also become a film?

Murphy: I would love that, but ultimately that depends on lots of different things including the success of Dumplin’ Fingers crossed for sure!

PC: Lastly, I saw your cameo! That had to be a lot of fun. What was that like?

Murphy: I went back and forth on doing a cameo for a long time. It felt like a lot of pressure and I didn’t want it to distract from the movie. When the director approached me with the idea to do it leading into the end credits, that made total sense to me and I said yes, because who knows if I’ll ever have this opportunity again?

We sat there for hours. I think Two Doors Down is forever ingrained in my brain now. But I will say one thing I learned from that experience is how tedious filmmaking is. I have so much respect for actors and crew members. Seconds of footage requires so many unseen hands on deck. I’m so thankful to everyone who contributed.

Dumplin’ can currently been seen on Netflix or at the iPic Theaters at The Village of Fairview in North Texas or the iPic River Oaks District in Houston.

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