What a blogging coup I have for you today: an interview with the fabulous E.R. Murray, author of the recently published The Book of Learning (Mercier Press)! A fabulous Middle Grade fantasy about Ebony Smart, a young girl who discovers a family secret – one with the power to change her life (or lives?) completely – and a mystery which risks destroying the existence of everyone and everything she loves, The Book of Learning is a fast-paced adventure against time itself. Armed only with her own savvy, and with her pet rat Winston along for the ride, Ebony must race to find the answers she seeks before her family (including herself) is wiped from existence…
Give it up for E.R. Murray, everyone!
SOH: First things first: Ebony discovers during the course of her adventure that there are people in her family with the power to reincarnate. Where did your interest in reincarnation come from? Do you find it a spooky idea, or an exciting one?
ERM: It might sound a bit morbid, but I’ve always been fascinated with death – the possibilities of what might happen, as well as the ways in which people deal with death. I’ve always been fascinated by different cultures too, and I love hearing about unusual beliefs, behaviours and rituals. One of my favourite reads as a child was National Geographic! I guess The Book of Learning is an amalgamation of these two interests – though it wasn’t my intention. I just wanted to write a good story.
Reincarnation is such an exciting concept – and so alien to the society we live in. I grew up in an atheist family in a multi-cultural neighbourhood, so I was surrounded by various religions – Islam, Sikhism, Christianity in various forms, and Judaism – from an early age. At school, we would always celebrate various festivals and beliefs throughout the year, so thinking from lots of different viewpoints was a natural part of everyday life.
I remember we did a project about reincarnation when I was about ten years old. I thought it was incredible how so many people around the world, from ancient times to modern, could believe in this concept – and in so many different ways. I don’t believe I will be reincarnated – but it might be fun if I was proved wrong!
(P.S. There’s a great book called Sum by David Eagleman that contains 40 tiny stories, each offering a different scenario for what might happen after we die – I highly recommend giving it a read!).
SOH: Did Ebony herself, or her mysterious powers, emerge first in your imagination when writing The Book of Learning, or was she always inextricably linked to her other-worldly ability?
ERM: The character of Ebony definitely came first. Her voice – and that of Icarus Bean – was very strong, and the fantasy adventure grew around them and with them, rather than me trying to make their characters fit a story I wanted to tell.
I’d just moved to Dublin when these characters began to form, and as I explored the city, they grew rather noisy in my head and I had to start writing about them. Dublin was the perfect backdrop, and the city started to infiltrate my story too; it became its own character, in a way.
After a while, I realised I wanted the story to be about reincarnation, and I had the term ‘Nine Lives’ in my head – but I expected that to be the title of the book. It was only when I was so far into the story that I realised I was writing a trilogy.
SOH: I love that Ebony has such a deep connection with her dearly beloved grandpa. Grandparents are such an important part of a child’s family, and can play a vital role in a child’s life both in reality and in books. Which fictional grandpa (or grandparent! Grandmas are important, too) is your favourite, besides Grandpa Smart?
ERM: My favourite of all time has to be Grandpa Joe from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I love the way he spins tales, and is full of fun and adventure. I also loved Mr Tom Oakley from Goodnight Mr Tom, who isn’t technically a grandpa, but certainly has all the qualities. I also think Oisin McGann’s Mad Grandad character is brilliant – though I didn’t get to read about him until I was an adult. My grandparents were all dead before I was born, and I would have loved to have granddads like these!
SOH: Pick five adjectives to describe your heroine, Ebony Smart.
ERM: Feisty, brave, determined, stubborn, trusting.
SOH: Who would you cast as your characters if there was to be a movie of The Book of Learning?
ERM: Ooh, this question is fun! OK, here goes…
Christina Ricci would have made an excellent Ebony Smart, but we’d need a time machine. Is that allowed? Icarus Bean would be played by Robert Downey Jnr. He’d do scary really well (and it’s nothing to do with the fact that I’d love to meet him. Honest). I’d pick Timothy Spall for Uncle Cornelius, and Meryl Streep for Aunt Ruby. Ezra Miller would perform a memorable Zach Stone and as for Winston, the rat? I’m not too hot on ratty thespians but I’m open to suggestions!
SOH: Give us an insight into your busy life, and how you fit your writing around your other commitments. Do you have any ‘rituals’, or do you simply write with the flow of your Muse, or none of the above?
ERM: I’m at my most alert and most creative in the morning – give me a 5am start over a 2am splurge any day! As I’m juggling lots of writing deadlines and freelance projects, I simply prioritise and give the best part of my day to whatever the most pressing project might be. Then I move onto the next most important project of the day, and another, until I have the day’s to-do list completed. I’m extremely organised, and I compartmentalise my projects into blocks of time, so I can be flexible – there are a lot more interruptions in the countryside than you might think. Escapee cows, for instance!
A typical day for me right now is 9-13 hours at the computer, six or seven days a week. That’s four hours writing or editing one book, then the rest freelancing and promotional stuff – blog posts, interviews, etc, – that I slot in as they come up. I do try and take one day off a week as I think downtime is unbelievably invaluable – it’s when you unravel plot issues and character inconsistencies. But this is proving more and more difficult at the moment as I’m launching one book, editing another, and writing another – all by Nov 1st – on top of my freelancing.
The only ritual I have, really, is to make sure I get a decent amount of exercise every day. I have a big dog that happily reminds me it’s time to do our usual 3-mile walk by sticking his wet nose on me when he decides I’ve been at the computer too long! Sometimes we do the walk twice. I also swim, go to the gym, and do yoga. It’s to balance all the sitting time and helps clear the mind.
I also take chunks of time off for travel when I can, and I have lots of working holidays when things pile up – the beauty of my writing and freelance work is that I just need my computer and internet access. I find that a change of scenery is important if I’m to keep up the momentum.
SOH: You have another book, a YA novel, which is being published next year (Caramel Hearts). How on earth do you manage to work on two novels at the same time, or do you find it easy to separate them out?
ERM: I tend to work on one book until I get it as far as I can, then I swap to the other. I work quickly, but very intensely. When you write, you need a break from the text so you can distance yourself and spot mistakes, plot holes, inconsistencies etc. Swapping from one project to another enables this in a shorter space of time, so I find it really productive.
It is possible that I may end up in the situation very soon where I need to work on both novels in the same day. I’m hoping that doesn’t happen, but if it does, I guess I’ll just get on with it and look back and chuckle about it later.
SOH: Do you have a preference for writing (or reading) MG over YA, or do you enjoy books for both age groups equally? What do you find so irresistible about books for younger readers and teens?
ERM: I love writing and reading both age groups equally. I read widely and also love literary fiction, travel writing, short stories, poetry, and horror, but I think it’s a particularly exciting time for middle grade and young adult books. Right now, there are so many brave and talented authors writing incredible books – think Jon Walter, Louise O’Neill, Patrick Ness, Melvin Burgess, Malorie Blackman, Neil Gaiman, Roddy Doyle, Jandy Nelson, Claire Furniss… the list is endless! I think back to what we had available as teens, and it was either classics or horror (or both). There wasn’t this wealth of literature that focused on our age group, our dreams, and our problems. And the best bit is – you don’t need to be of middle grade or young adult age to read it!
SOH: What are your top five favourite books? (They don’t *have* to be YA or MG ;))
ERM: Five? Not 500? This is a tough one! OK, I’m going to be controversial and mix this up a bit … (You know that’s a cruel question, right?)
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman – Perfection from start to finish (I know it’s a trilogy but, ssh, no one noticed).
Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Bronte – the powerful emotion and incredible use of landscape, the mastery of different narrators – I adore this book. It’s the book I’ve read most in my lifetime.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman. If there’s a book I wish I’d written, this is it. Actually, anything by Neil Gaiman – from his kids’ books to his graphics novels to his short stories – is 100% incredible so I’m adding them all. I know that’s cheating (again) but I’ve decided it’s allowed.
My Name’s Not Friday by Jon Walter. Only published this year, this is an incredible tale with so much passion and emotion and heartache. You’ll never, ever, forget the protagonist Samuel!
The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami – I love Murakami’s style, his sparse dialogue, his bizarre ideas. You have to completely suspend belief and every time you finish this book, it’s like you’re breathing again for the first time.
Let me know when I can add another 495 books to the list!
SOH: Clearly, you love to write, but do you find that any aspects of the writing process are painful or difficult? What was your favourite aspect of writing The Book of Learning, and your least favourite?
ERM: Waiting. Publishing involves so much waiting. From sending your work to an agent or publisher, to waiting to sign a contract, to waiting for editorial comments, to waiting to see an actual physical book, to waiting to read reviews and see what people think. I’m so impatient, so this has been the steepest learning curve of all!
When it comes to The Book of Learning, I guess my favourite bit of the process was that initial draft, when the story began to emerge – closely followed by the final draft, when I knew I’d nailed it. I always write my first drafts in a month; I call them draft zeros because I don’t edit a thing. Even if a character’s name changes, or the setting, I don’t go back and alter it – I immerse myself in the story completely and see what happens. It makes me feel like an explorer. If I try and plot or plan, it kills it for me. Of course, this means I have lots of drafts by the time I get to the finished product. And so, when you complete that final draft – it’s amazing. You draw a line under all that hard work.
As for my least favourite bit, that’s easy. The waiting.
The eyes have it! Elizabeth and her book, just hanging out.
Photo: courtesy of E.R. Murray
SOH: What advice would you give to any aspiring author – particularly a young author – wishing to follow in your footsteps?
ERM: Read widely and endlessly. Write, rewrite, and then rewrite some more. Go to writing workshops and festivals, soak up advice, and listen to other writers. Take on board any useful feedback you might get. Keep going and whatever you do – this is the most important bit – don’t give up.
SOH: If you were to be reincarnated yourself, how would you like to come back to life?
ERM: Can I come back as a writer again? I love it!
Thanks, Elizabeth, for a great interview and for writing such a stupendous book. The Book of Learning is available now through all good bookshops and/or direct from Mercier Press – check it out and let me know what you think! You can check out more about Elizabeth and her books on her website, and/or follow her on Twitter (she’s very nice!)