Marcia Strykowski: Hi Debbie, your debut picture book, Jackie and the Mona Lisa is delightful! Let’s get right to some questions as I’m sure everyone is excited to hear how this fun book developed. First, could you tell us how you came to be a writer and a little about your road to publication? Do you have an agent?
Debbie Murphy: I feel like I have spent my whole life writing. I recently was digging through the attic at my mom’s house and found tons of notebooks filled with stories, ideas, diary entries, etc. It made me realize that I have always loved to put pen to paper. I think my love of books has also developed in me a love of story and words. My first “published” writing was a submitted idea in a Professional Teaching magazine called Teaching K-8. I also wrote a poem that was featured in The Reading Teacher periodical in the 1990’s. Then I started writing books for Scholastic Professional Books. I’ve been trying to get a picture book published since the late 1990’s. I do not currently have an agent.
MS: Do you have a writing schedule? Do you outline? Could you share a little bit of your process with us?
DM: Being a single mom of two boys along with being a full time teacher doesn’t lend itself to having a lot of time to write, so I try to “schedule” different times in the week and on the weekends and over the summer to focus on writing. Really, it’s whenever I get a chance. In terms of process…When I am working on a book, I first get all the research I can gather, take notes, and jot down ideas that jump out at me as important. The hardest part from there is taking all of these ingredients and putting them together to make an interesting narrative. I have been writing a lot of non-fiction lately and when you are writing about history for kids you really have to make sure that you are presenting your material in a way that is engaging and interesting. Sometimes I have to write and then walk away from it for a bit so I can come back to it with a fresh perspective.
MS: Jackie and the Mona Lisa is fascinating, a great idea. What drew you to Jackie and inspired you to write this story?
DM: I have always loved art, museums, culture and history. I started taking my boys to museums when they were still in their baby strollers! Jackie is the epitome of grace, class, and intelligence. Her passion for the arts and for others to share that passion (especially those who didn’t have the opportunities to go to museums and do things like take art classes or get music lessons) was so inspiring to me.
MS: You include some lovely details. Please share some of your research methods and how you chose which details to include.
DM: Thank you. I love research! For me, the library still remains one of the best places to look for information. I like to be able to find books that explore my topic and make use of the traditional tools such as using the index and exploring the chapters of the book myself because I may find a piece of information that wouldn’t have come up on an internet search. Of course, the internet is definitely a great tool for research; however, like any tool, I think you have to know how to use it efficiently and effectively. I believe that you want to approach your research with a plan. Where will you find the best and most accurate information? Are there any places/websites specifically associated with your topic? For me, finding the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library website was invaluable. I could access their archives and see actual documents, speeches and photographs that tied in with Jackie and the planning that went into Mona Lisa’s visit to America. I researched Mona Lisa’s background as well. I like to get all of the information I can and start to whittle it down to the important parts I want to include in the book.
MS: Is there anything about Jackie you wanted to share but couldn’t fit into the book?
DM: There were so many interesting aspects to Jackie Kennedy’s life and character. She was such an intelligent and talented woman. I loved reading about how she charmed people, not just because of her style, but because of her intellect. She could give a speech in a foreign country in their native language. She could discuss history, literature, and art with experts. She even wrote and illustrated a book with her sister, Lee, that detailed their adventures in Europe when they were 22 and 18. The book, One Special Summer, was originally created as a scrapbook and given to the girls’ parents as a thank you gift for letting them go on the trip. They created it in 1951 and it was published as a book in 1974. I have a copy of it on my bookshelf!
MS: I didn’t know about their book, interesting! Were there any difficulties you faced in creating this picture book biography?
DM: I think the only difficulties I faced were in finding a publishing home for this amazing true story. The story changed so many times since my first attempt at telling it about seven years ago. The hardest thing is knowing in your heart that yours is a story that should be told and getting rejection after rejection.
MS: The illustrations are especially cheerful. Jackie’s bright enthusiasm pops from the page in each scene. I love how her smile matches the Mona Lisa’s on the cover. Was it a surprise to see your words come to life?
DM: I think that seeing your words through the eyes of your illustrators is one of the greatest feelings as a writer. Here is your story literally “brought to life!” I’ve always imagined how it must be a similar feeling when a writer sees their book come to life on the screen.
MS: Do you have a favorite scene? Or illustration spread?
DM: Jen Bricking is an incredible illustrator. When I envisioned the type of illustrations I felt best reflected Jackie and the time period, this is the way I saw it. I honestly love all of the illustrations, but one of my favorites is the one showing people exploring and enjoying a museum. I love that Jen Bricking included other famous works of art in the background-one of which is by Van Gogh, my favorite artist!
MS: Do you have any advice for authors about surviving rejections, managing success, or anything else?
DM: I know it is so cliché, but—DON’T GIVE UP! It’s taken me years to get my first (of many, I hope!) picture book published. Listen to your heart when you know you have a good story. I truly believe you will find a home for it eventually with an editor/publisher who shares your vision.
MS: Are you working on any new projects you’d like to tell us about?
DM: Right now I am working on another non-fiction story about a friendship between two famous people.
MS: We’ll be looking forward to it Debbie. Thanks so much for joining us here at Writer’s Rumpus and congratulations again on your beautiful new book!