Q&A with Julie Murphy (Side Effects May Vary, Dumplin’)

Julie+Murphy+Author+Photo+copyJulie Murphy lives in North Texas with her husband who loves her, her dog who adores her, and her cats who tolerate her. When she’s not writing or trying to catch stray cats, she can be found reading, traveling, or watching movies so bad they’re good. Her debut contemporary young adult novel, Side Effects May Vary, is out from Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins and has been well-received by Kirkus, School Library Journal, VOYA, Booklist, Seventeen Magazine, and Teen Vogue. Dumplin’, Julie’s sophomore novel has received glowing reviews including two stars from Publishers Weekly and Booklist. Film rights have been optioned by Disney.

(This interview was conducted at this year’s Midwest Writer’s Workshop and focuses primarily on SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY. A separate interview with Julie about DUMPLIN’ is available to read on Amanda Byk’s blog.)

RL: If Alice and Harvey went to Hogwarts, which house would each of them have been sorted into and why?

JM: Oh, mhm, this is a good question. It’s been a long time since I’ve written this book. Okay, I would have to say that Harvey is totally…hang on, oh my gosh. This is such a good question.

RL: [laughing] I’m putting you on the spot for their Hogwarts houses.

JM: No, no, no, I’m obsessed with Harry Potter, so this is a great question. Okay, so Harvey’s a Gryffindor, right? Harvey is such a Gryffindor. And not even because he necessarily meets the requirements of a Gryffindor, but Harvey is the person who would put the Sorting Hat on and ask the Sorting Hat to put him in Gryffindor. And I think that for those same reasons, Alice is a Slytherin. I think there are lots of thing about Alice that don’t necessarily make her Slytherin, but I think that she is one of those people who would self-select and be like, “Put me in Slytherin.” But she’s also manipulative and a little conniving, I say that like those are bad things — I’m also Slytherin. 

RL: I saw on your Twitter profile! I’m a Ravenclaw.

JM: I used to say that I was a Slytherclaw, but I’m pretty solidly Slytherin. But I think those two would self-select; I think they would have a clear idea of what they want.

RL: And it’s like a good match, since they’re at odds so much, but still kind of fit together.

JM: Yeah, yeah! It’s like Draco/Harry, like slash-fic, but with Alice and Harvey.

RL: Kind of going off Alice’s manipulations and such, then, I’ve read in other interviews where you talk about how Alice acts as her own antagonist, which I really love — but do you think that’s just her as a character or do you think it’s just a side effect of all of the experiences that she’s gone through, with her cancer and everything?

JM: I think Alice — Alice is sort of like, “What if the worst case scenario happened to someone who is already a prickly person?” You know what I mean? Someone who already is very specific about the people they hang out with, is very specific about everything they do, and everything they say. So I think that it’s a little bit of both. I think that her circumstances, like her mother cheating and her being diagnosed with cancer, have sort of created this caricature version of Alice. It’s sorted of created this worst-case-scenario, villainous version of Alice where normally this prickly version of Alice can navigate the world, and for the most part, not kill anyone. But when her world is exploding, that’s just not possible anymore.

RL: In what ways do you think you relate to both Alice and Harvey, since you tell it from both of their points-of-view?

JM: You know, I think that a younger version of myself relates a lot to Harvey because I have been in that position where I let someone else dictate a relationship, and I let them take advantage of me. And what was horrible about that position is that I’ve always felt like such an Alice. You know what I mean?

(At this point in the interview, Natalie C. Parker walked into the green room where we were recording, and Julie joked that she couldn’t be smart around Natalie. The previous question was repeated and picked back up after Natalie left — post-best friend banter between the two.)

JM: So I definitely feel like I have been a Harvey in the past, but what made being a Harvey so bad is that internally I’ve always been such an Alice, and I was aware that I was being manipulated, but love and infatuation and lust let you  no matter how strong of a person you are or no matter how aggressive of a person you are, you can be manipulated by those things. I think that those are some of the strongest passions that we have, you know? So I’ve been a little bit of both, but I think at heart I’m an Alice, like I’m a very cool  hopefully — a very cool, down, like leveled version of Alice, maybe a little bit like her mom, you know.

RL: Alice after she learns and grows!

JM: Yeah, Alice after the storm, I hope.

RL: If you had the power to travel to a different time, when would you travel and why, what would you do when you got there?

JM: You’re asking really difficult questions! Okay, so, I think, so this is a horrible answer and you guys probably don’t even know what I’m talking about ’cause you’re young and pretty — I am obsessed with Steel Magnolias. Okay? So I think if I could time travel back in time, let’s pretend that Steel Magnolias is its own alternate universe, in 80s Louisiana, with Dolly Parton. That’s what I would travel back to  I would just live in that little salon with Dolly Parton and gossip with everyone forever for the rest of my life. So it’s not real history, but — 

RL: It’s like an alternative history; I totally accept it. As writers, alternative universes are our thing.

RL: How did your writing process change from Side Effects May Vary to Dumplin’?

JM: So. Freaking. Much. So Side Effects May Vary, after I published this book, I got a lot of questions about like, “How did you handle the dual points of view? And the two various timelines? Like, how did you possibly do this?” And the answer to that question is that I didn’t — I didn’t know that was I was doing was difficult and I didn’t know any better. Because it was really easy for me as I was writing to write an Alice scene in the present and then for that Alice scene to then present questions that only a Harvey scene in the past could answer. So it sort of  it’s a horrible answer because I’m telling you it was a really lazy way that I came about it? Does that make sense? But it was also, like, a totally amateur — like, I was hungry for that story, and I was trying to fill in the blanks for that story, and I think everyone has this experience at least once when they’re writing a book where it’s just — you feel like you’re a savage, you just have to write this book because you want to know what happens next. And it’s not that I don’t like everything that I write now, but this is the only time I’ve ever felt like “If I don’t keep writing, I’m going to turn into a monster, and I have to keep writing this story right now.” And that’s part of the thing with the two timelines and the two points of view, is that I was coming up with these questions that I had to answer, and that was the only way that I could answer those questions.

RL: I had another question just about how you met Molly, because I’m her assistant [at the workshop], but you kind of answered that in the agent/author panel, so it’s a redundant question, I don’t want to make you talk about it twice. But were you thinking about how your novel might be received in response to the “sick lit” sub-genre of YA as you were writing it? Post-TFiOS?

JM: So Side Effects came out after out after The Fault in Our Stars, what’s funny about  everyone thinks that I’m going to be somehow upset about The Fault in Our Stars, or annoyed by it, but what’s actually wonderful about The Fault in Our Stars is it created a space for my book to sell very quickly. Because I queried — so The Fault in Our Stars came out in like January, right? Of whatever — of like, 2012? Yeah, whatever year it was, it came out in January of that year, and I queried in February of that year, and so I think the term “sick lit” is gross and disgusting, but people were looking for books about teenagers who were dealing with terminal illnesses, and so when I queried, it was like wild fire. And I think that Molly and I still would have found each other, ’cause she loves that book — I could take cancer out of that book, and she would still love that book, ’cause she loves that book for Alice, and she loves that book for Harvey, so the cancer is sort of like a moot point in that book. You could replace cancer with “Alice thought she was going to move out of town, and she ends up not moving at the very last minute.” So I understand why it gets categorized as “sick lit,” but I don’t think it’s necessarily defined by that term.

RL: I don’t like that term either, ’cause it just like — it puts everything into a box, and then the term “sick” itself is just kind of a bad term, and then it makes it sound like books within that society-created genre are bad, and it’s like, “No, books aren’t bad!” 

JM: No, they’re not bad — and I don’t think — it’s such an exploitive term, it makes it sound like I’m in some way exploiting people who’ve had cancer, but I think that — I mean that Molly would have found that book no matter what, and I think that, you know, the cancer thing is just the vehicle for the story, I think it could be replaced by something else. Hopefully all of the cancer and all of that stuff in the book is realistic, but I think it’s replaceable in the book, or at least I hope it is.

RL: Yeah, ’cause I was thinking when I was reading the book for the first time — it’s not even that much of a focal point. It’s something that affects Alice, but it’s like, you get Alice in the first chapter finding out and about her mom, but then by chapter three, in her next point of view chapter, you find out she’s in remission, so it’s not about her finding out or anything, it’s about dealing with the consequences and the side effects.

JM: Yeah, and I think that we — I was talking about this in my YA intensive class, there’s a lot of discussions about at what point should you start a book? Do you start a book when your character’s world changes? Or do you start a book when your character’s arc changes in response to their world changing? Do you know what I mean? So do I start the book when Alice is diagnosed with cancer, do I start the book — no, you start the book when she has to start reacting to the world around her, and that’s when — there are two specific arcs in the book, and that’s when she finds out her mom is cheating and when she finds out she’s in remission. That’s when Alice has her real emotional shifts in this book.


#MWW16: Diversity, Paper Hats, and Wonderful People, Oh My!

In my last blog post, I described how terrifying the cursor over a blank page is, and now I’m facing that same dilemma. That same dilemma even though I have so much to say about MWW and so much love in my heart for the entire conference (from the insightful panels to photo booth fun with the loves of my life, AKA my fellow agent assistants).

Where to start?

At the conference, I worked as the agent assistant for the incomparable Molly Jaffa, and let me just tell you all how much I admire her — I wish I could say I asked super insightful questions during downtime between her pitches, but I felt so tongue-tied (awkward and anxious person that I am) because she’s so good at what she does and that was simultaneously inspiring and intimidating.

Even though I didn’t ask as many questions as I so desperately wanted to but failed to think of, I learned so much just from sitting at her table, and here are just a few of these things that I learned both from Molly and the conference as a whole:

— Middle grade novels focus more on literal monsters, whereas YA tends to be more like “I am the monster because of my feelings” and about the emotional arc of the characters. Sitting in on pitches was so enlightening, especially as someone who’s always been on the verge of starting a YA novel, because everyone wants to write YA. It’s popular now, and that’s great, but don’t write it just because it sells. Middle grade is just as important and might actually be a better fit for the plot and characters you have.

— The majority of YA is in first person because YA is about immediacy, about as few differences as possible between the reader and the character. Don’t be afraid of third person YA, just know that this is why you see so much first person YA. (Also — maybe try your hand at second person in your writing as a disguised form of first person. I learned so much on this subject from Tom Williams‘ panel on second person POV; if you want my notes, I’m more than happy to give them to you!)

— If you weren’t already aware, I’m going to shout this from the rooftops — we need diverse representation in our literature. Molly is a huge proponent of this — one of the first things she said at the agent panel on the Friday I met her was a description of a book she’d signed about a girl who’s out as a lesbian but not out as a witch in Salem. How cool is that? And how important will that be for teenagers who haven’t come out of the closet? Be a proponent of diversity and equality in what you read, write, and share with the world. This is what Natalie C. Parker (whose books I can’t wait to start reading!) said was a reason she was so drawn to Molly as an agent above others, and it bears repeating.

— On that same note — sensitivity readers. Find them. If you’re going to write diversely, don’t do it because it’s a trend, because it’s not (at his buttonhole table, Jim McCarthy explained this is one of the things he’s tired of seeing in his inbox). Try to attain authenticity instead of appropriation.

— Literature, YA especially, works as windows and mirrors. Windows to see others, mirrors to see ourselves. I can’t tell you how much I’d loved hearing Molly ask a writer for a full manuscript about a girl with Down Syndrome, and I can’t tell you how difficult it was not to cry during Julie Murphy’s Keynote when she talked about seeing the movie Spy starring Melissa McCarthy. “Sometimes you don’t realize how hungry you are for your own reflection until you finally see it,” Julie said — and if you’re thinking that all I learned about was diversity at this conference, it wasn’t, but I think using this space to talk so much about diversity is crucial. I could talk about how much fun I had goofing around with the other agent assistants, because I had the best time in the world, but the pictures speak for that; to achieve diversity, we have to actively speak about it and champion it.

— On a final note — paper hats are great at putting people at ease, and Molly makes great ones.UIWww76-2

Get your paper hats ready for next year, everyone — I’m sure it’s going to be equally (if not more) amazing, and I can’t wait to see familiar faces and new faces alike there!

Let’s Go on a Writing Date

The cursor looming over a blank document is terrifying, and finding time to open the document in the first place can be just as impossible as actually writing.

Except I’ve recently asked myself this — is it actually so difficult to find that time to write or am I making excuses? What about the time I spend watching YouTube videos or re-watching episodes of Miraculous Ladybug that I’ve seen hundreds of times? Why am I not using that time to write?

One of the YouTube videos I watched when I could have been writing is this one by Fran Meneses, an illustrator and YouTuber also known as Frannerd:
I recommend just watching the video to understand fully what she’s saying about drawing dates, but when I watched the video, I came away with an idea — writing dates.

The premise is simple — find an acquaintance, a friend, a classmate, whoever, and go to a museum/park/etc. with the intention of writing and actually write. Use a painting as a prompt, describe what the kids playing Frisbee look like and what they might be thinking, or just write your thoughts. The point is to free write, and if you can multitask, talk with your friend at the same time. Bounce story ideas off each other, share what you’re reading — be actively involved in your own small literary community if only for thirty minutes while you sit on that museum bench or park bench.

And if you’re not a writer? Maybe try a reading date. Bring a book you love, and have your friend bring a book they love, and trade. Sit and read for thirty minutes, an hour, think about why they love that book and appreciate its craft for what it is.

Not only will you learn more about the other person, but you’ll have beaten that excuse of “Oh, I just don’t have time for reading and writing.” Make time for what you love and for your craft in the same way you make time for the people in your lives.

(Fran also has some recommendations for going out in this way and what to remember in this blog post.)

From Concrete to Debris: Side Effects May Vary

“I knew what this looked like. It looked like I was using Harvey. But here was the reality of the situation: the minute my life went from semipermanent to most likely temporary, I decided to latch on to everything in my world that had always been permanent, and for me, Harvey was so permanent he was concrete.”

In Julie Murphy’s first novel Side Effects May Vary, childhood best friends Alice and Harvey find themselves together again after Alice is diagnosed with leukemia. Divided between Alice and Harvey’s perspectives in chapters titled “then” and “now,” the novel follows the two on every path of Alice’s journey with cancer, from the beginning of high school and her revenge-filled kick-the-bucket list to the other side, where Alice learns she’s in remission.

But is remission the good news it should be? For Alice, who was preparing to die, the situation is bittersweet as she must now deal with the repercussions of her actions and face the realities of her relationship with Harvey, especially as he struggles with his feelings for her, reflecting, “But, really, I loved her, and that hurt the worst of all because I was tired of being her debris.” Will she lose the best friend she finally connected with again when she was dying? Or will she find a way to adjust to truly living once more without pushing Harvey and his love away?15728577

Murphy has crafted narrators that both fight and balance each other as they struggle to find their footing in their own past and present. Alice’s narration is particularly polarizing, allowing for Harvey’s emotions to inform the reader as Alice breaks down both the manic pixie dream girl trope and the interplay of likable and realistic narrators, as she describes, “I was rotten on the inside, and I didn’t know if that had happened over time or if it had always been so.” While the novel hinges on Alice’s diagnosis, the real meat of the plot concerns the very side effects of the diagnosis, pre- and post-remission, and how it impacts each character as they collide with Alice and Harvey’s story.

This review is also available to read on the Midwest Writers Workshop blog and on my Goodreads.


On Fanfiction and Reader Engagement

In a world where fangirl culture is now being labelled as crazy, admitting to reading — or writing — fanfiction is akin to placing a target on your back, but I have a confession:

I regularly read fanfiction.

Fire away, but keep reading, hear me out.

I could attempt to hedge my statement by protesting that I only read it before bed, when I know a book would keep me awake, but I don’t think my statement should need any hedging — do you know why?

Because fanfiction shows enthusiasm for reading, because fanfiction is writing for an authentic audience that wants to engage with what they’re reading, and that’s incredible.

(Authentic audiences are one of the keys to crafting good writing assignments, I’ve learned, and the teacher in me couldn’t not mention them.)

It was the teacher in me that asked Jane Friedman how to get students interested in publishing when they’re still learning their craft. I had expected some sort of answer about teaching students how the publishing industry works early on, but the answer I received was infinitely better and was something with which I was already familiar.

She suggested Wattpad, explaining that writing in small chapters for established characters and universes not only allows for practicing writers to get on-site feedback, but also provides inspiration and motivation and helps to combat writer’s block and the anxiety coupled with that kind of block.

Friedman’s words are golden, essentially, and are key to remember whenever we even think of looking down on fanfiction. People can be cruel and look down on poorly written fanfiction, but all writers start at differing skill levels, and all of these writers love what they’re writing about — don’t squash that love.

Think about the last book you really loved. What did you do after you read it?

I’m the type of reader to re-read the chapters and passages that I loved, sighing with content and hoping I’ll eventually write a book that causes the same reaction for someone, but words are finite, and there is only so much re-reading that can be done, which is where fanfiction can come in.

When I’m rereading Percy Jackson for the hundredth time (fear not, dear blog readers; I will never stop mentioning my love for PJO), I eventually have to put the book down, but I can easily pick up my phone and pop over to AO3 and read anything from a canon-compliant fanfic from Annabeth’s POV to a Percabeth soulmate AU where Percy is in a band (something I recently read, and let me tell you, it was wonderful).


And when I press “kudos” on that story, I’m letting that writer know that I think they did a good job, thereby supporting their craft and their enthusiasm.

And that’s not even the best part — I’m working to better my own writing, because what’s the number one tip people give when asked how to become a better writer?

Read and read widely.

(Even fanfiction.)