Sunday, June 13, 2010


I may not win the award for most frequent blog posts - but I do hope to snag a blue ribbon when it comes to having great guests drop by for a little one-on-one chat. Jill Murray is not only a friend and fellow Montreal author she is also the voice and code behind the wonderful kid-lit writer site Y-Eh!

Jill's first YA book, BREAK ON THROUGH was followed by the recently released RHYTHM AND BLUES, a "thoughtful and glittery young adult novel about a teenage girl's quest for - fame, love and self-identity". I loved this book and think Jill has this amazing sixth sense for capturing the voice of her main character, Alya.
I was lucky to get some time with Jill, who not only is rumored to make her own ice cream - but is busy getting ready for a big trip to do research for her next book.

And now - without further ado - give it up for Jill!

Jill: Wow. The applause is deafening.

Me: I know. If a blog article was posted in the woods would it make any sound?

Let me jump in with my first question. When I started writing MILO; STICKY NOTES & BRAIN FREEZE, the book was going to just be a silly story about a kid in junior high. As the pages added up, I realized that I was writing something deeper. I was telling my own story - a story of parental loss at a young age and the writing experience became a different journey for me.

How important do you think it is to "write what you know"? Or are your own works of fiction totally made up?

Jill: I adore hands-on research. Before I started writing Break On Through, I’d been very amateurishly trying out breakdancing for a few years, so I had a good sense of what it was like to try to break dance, and what the atmosphere is like at a battle, and how b-boys behave around each other, and a lot of little details like that. All the stuff about being confident and knowing you’re going to win— that was totally made up, ‘cause I am not like that at all, especially not about dancing, especially not in front of people.

For Rhythm and Blues, I had some past experience working with indie music, and I’ve played a bunch of instruments throughout my life, but voice wasn’t one of them. So I took singing lessons with pop-jazzy Montreal chanteuse Amanda Mabro, because I wanted to be able to get across what it feels like to learn to sing.

Finally, you may also note that my protagonists, Nadine and Alya, are black and hispanic, but if you check out my headshot, I, the author, am clearly descended from the blog-dwelling peoples of northern someplace-English. This was a case of wanting to represent the people in my neighborhoods and my life, and give some airtime to interesting voices.

What can we conclude from all this? Writing is an exercise in empathy, and “what you know” may be an emotion or a truth or a value. It’s not necessarily as constricting and literal as it may at first appear. You may know more than you give yourself credit for!

ME: In my book, not only does Milo struggle with the fog that settles in whenever he feels uncomfortable – he is in love with Summer Goodman, the prettiest girl he’s ever seen. Of course it’s a one-way crush and she’s never even spoken to him. I remember my own unattainable crush from Junior High (Janet Grenier why didn’t you like my poems?). Did you have a one-way crush back then – and how did you deal with it?

JILL: Wait. Hang on. Are you telling me there are also two-way crushes?

In the junior high years I dealt with crushes in the same way that I dealt with everything else: I hid in my room and waited to be 20. I have to say, it didn’t really work, and I’d recommend that kids today try something else.

ME: Good advice! Here's a question about your own writing process.

Because MILO borrows moments from my life, I relied on balancing the fiction of the story with things I remembered. The awful smell of hospital visits. The kindness of neighbors who wanted to help me. Waking up and then remembering how different everything then was. The memories became an important part of my palette. What role does memory play in your own writing experience?

JILL: I know I just told you that I make a lot of stuff up, and that I study new things to give life to my writing, but also, I think it’s worth pointing out that memories tell you what’s important enough to bother writing about. If a memory is still with you, chances are there’s something about it that needs further exploration or that if you share it, other people might relate to it too. Bottom line, it’s going to get its job done much better on the page than in your head.

ME: As awkward as Milo feels at his new school he is thankful he finds Marshall, an equally odd kid who likes the same movies that Milo likes and shares a passion for freezies. Friends are so important at that age. Milo would be even more lost without Marshall. Who was your junior high best friend and what was the one food thing that you both loved?

JILL: Friends are important at any age. Like right now, I have friends who share my love of onion rings, olives, summer drinks on balconies, indian food, coffee, vegan ice cream sandwiches, avocados and oatmeal. But maybe this is more about how much I love to eat. When I was Milo’s age, my best friend had moved away, and it took me a really, really, REALLY, long time to find another one. There was an incident in high school where a friend and I spent an hour daring each other to go ask the elderly couple at the next table if we could borrow a french fry “just for a minute.” But we were too polite to actually follow through.

ME: Sitting in the right cafe….curled up with the dog on my lap….tucked away at a book store with people reading all around me. Those are some of my favorite places to write. Where do you like to write?

JILL: As you well know, I like to write at Cafe Shaika, in Montreal, across the room from either you or P.J. Bracegirdle, so I can peer over the top of my laptop at you and wonder if you’re being more productive than I am, and then interrupt you if it looks like that might just be true. I also like to write on trains, and on my front balcony when it’s warm but shady.

ME: Selfishly I always like to hear how other writers deal with the dreaded “writer’s block”. I have days that seem impenetrable when it comes to being creative. When I’m stuck I like to doodle or read a book…or do laundry. What do you do when the muse just won’t show up?

JILL: That slackerly muse! It’s so hard to find good help these days.

Actually, I don’t have a muse. It’s all “writer’s block” to me. Uphill, everyday, dragging the heavy burden of unwritten manuscripts.

I took a creative writing workshop with writer Kent Nussey once in the early ‘00s (I like typing it that way because it makes me sound like I’m 130 years old.) and he’d spent a lot of time worrying about writers block, and ultimately decided that it’s really just “failure of the ego.” By that, I think he meant that it’s not that you can’t write, it’s just that you think you ought to be having better ideas than you actually are, and that embarrasses and disappoints you, and so you don’t write.

That’s how I decided to take it. And I simply can’t have anyone thinking my ego is defective, so I just imagine I’m some kind of donkey or workhorse, and I put on my yoke and drag the till endlessly across the field, feeling sorry for myself as I write embarrassing, disappointing things. Eventually, in revisions, everything starts looking up again, and I remember that no, actually, I am awesome.

ME: In revisions, thankfully - we're all awesome! Thanks for taking time out from your crazy schedule. One last question: So we can all be jealous - what flavor ice cream did you recently make?

JILL: Mint chocolate cookie dough.

ME: Yum!! You truly are awesome!

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