Interview Questions : Helen Murray
How do you structure your writing time-daily, weekly, how many words per day/week?
I'm not the most organised of people but saying that I have a very strong priority list which I shuffle about regularly. The top two on that list rarely varies; writing and family. For me it's important to separate them. I find it difficult to write at home as the children, the animals, the internet and the laundry compete for my attention. Therefore, I drop kids to school most mornings and plant myself in the Maynooth's NUI Kilkenny campus library and stay there until it's time to do the first school run. The house work can wait, plus it's easier to do when morale is high from writing. I don’t do word counts either as I find it becomes more about quantity and not quality.
What's the best thing about seeing your short story published in the new Irish Writing Hennessy award in the Independent Newspaper.
When I think of the list of people launched as a result of the Hennessy Literary Awards my mind is agog, Anne Enright, Neil Jordan, Patrick Mc Cabe, Joseph O'Connor, Colum McCann, the list goes on and on. To have been picked as a nominee is an immense honour. I know there is a high volume of entrants and the email from Ciaran Carty to say I'd been short listed was without doubt one of the proudest moments of my life. It validates the effort and sacrifices I have made to write over the last few years.
What motivates you?
For me, writing is a disease. I'm unsettled and cranky if I'm not doing it. Expression is the only tool I have against the complexities of life. When I'm not writing I tend to get overwhelmed. The motivation is very much pressure based. I need to open the valves and this is how I do it.
Do you have to be selfish to succeed?
What is the cost of success?
Historically I think writer's have always found it difficult to maintain a living and write. To do it and maintain a family is nigh impossible but it can be achieved if everybody is on board. My kids are very supportive and understand I may not always be available to them, although a lot of my writing is done in the car between school activities. Kilkenny Artlinks have provided me with an Arts bursary so this has helped. Not working full time impacts financially, nonetheless I do feel the cost stops there and can easily be written down when a piece of work is published and appreciated.
Do you have a big overall plan /five year plan?
The overall plan is to keep writing. Perhaps trying different styles and medium's like radio, theatre or essays. I'm very motivated by social issues and use social media as a means of communication and expression. I would imagine that will continue. A lot of things depend on the outcome of my first novel. I tend to respond to situation's and opportunities rather than plan them.
What do you do to keep focused, ie when you get stuck or think you've lost your way?
I take a break. When I run out of road on a character or a scene I leave them. I may pick up the thread of another or sometime's I come out of the story and look at it from a different perspective completely. I set myself a list of questions that I feel need answering when I'm writing. Thing's like; What am I trying to say? Would that character really do that? Is the perspective honest? Mostly I try to trust the process and not get too critical of blockages.
What made you a writer? Family/childhood/background/ life experiences?
All of the above probably. I was a sensitive child and like most children I took the world literary believing adults had it all figured out. Unlearning these things was both liberating and traumatic. I used books, movies and music to escape and they rarely let me down, hence the great love affair.
Who influenced you most as a writer?
Too many to mention and unfair to pick one, writers, musicians, film, I really needed what they had to say. I trusted the stories and the emotion's in them more than anything around me. The commonality of feeling helped me feel understood and not ‘quite’ so weird. I believe the arts reflect the mental health of a community and that is why freedom of expression is so important. It might also explain how Ireland has produced such a deep wealth of writers and performers.
Do you believe that you have a message or wisdom to impart in your writing or are you philosophical?
I'm mostly philosophical. Having grown up in an alcoholic home and becoming one myself I realise that it is impossible to change another human being. You can only change yourself, case point, 'How many therapist's does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the light bulb has to want to change.' My story's are such, if you connect it is probably because we have passed the same road, like travellers, we share that moment, but there our path's probably divide. I'm not trying to give advice or impart any morals in my stories, I guess I'm just sharing an experience.
What is the most difficult part of writing?
Trying to find excuses not to do it.
What skill's serve you best for your writing talent?
I'm not too constrained by rules. In fact, I'm mostly ignorant of them and I think that has worked to my advantage. Knowing how to use spell check too as I am the worst’est ever.
Are you a people watcher and is this essential to being a writer?
I don't know if it's essential I only know that I do it. I love sitting in my car watching people . I 'think' I'm deducting who they are, by how they act or dress but more often than not I get it wrong. People are not stereotypical. I try not to be small in my thinking.
What inspires you?
Everything. I'm either drawing parallels between thing's or questioning the validity of them. The human condition is wonderful and complex and so I do as an adult what I did as a kid. I poke it with a stick to see what happens.
Is writing work or ability? Can you put a percentage ratio on it?
That's a good question. What springs to mind is a sport's adage, 'You can teach skill but you can't teach talent.' Of course the perfect combination is to have the maximum in both. Skilled people can succeed more often than those with talent, mostly on the premise they have practised stamina, understand the rules; the business end of writing and won’t crash and burn under the stress. Whereas the more beautiful books, the few and far between that don't adorn our shelves remain so because the raw talent needed to produce them lends themselves to the more unconventional, disarrayed personality who cannot steady themselves to the task. I hate to think of the stories’ left unwritten by the very nature of the rule that produced them. 'I'd sing you the blue's only my heart is broken.'
Who /What has helped you most along your writing journey?
I think it's a good idea to join a writing group. I joined one when I decided to legitimatize my desire to write. It gave me an outlet for my work, the skill's to present, the comradeship and support of fellow writer's and the time I needed to develop. From my first writing course I met people who told me about the Creative Writing in Maynooth where I wrote the short story The Science of Falling which attained me the Hennessy nomination. There is such a long list of people I need to thank. Someday I may get the opportunity to let them know how much their support has meant.
Is it possible to make a living out of writing?
I don't know yet. I hope so.
What would you must like to be remembered for?
Being happy, challenging people and going full throttle for the whole journey.
Are you a thinker, a dreamer or a do'er?
All three at different times.
Where does creativity come from?
I think creativity is an energy that comes from outside and through us. Much that same as light passes through a stained glass window onto a floor. So many mediums and vessel's needed to capture that one moment and then gone again. It's important to be awake to all these energies and happenstance.
You are a journalist by profession and is it difficult to change hat's from journalism to fiction- what are you happiest at?
They are two completely different things. I think one is of the mind and the other is of the heart. Working as a journalist you have little control over assignments and as such this can make writing something of a job, whereas the other is about passion. Notwithstanding, there are some very passionate journalist but I'm definitely happiest as a writer.
What character's in fiction do you most like and why?
I guess I’ll keep coming back to Andy Dufresne in Stephen Kings Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. There’s a reason why this movie/book always finds itself in the top five 'best ever movie' list. I read it first when I was a young teenager. King wrote four novella's and put them together in Different Season's where arguably the Shawshank Redemption is the best. The main character, Andy Dufresne, framed and locked away for a crime he didn’t commit begins his journey, green, angry and determined to prove his innocence. His story is one of survival of the terrible truth, that life isn't fair and that, in fact, it can be downright cruel. King gives us an amazing character, intelligent, educated, passionate and above all unquenchable. It is characters like him that remind me of who I am, what my fight is and what life is all about. I still get goose bumps when I think of the pure genius evoked in the making of that character. Remarkable.
What do you like to do to relax?
Watching really bad TV in front of the fire helps turn my brain off. Other than that I find housework quite relaxing once the stereo is on very high. Suffice to say I don't relax very often.
What make's writing good?
There is nothing better. A chance to create something from nothing. To connect and affect, inspire or disgust, inform, reveal, challenge, turn on or off; whatever the case may be. It’s a dance between strangers, never the same with any two. To sit in someone's psyche as many sit in mine. The opportunity to communicate, share and affect make's it better than good, it's a privilege.
What makes a winning story?
That's subjective really. For me it's when a writer leaves the reader in. A winning story for me asks the reader, 'what do you think?' not, 'here’s what I think.'
When you are choosing a book what do you look for? An attractive cover, the first page or a middle extract or the blurb.
It's an unusual process really. I'm like a magpie usually attracted to the cover first. The publishers are quite good, categorizing styles with tones and font to match the content. I go for the cover first, muted colours, clean, sharp, odd. Then I briefly read the blurb, flicking to the first chapter. I'll know within one or two line's if I'm going to have a row with myself over buying it.
If you were to start over again - what would you differently?Not one thing.