Right before the start of her sophomore year, Brett O’Brien is visited by the ghost of her grandmother. The only issue? No one seems to believe her except for her best friend. In her captivating book Ghost Grandma, author S. Kay Murphy leads us through a young girl’s struggle to find her place in the world after the death of her beloved grandmother.
Interviewer: Sophie Lin
Q: What inspired you to write Ghost Grandma?
A: To be honest, the premise came to me as I was walking through the halls of the high school where I was teaching at the time. No doubt I was ruminating on two things: Visitations from those who have passed over plus the way high school students often treat each other. At times, it feels like a war zone, with everyone at odds with everyone else.
Q: Is there anyone in your life that you based Brett off of?
A: Brett is absolutely the girl I was at 14 or 15, only she is the new and improved version, the one who is braver and stronger and has better hair.
Q: Do you have a rigid writing schedule or do you write whenever an idea comes to you?
A: Both. I wrote Ghost Grandma in 30 days. True story. I participated in the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) challenge of writing 50,000 words in 30 days, and I did it, much to my surprise. Of course, during that month, I still had to go to work every day, so I wrote 800 words in the morning before I went to work and 800 more at night after dinner, sometimes falling asleep at the keyboard. I knew the premise when I started, but had no idea where the story would take me. It was one of the most fun and most exhausting projects I’ve ever indulged in.
Having said that… I am now retired from teaching, so I have plenty of time to write. But I also have plenty of time to go out and play—go hiking or exploring, ride my bike, have lunch with friends, see a movie—so it has been hard for me to be as disciplined as I should be. But I’m working on that.
Q: How would you describe your writing process?
A: What works best for me is this: When I’m working on a particular project, I’ll spend some time—30 minutes to an hour—composing. Then I get up, walk around, make more tea, take the dog out or pet the cat. In that time, I generally edit in my head. (I love to write poems this way, and when I do, I’ll write them out in longhand, leaving the notepad on my desk so I can swing by as I’m putting in a load of laundry and change a word or a phrase.) When I go back to what I’ve written, I’ll spend a few minutes making those minor changes, then move on. In the early days of my writing, every paragraph had to be perfect before I moved on. Books don’t get written that way. It’s important to get the narrative down while you’re still excited about the project. Editing is satisfying to me, so I don’t mind doing it. Ghost Grandma went through at least six drafts before I felt it was ready for publication.
Q: Do you believe in ghosts and/or the supernatural? If so, have you ever had any supernatural encounters?
A: It is possible that I have had supernatural encounters. It is also possible that my experiences can be easily explained away. One of the reasons I wanted to put Ghost Grandma out there was to get young people thinking about what they believe regarding those who have crossed over. In my own spirituality, there is definitely a place for signs and messages from those who have passed. Part of my daily meditation is talking to my deceased loved ones. If that sounds all creepy and séance-y, it’s really just me saying, “Mom, Dad, Aunties, Uncles, good morning. Help me to remember that extending love and kindness to others is the most important thing I can do today.” I definitely feel guided by them at times. One of my best friends is a medium, so we’ve had some pretty fascinating conversations about all of this.
Q: What’s your favorite part about writing?
A: I love having done it. Sometimes, sitting down and beginning a project is absolutely terrifying. When I sat down to begin writing my memoir about my great-grandmother (who has been accused of being a serial killer), I was literally trembling. I wanted that book (The Tainted Legacy of Bertha Gifford) to be perfect because so much was riding on it—I wanted to bring the truth to light and bring closure to my mother (Bertha’s granddaughter). When I finally finished the book, I sat at my desk and sobbed. The same was true for The Dogs Who Saved Me. When we put heart and soul into creating truth and beauty with words, it is a humbling, mystifying, spiritual relief to have the project completed.
Q: What would be your advice for dealing with bullies like Brittany and Jason?
A: In the vast majority of cases, I would say that the best action taken against bullies is to ignore them. It’s also the most difficult. Part of us always wants to fight back, to make a snarky or rude comment, even if it’s behind the person’s back. But we rarely know what other people are going through in their personal lives. Both Brittany and Jason are based on students I actually taught. Brittany started a fight in my classroom in which another girl was badly injured. But in her senior year, she stopped by to thank me for my patience with her. I was never angry with her. I understood that she felt, as I have mentioned previously, that she was in a war zone. She acted accordingly. Sometimes bullies just need to get to the point in life at which they can love themselves. In Jason’s case, he was truly a bad dude, and once I met his angry, abusive father, I understood why. With a bully like that, my advice would be to stay as far away from him as possible.
Q: What’s different about writing a coming-of-age novel like Ghost Grandma and writing a book like Tainted Legacy?
A: Oh, that is a really great question. In writing Ghost Grandma, I could rely solely on my imagination for the narrative. Fun! Except when I couldn’t for the life of me think of what should happen next. That was grueling—especially since I couldn’t just wait for inspiration, since I had to get my word count in every day. With Tainted Legacy, the fun came in doing the research. There were times when the truth I overturned made me feel absolutely surreal, as if I were living inside a novel. While in Missouri doing research, I kept calling my best friend back home in California to tell her everything, and I would often add, “I swear, I’m not making this up!” Of course, getting down to actually writing the memoir and formulating some sort of chronological coherence was challenging, as I was telling both my story and Bertha’s as well, so the process was completely different, but nonetheless equally satisfying.
Q: Who’s your biggest inspiration to write?
A: Harry Cauley, author of the award-winning novel, Bridie and Finn, said something in a writer’s group 20 years ago that has been my mantra ever since: “Writing is the loneliest work you’ll ever do.” Isn’t that just spot on? One of the reasons writers have a difficult time being disciplined—especially nowadays—is that once we sit down and begin, we know (at least subconsciously) that we are retreating from the world to be absolutely alone for a time, and that is a frightening prospect. It’s much more pleasant to scroll through Twitter to find out what’s happening in the world or Instagram to see yet another adorable dog or cat photo or Facebook to say hi to family members and beloved friends. Doing all those things makes me feel less alone in the world, and I live alone (except for Purrl and Thomas, my cat and dog), so I spend a great deal of my day by myself. I adore social media. But I have to make myself back out of that rabbit hole in order to work—and it is indeed lonely. When I heard Harry Cauley say that, he became my writer-hero for life, and I am blessed for that. I also have a handful of cheerleaders, including a couple of pushy Irish cousins, who keep reminding me that my gift is writing so I should be doing it.
Q: Are you working on any other projects right now?
A: Last spring, I finished a middle-grade urban fantasy novel. I have been looking—with no success so far—for an agent for it. In the meantime, I’m doing short writing projects. I will be starting on another book soon.
Q: Where can people find more information about you and your books?
A: All my books (except the first, which is out of print) are on Amazon. To get a sense of who I am and my worldview, I recommend scrolling through my blog until you find a post that resonates—about dogs or cats or the #MeToo Movement or gay rights or gender equality or whatever. It’s here: www.skaymurphy.blogspot.com. I am on Instagram (posting photos of food, as I am a vegetarian, and I love sharing all the gorgeous, delicious food I eat) and Twitter (where I follow back most folks who follow me—unless they’re a bot or a stalker). Handle for both is @kayzpen.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: For writers: Write your heart out and never stop! You are not alone in the world, though you may feel lonely while you are ‘away’ in the world you are creating. Never let rejection slow you down; keep putting yourself out there. If you begin to feel like giving up, find a friend or a cousin who believes in you and ask them to set goals with you then check back to see if you’re working toward them. I did this with The Tainted Legacy of Bertha Gifford, and it is the only way that book ever got published. I wanted to give up, but my beloved cousin Danny wouldn’t let me. He’s the reason the book is in print, may he be blessed forever.
For readers: You are everything for those of us who write. You are the friends who listen as we speak—even if we never meet you. I feel so very blessed for every email I’ve ever received that has begun with these words: “Hi, you don’t know me, but I’ve just finished reading your book….” You make all the hard work, all the loneliness, all the nail biting and junk food indulging so very worth it. Thank you!