Author Interview: Kate McMurrray—a Renaissance Woman in Brooklyn (or, A Plotter Not a Pantser)

LS:Kate, welcome. I’m happy that I was able to persuade you to visit and let me ask some questions.

KM:Hi, Lou. Thanks for having me!

Q: Your bio is so very brief, Kate, that it begs fleshing out. I hope you won’t mind a few inquiries. You mention a variety of interests—violin, crafts, power tools—and that you are a non-fiction editor in your day job guise. I snuck around and saw that on your blog you refer to yourself as a Renaissance woman. I love that, but I really hope you’ll elaborate.
A: The short version is that I like to keep busy. I thrive when I have a little too much to do, and I have one of those brains that needs to be engaged all the time to stave off the dreaded boredom. So I have many hobbies. I work, I write, I knit sometimes. I’m a sucker for a fun DIY project. I played violin for fifteen years before giving it up when I graduated from college, but then I decided maybe four years ago to pick it up again as a New Year’s resolution. I, conveniently, live a few blocks from a music school, so I started taking lessons, and I got a lot out of that. I actually recorded my own music for the Across the East River Bridge book trailer, but the lack of soundproofing in my 100-year-old apartment building plus noisy neighbors meant the recording had too much ambient noise, so I went with a professional recording. Not that I even sounded anywhere near as good as the other recording. Actually, the trailer is a good example of how my brain works: I decided it was a good excuse to learn how to make videos, so I spent a weekend learning iMovie, et voila! Book trailer! I also like to bake, I’m pretty handy with pencils and water colors, and I read 2-3 books a week. What I don’t do is sleep much. 🙂

Q: I’m wondering, what sort of non-fiction do you work with? Are books about your various interests represented in what you edit? Academic writing? Where does fiction writing fall in the hierarchy of your interests? Do you ever hope to write full time?
A: I’ve spent most of my publishing career editing textbooks. I got my start in college-level science/tech books, but these days, I edit textbooks for the grade-school set, mostly in language arts. It’s fun, I like the work. It’s really different from trade/fiction publishing, though. Well, the basic process of assembling a book is the same, but it’s a whole different world in terms of how books are acquired and marketed. I do some fiction editing on the side, too. Writing is a big priority, though. I spend as much of my free time as I can writing, and I love it. I would love to be able to write full-time, and maybe I will someday, but in the meantime, I have to pay rent, and there are worse things than spending all day manipulating words. (I’m also the rare bird of a writer who really enjoys revising, I’ve found; it’s a good blend of my skills, I think.)

Q: You live in Brooklyn—have you always lived there? Obviously, the area is key to your novel Across the East River Bridge, and the importance of the sense of place becomes even more obvious in the excerpts we’ll be sharing. Do you place all or most of your work here? Perhaps you’ll be willing to talk a bit about how you work with setting and location, what it means for you when you’re writing and how you hope it will influence the readers’ experience.
A: I’ve been in Brooklyn about five and a half years now. I grew up in the New Jersey suburbs, then I lived in Massachusetts for a while, and then I moved to Manhattan almost ten years ago. I did the small-apartment-in-a-not-so-great-neighborhood thing for a while until the neighborhood started improving and I got priced out of it, as is the way of things in New York. I moved to Brooklyn after that, and it was fortuitous in the long run; I love Brooklyn, and I feel more at home here than I’ve felt anywhere else.
I place a lot of my stories in NYC. Most of Blind Items takes place in Brooklyn, and Kindling Fire with Snow is set in my neighborhood. I find that a lot of media—books, movies, TV—gets the finer details of New York wrong, and part of me is always trying to convey New York as I experience it. And I personally love stories with a lot of nitty gritty detail, particularly of the setting, so I want my readers to be able to “see” what my characters do. (Plus, with some notable exceptions, most NYC stories are set in Manhattan. So I want to represent my adopted borough.)

Q: Not being familiar with New York at all, I fell back on my usual habits and turned to Google for enlightenment about the book’s geography. But I ended up confused—there are four East River Bridges! Maybe you can explain?
A: I think there are actually maybe eight bridges that cross the East River; I can’t remember off-hand. But the bridge referred to in Across the East River Bridge is actually the Brooklyn Bridge. During its planning/construction, it was named the East River Bridge because it was the first bridge built to cross the East River, connecting Manhattan to Brooklyn and beyond. Before that, commuters traveled mostly by ferry, which was especially problematic in the winter when things got icy, plus the East River can be tumultuous. The historical part of Across the East River Bridge takes place in what is now called Brooklyn Heights in the 1870s, when that first East River Bridge was under construction.

Q: Your main characters in Across the East River Bridge seem to flow together quite seamlessly while still maintaining strong, unique personalities. Did you draw these characters to fit your story, or did they come into being and then draw you into the ghost tale? Is your fiction typically character driven, or based first on plot?
A: AERB started more with a situation. I’d been sitting on an idea for a ghost story for awhile, and I wanted to write an enemies-to-lovers story, and I had read an article on Victoria Woodhull—a historical figure who has fascinated me for a long time; she was a businesswoman and free love advocate in New York City in the 1860s and 70s—and things sort of fell together. As I wrote, Finn emerged as the more skeptical/cynical one of the pair, and Troy is more arrogant but fun-loving, and I liked the dynamic of those personality types together. So to answer your question, I would say my fiction is probably more character driven, but plot is important, too. (I’m more a plotter than a pantser; I do a lot of outlining and brainstorming before I start writing.)

Q: It doesn’t seem that your other work has a particularly strong paranormal strain. How did the idea to write a ghost story, and this ghost story in particular, first take hold in your imagination?
A: This was my first attempt at paranormal. My interest in the ghosts probably stems more from my interest in history, although I think one of the fun things about writing fiction is exploring the unknown. I don’t know if ghosts exist, nor do I know what happens after we die, but there are tons of stories circulating about haunted places in the city. And I’d read a few novels with ghosts and liked the idea of the dead being able to convey important information to the living. So once I thought up this haunted museum, I thought, “Well, obviously, in this universe, the ghosts are real and they’re going to help solve the mystery.”

Q: Kate, this is the question I subject all my interviewees to: who do you think of as sexier, Finn or Troy? A couple of rules apply, here. First, it’s an essay question—no one word answers. Also, you can’t say “both”, that’s cheating (though it’s okay to blur the lines a bit as long as you explain).
A: Hee. Troy is probably more the type of guy I would go for. He’s a big guy of the tall, dark, and handsome variety, plus he wears glasses, and I’m a total sucker for a hot guy in glasses. (In the book, I describe him as looking like Clark Kent, and in my head, he looks sort of like Brandon Routh in the Bryan Singer Superman movie, plus 8 years or so.) Finn’s more disheveled and less fashionable, though there’s certainly something to be said for that, too.

Q: While we’re on the subject of characters, it strikes me that as writers and as readers people often develop unique relationships with characters and learn from them as we write or read along. Can you think of something you’ve learned from a particular character—whether one you wrote or one you read—and share what it was and how the learning happened?
A: Probably Drew from Blind Items fits this more than anyone. That novel went through many drafts, and the final product doesn’t resemble the first draft much, but Drew was the constant. Through the revision process, I joked with my writers group that he was kind of a Gary Stu. He’s not really a stand-in for me, but there is a lot of me in that character. Still, he’s pretty different from me, too—in more ways than just the obvious!—and writing that novel taught me a lot about voice and point of view. For example, I wrote the previous drafts in third-person, and I had it close to finished but there was something that still didn’t quite work. I couldn’t put my finger on the problem and agonized over it for weeks. Then one day, as an experiment, I started rewriting the novel in 1st person from Drew’s POV. That fixed it; the story just flowed after that. Some scenes I didn’t even have to rewrite that much, because Drew’s voice was already right there on the page. It’s a weird thing to say about a story you’re writing, but I felt in that last rewrite like Drew was bursting out of the story. Writing that was an interesting experience.

Q: Your cover for Across the East River Bridge was designed by Valerie Tibbs, and that artist has also done at least one other cover for you. It’s great work, balanced and illustrative, setting the tone for the novel. How did you react when you first saw it? How much influence were you given as to style, elements, color?
A: I had a little bit of input—I wanted the Brooklyn Bridge on the cover!—but the final product was all Valerie. (I will tell you a secret, though. I was surprised when saw the cover because one of the models bears not a small resemblance to an ex-boyfriend of mine, which is a strange thing to see on the cover of an erotic novel you wrote).

Q: Kate, we’re going to share a little bit from your novel Blind Items (Rainbow Awards Honorable Mention) below, sort of an extra prize for readers, here, but you have several other published works as well. I will vouch that, in this readers’ opinion, “A Walk in the Dark” is a fun, sweet short piece that has the power to perk up flagging spirits. What else is out there that you’d like readers to know about?
A: Thanks! Well, as mentioned, I have a novella about two guys trapped in a Brooklyn apartment during a blizzard called Kindling Fire with Snow and also my novel The Boy Next Door which is about two guys who were childhood friends but haven’t seen each other in a long time until one of them moves back to their hometown and they end up as neighbors.

Q: And what’s coming up, Kate? Anything soon to be released? What can readers look for in the next year or so? Anything else you’d like to say to your readers?
A: There are a bunch of things up in the air at the moment, but, among other things, I’m currently working on the sequel to The Boy Next Door (this new book is Neal’s story); a romance between two professional baseball players (I’m a huge baseball fan, which readers may have picked up on, so this was inevitable); a crazy fantasy thing with gods and mythology and reincarnation and magical objects that is way outside the scope of what I usually write but is a ton of fun; and an angsty contemporary friends-to-lovers story that takes place in Chicago. Information about these will be on my website as I get more details.

LS: Thanks for being here Kate, and for letting me delve a bit into what makes you tick as a writer. I appreciate the opportunity to feature your work, and I hope you’ll visit again!
KM: Thanks again for having me and letting me be all wordy and talkative on your blog!

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