Elizabeth Rose Murray lives in West Cork where she writes, fishes, and grows her own vegetables. Her debut novel for children aged 8–12, The Book of Learning – Nine Lives Trilogy 1 was chosen as the 2016 Dublin UNESCO City of Literature Citywide Read for Children. Caramel Hearts publishes in May 2016 is her first book for young adults.
At what age did you realise writing was going to mean something in your life?
Books have always been my sanctuary, so writing in the form of the written word has meant something to me for as long as I can remember. However, in terms of me being a writer, I was slow on the uptake. I always wrote as a child; I would lie in bed and make stories up, recapping the next day before continuing on. These stories could go on for weeks, so I guess I was already starting to write books, but I didn’t actually realise it at the time. In fact, as soon as I left school, I forgot all about writing; I continued to read voraciously but I concentrated on my degree and then my career. It wasn’t until I set up a blog in my late 20s that I started writing again; terrible poetry and awful short stories that eventually improved and got published in journals. When I tried the NaNoWriMo challenge on my 30th birthday, writing 50,000 words in 30 days, things began to fall into place. I was living in Spain at the time and was headhunted for a job in Dublin. The move in 2008 brought an unexpected change; writing began to take on a more important role. I attended several workshops and befriended lots of aspiring writers, and by 2010, I had saved enough money to quit my job and turn freelance. I could be master of my own working hours and concentrate on writing books. I guess it was then that I believed I could actually be a writer.
What is your writing routine? Do you write every day?
I write or edit every day, but I hate routine so I do mix things up a bit also. I take weeks at retreats where I work intensely on my manuscripts, then I’ll take a week where I just work on freelance work and book promotion/blogs and give the manuscript a rest so I can come back refreshed – but usually I’ll tamper with a poem or short story as a distraction. It has been a manic twelve months, with constant deadlines from two different publishers as well as my freelance clients; and that’s before the book promotion and events. I signed two books deals at the same time, so in 2015 I was working on three books simultaneously as well as freelancing, so my routine was driven by deadlines. I did the structural edits/copy edits for both The Book of Learning (Mercier Press) and Caramel Hearts (Alma Books, out May 19), and I wrote The Book of Shadows from scratch, then went through the editing process. In truth, I’m not really sure how I work as I like change so much and the deadlines have been coming thick and fast, so I’m constantly adapting; the only thing I know is that I’m at my best in the morning and so I always give this space to the most creative and demanding project I’m working on.
You say you are a morning person and like to write early in the morning. Can you write at night too?
I can always adapt to write but it’s not easy to write at night. However, I find afternoons the worst time, so I tend to work on my most creative projects early (around 6am) when I’m at my freshest, and then do some editing. When it gets to around 2pm I’ll switch to admin and freelance work until around 7pm. If I need to write at night, I’ll take a break and sit down again around 9pm, but I try to only do this when the pressure is really on and I balance it with lots of dog walks and gym sessions. To be honest, I think if you love writing, you’ll always find time, even if it’s not easy and goes against your natural body clock.
Tell us about the journey to getting The Book of Learning published. You say it took five years?
From concept to having a physical book, it took five years, though I’d say it took around two years to write. I sent the sixth draft of The Book of Learning to Vanessa O’Loughlin, and she introduced me to Sallyanne Sweeney, my agent. Thankfully, Sallyanne loved the book; I signed right away and we spent a year working together to polish it. Although the manuscript got a lot of interest and came close with a major publishing house, we didn’t get a deal. I decided to shelve The Book of Learning and write something else – Caramel Hearts. When it went on submission, I reread my Nine Lives manuscript. I still loved it and so it went back on submission – this is two years later, and this time it got picked up! It then took a year for it to become a physical book.
You signed a book deal for two of your books with two different publishers at the same time. Is this unusual and how did this come about?
I haven’t met anyone else that this happened to but I’m sure I will. It was simply a matter of sticking with the writing, believing in myself, and keeping going. The first book I’d written was a middle grade fantasy, the first in a trilogy, and I knew I’d taken it as far as I could without a publisher so it was time to write something else. There was no point continuing on with the trilogy if I couldn’t sell the first book; I’d gotten so close to those characters, I wanted to escape and write something different, The idea for Caramel Hearts struck me – a different age group and genre – the story of a girl with an alcoholic mum, with real cakes recipes structuring the book. I concentrated on this manuscript until it was ready for submission. But when you send something on submission, it feels weird. Empty. That’s why I reread The Book of Learning and, still loving it, decided to get it back out to publishers. Unexpectedly, both books were signed and by different publishers, so I went from no deal for five years to four books under contract in the space of a few months.
Did you always know you would get published?
Once I decided to concentrate on writing books, once I realised this was what I really wanted to do and it mattered to me, I knew that I would keep going until I got published. I changed my entire lifestyle for writing and I believed I could get there – it was just a matter of time. Rejection is tough, but it is part of the process. And if you give up, you have zero chance of succeeding. I was prepared to keep going for as long as needed.
Why children’s and young adult fiction?
I’ve always loved children’s literature so it’s no surprise that I started to write my own, but to be honest they were just the age groups needed for the stories I wanted to tell. Some people choose the genre first; I’m led by my characters and story.
Part of the marketing of young adult books is to attend a lot of promotional events, readings and school visits. How does this interfere with daily writing?
I see the events as an integral part of the job, and they’re an absolute joy. There’s nothing better than meeting your readers and getting feedback; being on the other side of the table is just as inspiring as being in the audience. I always come away on a real high; it’s great to share a love of books and events balance out those long, lonely hours working in solitude. You also get to meet your writing friends, and this is invaluable. Of course, there can be lots of travel involved but I always bring my laptop so I can work on the train, and I also work in the mornings before the events start. For example, this year, The Book of Learning was chosen as the 2016 Dublin UNESCO City of Literature Citywide Read for Children and that meant intense weeks of library events from January to March, with two events in a day. I still had book deadlines, so I worked on those at 6am, and worked on my freelance in the evenings. You can always find a way.
You work as a social media content manager too. How important is social media for the modern writer? Can some writers get away with not using it at all?
I see social media as a useful tool for writers; you get to talk to other writers, make contacts in the publishing world, keep on top of publishing news, and reach a potential audience – and, other than the time spent, it’s free. Publishers will look at how you promote yourself online, so that’s another factor to consider, but you have to remember that being on social media and building your online profile is not writing. You have to make sure that your writing is your priority, with any promotional activity secondary. A publisher may love your online presence, but if they want to see a manuscript, you need to have one ready. And it needs to be the very best it can be as you only get one chance. So it’s all about balance, with social media playing the smaller role. Some writers don’t like social media, but I enjoy it and it seems crazy not to use such a worthwhile and accessible tool. You just have to be sensible about your approach.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Thankfully, no. In fact, I have the opposite problem. Ideas are constantly attacking me so I have to compartmentalize them in notebooks and ideas boards. They’re not all good ideas but I have more good ideas than I have time to make them good enough to read.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I have Caramel Hearts hitting the shelves on May 19th so there are blog tours and promotional events to organise. As for the next book in the Nine Lives Trilogy, The Book of Shadows, I’ve just completed the edits and the proofs are on their way; this will be published in September 2016 so that’s two book launches this year. And so, it’s onto the final piece of the puzzle, The Book of Revenge, Nine Lives Book 3! This will be out September 2017, but it has to be delivered to the publishers by October this year. As I complete this interview, I am at Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Monaghan, working on the initial draft. I can’t believe I’m actually starting my fourth book!
What do you like to read?
All sorts – that’s the toughest question yet! I love fiction that’s dark and complex, yet beautiful. I don’t need happy endings but I do need characters I don’t want to leave. I love historical and exotic settings and anything bizarre; I like to think, to learn something new, but above all, to be moved. My favourite authors of all time are Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Charles Dickens, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Cormac McCarthy, Pat McCabe, Neil Gaiman, and Emily Bronte; Wuthering Heights is the book that I’ve read the most in my lifetime.
Some favourite standout books include The Shipping News by Annie Proux, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, The Horrific Sufferings of the Mind Reading Monster Hercules Barefoot by Carl-Johan Vallgren, and Ark Baby by Liz Jensen. I read books for all ages, so when it comes to children’s and young adult literature, I’d have to tip my hat to Philip Pullman, Lemony Snickett, JK Rowling, Jacqueline Wilson, Roald Dahl, Shaun Tan, Jon Walter, and Abi Elphinstone. The there’s Malorie Blackman, Ransom Riggs, Patrick Ness, Kim Hood, Louise O’Neill, Melvin Burgess, and Meg Rosoff – but there are so many I could mention.
Classics like The Secret Garden, The Railway Children, Kestrel for a Knave, Animal Farm and 1984 definitely deserve a shout out. In the winter, I read a short story and a poem every day; I find it a comfort in the long, dark nights and it’s amazing how much you can cover over four months. I read non-fiction really slowly so I don’t read much of it, but I love anything to do with travel, exploration and nature. Actually, the list is endless, and there’s always more to discover. Send me your recommendations!
Where do you write?
I have a small office at home, but I often go to retreats or take trips abroad for a change of scenery – I like change! Also trains. I love writing on trains.
The Book of Learning is published by Mercier Press and is available in all good bookshops or through Amazon. Caramel Hearts publishes in May 2016 by Alma Books and will be available in bookshops or for download through Amazon.
LadyNicci comment: I’m so inspired any time I talk to or chat with Elizabeth. She is a ray of positivity for all aspiring writers with her mantra of work hard, believe and write. Her work ethic is impressive; her days are filled with writing, editing, meeting deadlines, as well as her freelance work and promotional activities. She outlines the life of a writer in a realistic way – you need to really want this to put in the hours, rise early enough and get the work done. Her reading list is one of the longest we’ve seen in How I Write – it shows the breadth of literature that can inspire and teach. You should follow ER on Twitter – she is one of the most supportive and kindest voices I’ve found in the Irish writing community. I’m looking forward to my own daughter growing up and piling Elizabeth’s books by her bed.
How I write is a blog post series published on Sundays on www.ladynicci.com. The posts aim to give a voice to writers, published, unpublished and everywhere in between, to help and encourage other writers. If you would like to take part email firstname.lastname@example.org with How I Write in the subject line.