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.

10 Questions for... Paula Priamos

Paula Priamos was born and raised in Southern California, where she lives with her husband, James Brown, author of the acclaimed memoirs The Los Angeles Diaries and This River. After her parents divorced and her mother and siblings moved to the South, Priamos decided to stay with her larger-than-life Greek defense attorney father.

Her father's mysterious death propelled Priamos into an investigation of the shady deals and characters that led to his disbarment, which ultimately led her to write her debut memoir The Shyster's Daughter. It's a searing detective noir memoir that paints a vivid portrait of a Greek American family caught up in the scandal-obsessed, drug-addicted culture of California in the closing decades of the twentieth century.

So, without further ado, here are 10 questions for Paula Priamos.

1. What would you like readers to know about The Shyster’s Daughter?

I wrote The Shyster’s Daughter because I was haunted by the phone call my father placed to me the night before he died.  It was as if he knew something bad was going to happen to him.  The book investigates those last few hours of his life and it also became an investigation into his career as a criminal defense attorney.

I structured the book to read like a novel because I think memoirs get a bad rap for being bloated, expository and self-important.  That’s not the type of book I wanted to write.  I wanted my book to be entertaining, and I used fictional techniques like plot, setting and dialogue to make my story move.

2. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I was in the second grade when I decided to become a writer.  My teacher assigned us to keep a journal about day-to-day events and I asked permission if I could write a story about an orphaned girl who inherited her own 7-UP factory.  She had a ton of adventures in her factory like fighting off thieves trying to steal her secret formulas.  At the end of the year, my teacher ran off copies and gave them to the rest of the class for summer reading.

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

Hemingway has influenced me with his conciseness and rhythm. Jeanette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle was inspirational because it’s not a victim’s story.  And, of course, my husband James Brown has always encouraged me to tell a story of consequence.

4. With regards to your own writing, what are the pros and cons of having a husband who is also an accomplished author?

A big pro to having an accomplished author for a spouse is that he understands the solitary struggles of a writer.  He gives me room to rant, to write and he also is a great reader of my work.  We are straight with each other about our writing in its rawest stages even if it isn’t something either of us wants to hear.

The con about having a writer for a husband is that I lived in his shadow for quite a while.  I’m younger, his former student, and it was hard getting people we both knew in the writing world to take me seriously.  Eventually, though, a lot of them were left with very little choice.  I wasn’t going away. I have my own stories to tell and I was going to be a writer whether I was married or single.  Once I started publishing in places like the New York Timesthe Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times Magazine the stigma of being an older author’s younger second wife wore off.

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?

My process is hand writing first, starting off old school with a notebook and a pencil before coming to the computer.  I love to wake up early and write when the house is quiet and before the stresses and chaos of everyday living interrupt me.  But I write just about anywhere so I carry around a notebook with me at all times.

6. What drove you to write The Shyster’s Daughter?

The mysterious way my father died and the need to find out what happened to him are what initially drove me to write The Shyster’s Daughter. But it is also my story – what it was like growing up being raised by a successful Greek criminal defense attorney who had a conflicting set of morals.  There is also a lot of Greek culture and Greek curse words.  My father had a temper.  He was tough like the time I write in the book when he took on two burglars we caught coming out of our home one night.  He took a swing at one of them and chased both of them, who were half his age, into some bushes down the street where they hid like cowards.  But he was also one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.  I wanted to capture his character and how it’s shaped mine.

7. What methods and strategies have you employed in order to promote both yourself as an author, as well The Shyster’s Daughter?

I’m teaming up with a couple of different writers for reading events. I have a publicist who is active in getting the word out about my book and I myself do what I can to help spread the word using Facebook, my own website, as well as my own big mouth.

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

I see myself as both a memoirist and novelist.

9. What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on a literary thriller about crimes of passion.

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

Be open to revision.  Don’t become one of those writers who can’t take suggestions on improving your work.  Be confident in your writing.  Know when a work is finished.  It’s an exciting time in publishing where the Internet has opened the market for writers to either publish in New York or with independent literary presses who tend to take more risks, taking on less politically correct writing, and there is also self-publishing.  Nothing is black and white anymore.

And there you have it. I’d like to thank Paula Priamos for taking some time to hang out on Inside Martin. If you’d like to learn more about Priamos and her writing, you can visit her official website Paula Priamos: Opinionated Writer....

Tainted Legacy: The Story of Alleged Serial Killer Bertha Gifford

In 2009, S. Kay Murphy published her memoir Tainted Legacy: The Story of Alleged Serial Killer Bertha Gifford. Like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, Murphy's memoir explores the chilling effect of murder in a small, rural town.  Unlike Capote, Murphy is not simply a city-slicker fascinated by a brutal crime, she is the great-granddaughter of the accused.

Murphy does a terrific job of pulling you into her world, letting you feel what it's like to discover your great-grandmother might have been a serial killer; with every new discovery, which either brought jubilant triumph or devastating heartbreak, you soon realize that you're on this ride with Murphy, driving cross country to Missouri, contacting descendants of the dead, touring courtrooms and visiting graveyards.

Murphy’s writing in Tainted Legacy is simple and elegant, getting right to the heart of the matter.

“It is an odd thing to have a family member who is a murderer, even more odd that the family member was a simple farm woman—a grandmother.  When I reveal to people that my great-grandmother would have been considered, in today’s terms, a serial killer, they look at me just a little differently.”

-S. Kay Murphy, Tainted Legacy

The true victory of Tainted Legacy is Murphy's tireless research and her unflinching search for the truth, even if it brings her answers that she doesn't really want to know.

What Murphy eventually figured out was that the process of discovery was just as important, if not more so, than the discoveries themselves.  Ironically enough, I learned a similar lesson not long after I graduated from Alta Loma High School with the class of 1996.

I was a bad high school student, which isn’t to say I was outspoken or rebellious.  You’d never catch me smoking in the boys room and I can count on one hand—using less than four digits—the number of times I ever ditched class.  No, I was a bad high school student with regards to academics.

I almost never studied for tests and, when I did, I never knew how.  I didn’t know how to write papers and, when I did write them, I always waited until the last possible moment.  I still don’t understand geometry or chemistry and I have an embarrassingly limited knowledge of U.S. and world history.

Question: What’s the Pythagorean theorem?

Answer: You got me!

Question: What’s the most abundant element in the Earth's crust?

Answer: Hell if I know!

Question: What was the conflict that led to the Korean war?

Answer: Umm…I need to use the bathroom!

Yet, I graduated high school without a single hiccup.  It was as if there was somebody standing behind me for four years pushing me through, despite the fact that I wasn’t really learning anything.  While I wasn’t what you would call ambitious, I did have a very tangible sense of wanting to do something substantive with my life.  I just didn’t know what I was supposed to do.  Because I had long before given up on my dreams of becoming Batman or a wrestler in the WWF, I didn’t know where I should be focusing my energy.

Most of my friends had gone away to college, because they had done all the things that I didn’t do in high school.  Since I didn’t have a job—part time or otherwise—and I hadn’t taken the SATs, the only choice that seemed to make sense was to enroll in Chaffey, the local community college.  As part of my enrollment, I had to take a math and English placement exam.  I did terrible with the math, but, somehow, I’d done well enough in English to qualify for English 1A (a class most schools call English 101).  What I know now—but didn’t know at the time—is English 1A is a class that most community college students have to work towards by completing one or two remedial English courses.  The fact that I had gotten right in should’ve given me a clue that, perhaps, I had an innate aptitude for English.

As it turned out, most English 1A classes were full in the fall of 1996, so I wasn’t able to get into one initially.  But, as luck would have it, Chaffey had opened up a brand new satellite campus in Fontana and there was a late-start English 1A class being offered.  The only other classes I’d managed to get into were Survey of American Film and Fashion Merchandising, so I jumped at the chance to enroll in English 1A.

The professor for the course was S. Kay Murphy.  She was—and is—a high school English teacher.  She decided to teach an English course at Chaffey during the evenings as a way of supplementing her income and, as a former Chaffey student herself, she saw it as an opportunity to bring her academic life full circle.  And her first day on the job just so happened to coincide with my first semester in college.

The first thing Murphy had us do was a quick in-class writing assignment where we described three magazines that represented who we were.  While I wasn’t rebellious, I was—and am—a slave for coloring outside the lines, so instead of writing some straight forward prose, I decided to write a fictional narrative that involved me going to a drug store and browsing through the magazine section.  I remember having the distinct feeling that I was doing something wrong and I worried my new English professor wouldn’t appreciate it.

The following class session, Murphy was passing back our magazine assignments.  In the middle of calling out names, she paused and quietly considered the next paper in her stack.

“Martin Lastrapes?”

I raised my hand.

She looked over my assignment for another moment or two.

“This is good,” she said, before handing it back to me.

Her approval sang like a choir that I never knew existed.  I wanted to hear more, so I got right to work on the first paper she assigned, which was an autobiographical essay—which is to say, a short memoir.  I decided to write about losing my job as an ice cream scooper at Thrifty’s, after being interrogated for four hours for stealing.  I didn’t know if it was any good, but I did know writing it felt good.  Murphy thought enough of it to read it out loud to the class.

I was absolutely elated.  And at the bottom of my paper, she wrote:  “You’re a good writer.  You should consider majoring in journalism.” Murphy's encouragement had unwittingly jarred something loose, exposing me for the first time to what I knew had to be my destiny.  From that day forward my whole life revolved around writing.

A few years passed and I often found myself thinking about that English professor who changed my life.  I wanted to tell her that I took her advice and pursued writing.  I wanted to tell her that I had been published and won awards and it was all because of her.  It made me sad that she would never know.

Then one day, through the miracle of the Internet, I was looking for writing contests and came across the Inland Empire California Writer’s Club.  The treasurer of the club was S. Kay Murphy.  I wasn’t positive if it was my former English professor, but I wrote her an email anyway.  I explained who I was and how—assuming she was who I thought she was—she had changed my life.  Not only did she remember me nearly seven years later, but she was dumbfounded by how her little comment on the back of my paper had managed to put my life in focus.

Now that we were in touch, the first thing I wanted to know about was her writing.  She sent me an essay she’d written for the L.A. Times about not watching an Eminem concert at the Blockbuster Pavilion.  I, in turn, sent her some of my own writing.

But, for all the talking we did about writing, what she didn't tell me—because she is famously guarded about her work, as I would eventually learn—was she was working on the manuscript that would eventually become Tainted Legacy.  As much as I enjoyed the memoir itself, my favorite part of Tainted Legacy appears in the “Acknowledgments.”

“To Mrs. Walton, my fourth grade teacher—and to all those teachers who are willing to encourage the gifts they see in their students: Please know that your contribution to our lives is enormous, and we never forget you, even if we never come back to thank you.”

-S. Kay Murphy, Tainted Legacy

I couldn’t have said it better myself.