I’m very pleased to announce an interview with Pat Murphy! Pat is the author of 2007 Middle Grade Cybils finalist The Wild Girls and other wonderful books for adults such as The City, Not Long After. She’s a very talented writer, and we’re very lucky to have her here today!
What was your inspiration for writing The Wild Girls? The Wild Girls is your first novel for young people; you had previously published several books for adults. Why did you decide to write for a new audience? Are you anything like Joan or Sarah, or were you at their age?
I wanted to write a book that would have made a difference to me, when I was the age of the girls in the book. As I’m sure you can tell, elements of this book are autobiographical. Like Joan and Fox, I felt that I did not belong in the well-manicured world of the suburbs. Like Joan and Fox, I struggled with family issues. The orchard where Fox and her dad live was near the house where I grew up.
Though I didn’t meet anyone like Verla Volante (the girl’s writing instructor) or Gus (Fox’s father) when I was a girl, I now know that the world is filled with such people. This book came from the joy of imagining what meeting Verla and Gus would have been like when I was Joan’s age.
I was a lot like Joan, growing up. A good student, but an outsider. But as is always the case, all my characters reflect pieces of my own personality. Writing lets me explore all those aspects of my personality – from the wildness of Fox and Verla Volante to the anger
and control of Joan’s father.
For me, every novel is an excuse to learn amazing new things. To write Wild Girls, I learned how to walk on stilts at The Crucible, a school of industrial arts in Oakland, California. Walking on stilts really is an act of belief. It isn’t hard-as long as you believe you can do it. I think there are many things in the world that share this characteristic.
What are you writing now?
I’ve had a bit of a hiatus from fiction writing. After working at San Francisco’s Exploratorium (a museum of science, art, and human perception) for more than 20 years, I changed jobs. After learning to walk on stilts at The Crucible, I went on to become the organization’s marketing director-and along the way I learned to weld and to work with molten glass. Then I started working as a writer and editor at Klutz, a fabulous children’s book publisher. Each book Klutz publishes comes with the stuff you need to do all the activities in the book. The very first Klutz book was Juggling for the Complete Klutz. I learned to juggle from that book in the 70s, and it seems too perfect to be writing books for Klutz now! My first book for Klutz was a re-working of the Klutz book of board games. Fifteen great board games squeezed into a book, with everything you need to play them. I’m just finishing Card Trickery, a book that will teach people to throw, fan, flourish, spot cheaters, and do magic with cards. It’s great fun.
But I’m just getting started on a new novel. Too soon to talk about it, I’m afraid.
I’ve heard it’s like trying to choose a favorite child, but do you have a favorite of your books?
I have three favorites.
The Wild Girls
The City, Not Long After
Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Enjoy the process – of learning, of writing, of exploring yourself and the world with words. People often seem to talk about how difficult it is to write – the agony of writers’ block, the long nights of introspection, all that stuff. But if I didn’t like writing, I wouldn’t do it. Writing lets me figure out who I am, how I think the world works. Writing helps me sort out the answers to questions that intrigue, disturb, and puzzle me. The questions and the answers are not simple (which is why it takes a novel to explore them), and I don’t know any way to explore them other than writing.
What are some of your favorite books or authors?
I have many favorite books. (As Walt Whitman said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”) Since The Wild Girls is a children’s book, I’ll give you the names of some of the authors that influenced me when I was growing up.
Lewis Carroll (I read The Annotated Alice dozens of times)
And I remember certain books:
City Under the Back Steps by Evelyn Sibley Lampman
The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink
The Secret Garden and A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
There are so many more. I read fairy tales avidly and books about animals. I also read science fiction, JRR Tolkien, and every Tarzan novel I could put my hands on.
How long have you know you wanted to be a writer? Could you tell me a little about your road to publication?
I was a reader but not a writer until I was in college. Up to that point, I had always thought of writing as a calling, not something a person could choose, but something that chose you. Lois Natanson, one of my professors in college, told me I was a good writer, and I realized that it might be possible to be a writer. So I started writing stories and sending them to science fiction markets. I figured I’d send out my work until I had 100 rejection slips –and then I’d stop. But I sold a story on my 6th rejection slip, and there was no turning back. It was a long time before I sold another story, but I was committed.
My bachelor’s degree is not in writing, but in biology. I have always maintained two parallel careers: as a science writer and as a fiction writer. Balancing the two means I write less fiction, but allows me to be very free in what I write. And that’s a blessing.
What is your writing process like–where do you write, do you outline, how many drafts, etc.?
It varies enormously. On novels, I outline before I start. Then, halfway through, I throw out that outline and write a new one. Sometimes I have to toss the second outline as well. but I always have an outline.
I can write anywhere. Right now, I’m writing on the train to work. (I live in San Francisco and work in Palo Alto.) I’ve always liked writing on trains.
There are always a few drafts. Lots of writing on the cutting room floor. That’s just part of the process.
What has your long experience in being a published author been like–the best part, the worst part, and the most surprising part?
The best parts: the writing; hearing from readers and discovering that my stories make a difference to people
The worst part: having books go out of print, an increasing problem in these days of diminishing back lists (Don’t get me started on the business of writing! If you want to know about that, read the Author’s Guild’s study of mid-list books.)
The most surprising part: realizing that every novel has a process – and that process includes a part in the middle where I say to myself, “Who ever said you could write a novel. And this novel – what a stupid idea it is!” Usually around then, I have to rewrite the outline. And then I have to push through the self-doubt (what I call the Slough of Despond) and emerge from the other side.
I didn’t realize that this was a pattern until I mentioned to my husband, “I’ve never felt this bad about a book.” “Oh, sure you did,” he said. “You do every time. Isn’t it about time to rewrite the outline?”
A year or so back, I took an oil painting class and the instructor talked about “the painting curve,” which includes a point at which your painting looks like mud and you just have to keep on going. Interesting parallel to the writing process.
Is there any question you wish I’d asked you, or anything else you’d like to say?
I just found out that The Wild Girls has won the Christopher Award (www.christophers.org), which is given each year to books “which affirm the highest values of the human spirit.” I’m honored and thrilled. I’d also like to mention my connection to the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award (www.tiptree.org). In 1991, Karen Joy Fowler and I founded this award, an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.
Why reward writers who explore gender roles? In Writing A Woman’s Life, Carolyn Heilbrun wrote: “…it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts. They may be read, or chanted, or experience electronically, or come to us, like the murmurings of our mothers, telling us what conventions demand. Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all….”
To change our society, we must imagine new stories – and that’s what the Tiptree Award promotes. The award is named for Alice B. Sheldon, who wrote under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. By her impulsive choice of a masculine pen name, Sheldon helped break down the imaginary barrier between “women’s writing” and “men’s writing.” The award is funded by a grassroots effort of auctions and bake sales. After all, if you can’t change the world with chocolate chip cookies, how can you change the world?
Other than that, I’d just like to say: “Thanks for the interview!”
Thank you, Pat!