One could say that prior to the publication of her first YA novel, Night Flying (Delacorte, Nov.), Rita Murphy was a closeted writer. "I actually wrote the first draft of Night Flying in a closet," Murphy recalls. "I used to write late at night when my husband and son were sleeping. We live in a one-room place, so I pulled a lamp and my computer into a closet where I wouldn't disturb them." Murphy's consideration for her family has come back to her manyfold, as time spent in those somewhat cramped writing quarters seems to have spurred her creativity to new heights.
"I think I had a feeling I wanted to write, but I didn't do any creative writing until my son was born [in 1992]," she says. "I took a creative writing class at the University of Vermont, in their continuing education program, and I learned a lot about finding my creative flow and just having fun with it. I do writing exercises, but I don't think too much-I let it come out. So, I'm probably self-taught."
Weeks before she hunkered down in the closet at home, Murphy had attended a seminar where YA authors Virginia Euwer Wolff and Graham Salisbury, among others, spoke at Vermont College in Montpelier, which is about 20 minutes south of Murphy's home. "I was very inspired," Murphy recalls. "I told myself, I know I can't afford to do the MFA program here, but I'm going to go home and write a book."
The book that resulted from Murphy's resolve introduces the darkly eccentric family of women that almost-16-year-old Georgia Hansen calls her own. Stifled by the rigid rules and dictatorial ways of matriarch Myra Hansen (Georgia's grandmother), Georgia's mother and aunts live largely in fear, keeping to themselves. And they harbor one whopper of a secret-the Hansen women can fly. As Georgia's 16th birthday-and a special Hansen initiation ceremony-approaches, Georgia discovers more about her relatives and wonders if she truly fits into her family at all. This unusual premise helped Murphy's original manuscript win the Seventeenth Annual Delacorte Press Prize for a First Young Adult Novel.
"I was doing a writing practice one morning, something I do every day as a warm-up," Murphy says of the genesis of her story. "I just put pen to paper and write whatever comes out. Sometimes it makes no sense at all. But on this particular morning, the first line- 'The Hansen women have always flown at night, even in bad weather'-just came to me, and I went with it."
Murphy then brought it to her writing group, thinking she had the start of a short story for adults, to be told from Georgia's mother's point of view. "But when I read it aloud, someone suggested that I try it as a YA novel and that I enter it in the Delacorte contest." Murphy had little time to meet the December 31, 1998, deadline, but she managed to make it. The following spring she received a letter from executive editor Wendy Lamb saying that her manuscript was a finalist for the prize, and that even if she didn't ultimately win, Lamb was interested in the project. "A few weeks later I heard that I had won," said Murphy. "I was so excited that I started jumping up and down."
Once the book was signed up at Delacorte, Diana Capriotti became Murphy's editor. "She has worked with me from the beginning," says Murphy. "It's been a really natural relationship. She's enthusiastic and encouraging."
Murphy's work station has moved from the closet to a desk near the kitchen, where she now writes for about four hours each morning. "I'm out of the closet now," she says with a laugh. "I write better when people are around and I'm in the midst of it all. If I had my own room with a door, I probably wouldn't be able to write anything at all."
So far that's definitely not the case, and Delacorte has contracted a number of her projects. Murphy has completed a second book, Black Angels, a middle-grade novel about the Freedom Riders who came to the South in 1961, due from Delacorte in March. She has also finished another YA novel, which is set in the mountains of Tennessee, and has started writing a fourth book as well.
"It's very satisfying that my stories are finding a place in the world," she says. "A little door opened for me, and lots of stuff is flowing." An article in the local paper and a signing at Borders in Burlington, Vt., have been part of the celebration attending Night Flying, too. And her new fans will be happy to know that in Murphy's eyes, "I feel like it's just beginning."