Tag Archives: reincarnation

Interview with E.R. Murray, author of ‘The Book of Learning’!

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!

Image: inkwellwriters.ie

Image: inkwellwriters.ie

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.

Image: ermurray.com

Image: ermurray.com

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

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!)

Book Review Saturday – ‘Cloud Atlas’

So, yes. ‘Cloud Atlas’. It’s far from being a new book, but it was a new book to me, when I read it a couple of months ago. I was warned, repeatedly, that it was ‘impossible’, ‘unreadable’, ‘too complicated’, and so on, so I did come to it with a certain amount of trepidation.

Also, a little bit of cold, hard fear.

Image: screencrush.com

Image: screencrush.com

Now, in the warm afterglow of having met the challenge of reading it, I wonder why so many people warned me off. It’s a big, whopping book – but it’s nothing to be scared of.

‘Cloud Atlas’ is a huge novel, full of characters and voices and ideas and time periods, but it is all connected. It’s connected through the plot that David Mitchell weaves around his characters, of course, but also through the larger ideas of shared humanity, the desire to live, the need for freedom, and the gaining of wisdom. All these things make the book easy to empathise with and understand, and they also keep you turning the pages.

Structurally, the book takes the form of six novellas, five of which are split in two; one half of these split novellas is told at the beginning of the book, and the other half (in reverse order) at the end. The middle novella, ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ and Ev’rythin’ After’ is told in its entirety, like a ‘bridge’ across the middle of the book. The first story we come across is ‘The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,’ which tells the tale of a man on a nineteenth-century ship which is sailing around the Chatham Islands. The story takes in ideas of slavery, colonialism, brutal maritime history, and – overall – the ways in which people will use one another to get what they want. It is told in the form of a diary, and its dialect, language, and historical sensibilities are pitch-perfect in their accuracy. It reads like a long-lost primary historical document, and it’s engrossing.

The second novella is a total change. ‘The Journal of Adam Ewing’ comes to a sudden, and unexpected, stop, and the reader is flung into an entirely different world. We read about a young man named Robert Frobisher, who is extremely talented but utterly feckless, making his way to Switzerland to apprentice himself to the leading composer of his day because he simply cannot bear to do anything else. He is bisexual, louche, useless with money, and a total cad, but, somehow, we love him as much as the person to whom he is writing his letters – an old lover, Rufus Sixsmith – seems to do. We imagine Sixsmith’s pain as Frobisher details his conquests and his increasingly glamorous lifestyle, but – most interestingly – we read that he has found a manuscript among the papers of Vyvyan Ayrs (the composer with whom he is working) which is called ‘The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing’ – and it is torn in half. Finding the other half becomes an obsession. Ayrs also talks about a strange vision he has had of a futuristic society involving women who all look the same, and begins to write music based on his visions.

The next section is ‘The First Luisa Rey Mystery,’ written like a potboiler detective novel. A young woman in 1970s California discovers that a local power plant is not all it purports to be, and an eminent scientist – one Rufus Sixsmith – warns her of the danger before being murdered. In her investigation, Rey uncovers the letters from Frobisher which Sixsmith has kept, and becomes interested in his music. Her story ends abruptly – and frighteningly – and we do not know her fate as we move on to the next novella.

‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish’ is written in a highly comic tone, which is interesting as the story is quite frightening, in some ways. Cavendish is a publisher, who is always running short of money and who has now fallen foul of a criminal element. His brother tells him that he has booked him into a remote, and hence completely safe, hotel in order to get him away from his enemies, but this hotel turns out to be something rather different – a place he cannot escape from, no matter what he tries to do. He had to leave very quickly to escape the brutes who were after him, and – in his hurry – he forgot that he had a newly submitted manuscript in his briefcase, which he reads as he struggles to adjust to his new life in captivity. The title of the manuscript? ‘The First Luisa Rey Mystery.’

‘The Orison of Sonmi~451’ is the next novella, and it was by far my favourite. It tells the story of a ghastly futuristic society called Neo So Copros, but which seems very familiar to anyone who has ever been inside a large fast-food restaurant. The world is a totalitarian state, and the ‘people’ who work serving food and doing other menial tasks are ‘fabricants’, or clones grown for the purpose of being slaves. Their minds are manipulated by ‘pureblood’ humans in order to keep them down. The novella is written like an interview between one of these fabricants, Sonmi~451, and an archivist, and Sonmi gradually reveals her story. Led by one of her fellow fabricants, she stops taking the medication that keeps her mind enslaved and she becomes ‘ascended’, or conscious – a dangerous crime. She mentions, just before her novella breaks, that she loves a movie from the ‘old days’, which is called ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.’

‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ and Ev’rythin’ After’ is set far, far into the future, in an unknown year. A post-apocalyptic society – or, after ‘the Fall of the Old ‘Uns’, as it is put by Zachry, the narrator of this novella – we work out that the people are living on the big island of Hawaii, and that they are largely peace-loving, but regularly come under attack from their warlike neighbours. They worship a goddess called Sonmi. One day they are visited by people who are far more technologically advanced, who wish to observe their people and their culture, and Zachry becomes suspicious. Meronym, the woman who stays behind to live with his people, has a strange holographic device from which the image of a beautiful woman emerges, telling her story – Meronym tells Zachry that this is a recording of the long-dead Sonmi, who was not a goddess after all…

This only brings us up to the novel’s halfway point, but I hope, if you haven’t already read the book, of course, that I’ve whetted your appetite for what happens next. The connections between the novellas, and the vastly different – but each of them perfectly realised – styles of writing used to bring them to life, were nothing short of stunning. ‘Cloud Atlas’ is a work of genius. It at once made me feel like a wholly inadequate writer and a very connected human being – and I loved it. If you’re anything like me, you’ll try to spot all the connections between the novellas, from names to birthmarks to things being mentioned and referenced to the mind-boggling idea that, despite the fact that this book has a huge cast of characters, perhaps some of them are simply the same people, being reborn and reborn throughout the centuries. Perhaps that’s all any of us are.

Many, many Sonmis, all in a row... From the movie of 'Cloud Atlas' Image: filmschoolrejects.com

Many, many Sonmis, all in a row… From the movie of ‘Cloud Atlas’
Image: filmschoolrejects.com

Amazing.

Happy Saturday, and happy reading.