The Alliance for the Study and Teaching of Adolescent Literature at Rhode Island College




- Claire Murphy -

Claire Murphy was raised in Spokane, WA and currently resides in Alaska. She previously taught in Alaska and derives many of her ideas from that teaching experience. She also gets ideas from her children and their friends.

These are new thoughts and old ones I pasted up from other letters. Hope it helps. Feel free to get back to me if you need more help. Best to you all.

1. How do you come up with ideas for your books and do you write about personal experiences?

I choose topics/characters/plot ideas that are close to my heart or intrigue me because it takes a long time to produce a published book. My ideas come from everywhere - my childhood in Spokane; my years teaching and living in Alaska; my children and their friends, my interest in history, and current news items. All three of my novels examine the relationships of children and their parents. I do think it is important for parents and children to do special things together.

In my recently re-released novel To the Summit a 17 year old girl climbs Denali (Mt. McKinley) with her father. Sarah Janson's character is loosely based Sarah on a teenager who lived with us for a year. Her parents taught in rural Alaska and she wanted to live in a bigger city and a larger school with more activities and classes. My husband had been her teacher in middle school. Like Sarah she didn't fit into village life either. But she was a cross-country skier instead of a runner. Her parents weren't divorced. Usually my characters start with the germ of a a real person I know, but then they evolve into a completely new person.

I wrote the following to an earlier student who wrote about To the Summit:
I realize you aren't researching that book but thought it would give you a feel for how I write....
"I'm glad you felt the story was realistic. I did a great deal of research to make it so. No, I have never even been mountain climbing. Actually heights and enclosed places make me uncomfortable so I'm quite sure I won't climb Denali. But I feel like writing this book that I did climb it spiritually. Does that make sense? I got to experience what it would be like since I really had to understand it to be able to write the book."

Yes, Sarah was a very interesting character - not perfect, but determined and searching to find out how she wanted to live her life. I partly based Sarah on a teenager who lived with us for a year. Her parents lived in rural Alaska and she wanted to live in a bigger city and go to school. My husband had been her teacher. She didn't fit into village life either, just like Sarah. But she was a cross-country skier instead of a runner. Her parents weren't divorced. What I find with my characters is that the idea comes from a real person that I know but then they evolve into being their own person. I don't want to copy a real person exactly, but I want to know how those people might act and think. Knowing someone like my character helps.

2. Who and what do you read and who/what influences you as a author?

I read widely in fiction and nonfiction - children;'s picture books, adult, young adult and middle grade novels. I often look for strong books that model well what I am currently working on whether that is a nonfiction picture book or historical novel. I study how authors use point of view and where they choose to end and begin their stories, how they handle description...who do I admire - so many Anne of Green Gables, Katherine Paterson, some many others. I am going blank now....

FYI:(three answers for a reader that wrote me earlier)
a. No, I have not written a sequel to Gold Star Sister. But I still think about Carrie a great deal. She would be in high school right now.
b. It is hard for me to list a favorite author because I love to read and enjoy so many authors and books. But I do dearly love the Anne of Green Gables books. I could read them over and over. She is such a spunky character.
c. Asking an author what their favorite book is, is like asking a parent who their favorite child is. Every one is special in her own way. Gold Star Sister is special because I am a lot like Carrie - very curious, too curious sometimes. I also love to study the history of World War II. I had two special friends who died of cancer and I dedicated the book to them.

3. How long does it take you to write a book and how do you structure your books?

I hate to have to say this but it takes me around 2-3 years to really produce a book that is publishable. I'm the type of author who has to write many, many, many drafts until I get it right. Usually I am working on several book projects at once, though just one novel. However, I have several novels outline and the research done on two others as I write this. i have to hold myself at bay to focus on the novel at hand or I would never finish it. I get an idea from something I read, my children do or some event in the news. I write a few journal entries of my brainstormed thoughts. Then I start a manila folder of jotted down ideas and other articles, etc. I come across. That gets put away and added to for months, sometimes years before I actually start my book. I do brief character sketches and a very brief outline, which grows and evolves and I add chapter numbers which change. I have always known my ending though the way that ending is revealed and presented has changed. Some authors do not work that way. They only know the main character or plot idea before they begin. I have lived with my story idea for a long time so lots of characters and events have been brewing in my mind and journal.

4. How and when did your first book get published?

1991 by Lodestar Books. That was my luckiest circumstance as an author and my break-in opportunity. For many years I had decided I wanted to write a ya novel but then I got off doing freelance magazine articles. One of them was about the Nome, Alaska Cub Scouts who wanted to visit the Young Pioneers in Provideniya, in the Russian Far East. This was before the Soviet Union collapsed. In summer 1989 they finally got permission to go and invited me to come along because my article on them had helped convince the governor. I jumped at the chance and decided here was my first book. I networked and got advice from nonfiction authors around Alaska about what to do. They gave me some editors' names and one of them took it - this was before publishers began cutting back inthe mid-80's. I decided it should be a photo/essay book and convinced the best photographer in Alaska to come along. We published the book Friendship Across Arctic Waters: Alaskan Cub Scouts Visit Their Soviet Neighbors and since another , A Child's Alaska which continues to sell well. Friendship is now out of print, mostly I think because the Soviet government collapsed two months after our book came outůso the book had good and bad karma but it got me in the door and I am very grateful.

5. Why did you become a young adult literature author?

I have always loved novels and teenagers. I remember that time of my life so vividly. There are so are many events and conflicts which relate to that time and yet no matter how depressing, there is hope. I taught high school and middle school for ten years and before that always worked with kids teaching swimming and lifeguarding, so teens and reading have always been a part of my life. Now I visit schools and am raising our two teens, so they remain close to my heart.

6. In Gold Star Sister, where did you get the ideas for the characters Gram and Carrie? Carrie is based a lot on me or what I was like growing up.

I've always been very curious, overly so.I also have always loved history. But unlike Carrie did well in school. I am not the middle child of three sisters, the fourth of six children and never felt caught between the cracks. But I know how that could happen. Fatty Maddie is based on a childhood neighbor"Fatty" Cathy Randall. She had problems and used to bite me and said bad things about my dying grandmother. But she was a risktaker and a good friend at times. Writing this book helped me appreciate her more. I used to swim competitively so Molly's swimming came from that. You can see that an author uses a variety of experiences and knowledge to form a character and a story. I did spill out my older sister's contact lenses and that's where that story came from.
The idea for Gram came from my mother-in-law Ann Loftus Murphy of San Francisco who lost a brother Billy in world war II in France. But I wanted to have something Alaskan in the story so switched his location and did lots of research about the War in the Aleutians which is very little known about. They had a relationship much like Billy and Ann in the story. Ann is a very good grandmother, just as Gram is. Would she have kept a secret? Perhaps. She keeps some secrets now. But she has never had cancer. I watched two dear friends Marilyn Bowder and Irene Wickwire die of cancer 13 years ago and that is where most of my description and all comes from those two women taught me so much about the dignity of pain and dying. I dedicate the book to all three women.

7. Did you have a specific purpose or agenda for using the breast cancer issue in Gold Star Sister?

I explained above why I used cancer. Doing research I found out that many cancers in women start off as breast cancer. I interviewed a few friends who had had it and then talked to a oncologist and his nurse for more details and how the disease could progress.

8. Was Gold Star Sister written because of a personal experience or connection you have with World War II?

My parents (met and married) and mother-in-law (as I said) were very involved in WW II and it has always fascinated me. I have come through the book to experience the sorrow and not just the excitement of victory drives, USO's and food rations, etc. Fascinating to compare WW II with my experiences of Vietnam as a teen and college student. Such different wars at home and abroad.

9. In Gold Star Sister, did Carrie feel she could save Gram's soul or her life if she delivered the letter?

I don't think that Carrie could really believe that finding the letter would make Gram better but she felt so helpless. It was something that kept Carrie going, something that connected her to Gram in a positive way. Yet again maybe as a kid you really do think that events like that can turn things around - it has happened and people have miracuously recovered from cancer sometimes...Gram had deep faith and Carrie came to see that. I personally believe that faith can get you through impossible circumstances. What else do we have?

Page compiled in part by: Aaron Segedi and Robin E. Diaz

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