Saturday, 24 October 2015

Interview with Writer ER Murray

Hi Elizabeth and welcome to emergingwriter. Congratulations on your book, The Book of Learning. How did you first get into writing?

I had a wonderful primary school teacher who brought poetry and stories to life. As a result, I always wrote as a child – I’d write epic poems full of evil and witchery, or observations of nature (I lived in a council estate) and poems about the unfairness of life. When I was seven, I’d tell anyone that would listen that I wanted to be a teacher or a poet. I eventually became a teacher – it was my first job after completing my studies - but the writing had stopped completely by the time I went to university. I was the first in my family to go to university and I paid for myself, so I was working full time as well as studying and writing didn’t figure in the overall picture. But my love of reading always stayed, and by the time I reached the age of 30, my desire to write returned.

I started with a blog and some poetry, moved on to short stories, and then tried writing a novel using the NanoWrimo challenge. That initial draft was complete rubbish, of course, and it wasn’t something I wanted to continue with – but I felt such an immense sense of achievement that I hadn’t felt for a long time. By now I’d moved into the online poker world, so that I could travel and earn a good wage, but climbing the career ladder and earning big bucks didn’t give me anywhere near the satisfaction I felt from writing a book-length piece of prose. Something about the longer format and the depth you could travel with your characters attracted me, and I haven’t looked back since.

I was head hunted for an online poker job in Dublin, and when I arrived I fell in love with the country and the writing community. It wasn’t until I reached Ireland that I even considered being an author as an option. And it wasn’t until I went to an Inkwell workshop that I contemplated being able to write a book that was publishable. After a few drafts and redrafts, I was hooked, and it wasn’t long until I was giving up my job completely and focusing on my writing.  

I learned plenty about attention to detail, consistency, and the impact of being concise. Without even realizing it, this definitely fed into my creative writing at the beginning; my prose grew automatically tighter, and I got used to a critiquing environment so I never felt precious over my own creative pieces when they were being commented on by others. Another invaluable lesson learned was about branding – it’s important to be consistent in the way you address yourself and your book. And working in such an industry has given me a rhino hide for the business side of book publishing.  
Online poker? Really? I’m intrigued. What does a writer for such a company write about? Can you write at work and then come home and write your own book at night?
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I played lots of poker (I like games), because you have to understand it to be able to work in the industry, but I started out as a trainer in a big company. At university, I worked in betting shops as the job was well paid, and combined with my teaching experience, I managed to move in a new direction – and I also got to live in Spain. Like with most corporate jobs, I moved companies and climbed the ladder, moving into the editorial and social media departments. Finally, I ended up as Lead Writer for the (then) world’s second biggest online poker company, Full Tilt Poker, based in Dublin.  

It's copywriting essentially, so you'd write about how to play different types of poker games, promotions & competitions, email templates, legal terms & conditions, poker strategy, famous player profiles, blog posts about poker events, advertising slogans, articles for poker magazines etc. It's a completely different form of writing and I found it easy to switch to creative writing, though I used to get up at 5 or 6am to write before work rather than afterwards. But I did what everyone tells you not to do and left the career to concentrate on my writing. That was five years ago and I haven't looked back - I still freelance, to pay the bills, but it's on my terms and the writing always comes first.  

Tell me about your book

The Book of Learning is the first in the Nine Lives Trilogy, and it’s about 12 year old Ebony Smart. After her grandpa dies, Ebony is sent to Dublin to live with an aunt she’s never heard of and she soon discovers that her new home, 23 Mercury Lane, is full of secrets. Learning that she is part of an ancient order of people who have the power to reincarnate, Ebony also finds out that a terrible evil threatens their existence. With just her pet rat, Winston, and a mysterious book to help her, she must figure out why her people are disappearing and how to save their souls, including her own, before time runs out …

What age group is the readership? Do you expect crossover to adult readers?

The book is middle grade, which means a readership of 8-12 years olds, but I am expecting a crossover with the younger end of the Young Adult market. I’ve had great feedback from 13-year-old boys, which was a nice surprise. I thought the book would be young adult when I was mulling the idea over in my head, but as I started to write and got to know the characters, it soon became pretty clear that the protagonist was 12 years old. As children and teens like to read about protagonists that are either the same age or older, this placed the book firmly in the ‘middle grade’ category for publishers/booksellers. However, the book does have depth and contains some big ideas, so I believe it’s suitable for anyone who likes a good story.
Where did the idea come from?

The idea came from a combination of things; the characters niggling at me in my head, an interest in other cultures, and a lifelong fascination with death – it was always something I was aware of and interested in, but never scared of. As human beings, death is our one certainty, but it’s also the one thing we pretend isn’t going to happen! I think how society deals with death shows so much about its culture. I wanted to talk about death in a book for children, and I also wanted to create an exciting, adventure story – so the reincarnation idea was the perfect backdrop for both.

Do you find yourself having to modify your language or references for the middle grade reader ?

I haven’t modified my language or references for this book. The language is quite sophisticated and suits the story; it’s slightly dark, slightly gothic, and hopefully it’s pitched just right. I concentrated on writing the book I wanted to read at that age (and now – I still read lots of children’s literature).         

Yes, me too. How long did it take you from starting to publishing?

The idea started six years ago but it took five years from starting to write that idea down to getting a published book in my hand. I did what everyone said not to do and left my job to write. I’d saved up enough money to last me about a year, and I made sure I had some clients for backup freelance work – but I was very driven to succeed and thought it would be a much quicker process. I guess I had to believe this to take such a risky plunge. I completely overhauled my life to follow my dream and when I secured an agent after a year of writing, I fell into the trap that many fledgling writers fall into: I thought that getting an agent meant an instant book deal. But I was wrong.

An agent is a wonderful entity and I would never have got here if it wasn’t for mine, Sallyanne Sweeney. An agent gives you support, helps with editing, and gets you to the top of slush piles. But an agent cannot guarantee that a book deal will turn up right away. They will, however, support, guide, and back you 100% every step of the way. There were a few near misses with The Book of Learning and I decided to work on something else for a while. It turned out to be the right decision. I completed another book (Caramel Hearts, due March 2016 with Alma Books) and now both books have found a home – in fact, I signed both deals within 6 months of each other. After the first deal was signed, it took just under a year for the book to be published. This is pretty standard in the industry.

So the quick version is – one year writing alone, another year editing with an agent to get the manuscript ready for submission, some near misses on submission, and then a year and a half ignoring the manuscript’s existence until I dusted it off in 2014 and secured a deal. One year later, it’s a book!

Did you try it out on real YA readers?

I do try to use beta readers within the intended age group, but my list of potential young readers is small - hopefully this will grow! Luckily, I have lots of great writer friends who will read tricky sections for me, but mainly I work with my agent, Sallyanne Sweeney, or my editors.

Why did taking a break from one book to write another one help the first book to get published? What was happening to the first book in the meantime?

I shelved The Book of Learning because I was serious about getting published. I had taken this book as far as I could, and I wanted to work on something new. I’d been editing and rewriting with my agent, and I felt it was time to move on. I wanted to write something fresh – a young adult novel this time - and my new idea was niggling at me. Only when I finished Caramel Hearts ready for submission did I even look back at The Book of Learning again. When I reread it, I still loved the story and believed in it. I removed one word, and we sent it on submission also; that’s how I got two book deals within six months of each other. The break helped me stay motivated and increased my faith in my ability to write. There was also an element of timing. If Mercier had read my manuscript two years back, they would have still been invested in Alan Early’s wonderful Arthur Quinn books, so they probably wouldn’t have had the funds to take on another middle grade trilogy.

What would you do different, if anything, if you knew then what you know now?

The one thing I would try to do would be to enjoy the process more. I heard lots of writers say this, and I smugly thought – ‘yeah, right, easy to say when you have a book deal’ but it’s true! I was so focused on trying to get published, I sometimes forgot to just enjoy the journey. It is difficult, with all the ups and downs of the submission process, but the ultimate reason you write is because you love it. Try and remember this and you’ll find the journey to publication much easier.  

How are your launches going? I enjoyed the one in the Gutterbookshop.

I had two launches, one in the Gutterbookshop in Dublin and one in Whyte Books in Schull – both were a great success and it was humbling to see so many people come to support me. It was such a wonderful feeling, and something I’ll never forget. The reaction to The Book of Learning is important to me, and thankfully, it’s been really well received with great reviews from readers of all ages – from 8 to adult. This is truly amazing and makes every minute of writing completely worth it.

Thanks Elizabeth and the very best of luck. You can see Elizabeth at one of her upcoming events:

October 29th, Ardagh School of Witchcraft and Wizardry Literary Fright Fest, Workshop for 11-14 years
November 12th, 10.30am – ‘The Magical World of Senses & Storytelling’ at Dublin Book Festival

Elizabeth Rose Murray writes short fiction, and novels for children and young adults. She lives in West Cork, where she fishes, grows her own vegetables and enjoys plenty of adventures with her dog, Franklyn. The Book of Learning (Mercier Press) is the first book in her middle grade Nine Lives Trilogy, with Book 2 due August 2016. Her debut young adult book Caramel Hearts (Alma Books) will be published March 2016. You can find out more about Elizabeth on her website, or chat to her on twitter @ERMurray, facebook or instagram.

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