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Frequently Asked Questions

(For questions about the Joe Grey cat mystery novels, go to the FAQ page at www.joegrey.com.)

Shirley Rousseau Murphy

Why did you decide to write a book that is not part of the Joe Grey series?

My husband and I began writing The Cat, the Devil, and Lee Fontana many years ago, and I wanted to finish it. If I spent all my time writing Joe Grey books I wouldn't be able to use any of the other ideas I've developed in the past.

Why aren't you online personally?

Call it a quirk, call it contrariness, I like not being online. If I had Internet access I would know that silent and invisible messages were there in the computer waiting for my attention, an insistent offstage voice, at a time when I prefer to remain totally in the world of the book.

Are you going to write a sequel to The Catswold Portal?

I might, in the future. No promises!

Is The Catswold Portal still available anywhere?

A new paperback edition published in January 2005 is in print, and can be obtained by any bookstore. There is also an ebook edition.

At the end of The Catswold Portal, why does the picture of Alice Kitchen's cat Mari look exactly like Melissa's feline form?

On page 12 of the new paperback edition of The Catswold Portal, "Sarah" finds a page written by a child about the death of her cat, Mari. Sarah wonders if she herself had written these words, at some time in her past childhood that she cannot remember. We realize later as we learn more about Melissa, and about her relationship with Alice when they were young and about Alice’s own childhood, that Alice wrote this before ever Melissa was born.

So then, on page 402, "The cat in Alice’s drawing in the restaurant, the same cat as in Alice’s diary, the same cat that had been buried years ago in the front yard of the Russian Hill house--the cat that died before she, Melissa, was born." She knows that cat looked like her own cat self. The implication is that perhaps cats do have nine lives, and that Mari came back as a shapeshifting cat: as baby Melissa. Alice had dearly loved her little cat, and the cat loved her. When Melissa was born, Alice and the baby had an immediate affinity, one for the other. It is up to the reader to believe, or disbelieve, this part of the fantasy.

Do your books develop from personal experiences?

The Joe Grey books were generated by a lifelong friendship with all kinds of animals, and from my frustration at not finding enough books for adults about talking animals that satisfied me. I wanted to read about a real world with speaking cats whose thoughts and reactions were as complicated as those of humans--but cats who had not abandoned their feline nature. I imagined a bold tomcat who, with his natural skills of climbing, sneaking, hiding and eavesdropping, and with more than his share of cattish curiosity, would make a great detective. Joe Grey, a real cat friend with plenty of attitude, was the perfect candidate for the part.

In my earlier Dragonbards trilogy, the original impetus was my frustration that I had not been taught, in school, any real, solid, factual world history. I did not realize until later years how crippling that was to my understanding of present events and of my own life. My question was, What if a world had no written history? Such a world would surely fall into decline, unless, perhaps, history were passed on by oral tradition. But who would be keepers of the history? And what kind of world would it be?

I was reading Sir Arthur Bryant's Set in a Silver Sea, which presents a powerful picture of a world seen from the sky: a tangle of green islands set in vast blue ocean. From this vision, the world of Tirror was born. I knew that I would people its islands with speaking beasts as well as a young human prince. As otters are among my favorite animals, they showed up with their wit and humor and their clever and manipulative hands that could invent and use simple tools;and at that point my thoughts turned again to the sky where I soared on the back of a dragon--a dragon who sang the stories of Tirror's history, and who had the psychic power to bring, into people's minds, living scenes from that rich past.

So you can see that I invent my own worlds when I feel a need; when I feel some lack in this world, off I go on a new adventure. Such journeying is cheaper than a cruise ship, and it is, for me, far more satisfying.

Unselttled by Shirley Rousseau Murphy Do you still write children's books?

I haven't written a children's or young adult book in many years, I'm having too much fun with cat mysteries.

Are any of your YA or children's books other than your Dragonbards and World of Ere series currently available?

I have just published new paperback and Kindle editions of my two horse books for middle-grade readers, White Ghost Summer and The Sand Ponies. A new paperback edition of Silver Woven in My Hair, a YA retelling of the Cinderella story, was also issued recentlly. And my YA novel Poor Jenny, Bright as a Penny is available in an ebook edition under the title Unsettled. This book is highly relevant to today's teens, and I hope more of them will discover it.

What books have influenced you? Who are your favorite authors?

From C. S. Lewis to Tolkien to Peter Beagle, I read my favorite books every so often, to enjoy anew their clarity of style as well as what the authors have to say. Bailey White's first two books are a must. I want an author to have a voice, clear, individual, sharply visual, and to have wit. The Steinbeck I love best is Cannery Row. With many authors I have one favorite, as Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale. I love the YA fantasies of Jane Yolen, Susan Cooper, Ursula Le Guin, Meredith Ann Pierce. I re-read the fiction of Sue Grafton and Dean Koontz--my favorite Koontz is Midnight. My favorite Sylvia Engdahl is her Flame series. My all-time favorite from my early childhood is Alice in Wonderland. And animal books? Watership Down, of course, and Wind in the Willows. And currently I am re-reading the James Herriot books set in the Yorkshire Dales, and some of Loren Eiseley, both authors weaving enchantment in their own way.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

The best advice is the most often quoted: don’t quit your day job. You need to be able to support yourself well before you can give yourself the luxury of writing. You need to be making a steady income while you are leaning to write really well and learning whether you do want to continue on with that discipline. Do other things in life that intrigue you, learn other disciplines. Every challenge you master hones a satisfying personal strength, the same as is needed in writing. As you build your future, your positive life experiences may come together in ways that will surprise you.

Master a work-skill for which you have talent, but one you think will be always in demand: medicine, nursing, rescue work, or one of the building or repair trades where really skilled people are often so hard to find. While many young people with college degrees hunt endlessly for jobs, those who have trained themselves instead in skills that are more generally in demand may find work more easily.

Once you settle into a satisfying job, arrange at least a few hours a week to pursue the discipline that writing demands. The pleasure of mastering a discipline, making it a meaningful part of your life, has produced some of the best adjusted, most likeable and happiest people I know.

Take classes in writing wherever you can. But if the teacher does not inspire and excite you, find someone else. Same goes for books on writing: if the book doesn't inspire and lift you, put it back on the shelf. In all your reading, look for quality, clarity, for writing that puts you there, that makes pictures and that stays with you. Don't tolerate that which is dull or uninspired.

If you're really serious, and have been writing and amassing some polished work, go to a writer's conference. (Conferences are listed on the Internet and in some writers' magazines.) You'll find out a lot about other writers, about their problems and how they work. You'll meet an editor or two and maybe an agent, and hear what they have to say.

If you are meant to write, there will come a time for it in your future. If you stay home to raise a family really well and creatively, that, too, is a most admirable profession. If you choose to employ your talents in that way, be sure to read Shirley Jackson, when, chasing the children off to school, she is then busy at her typewriter among the dirty dishes and toast crumbs. Just remember, for a writer, nothing is wasted, it's what you do with it that counts.

You can find more suggestions for young people interested in becoming writers in the advice section of my friend Sylvia Engdahl's FAQ.

Where can researchers find out more about you?

There's lots of information in the following sources, some of which you should find in your public library. Each library is unique in which of these it has, and in some, online databases containing them are available to patrons. Where they are not accessible, a librarian might even help you get machine copies from other places through interlibrary loan.

  • Contemporary Authors.
  • Something About the Author, Vol. 71. Gale Research Inc.
  • Something About the Author Autobiography Series, Vol. 18. Gale Research Inc.
  • Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, 3rd edition. St. James Press, London, 1990.
  • Sixth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators. H. H.Wilson.
  • Speaking for Ourselves, Too. Donald B. Gallo, ed. National Council of Teachers of English, 1993.

Some Thoughts On Where Ideas Come From
And What One Does With Them
by Shirley Rousseau Murphy
Contrary to popular perception, ideas are not plucked from the air or picked off bushes. Idea is not something ready-made that you can buy from K-Mart, nor can you check an idea out of the library for two weeks. To be a writer, you must expect more than that from yourself in this treasure hunt. One writer has said that idea is like a bird in flight, you must catch it on the wing. I take this to mean that the bird soars within our own consciousness, where the agile mind is quick to track its flight.

But idea alone is not story, ready to be typed into the computer; it is only the germ of a beginning. Ideas can be mined in many ways, from so many turns of thought. You might develop ideas by:

  • Finding unusual relationships between unlikely elements.

  • Playing What if . . . . ?

  • Asking, How many ways could I . . . .?

  • Observing some conflict or dilemma and thinking of all the ways one might solve it. Or of all the things that might happen if you add one new and unusual element.

  • Imagining, as I often do, a particular place that excites you. Then adding a character that intrigues you, adding his or her conflicts and problems.
We all have ideas all the time, they are part of our survival equipment. Without our innate human ability to generate ideas in response to problems, we would still be crawling around in caves, eating grubs. Or we would long ago have been done in by hunger or disease or by some super race that thought to invent the sword.

For a writer, idea is not the only element that can generate a story. Story might start with a powerful need to bring alive a place or a personality. At first there is but only desire. The writer, driven by desire, then begins to form ideas for scenes, for conflicts, for complications, to structure the story by deliberately developing scenarios. Playing what if, the writer tries different combinations to build depth and excitement.

The point is to take an analytical look at some place, person or event, and play with that. Let your mind and your questions roam--this is all mind-play. Then see if the result stays with you, if it has rich possibilities that you can develop. It might be full of holes, too weak, and you will discard it. I might toss away hundreds of ideas before one starts to glow and expand. I hold that one close and look at it. It begins to resonate. Place and characters emerge around it. It becomes the kernel on which I want to build, around which I can weave stress, love, fear, conflict, and at last a satisfying resolution--and only then does the real adventure begin. Only then do I set out on the real exploration, trying this path and that, listening to and watching my characters as they themselves take over the story. And thus, at last, finding my true way.

Not everyone has a visualizing sort of mind that sees a place and hears conversations in his or her head. Fiction writing is easier if you do; but even this ability can be enlivened and improved with practice. And there are all kinds of creativity at work and needed in the world, from that of the fiction writer to that of the effective statesman. All start with need that generates idea.

Idea grows from need to solve a problem or need to create something palpable and alive. Idea is the first small and magical bit of clay that you hold in your hand, that slowly you form into a living entity that you must make unique and strong.

Creativity is the process through which the idea takes hold of you, and by which you shape it. If you're a writer, you combine all that you are and know to bring forth a story. You train yourself to the habit of thinking creatively and clearly, just as you might strengthen your running muscles. You understand that your accumulated knowledge, your life experiences, and your joy in the world around you all go into the mix, and from these you form something new. The process of creativity is making: bringing into being.

Surely a writer must learn techniques for bringing a character alive and making the setting totally real. You can learn a lot from books on writing, and from writing teachers (but only the best). Read and re-read the fiction that really excites you. See how the writer does that. Study the use of language, the image making, the conflicts between characters, how the author makes you really care.

What I'm saying here is that creativity is more than do-it-yourself projects and occasional weekend painting. To create seriously, in any form, is an encounter, a mountain climb, a wonderful striving in which all you know waits to be called forth. And in which all outside information, all research that you need to collect, is sought with excitement. You are totally absorbed. Committed. Nothing distracts you, not baseball, not your friends calling you away, not video games or television. You put all else aside in your passion to make what you want to put into the world, to weave together the elements with which you are working. And in doing so you begin, in turn, to see the world more clearly.

Nor does creative passion free you from mastering necessary skills. I know this from hard experience. The artist who scoffs at skill and technique in favor of his or her own feelings will never be great. If as a would-be writer you do not learn good English construction, you will never be able to say what you want so that others know your exact meaning. The discipline of English structure is no different than the discipline of competitive sports: you have to know the moves so well that you respond automatically, or you will never play well. The solid skills have to be second nature. This doesn't mean your work will be dull and stuffy. On the contrary: your unique voice depends mightily on those skills. Certainly you can choose to break the rules--but you have to know them first, to intelligently break them.

Everyone has some creative potential, from artist or writer to scientist to designing engineer to office manager. Solving everyday problems is creative, if you are honest with yourself and with others in your approach to the problem, and if you seek all possible solutions with an open and analytical mind. Raising and teaching children, when it is done really well, is very creative. We all have a creative nature to some degree, it is part of being alive. But beware! There are elements eager to destroy anything creative within you. When you are young and still forming your life the way you want it to be, you would do well to beware of the three D's:

  • Distraction: TV, iPhone, e-mail, busywork, anything that does all the thinking for you, leaving your mind in neutral. Neutral becomes a habit until you are as passive as a stuffed owl. You have no intellectual excitement, no passion, no ideas. All your brain wants to do is sit there and be entertained.

  • Destruction: Sick elements that pretend to be wildly creative but are, in truth, only part of a negative force of death, hurt, hopelessness. Only when negative elements are pitted against hope and accomplishment and love are they worth your attention in any piece of work.

  • Diversion: Short-circuiting the important basic emotions that are part of your creative nature. Your hunger for physical love can be a powerful fuel that drives creative energy. For young people in school, that same physical hunger can spur intense learning, too. Or the same insistent unrest can instead turn you toward paths that provide only short-term gratification. Such squandering of your creative drive can foster a flat, one dimensional view of life, crippling your capacity for deeper happiness and for exciting achievement. The choice is yours.
So the question should not be, Where do you get your ideas? But rather, How do you shape your own talents? How do you train yourself to really look, really see, to ask questions and make connections, to look with wonder at the rich universe through which we now journey? Here, each of us must find our own way, we must train our inquiring minds and hone our skills. Surely, if you build a strong foundation, the ideas will come tumbling and you will know what to do with them.