TEMPLE OF LITERATURE:
an interview with Ruby J Murray
Some of us grow up with a sense of crisis. We have a persistent feeling that there’s a looming catastrophe that we need to respond to in whatever way we can. Perhaps the seed to the politically engaged writer is found here, rather than in a more abstract sense of compassion for unknown people and a vast, oblivious planet. So I’m wondering if you’ve ever felt the pressure of that crisis and how you understand your own political motivations as a writer.
RUBY J MURRAY
An ex-partner of mine grew up in California in the last years of the Cold War, when Reagan was rumbling about Star Wars and the nuclear war was something people thought could happen at any moment. He and his friends used to tell stories about Duck and Cover, and how they used to practice it in the classroom, jumping down under their tables and putting their arms over their heads when the teacher blew a whistle. I think that’s what it means to grow up with a sense of crisis.
I was born in the early 80s. I remember sitting on the carpet in the front room of the house I grew up in and having my Mum make me watch the Berlin Wall coming down. For all we laugh at Francis Fukuyama’s End of History now, for a while people really believed he was on to something. I don’t know if I have a sense of on-going political crisis, so much as a sense of inevitability: that politics is a process, and that crises will continue to arise.
I did grow up with a sense of the importance of stories, though. My mother is a writer, and a consummate story-teller, and for a long time it was unclear to me what stories about the world were ‘true’ and what were not. At eight, I probably would have told you that Hansel and Gretel were historical figures. And in a way, they are. All story-telling is political. The degree to which we’re aware of it while we’re doing it varies, but it’s all political.
Growing up with a writer for a mother must have been interesting. My own parents were immigrants from Serbia and the bookshelves at home were filled with literary artifacts from the life they’d left behind. I didn’t speak English until I went to primary school, so for me, the search for literary identity involved setting out across unknown seas and there was a promise (rather than a threat) of drowning. It’s with a bit of envy that I imagine a childhood with literature growing up around the home like lemon trees planted in the backyard and grass that just needed a bit of a sprinkle of water. But I know there can be other challenges in that kind of life, so I was wondering if you could tell me a little more about that literary childhood.
RUBY J MURRAY
My mother would never let me sleep if I laid claim to that one. For the first half of my literary childhood I was what you’d probably call functionally illiterate. Reading required time, and solitude, and was therefore boring. My mum spent a lot of despairing time cutting letters out of sandpaper so I could trace them with my fingers in an attempt to get me to read, and I spent a lot of time posting said letters through the cracks in the floors, of which our house had an obliging number.
I was convinced I was going to grow up and be Shirley Temple, and I spent a lot of time at the Camberwell Markets in tap-dancing shoes singing Shirley classics while my younger brother strummed his ukulele in a batman suit and my mother tried to defend us from the hecklers. (I was pretty tone deaf, too, and missing a few front teeth through no fault of my own.)
Then, pretty much overnight, my parents decided to move us all to France. It sounds romantic but wasn’t. None of us spoke the language, my parents included. Becoming deaf and mute overnight was terrifying, isolating, and I guess I can sympathise in a way with that for you.
On the up-side, I suddenly had a lot of time, a lot of solitude, no one to talk to, and an attic of books. And so I started reading. Not because I wanted to, but really because I had no choice: it was that, or shrivel up with my own loneliness. I eventually picked up the French, as children do, and so the move ended up giving me language in more ways than one, and teaching me about the importance of communication.
But even before I started reading, both my parents read to us every night, or told stories when we ran out of books. My mother made them up for us, some that lasted months, and which we still try and nag her to write and publish, even though she rolls her eyes at us. I don’t know what makes for a literary childhood. I’ve never thought to describe mine that way. Maybe it was in some ways, although I think itinerant would be better. My mother, who is the YA writer Kirsty Murray, didn’t start writing for publication until I was in my teens. She’s now published 13 books, the most recent of which, India Dark, was launched last week. Before that my parents had eclectic careers, as artists in various guises. I think what she had was an appreciation of stories, and what they can do for you, how they can pull you through hard times, and help you to make sense of the world.
Quite apart from the fact, of course, that through reading I actually got to be Shirley Temple for a little while, which helped me to get over my urge to curl my hair and sing for sailors. Mostly.
I remember watching Shirley Temple films, thinking she was adorable, even when I was a child myself. She was such a perfect symbol of innocence; of vivid life and precociousness as well. The world she lived in seemed a brighter dimension of possibility. For me, it was Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince. In fact, my family called me that for most of my childhood. Late in my teens as well, though that had more to do with me refusing to do things like the dishes because I wanted to read or write. But there was a deep fascination back in my early childhood, for the story and images, but also with the biographical details – the author was a pilot who disappeared over the seas one day. The inspiration for The Little Prince being a crash in the dessert years earlier. There are these kinds of seeds that fall into our minds when we’re forming, that begin growing with us, and become so fundamental to who we are it’s hard to imagine a different future and past without them. So I’m wondering whether there was a particular book that was like that for you, but I’m also wondering what your thoughts are on those childhood mythologies that we sometimes discover in the stories our mothers tell us to send us of to sleep and dreams.
RUBY J MURRAY
If I had to pick one moment that was a revelation to me, it would have to be the discovery of fantasy and science fiction. I remember reading the opening pages of Raymond E Feist’s Magician and having something explode in my brain. I was eleven at the time, and for the next five or six years my reading was pinned to release dates. I wasn’t super discerning; I took anything I could get. David Eddings, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Terry Pratchett, Katherine Kerr… I’m proud to say that I did put down Terry Brooks, but still… I used to lie at night sweating at the thought that Robert Jordan might die before he finished the Wheel of Time. (He did.) When I ran out I branched into comic books, starting with the X Men and rapidly moving on to anything that could come close to the genre.
People are often dismissive of genre fiction, and it’s true that a lot of bad genre fiction is formulaic at best, and unreadable pulp at its worst. But when it’s done well, good genre fiction is revelatory. I think that art often works best with constraints. I remember a music teacher telling me once that you have to learn the rules before you can learn how to break them, and the best science fiction, the best fantasy, is able to do that. Take the guidelines, and throw them out. Make new myths out of the bare bones of storytelling. Ursula K Le Guin, Roald Dahl, E. Nesbitt, Diana Wynne Jones, Phillip Pullman, Lewis Carroll, Neil Gaiman. Sometimes it takes leaving the real world to be able to look back and really understand it.
I think the other thing that science fiction and fantasy gave me as a child was the chance to engage with moral ideas. Not just in my own life, but on an epic scale. I lived through ancient and future wars, and made terrible decisions, and started to live with life’s paradoxes for the first time, which is something I’m still trying to learn how to negotiate, something I hope I’ll always be trying to do.
Last, but not least, there were awesome women in fantasy and science fiction. Adventurers. Women who didn’t sit in dining rooms or hover at parties or moon over the boys, but who threw themselves into the business of living, who rode into battle for the people they loved and the things they believed in, who saved the world. That was what I wanted to do. That, and somehow work out how to shoot lightning bolts from my fingers. Or at the very least, lasers.
I don’t write genre fiction as much as I’d like. I hope to one day. As soon as I can get my laser fingers functioning.