An interview with Sally Murphy.
Sally Murphy is an Australian author of children’s books who lives in Western Australia. As well as being a writer, poet, mother and Sal of all Trades she writes and maintains an excellent Australian Children’s Books Reviews website.
How long have you been writing for children?
All my life, really. I wrote kids stories when I was a child myself – and then as I grew, found I still preferred to write for a younger audience. I have been trying to get published since I left school, although I have had other jobs as well, and been getting published for about 12 years.
What’s genre/s do you like to work in? What’s your favourite? Why?
Let’s see – I write picture books, reading books, children’s nonfiction, chapter books, educational activity books, poetry and verse novels. Oh, and don’t forget the mid-grade manuscripts I have written (unpublished) and an idea for a YA novel, as well as some planned adult nonfiction. So I guess the answer is I work in many genres. My favourites, however, are fiction and poetry for children. At present, I am working mostly in the verse novel format, and finding it really exciting.
You’re the creator of an excellent children’s books review website – tell us about when and why you started it, and some of the highlights you’ve experienced.
Aussiereviews reviews children’s and adult books across all genres, although certainly children’s and YA books are given priority over adult books, because that reflects my own reading preference. I started it back in 2001 when I was looking for a way to build up my writing credits. At the time there wasn’t a site which reviewed Australian books and I decided I’d have a go at creating one. I set it up through a company called Webseed, which provided a free website in return for paid advertising placed on the site. Later, Webseeed closed down and I bought the domain name and continued it on by myself.
The highlight for me has been in building a reputation as a reviewer. I had no background as a reviewer when I started the site, and had a lot to learn, but over time I feel I have proven that I can provide informative reviews which help my readers make reading choices.
Tell us about your newly released book?
With pleasure! Pearl Verses the World is a children’s verse novel about a girl’s struggle for identity and peace as she deals with her grandmother’s death and feelings of isolation at school. It has been beautifully illustrated by Heather Potter and published by Walker Books.
What gave you the idea for this story?
One night as I was getting into bed a poem came to me, speaking of loneliness and isolation. I wrote it down, and left it alone. Soon afterwards, other poems came to me, and I realised I had a story about a girl who was very sad and very lonely. There was a story which needed to be told and I needed to sit down and be the teller. It took me a little while to work out what was making Pearl so sad, and to then mould this into a story – but the ideas came and the story flowed.
How do you tackle a new story? i.e. what’s your preferred modus operandi of writing?
I don’t plan the whole story before I start writing. Usually, an idea will come to me and I’ll make a note of the idea and keep thinking about it. I’ll toss ideas around in my head until I get a feel for where the story might be going and then start writing. If I get stuck I generally repeat that process – letting the idea tickle away at my subconscious until I can see a way forward. I try not to revise until I have a whole draft down – and when I’ve finished that first draft I try to leave it for a while before I tackle the editing process, which can involve lots of reworking until I am sure it is done.
My earliest memory is …
Feeding black swans at Lake Monger in Perth. I remember being a little afraid as the swans were taller than me. Although I’ve had this memory for a long time, it was only when I was an adult that I told my mum about it and she worked out I must have been only about 18 months old at the time.
I’m very bad at …
Being tidy. I have messy handwriting, a messy desk, messy house and messy mind (too many thoughts at one time).
When I was a child I wanted to …
Write books. And here I am, a real life published author. I consider myself fortunate to be living my dreams.
I relax by …
If I had the power to change one thing in the world I’d …
Make sure kids were not subjected to war. It breaks my heart to think of little kids in war zones, growing up not knowing what peace is.
My most treasured possession is …
My six kids.
Describe your special writing place.
My messy desk is in a corner of what should be the formal dining area. In our last house I had my own study, but this house, whilst bigger, is more open plan, and so I am out in the main part of the house. My desk has my laptop, a pile of books which I have read but not reviewed, a pile of files of stories to be reworked, little drawers with ideas, research, and important bits of paper, and another pile of non-writing related stuff I must deal with (one day). And also I have a pen holder, a spindle of blank CDs, and a little collection of knickknacks which inspire my stories. Oh, and of course my laptop.
If you had a crystal ball what would you hope to see in your future as an author?
I would love to be able to actually make a living from my writing. At the moment I have to work a day job, and would love to be able to devote myself full time to my writing. Apart from that, what I hope in my future is for my writing skills to keep developing so that I can produce more and better books.
If the restrictions are lifted on the Parallel Importation of books, how would it affect you as an established writer?
I don’t actually consider myself an established writer – I think I am still emerging. Most of my books to date have been with educational or small publishers, and the publication of Pearl Verses the World marks a shift for me into more mainstream publishing. I am hoping it, and my forthcoming books, might help me to be considered established in the coming years.
Anyway, the lifting of PIRs would, I think, be detrimental to an emerging author like me. I already struggle to get manuscripts accepted – because Australian publishers have to be very selective in what they publish. Their ability to take publishing risks of unknown writers like myself partly comes from the income they can generate by publishing bigger name international authors through buying ANZ rights to these books. This helps them fund local publishing programs. If they lose the right to exclusive publish these books, then their income will fall and thus their ability to publish local authors like me. So, the lifting of PIRs would mean fewer acceptances for me.
At present none of my books has been published overseas, but I do hope that will change soon. When it does, the lifting of PIRs would mean cheap foreign editions of my books could be imported. If these sell in competition with the Australian editions, then my (already low) income would fall. Australian authors get very little income from sales of overseas editions. I hate to talk about my earnings, because it feels like hanging out my knickers on my front porch – but I think perhaps it is time for the public to realise that Australian authors are generally earning less than the dole. We are not being greedy in trying to protect the little income we have – yes, we want to eat, but we also want to ensure that we still HAVE a writing community.
Back to the good news – I would like to say to your readers than in spite of my concerns about the possible removal of PIR, I am absolutely thrilled with my writing life at present. After many years of struggling to make a name for myself as a writer, the publication of Pearl Verses the World has been a dream come true for me, and with four other trade titles in production, I am proof that it IS possible to get published – without an agent, without any special training, with little more than a touch of talent and lots of hard work.
If you want, really want, to be a writer, and are prepared to develop a thick skin and lots of persistence, it can happen. And when it does, the feeling is amazing.