SELECTIONS FROM RITA MURPHY’S LIBRARY
Bird, Delacorte, 2009.
Looking for Lucy Buick, Delacorte, 2005.
Harmony, Delacorte, 2002.
Black Angels, Delacorte, 2001.
Night Flying, Delacorte, 2000.
Rita Murphy was eleven years old and on the cusp of puberty when she climbed an apple tree in an orchard in upstate New York. “It was early October,” she says, recalling a family apple-picking outing. “We were there a long time and it was cooling off. The sun was setting. I had this amazing feeling of everything being connected…The apple tree. Everybody. Everything. It was sort of a gift at that time before things began to change physically.”
Themes of connectedness pervade Murphy’s middle-grade and young adult novels; her characters mirror many of her feelings as a child. “I had this sense as a kid that there was so much more than what could be seen,” says the soft-spoken author. “Things that seemed miraculous were really sort of natural in a way, but I couldn’t really articulate that as a kid. I think sometimes when I’m writing, that sort of optimism comes out.”
Murphy began writing when her son (who is now 16) was a year old. Prior to publishing her first novel, Night Flying, Murphy wrote short stories, one of which was published in her hometown newspaper in central Vermont. She also submitted ideas for picture books that she said were “rejected nicely.” Her big break came at a time when she and her family lived in the Vermont woods outside of Montpelier. One of the women in her writing group wrote children’s books and suggested that Murphy turn her latest short story into a young adult novel and apply to the Delacorte Press Contest for a First Young Adult Novel. “I had no idea what [a young adult novel] was,” Murphy says, but she accepted the challenge. “I just made the 100 page cut-off and the December 31 deadline.” Weeks before Night Flyingwas announced as the winner of the contest, Murphy received a letter from the editors at Delacorte saying they were interested in publishing her novel even if it did not win. “I walked around for hours in shock,” she says.
Looking for Lucy Buick is the most autobiographical of Murphy’s novels. “Like Lucy, I grew up with great-aunts,” she says, but Murphy’s aunts were protective Irish Catholics instead of protective Italians. “I had this sense of having to find my liberation and the freedom from limiting beliefs about what I could be or who I was.” Like Lucy, Murphy felt she had to distance herself from her family to take her own journey. In a way, the book mimics Murphy’s journey to find her true spirit. Prior to publication, three different Delacorte editors, each with her own vision, edited Looking for Lucy Buick. After copious revisions, Murphy lost sight of the book’s focus. “It used to be called Leaving Sandonis,” she says, “but changed more to where [Lucy] was going rather than where she came from.”
Murphy’s books often begin as feelings. “I was having a Halloween book party for Bird and I woke up that morning with this really strong feeling of this place and these characters in upstate New York where I lived,” she says of the book she is currently writing. “I wrote for like five hours. I was supposed to be cleaning the house for this book party and I just had to write it out.”
Seeds for Bird took root when she had a feeling about a home in the country. By a happy coincidence around the same time, Murphy visited her parents in upstate New York for Thanksgiving. She drove by the dilapidated house off the New York State Thruway that she and her brother used to think was haunted when they were kids. On that bleak November day when Murphy saw the house again, she could not believe it was still standing. As her feeling about a home in the country gradually developed, Murphy began to see the house standing on one of the Champlain Islands in Lake Champlain and the first line of her story came to her: “Wysteria did not care where I had come from or where I had been. Nor did she care that I was small and delicate in nature and easily carried off by the wind.” Through that first line, Murphy uncovered the voice of her main character, Miranda, and learned that she was small enough to be borne by the wind.
Murphy is aware that her characters arrive on the scene in her books in unusual ways. Miranda flew in on the wind, Lucy Buick was abandoned in the back seat of a 1969 Buick Skylark convertible, and Georgia Hansen from Night Flying can fly. The idea of women flying came from Murphy’s friend who says she flies in her dreams. During a writing exercise, the first line of the story came to Murphy: “The Hansen women have always flown at night, even in bad weather.” Flying is a recurring theme in Murphy’s books. “It’s a metaphor of my own spirit trying to become freer and express itself,” she says.
Silence is a big part of writing for Murphy. “I listen a lot when I’m writing and wait. I spend a certain part of each day in silence to quiet my mind.” These moments of silence allow Murphy’s “well to fill up,” as she phrases it. In silence, her story ideas gain momentum and begin to flow. Conversely, when inspiration strikes, Murphy likes to have people and commotion around her. “I write at the kitchen table,” she says.
Murphy’s inspiration often strikes at inconvenient times, such as before the book party forBird or during dinner preparations. “Sometimes I tell everyone else they have to make dinner,” she says, laughing, or sometimes she stops writing so she has an exciting place to return. “I try to keep [writing] fun,” she says. “If I get too disappointed with myself, it’s not as much fun.”
Murphy does not yet know what the future holds. “I want to write a really fun book likeRamona [by Beverly Clearly]. Books that I loved to read as a kid. Maybe that’s where I’m headed,” she says.