Thursday, June 07, 2012

New Voice: Lynda Mullaly Hunt on One for the Murphys

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Lynda Mullaly Hunt is the first-time author of One for the Murphys (Nancy Paulsen/Penguin, 2012)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

In the wake of heart-breaking betrayal, Carley Connors is thrust into foster care and left on the steps of the Murphys, a happy, bustling family.

Carley has thick walls and isn’t rattled easily, but this is a world she just doesn’t understand. A world that frightens her.

So, she resists this side of life she’d believed did not exist with dinners around a table and a “zip your jacket, here’s your lunch” kind of mom.

However, with the help of her Broadway-obsessed and unpredictable friend, Toni, the Murphys do the impossible in showing Carley what it feels like to belong somewhere. But when her mother wants her back, will she lose the only family that she has ever known?

Could you tell us the story of "the call" or "the email" when you found out that your book had sold? How did you react? How did you celebrate?

Oh boy. The call.

When I signed with agent Erin Murphy, she warned me that a literary novel could be a tough sell in this market. I was prepared for anything. After revisions, we sent it to about 10 editors. There was interest from one publisher but it fell through because, 'It wouldn't be a break out success.'¨

After about six rejections came in, all saying roughly the same thing, I suggested to Erin that I revise. Her response was confident and calm (not like me). "No. Not yet."

View from Lynda's window.
While attending ALA in Boston, I met up with Erin and another agent from EMLA, Joan Paquette, at the "Tweet Up,¨ a casual mingling session for 150 writing professionals/tweeters.

I was causing harmless mischief by dressing Erin up as a Sox fan and trying to coax her into staying longer than she should so we could talk to an editor that had my manuscript on her desk. (Erin hesitated because she didn't want to run late for another appointment. So responsible, that Erin.)

"C'mon, Murphy¨ I'd coaxed. "Two minutes. It'll be fun!" I had no idea.

So, Erin and I were having a rather pleasant conversation with editor A, when a tall, graceful woman came through the crowd and hugged Erin. Erin introduced the woman to me as Nancy Paulsen, a name I recognized.

They chatted for a bit and Nancy said something about what she was looking for in a manuscript.

Erin replied by pitching my novel and then asking, "May I send it to you on Monday?"

Nancy agreed and they took out their Blackberries and made notes.

I couldn't believe it. Really? Did I just witness that?

Weeks later, Erin e-mailed me to say that Nancy had contacted her about my manuscript; they had scheduled a phone call for the following day. Erin warned me, however, that there probably wouldn't be an offer from Nancy, but a request for revisions. That sounded good to me!

The next day, I was sitting at my desk with my cell, when the ringtone I'd set for Erin started to play "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," by Stevie Wonder.

I answered.

Erin: "Now, what song is it that you told me plays when I call your phone?¨

"Signed, Sealed, Delivered?¨ (I'm still completely clueless here.)

"Well that's perfect, because we have an offer on the table from Penguin.¨

Okay. Imagine bottle rockets launching into the air. Imagine a drag racer with no parachute. Imagine me in my office.

I reacted even before it had sunk in. This was good old fashioned shock. And I had a whole lack of eloquence thing going there, too. "Oh my God! Really? Oh my God. Really? Oh my God! Really?¨

So, I finally calmed down and thanked Erin for all she'd done. For her faith in me and in my book. For making a dream come true. And we both got a little weepy.

At the end of my life, when MTV counts down my ten best moments, this will be there.

Lynda's desktop.
Now, I'd always imagined how cool I would be telling my family about this kind of success. Clever. Calm. Collected. Suave, even--how I'd smoothly slip it in to conversation.

Erm--not so much. My body hasn't moved like that since I ran hurdles in the 10th grade. I went leaping and screaming into the kitchen, my voice blaring and choking at the same time. "The Murphys sold! Oh my God! It sold! The Murphys sold!"

My husband, who was in the kitchen, spun around and I could hear my daughter running down the hallway upstairs. We jumped around in chaotic happiness.

My son had been playing with the kids next door, so the three of us threw open the front door on that bright March day and ran next door in our stocking feet to tell him.

I am one blessed woman, let me tell you. I have a super-supportive family and network of friends.

So, Erin Murphy is my agent. And Nancy Paulsen is my publisher/editor.

As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a teacher has been a blessing to your writing?

We all have different facets of ourselves. Some people refer to it as wearing different hats. Well, three pieces of myself--author, teacher, and former child--came together like a braid to create One for the Murphys. If one had not existed, it could not have held together.

Truthfully, there is a lot of the "teen me" in Carley, my main character. She is self-protected, spirited, and suspicious of love. She's sad and confused, knowing that there are things in the world that she will never have. Not the kinds of things that don't matter--the things that do. And she is keenly aware of the difference.

Thing is, things just were; I never analyzed myself, especially at a time when these issues were not discussed in school, easily found in books, on television, and in movies. Although, I remember seeing a movie called, "A Girl Named Sooner" and being floored by it. I understood her. She even looked like me. I watched for years for it to come on television again. It never did.

One thing that puzzled me, though, were my cousins who seemed to be similar to me but were better versions. Their families bustling and happy. Comparing myself to them, I made assumptions about myself that turned out to be incorrect. (Like I wasn't as smart as them or was somehow "less than.")

Thing is, I felt these things but couldn't label them. That's the thing with kids sometimes--they know how they feel but are sometimes unable to label it. With maturity and the ability to put words to it, it becomes something that is easier to understand, I think. However, with that understanding comes a bucketful of other things, not all good.

I was told I could never have a happy life. I was told that I wasn't smart enough. I resisted believing any of it. I was encouraged to choose a life I'm glad that I didn't choose.

Being told I couldn't have "that kind of life" only made me want it more, and so I built that future, tiny piece upon tiny piece. Every time a part of me whispered that it couldn't possibly work out, I told it to shut up and replaced it with something else like a song with the kinds of lyrics I needed to hear. Over and over I would listen. Over and over.

Lynda as a baby.
I had the wisdom to be happy for the things I did have, and, in many ways, I really was an over-the-top-fortunate child. I focused on being grateful.

I don't know why. I can't take credit for it. A blessing from God, I suppose. Like the way some people can just play the piano with no training. I just knew. Had an understanding. A wisdom about the world from a young age.

So, I was this funny mix of observant, laser-focus, long-term thinking, and yet I stayed under the radar, rarely letting adults know what I was capable of and was skeptical of love.

Well, except for my big brother, Ricky; I always knew he loved me. Always.

That must have been enough.

Flash forward. I am a graduate of the U. Conn School of Education. I started off bumpy but ended up with impressive recommendation letters from student teaching and a near-perfect average by the time I graduate with a masters. I am teaching third grade in a small town in Connecticut.

And. I. Just. Love. It.

I was good with the kids that were considered trouble-makers. I understood them. When their behaviors made no sense to other adults, I knew their undercurrents. I also understood that every kid has a currency; you just have to figure out what it is. With many of those "troublesome" kids, their wish was simply to be seen and heard.

Bagel
So, for work completed or good behavior, I would give rewards of my time. One-on-one lunches. Chess after school. Basketball games. Helping me with bulletin boards. It depended on the child.

Meanwhile, I was getting an education in why I was the way I was when I was young. I was developing an understanding for the injustice of a lot of it through the eyes of a woman that would become a person who held up a mirror and demanded I look into it, through her eyes. I suppose, between being protective of my students and opening myself up to her, I looked upon myself with more compassion.

The author piece? Well, that was an accident, I guess. An accident I worked long and very hard for.

After attending multiple critique groups, SCBWI conferences, taking over as director of the SCBWI Whispering Pines Retreat, and writing an unpublishable novel (that served in teaching me a lot about craft) these vivid scenes appeared in my head one day.

They were about a girl waking up in a hospital; I could feel her confusion and fatigue. I could smell the hospital. She is dropped into a foster family that shows her a side of life she didn't think existed. The idea of these people genuinely caring for her frightens her, so she pushes them away. Or tries to, anyway. I'm embarrassed to admit how long it took me to make the connection between Carley and myself.

Lynda and her mom on the day of her high school graduation.
Without being the child I was, I wouldn't have had an understanding of the many conflicting layers of Carley. Without the teacher, I don't know that I would have developed a full appreciation for what my childhood behaviors really meant. And then there's the writer that rose up through the middle of me and demanded I get it down on paper. Honestly, I didn't seriously have my eye on publication for about seven years of this 10 year journey.

I wrote because I loved it and I worked hard at it because I loved it enough to want to be better at it. Like a sliver I just had to get out. Get it down in all of its emotional honesty. No filters.

After all, no one else was going to read it anyway, right?

And then I met this agent.

But that's another story.

Cynsational Notes

Follow Lynda at Twitter.



8 comments:

Margie said...

One for the Murphys is definitely on my shopping list for this weekend. Thank you so much for this enlightening interview.

Addy Rae said...

This is a wonderful story. Congratulations! I'm so glad your hard work paid off! :)

Michelle Cusolito said...

Lynda,
What a wonderfully honest telling of your story. Thank you for sharing these parts of yourself.

Carol Gordon Ekster said...

Great and inspiring interview. Writers hang in there...with perseverance, your dreams can come true, too. Cynthia, thanks for helping out the writing community with your fabulous blog and for all you do for other authors.

Rosi said...

I LOVE this book. And I think this is a wonderful in-depth interview. Thanks for posting it. Those of you who haven't read One for the Murphys yet -- get it! Read it! It's terrific!

Lisa Jenn Bigelow said...

OMG BAGEL!!!

I just got my hands on One for the Murphys today. Can't wait to read it!

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Happy reading, Margie & Lisa!

Thanks for the cheers, Addy & Rosi!

Michelle, I was likewise wowed by the post as well many other people. It really went viral this week.

And Carol, I appreciate your kind words. Thank you.

Doreen said...

Honored to be your friend!!

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