10 Questions for... S. Kay Murphy

S. Kay Murphy is a writer, a teacher and, I'm pleased to say, one of my very good friends. She began freelance writing thirty years ago and still contributes to national magazines and newspapers. Some years ago her freelance work was interrupted by the pursuit of information about her great-grandmother, Bertha Gifford, who was rumored to have poisoned more than a dozen individuals in her own community. That resulted in the writing of her first memoir, Tainted Legacy: The Story of Alleged Serial Killer Bertha Gifford.

In July of 2012, Kay published her second memoir, a beautiful and touching book called Lessons I Learned from the Dogs Who Saved Me. If you buy the book for only one reason, let it be this: 100% of the net proceeds from its sales will be donated to animal rescue.

So, without further ado, here are 10 questions for S. Kay Murphy...

 1. What would you like readers to know about Lessons I Learned from the Dogs Who Saved Me?

I wrote this book to honor the dogs who chose to companion with me at various times in my life.  The book is divided into several sections, each one telling the story of a dog or dogs I had throughout my life.  Some of them saved me in a literal sense; Rufus kept me from being assaulted or possibly abducted when I was a teenager.  Ian saved me from a burglar.  And some of them saved me in the psychological sense, rescuing me from deep sadness or giving me a reason to go on living even during a very dark time.

2. What persuaded you to donate all the royalties from Lessons I Learned from the Dogs Who Saved Me to animal rescue?

I have been inspired by several individuals, in particular young Miss Michala Riggle who established www.beatingtobeatautism.org. She started with $7.35, bought some materials, made some bracelets and sold them. Her purpose?  To raise money for research into autism to help her brother Evan who has been diagnosed with autism.  After buying some bracelets from the website one day, the spark of Michala’s passion to help others continued to resonate with me. I was already working on the book and just started thinking about how I could contribute to something I feel passionate about, which is the concept of No More Homeless Pets.

3. Who are some writers that have affected your storytelling sensibilities?

James Brown, James Brown, and James Brown.  I went to see Brown once when he was speaking about his memoir, The Los Angeles Diaries.  I'd read the book, and frankly, it set a pretty high bar for me in terms of the quality of the writing. Brown doesn't just tell what happened in his life.  He somehow weaves thoughts, feelings, actions and sensory response into every paragraph, creating an amazing tapestry of description.

During the Q&A at the speaking engagement, I asked him about telling the truth.  At the time, I was working on my memoir, Tainted Legacy: The Story of Alleged Serial Killer Bertha Gifford, and my mother, who figures prominently in the story, was still living at the time. I wanted to tell the truth, but didn't want to alienate her (further than what we'd suffered through all my life). Brown said, "Everyone has their own story. You have to tell yours. For your mother, the story is different. My mother still speaks to me. Yours will still speak to you." A weight lifted, and I went forward with my own project in the most honest way I could. He was right.

4. What methods and strategies have you employed in order to promote both yourself as an author, as well Lessons I Learned from the Dogs Who Saved Me?

Oof, this is the part I hate. I’m a shy, introverted person—almost reclusive (if I didn’t have to go to work every day).  Self-promotion is a beast. So, at this point in time, I’m relying on the theory of reciprocity.  Many years ago I read a book I loved and posted a review of it on Amazon so that others would be drawn to read it.  The author sent me an email to thank me, which made my day and also made me realize how much we need to be mutually supportive of each other (as opposed to being competitive—ick). I’ve tried to encourage and promote as many writers as I’ve had opportunity to, and I’m hoping now some of those folks will, in turn, reach out to their own circle of contacts and say a good word about my work.

5. Writing a book is such a complex exercise that I imagine no two authors do it exactly the same. Can you summarize your process for me?

Um... yes:

1.  Put your butt in the chair.

2.  Stay there until you've written something—brilliant or shitty, it matters not.

3.  Repeat.

4.  Repeat.

5.  Repeat.

Horror writer Douglas Clegg once said, "I suspect the great American novel will not be written by the best writer in America. I suspect it will be written by someone who writes."  His point was that the biggest dementor (yes, that was Harry Potter reference) we have to overcome is our own self-doubt.  Then we just have to keep writing until we finish things.  Amen.

6. What drove you to write Lessons I Learned from the Dogs Who Saved Me?

I miss my dogs. Living here in the San Gabriel Mountains is idyllic. But, for various reasons, I can’t have a dog here. One summer afternoon, I was culling out from boxes and boxes of photos the ones that were pictures of my dogs, with the intention of putting them in an album.

I organized them chronologically, and as I did, I began to reminisce about how important those canine heroes were in my life and recall how integral they’d been in keeping me sane (and alive). I simply wanted to tell their stories.  As it turns out, the book was the most difficult thing I’ve ever written.  Among other incidents, I write about my step-father’s attempts to molest me.  This is something I’ve never talked to anyone about—ever.  It was hard to relive that time in my life, and I found myself crying often as I wrote. Sometimes, when the emotion became overwhelming, I would have to take a break from the writing for a few days. I was haunted by nightmares while I worked on the book.

7. Lessons I Learned from the Dogs Who Saved Me is your second consecutive memoir, following Tainted Legacy. Is this your genre of choice or do you have plans for writing fiction?

When Mrs. Walton, my fourth grade teacher, told me I could be a writer (and I absolutely without hesitation believed her), I assumed I would grow up to write down the stories I constantly made up in my head.  But… that’s not what happened.  As you know, the story of my great-grandmother, Bertha Gifford, fell into my lap when I discovered she’d been accused of murdering several people.  I never thought I’d write her story, but I’m so glad I did, as it gave my mother some much-needed closure about the alleged crimes.  And then I had the idea for Lessons I Learned from the Dogs Who Saved Me, so I had to do that.  But I have written a bit of fiction.

8. What are you currently working on?

In 2006, I did NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). To those unfamiliar, I encourage you to look it up—and do it!  Just do it!  In 30 days, I wrote a 50,000 word Young Adult novel entitled Ghost Grandma.  When I finished, I put it away for a long time because I assumed it couldn’t possibly be any good (having been written by a nonfiction writer in 30 days).

But every summer, I would take it out and look at it.  Six years later, I still love my characters and my story.  Maybe no one else will love it as I do, but at this point, I’m doing a final edit before I take it to CreateSpace for publication.  I love YA lit and, at this point in my life, read more of it than adult fiction, partly because I’m always looking for good books for my high school students, but also because I simply love what’s out there right now.  (I just finished reading The Fault in Our Stars and Jumpstart the World.  Oh my Buddha, what fabulous novels!)  After Ghost Grandma goes to press, I’ll begin working <gulp> on a YA trilogy I’ve been planning for some time.

9. Where do you see your writing career five years from now?

Right now, major writing projects have to be completed during the ten weeks of summer, as once school starts and I return to my day job, I have little time or energy for such things. But in two years?  Oh my Buddha! I'll be retired from teaching, and finally, after longing for this for decades, I'll be able to be a full-time writer. Booyah! So I’m hopeful that in five years’ time (three years after I retire), I will have produced a substantial body of work and developed a sympathetic and appreciative fan base.

10. What advice would you give to an aspiring author who hopes to see their work published one day? 

See my answer to question #5. Keep writing. And learn your craft. Simply because you enjoy the process doesn't mean that your work meets the standard of what's out there.  (Notice I didn't use the word "good."  What makes "good" writing is subjective.) Learn where the commas go. Learn what syntax is. Learn why "subject/pronoun agreement" is an issue. Make sure your writing is correct and readable. And then write from your heart. Ignore the voice of your own self-doubt. Ignore friends, family members and co-workers who discount, in any way, what you're doing.

Pretend you don't hear them. Shake it off. Go home and write something great—but never, ever share it with people you love until it's in print; you will be too easily influenced by their response, especially if you're looking for approval. Do find someone who is good at editing—preferably someone who is not a part of your social circle—to find the typos and words you left out and the part toward the end where the piece takes a wrong turn. Take his or her criticism to heart—then keep writing, keep writing, keep writing. Writing mediocre drafts and discovering how to make them better is just like a painting a portrait then continuing to work at it until it truly resembles the model. Don't give up. And find other like-minded writers to have coffee with so they can inspire you. And don't hate English teachers! We can't help who we are!

And there you have it. I’d like to thank my friend, S. Kay Murphy, for taking some time to hang out on Inside Martin. If you’d like to learn more about Kay and her writing, visit her blog On Simply Being True. You can also connect with Kay on Twitter, as well as Facebook.