Thursday, June 11, 2009

Interview with Kay Murphy





LH: How did you get interested in writing?
KM: In 1963, I was in the 4th grade. I was a withdrawn, insecure child with a dysfunctional family and a father who was dying. On every report card since 1st grade, I’d been criticized by my teachers for being “too shy.” Mrs. Walton, however, was a kind and maternal teacher who tried to encourage everyone in one way or another. That year, she taught us how to write dialogue correctly (in terms of punctuation), then she gave us an assignment to “write a story.” We had to include dialogue and it had to be punctuated correctly. (No ditto sheets for Mrs. W!) My story was several pages long. It was about a lonely, shy boy who uses parts in his dad’s garage to build a robot. It had humor and pathos, action and resolution, a beginning, a middle and an end. Mrs. Walton enjoyed it so much, she asked me if she could read it to the class. All these years later, I can still hear her voice—she had a Southern accent—reading it aloud. I can still feel the burn in my cheeks of embarrassment—and the thrill in my heart later when kids in my class said they liked it. I did something right for a change. I did something good for a change. I did something special and not something stupid. I had value as a person. I could create. Mrs. Walton told me that day, “You could be a writer.” I clung to her words like a life preserver in a vast turbulent sea.

I came home that day and told my mother, “I know what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be a writer.” Her response was, “Not everyone can be a writer….” So I didn’t get much support from her. Until my first book was published when I was 26. The day it came out, she bought four copies from four different bookstores. Talk about vindication and validation….

LH: What was your first success?
KM: When I was 21, I entered a writing contest sponsored by Decision, an international magazine with a circulation of six million. (Not bad for 1975.) I won third place (out of thousands of entries), and my story was published in the magazine. In addition, I was invited to attend a writers conference. My first writers conference… sigh… that’s when everything good began to break wide open in my writing. I learned how to write query letters, book proposals, and I learned all the basic marketing do’s and don’t’s.

LH: What kind of books or articles do you most enjoy writing?
KM: I enjoy writing nonfiction. I love reading fiction, but I’m too self-conscious, too self-absorbed to get outside myself enough to create interesting characters. I leave that to the professionals. I like to write pieces that involve universal human experiences, and I like to try, in my writing, to offer hope to those who navigating rough waters. (And I like ocean metaphors.)

LH: Do you have an agent? Tell us about your experiences with/without agents.
KM: Honestly, I have resented the idea of having to have an agent ever since I started writing 30 years ago. If a writer can’t represent herself—if she can’t say, ‘This is what my book is about, and here’s a sample of my writing,’ she may be in the wrong business. I sold my first book on my own—when I was 23. But when I wrote the second book—a True Crime/Memoir (because I discovered my great-grandmother had poisoned a number of people and may have been America’s first female serial killer)—I realized there were publishing houses that wouldn’t consider an “unsolicited” manuscript. So I found an agent who “loved” my manuscript—even though she admitted she’d only read the first few pages and ‘didn’t have time to read the rest’—who ‘presented’ the book proposal by simply emailing some publishers she knew with “Granny was a serial killer’ in the subject line. When she didn’t sell the manuscript in three months, she sent me an email apologizing and offering to let me out of our contract—an opportunity I promptly took her up on. (The book, Tainted Legacy, is now in print.)

LH: What are your thoughts about marketing? Do you have any great tips on how to do it well?
KM: The secret to effective marketing is knowing your audience. And let me just say, anyone who writes a book these days will need to do her own marketing. Unless your name is immediately recognized in literary circles, your book is not going to sell unless you sell it. Now let me be a heretic (my review “nickname” on Amazon is “Heretic”) and say that you should never, ever write a book with the idea in mind, “What is my target audience?” Magazine, newspaper, online writing, yes, you should. But if you have a book in your heart, just sit down at the keyboard and bring it forth; put all the ‘what ifs’ out of your head. For most writers, getting the first draft finished—all the way to the last page—is the toughest task they’ll face. Once it’s polished and published, you can begin to think about who you’d like to read it. If you write a book about business, contact local business groups, chambers of commerce, and other business organizations. Ask to be a guest speaker. If you write a novel that’s historical fiction, contact the museums and history clubs in your area and ask if you can come talk about the book. Marketing should be an ever-widening circle; create a fan base in your local area and it will eventually ripple out.

LH: If you could go back in time and start over, tell us one thing you have learned that would help you to succeed better/faster/with less struggle.
KM: At the risk of waxing philosophical here, I don’t think we can succeed with less struggle. Every success requires sacrifice. Every step forward results in some loss of energy, some part of ourselves given over to the desire to gain ground. Having said that, I will repeat what my buddy and fellow writer Douglas Clegg (The Hour Before Dark) told me years ago: A writer’s biggest challenge is overcoming self-doubt. If I’d had more support and encouragement early on, if I’d had the courage to keep sending things out despite the number of rejections, I know I would have been more prolific.

LH: Any other thoughts to share?
KM: Don’t give up. Don’t stop writing. If you read something you’ve written and it touches you, don’t ever let anyone make you feel inadequate as a writer. Write every day—even if it’s journal writing—and read every day. Send your work out constantly. When my kids were small, I wrote my first children’s story because my son said he couldn’t find anything ‘scary’ to read. He liked “Wolf Cry,” the story I wrote for him, so I sent it out to Child Life magazine. It was promptly rejected. For two years, I kept getting that story back and sending it out again—like a paper Frisbee game. Finally, when I’d exhausted all the children’s magazines, a friend suggested I send it back to Child Life. “After all,” she said, “chances are someone else is now the ‘first reader,’ and the manuscript might just get passed on.” She was right. I sent it again—and it just happened to arrive when the editors were planning a wolf-themed issue. The lesson here is that a rejection is not a statement about the quality of your writing. Write that on a Post-it note and stick it on your mirror. And chant it as a mantra: “A rejection is not a statement about the quality of my writing.”

2 comments:

katwilkens said...

Great interview!

Carolyn Burns Bass said...

So many writers I know battle with self-doubt. Writing is a solitary activity, so it's no wonder many of them are introverts. I can just see fourth-grade Kay, shrinking on the outside, but grinning on the inside, as her teacher read that first story. This was my favorite section of the interview:

S. Kay Murphy said: "All these years later, I can still hear her voice—she had a Southern accent—reading it aloud. I can still feel the burn in my cheeks of embarrassment—and the thrill in my heart later when kids in my class said they liked it. I did something right for a change. I did something good for a change. I did something special and not something stupid. I had value as a person. I could create. Mrs. Walton told me that day, “You could be a writer.” I clung to her words like a life preserver in a vast turbulent sea."