Last Action Rabbits & Dead Bored Teens
An Interview with Tamsyn Murray
Before I go any further, I want to admit that I very nearly didn't interview Tamsyn. I mean, she's been on my "to ask for an interview" list ever since I read the first chapter of her Young Adult novel, My So Called Afterlife. I often saw her on twitter, she always came across as lovely and – important for a writer – she has truly fabulous hair. Unfortunately, there is a new roving reporter on the block, by the name of Littlest Smailes. I read this interview here in a strange mix of horror and professional respect. I knew I could never compete with such searching questions, and Tamsyn informed me that, having signed a confidentiality agreement, she was unable to discuss her relationship with the Easter Bunny.
Still, I'm not a quitter. As searching as the interview by Littlest Smailes proved to be (and seriously, one of the writing magazines should give her a job), there were a few extra things I wanted to ask Tamsyn about her experiences writing for children and for teenagers. Luckily, Tamsyn seemed to like my questions too, and was happy to do an interview.
Hello Tamysn, welcome to the Literary Project. Can you tell us what started you writing?
On impulse, I bought a copy of Wannabe A Writer? by Jane Wenham-Jones. In it, she suggested writing short stories for womens' magazines. Inspired, I sat down and wrote one straight away. It came back a month later, along with a standard rejection note. So I tried again and after a few attempts, I made a breakthrough and sold a short story to My Weekly magazine. There was no stopping me after that.
Can you talk us through your path to publication?
I've been really lucky because my path wasn't difficult one. Once I'd written My So-Called Afterlife, I sent it to an agent who had just started out with a very well established literary agency. She loved the manuscript and sent it to some publishers. Piccadilly Press was one of the first to see it and offered me a publishing deal a few months later.
Do you have an agent? If so, what are the key benefits?
I do. The obvious benefit of having an agent is that they get your work in front of editors faster than fighting your way out of the slushpile. Mine also tactfully suggests ways in which I can improve my manuscript. She's full of good advice about the publishing world, too. Occasionally, she takes me to lunch at The Ivy :)
My So Called Afterlife has the best opening line I have ever read. Aspiring writers are always advised to hook potential agents and editors with the first line of their manuscript, so please tell us, where did the inspiration for that line come from? Did you slave over it for weeks, or did Lucy's voice just appear fully formed?
Thank you! The opening line came first and the rest of the book followed. I'd been thinking about writing a short ghost story and was wondering what would happen if the building the ghost haunted was knocked down, and something unsavoury built on top - like a toilet. The next thing I knew, the ghost had morphed into a snarky teen called Lucy, demanding that I tell her story. I didn't dare refuse.
You write for both young readers with the Stunt Bunny books, and for teenagers with My So Called Afterlife. What are the key differences in writing for two such contrasting audiences? If you were forced to pick only one to write in on pain of bad hair days for the rest of your life, which would you go for?
Noooo, you can't ask me that! It's like asking me to choose my favourite pet.
I love writing for younger readers, and actually have a funny picture book coming out in 2011. The best part is allowing the silliness in my nature to run riot - I like playing with words and making my characters do crazy things. It wouldn't be half as enjoyable to write if my characters were normal or boring.
Writing for teens is still fun but the humour is more sophisticated and I get to explore different situations. In Lucy's case, she's lost everything but still manages to find happiness. The next book has a living main character who isn't quite as sarcastic but still likes to laugh. I'm not actually sure I could write a serious book. Maybe someday I'll try...
Young Adult fiction is currently very much the "big thing" in publishing. What advice would you give to anyone wanting to write in this sector? What differentiates it from writing for children, and writing for adults?
I look at what's on the shelves already and think that YA is one of the toughest markets to break into. There are so many fabulous books and original concepts out there already that I wonder if there's room for much more. I do think it's fabulous that teens are reading more and that YA is a growth area but if I was starting out on my writing career now, I'd probably aim for the younger end of the market, possibly 9 - 12 years.
The Holy Grail of childrens' and YA writing is, of course, the crossover novel and I think that shows that writing for younger readers doesn't mean you can offer up anything other than top quality work. Children have a much lower boredom threshold and won't persist with a book where an adult might. If they pick up your book, you'd better be sure you grab their attention and hold it hostage until the very last page. Otherwise, they'll move on. That's why some books do achieve crossover status; because the writing is top-notch. Or contains a sparkly vampire :)
Often, people think that writing for children is somehow easier than writing for adults. Why do you think this is? What dare the specific challenges with writing for children?
I hear that a lot. The perception is definitely that children's books are easier to write, possibly because they tend to be shorter, although that's often not the case. Then there's the idea that kids are somehow less discerning, which as I stated above, isn't the case at all.
The challenge is to do something different to catch their attention and then to get them to read it. I used to go to my local library a lot when I was in my teens and it allowed me to try many different genres, because it didn't matter if I didn't like it, I could simply take it back and borrow something else. If a child or teenager invests money in a book then they want to be sure they're going to enjoy it and are more likely to go for a tried and trusted author instead of branching out.
Where writing is concerned, which bit do you find the hardest (and how do you overcome it), and which is your favourite section of the process?
I find the first draft the hardest bit. The idea of writing xx number of words to a deadline terrifies me and I have to force myself to sit down and do it. But I do force myself because the next part is my favourite part; editing to make it better. I think I was a dab hand with the beeswax in a former life (not in this one as I'm allergic to housework) because I do love to polish!
Has anything surprised you about the publishing world?
I don't think I realised how close-knit it was. Everyone seems to know everyone else and word travels very fast around the community. I like the way most people in publishing are supportive, even if you're associated with a supposed rival company. We're united by a love of words and I haven't met anyone I didn't like.
What are you working on right now?
I'm writing the next book in the Afterlife series, which I can't say too much about, other than to say I'm really excited about it. The illustrations for Stunt Bunny: Tour Troubles (out Feb 2011) should be in soon and I can't wait to see them but, in the meantime, I'm also working on a new Stunt Bunny book, which should be out in September 2011.
Tell us about My So Called Haunting.
My So-Called Haunting introduces a new main character in Skye Thackery, a fourteen year old psychic. She's just moved to London to live with her aunt, Celestine, and it's not long before she's getting dangerously involved with the local residents, ghostly and otherwise. Readers of My So-Called Afterlife will recognise some familiar faces and I'm hoping they love Skye as much as Lucy. They're very different girls but I like to think they'd get along if they met. Who knows, maybe I'll introduce them someday!
What is your ultimate writing goal?
That's an easy one; to write full-time. At the moment, I have a day job, which I'd like to give up. If my boss is reading this, don't worry; it's not happening any time soon!
And finally, can you give any aspiring children's or young adult authors out there a key piece of advice in one sentence?
Read the competition - how do you know if your idea is different enough to succeed if you don't know what else is out there?
Tamysn's fabulous YA novel, My So Called Afterlife, can be found over here (and you can Look Inside, so check out the opening line), and the first Stunt Bunny book is on sale here. She can be found at her website over here, and tweets as @Tamsyntweetie.
I for one am excitedly awaiting the release of My So Called Haunting, which can be pre-ordered (or bought, if you're reading this a few weeks past publication) from here. In fact, I'd go so far as to say I'm on the verge of a fan girl moment.