Tuesday 8 September 2015

Interview with E.R. Murray

What are your childhood memories of writing, reading or books?

As a child, I couldn’t get enough of books. I had an aunt who bought me a book every Christmas and birthday and I couldn’t wait to see what she’d chosen for me. I was always more Brothers Grimm than Hans Christian Anderson, but I’d read anything – Dr Seuss, Roald Dahl, The Secret Garden, The Railway Children, Treasure Island, Little Women (I loved Jo), The Little Princess (I wanted a monkey) and ancient myths and legends from other countries were particular favourites. Books were also a sanctuary for me; I spent some time in foster care as a child and had an unhappy childhood, but I could always lose myself in books. As I turned those pages, whatever was going on around me simply melted away.
The library was my favourite place to hang out. I’d read everything in the school library years before I was due to leave, so I visited the local library as often as I could. My happiest moment was when, at the age of 11, the librarian gave me an adult ticket so I could take out adult books – a whole world opened up to me then and I went straight for the classics (we didn’t have all this great Young Adult literature back then). I fell in love with Heathcliffe from Wuthering Heights, and was fascinated by the characters created by Charles Dickens. I’m sure I only understood half of what was going on, but these worlds felt really special and I adored them. I also read a lot of horror books – Stephen King and James Herbert. Who doesn’t like a good, scary ghost story?
 I dabbled in writing from an early age; I wrote short stories and poetry – I loved creating characters and backdrops different to my own. At night, I would tell myself stories in my head before I fell asleep. But it was poetry that felt really magical as a way of expressing myself back then. My favourite poem when I was ten was Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray – I grew up in a council estate in the North-East of England, but was always obsessed with nature. The lines ‘The plowman homeward plods his weary way, And leaves the world to darkness and to me. sounded so mystical and romantic. I also loved epic poems like The Iliad and Beowulf (simplified versions, of course) and I remember writing my own fifty-page poem that was really quite terrible, but at the time I was so proud of it. I did win some prizes for poetry when I was at school, but as I grew up, I forgot about writing altogether until a few years ago. But I never, ever, stopped reading.  
It's interesting that you've only come back to writing recently. Can you tell us a little about your journey to publication?
 It all started with a blog that a friend signed me up for about eight years ago. I wrote about wanting to write, and then started writing poetry and short stories (badly), but after a bit of practice my writing got better and eventually things started getting published in journals and magazines or shortlisted in competitions. This made me feel good because my writing was judged anonymously, which meant that someone, somewhere, was genuinely enjoying what I wrote. Three years later, I got the urge to write a book.
 I tried a challenge called 'nanowrimo', where your aim is to write 50,000 words in a month. It really was a challenge – and the end result wasn’t very good - but I did it. Then I started another book, and another, using the nanowrimo method each time for my first drafts. I went to talks and workshops about writing and learned about the importance of rewriting; how you have to improve your initial idea by looking at things like plot, dialogue, character, and voice.
 Along the way, I got an agent, and she helped me make the books good enough to send to publishers. It took me four years (which was much longer than I expected), and two completed books, but all the hard work paid off. I got book deals for both of the books I’d written – within six months of each other! The Book of Learning has just been published (Mercier Press) and Caramel Hearts will be out next summer (Alma Books).
Can you tell us a little about The Book of Learning?
 My book is about the adventures of Ebony Smart, a girl who is orphaned on her twelfth birthday, and sent to live in Dublin with a strange aunt she didn’t know existed. I don’t want to give too much away but it features prehistoric wildcats, an amulet, a mysterious book, a pet rat called Winston, black roses, ancient tribes, a motorbike, and magical worlds for souls.
 I’m lucky enough to be friends with author, Alan Early, and he made me this fabulous book trailer – it should give you an idea of what The Book of Learning is all about. I hope you like it!

Would it be true to say there are similarities between you and Ebony? And if so, how much of you is in your main character?
There's are certainly elements of myself in the main character – for instance, I was always feisty, obsessed with nature, and a tomboy. The way she reacts with such determination – as stubborn as a mule, some might say - is definitely a trait of mine, as well as her impatience. But Ebony Smart is more emotional and thoughtful than I was as a child; these were traits my sister had that I always admired. So I guess she’s an amalgamation of what I was like and what I’d have liked to be like, and around her I’ve constructed the kind of world that I always dreamed of belonging to when I was young.
Where do you write, and when?
It depends on what I’m writing and what stage I’m at. When I’m gathering ideas, or figuring out where to go next in a story, I’ll write anywhere and everywhere; on the train, in a field, waiting in a queue at the supermarket. I always have a notebook with me, or a sheet of paper folded up in my pocket, so I can make notes.
I live in a mobile home, and we turned the single bedroom into a writing room, so that’s where most of my writing takes place. My best time is in the morning, before any other distractions, so I dedicate that space every day to whichever project requires the most creativity. I always work on multiple projects but find it’s easier to edit in the afternoon than it is to write fresh prose.
So a typical day would be, for example, 2000 words of a first draft in the early morning, then switch to a redraft of a short story or editing a couple of chapters of a different (more advanced) book before noon. If I get stuck, or my brain starts getting tired, I go for a walk, and try to unravel the problem. It usually works, and I come back feeling regenerated (I have a big dog who needs lots of walks, so this also helps). My number one rule is: only once all my writing is done will I switch to my freelance work.
I write almost every day – I try to take one day off a week, though this doesn’t usually happen in reality – so if I ever feel like my progress is starting to slow down, or my enthusiasm is starting to wane, I’ll go write somewhere else, like a café. I find a change of scenery helps inject some energy and helps to break the solitude. I take writing holidays too – France, Cambodia, Italy; these breaks are for really focused work, and are especially good when a deadline is due. 
If you could go on holidays with a literary character, who would it be and why?

I would have said Heathcliffe up until recently; I always had a thing for Heathcliffe. I wanted to jolly him up a bit and make him smile. However, I don’t think all that anger and brooding would make for the best holiday – so now I’d like to take Moll Pecksniff from Abi Elphinstone’s The Dream Snatcher. She has so much energy and I like active holidays with plenty of adventure. We could climb trees and make catapults and hunt snakes and swim in rivers or lakes. We could even sneak her wildcat for extra fun. I think she’d be hilarious to hang out with!  

Two great characters, but I think you're right, Heathcliffe might be a bit grumpy. You'd certainly have your hands full with Moll! What is it that appeals to you about children's literature? Why do you write for kids?

Children’s literature is magical in so many ways; it’s brave, exciting, punchy, and fresh. I like the way children’s books deal with big issues in small, compartmentalised spaces - and without any pretension. They’re also great fun! I love all types of fiction, but you can really lose yourself in a middle grade or young adult book. That’s why I think children’s books aren’t just for kids; they’re for anyone who likes a good story. A newspaper editor interviewed me recently, and we talked about this; apparently many adults feel that reading children’s or young adult books in public is embarrassing. This makes me sad. Just go for it – that’s what I say! 

 With your first novel under your belt, what's next?

I have a second book, a young adult novel called Caramel Hearts coming out in June 2016 (Alma Books) – so I’m just about to start the editing process for that one. It’s completely different and a stand-alone book, about a girl with an alcoholic mum. It also contains cake recipes!  
Then I’ve got Book Two and Book Three of my Nine Lives trilogy to deliver – they’ll be out in August 2016 and August 2017. A first draft for Book two is almost complete, but it needs a lot of work. I do have some other initial ideas tucked away that I’d love to play with, but I have to resist those until the books I’m contracted for are completed. This lot should keep me busy enough for a while.
But there’s a whole other side to being an author that I’m really excited about – and that’s meeting readers. Now that I have a book on the shelves and another on the way, I’m looking forward to festivals and school events so much. I sit in a room on my own making stuff up all day so it’ll be nice to speak to real people, not just the ones in my head that end up in my books. I’m also hoping that I get some letters that I have to respond to – I love getting post and need an excuse to dig out my fountain pen.  

Click here to find out more about E.R. Murray or Kieran Fanning.

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