"Looking back, what stands out for me the most was my desire and passion to write. . . . I simply loved stories and read as many as I could find."--Rita Murphy
Rita Murphy is the winner of the 1999 Delacorte Press Prize for a First Young Adult Novel and has been named Flying Start author by Publishers Weekly.
A CONVERSATION WITH RITA MURPHY ON HER NOVEL HARMONY
Q. Many of your readers are budding writers. The story of your writing career will inspire them. Tell us about it.
A. I first began writing when my son was a year old. I took a creative writing class at the University of Vermont. In that class, I learned to write the first thing that came to me, without thinking about it. It was amazing to me what memories and stories emerged when I wasn’t trying or thinking or worrying. After that class, I wrote every day for three years, even if it was just for ten minutes. Eventually those writing practices turned into poems and then short stories.
During those three years of writing practice, my family and I traveled quite a lot and I carried my notebook with me wherever we went. One of those travels took us to Monteverde–a remote community in the mountains of Costa Rica where my husband and I taught at a small school. I taught writing and reading and it was there, working with a class of fourth-grade girls, that I began to have the first inklings that I wanted to write a novel.
By the time we returned to Vermont, my desire to write a book had grown very strong. We moved to a little house in the country and one morning when I was sitting at my kitchen table writing, a line came out on the page. “The Hanson women have always flown at night, even in bad weather.” I had a feeling about that line and I wanted to know more. So I kept writing. I wrote until I had two pages of what I thought was the beginning of a short story. I brought it to a writers’ group that I was in and I read it out loud. One of the women in the group wrote books for children and she told me that I should turn those two pages into a young adult novel and send it to this contest that Random House puts on every year. It was mid-September and the deadline was December 31. I wrote quickly and the story emerged–just in time to make the deadline. That book was Night Flying, my first book, and it won the Delacorte Press Prize for a First Young Adult Novel. That began my official career as a writer.
Looking back, what stands out for me the most was my desire and passion to write. Beyond that one class in writing, I had no formal training in writing. I simply loved stories and read as many as I could find. I also was greatly helped by two books: Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life, by Natalie Goldberg, and The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, by Julia Cameron.
Q. How do you usually begin the writing process? Where did you get your ideas for Harmony?
A. The writing process begins for me long before I actually sit down and write. I don’t work out story lines or anything like that. The ideas come to me as a feeling–sometimes in a dream–and I sit with that feeling for a while–a day, a week, a month. Some stories have been inside me for a long time. I have a feeling of a place or a time or maybe a character. Perhaps I hear the first line of the story while I’m out running in the evening or making dinner. I feel it in my body, just above my belly and below my heart. It’s a feeling of great excitement and connection. Then there comes a day when I know I’ve held that feeling to myself long enough and it’s time for me to share it. I have to know when it’s ripe and time to be picked and brought into form. That’s the day I sit down and pick up my pen or turn on my computer and let the story come through me.
The story of Harmony came in this way: the feeling of the mountains, the trees, an older woman healer, and an eccentric scientist. I had been feeling very sad about the state of old-growth trees in the world–how easily they are cut down for paper and lumber–and I think some of the feelings I had coming into this book were feelings of grief over the loss of the trees and also a wish that I could do something–anything–to stop their being cut.
Q. You live in Vermont, yet you set the story in the mountains of Tennessee. Why?
A. I loved writing Night Flying because it was set in Vermont and I love Vermont. I’m not a native Vermonter, but I’ve lived here for twelve years and I know what the air smells like here when fall is changing to winter and I know about geese and the way people talk and chicken pie suppers and dirt roads. It is wonderful to write about what I know. But I also like to write about places I don’t know very well, because in the telling of the story, I can immerse myself in this unknown landscape and be in awe of it . . . and learn things I didn’t know.
Harmony takes place in Tennessee because that’s where the story takes place. I sometimes feel that I have very little to do with the setting of the story or the characters that emerge. I have been to the mountains in that area and I loved the feeling there. When the story came to me, I just knew that was where Nettie Mae and Harmony and Felix were to live.
Q. Harmony's sudden arrival in Felix and Nettie Mae's barn reminds us of Superman's appearance at the Kents' farm. Given Harmony's unusual gift, did you want your readers to make this connection?
A. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know very much about Superman and I didn’t realize that that was how he arrived. With regard to Harmony’s arrival, I just saw that old chicken coop in my mind and this baby lying beside it. I don’t know how Harmony arrived there. If she was really a star child, or a foundling left in that coop for Nettie Mae to find when she went to collect her eggs in the morning–it’s still a mystery to me.
Q. Harmony's encounter with the fortune-teller is an important moment in the novel. You leave this open to interpretation. What do you really think of
fortune-telling? In the same vein, what are your views on psychic powers such as telekinesis and ESP?
A. I grew up with a very Irish, very imaginative and very spiritual, storytelling grandfather. We called him Pa. Pa believed anything was possible. He truly did. He believed in ghosts and leprechauns and wee folk and faeries and banshees and pots of gold at the end of the rainbow and miracles. I do too.
I have had a few personal encounters with precognitive thoughts and dreams and one encounter with a spirit of sorts. I also know several gifted women who were born with or have developed their psychic abilities. But even if I hadn’t had these experiences or known these women, I’d still believe. I actually feel very fortunate to not need a lot of scientific data or other people’s opinions before I can let myself believe in something that feels very natural to me. I believe there is more than one way of knowing.
I think that doubt and a certain cynical view of the world have become commonplace and even expected these days, and that make me sad. I sometimes even think that people are afraid to believe in anything unless there are studies to prove it is true. Why is this? I wonder. Some of the greatest discoveries, insights, and theories came from a feeling, an intuition, a dream. I like to think that deep in their hearts most people believe in something without needing proof.
Q. While many might view Harmony and Felix's effort to foil the lumber company as noble, others might see it as illegal and unethical. Was that an issue for you? What do you hope young readers will learn from this story line?
A. Like a fable or fairy tale, a character endowed with special gifts is able to rise above the fear or paralysis that we might often feel in our lives in regard to bigger forces in the world and is able to right injustice. Whether Harmony’s act is ethical or not, I cannot say for the reader. I do not recommend that anyone destroy property or put lives at risk or break laws. I firmly believe in the resolution of conflict in a peaceful manner–under all circumstances. Harmony is a work of fiction. Harmony is a character with special gifts, and she uses them to help her family and the land.
That said, I do think that sometimes in life there comes a time to protect what we know to be good and beautiful–to protect the earth and our spiritual connection to it from those who cannot see clearly the harm they are doing. I do believe that the individual person, acting out of a deep knowing and love, must weigh the preservation of human, animal, and plant life against the laws and machines of the corporation and make the most peaceful and creative choice they can.
Q. You have woven a story that involves astronomy, parapsychology, and Cherokee culture and myths. What kind of research did you do?
A. I looked up any fact that needed verification in books on astronomy and psychic ability. I also contacted the Cherokee Heritage Center in Oklahoma, spoke with a man there of Cherokee descent, and used their online Cherokee dictionary.
Q. Have you thought about Harmony's future and the ways she uses her gift?
A. I think that for anyone with a very powerful gift, it takes time to know how to live with it and best use it. Harmony is young, and I think for a while she would need help in managing her energy and abilities. At the end of the book, she was going off to meet with the woman in Austria. I could see her studying with this woman and growing in confidence.
Whether she and Felix return to the mountain, I can’t say. Once the story ends, I think the characters continue to do as they please, as they’ve done all along. I think, though, that Harmony and Felix know what is important and how to be happy and have a desire to help in some way. I think they’ll be just fine.