Working with Words: Kirsty Murray
Melbourne author Kirsty Murray writes fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. She has published over a dozen books. Her latest is The Year It All Ended, a work of historical fiction based at the juncture of World War I and the birth of the Jazz Age.
We spoke to her about working with difficult material, the unique pleasures of writing for younger readers – and checking in with Balzac from time to time.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
I was a nerdy, bookish kid who read the dictionary for pleasure and constantly thrust my writing beneath the nose of anyone who would give me the time of day. I gravitated toward every publishing avenue I could find from the school magazine in primary school to co-editing my high school year book just so that I could see my bad poetry in print.
But by the time I was in my twenties I’d lost confidence in my trajectory as a writer. I had three kids by the time I was twenty-six and though I scribbled story ideas in secret, I was overwhelmed by adult life had no idea of how to break into publishing. Occasionally I submitted badly formed short stories to magazines which were duly rejected.
Then, when I was starting to feel pretty desperate about ever being seriously published, I enrolled in RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing course and from there I stumbled into editing work fairly quickly. I began to freelance and had articles published in newspapers and magazines but none of that felt particularly satisfying and I couldn’t say I felt ‘published’.
In 1997, I signed my first publishing contract for a junior non-fiction title with Allen & Unwin in their True Stories series. Although the book, Man-eaters & Bloodsuckers, wasn’t exactly what I’d envisioned as being my big break into publishing, I learned a lot from the project and it provided a springboard into seriously writing for younger readers.
A year later, Rosalind Price, the commissioning publisher of Allen & Unwin’s children’s and young adult list, goaded me into submitting the synopsis for a novel (Zarconi’s Magic Flying Fish). On the strength of the outline and the first chapter, she gave me a contract and an advance. I can still remember the euphoria I felt when I stepped out of Allen & Unwin’s office in Rathdowne Street, Carlton. I almost levitated into the blue winter sky.
What’s the best part of your job?
Simply writing. Being inside the story and on the page with my characters is like an out-of-body experience where nothing else exists but the words. I love that feeling.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Sitting for long stretches at a time. It wreaks a terrible toll on the body. I try to vary my work environment and have experimented with standing at a raised desk and working on a couch propped up with pillows but essentially being still for long stretches at a time is extremely unnatural and bad for your health.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing and editing career so far?
I think I’d find a different answer to that question on any given day of the week. In 2007 I spent several months in India as an Asialink Literature Resident at the University of Madras. It was the beginning of an enduring connection with India which has influenced my understanding of Australian literature and our place in Asia.
Writing The Year it All Ended also felt deeply important. It was an incredibly grueling book to write because it involved filtering a lot of grief and trying to make sense of the lives of a generation of young women who lived through very traumatic times. I feel like I broke through to a new level of understanding of how to work with painful material and yet make it (hopefully) cathartic and uplifting for the reader.
I don’t know any authors of fiction for adults that receive fan mail that’s quite as emotional as the kind of responses that authors of fiction for children and teenagers receive.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing or editing?
In the early 1990s I did a masterclass with a Booker Prize winning author, Bernice Rubens, at the Hay-on-Wye festival in Wales. Rubens offered much sound advice but the single piece of wisdom that she imparted that has been most important to me was that every writer should consider reading as much a part of their job as writing. She recommended putting aside a couple of hours of every day to read. Serious writers take reading seriously.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?
I am often surprised and also very humbled by the impact my stories have on younger readers. Recently I received an email from a girl who had lost her father and she wrote about how she wept when she read The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie. She wanted me to know me how important the novel was to her.
Other kids have written to tell me they’re in love with a character I created, that they love my characters like their own brothers and sisters, or that they’d never finished reading a novel until they came across one of mine. It doesn’t get much better than being told you are a kid’s ‘author hero’. I don’t know any authors of fiction for adults that receive fan mail that’s quite as emotional as the kind of responses that authors of fiction for children and teenagers receive.
It’s a great time to be a reader.
If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Starving. I’m neither qualified nor capable of doing much else.
There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?
Every art form can be taught. Writing is no different to any other human endeavour. In many respects, it’s among the easiest arts to teach. Humans are hard-wired to appreciate stories. There are no physical restrictions (unlike most of the performing arts) other than the ability to sit for extended periods.
But you can’t teach temperament and success in any artistic pursuit requires a degree of pig-headedness that not everyone possesses. You have to like your own company and have the stamina to persist when the work becomes arduous. Writing can be lonely and isolating, despite the fact it’s a form of communication. In every sphere of the arts, there are people who have a natural facility that speeds their progress. But having a natural gift doesn’t guarantee success if you aren’t committed to serving the very long apprenticeship that is required of all writers and artists.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer or editor?
Read. Read widely and deeply. Buy books, borrow books and share books. Try to understand what it is that makes a story appeal to you. Unpick the occasional story but make sure you don’t kill the pleasure that books yield. Be self-critical of your reading and keep a reading journal.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
One of my deepest pleasures is browsing in physical bookshops. Reading is not just an intellectual activity but a tactile delight. Browsing online can never replace the excitement of feeling the weight of a book in your hands, inhaling its scent and cherry picking juicy passages of prose. I also value the advice that accomplished independent booksellers can provide.
That said, I buy books online occasionally, though I try and source them locally first. I have a policy of buying all my Australian books from local booksellers and I believe it’s important to support Australian booksellers, writers and publishers. It’s a great time to be a reader.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?
Is it self-absorbed to name a character I invented? Tiney Flynn from my latest book, The Year it All Ended, is seventeen years old in the novel but I’d like to meet her again when she’s a more mature woman. She was born in 1901 so by the time she reached her fifties she would have lived through two world wars that shaped the 20th Century.
Tiney is loosely based on one of my great-aunts and my grandmothers. I wish I’d asked more questions of the women of that generation. It’s only now, after living half a century myself, that I have an understanding of what I’d like to ask them. I imagine Tiney’s political and life perspective would be epic by the time she reached middle-age.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
There isn’t a single book, but there are many writers. I don’t discriminate against genres nor whether the writing is pitched to a child or an adult. When I like a book, I tend to read as much of the author’s work as I can lay my hands on.
I’ve always been fascinated by writers who produce a large body of work such as Balzac. I adored all his novels when I was a teenager, though I didn’t fully understood them at the time. These days I make a point of re-reading Cousin Bette and Old Father Goriot every ten years to check my latest benchmark of emotional development.