Coffee & Conversation with Jim Murphy!

Happy Tuesday, everyone! It’s time to once again go into the cyber cafe for another awesome pre-Roads to Publication Conference interview. If you’ve missed our previous ones, then check out:

    Sandy Asher’s

    and Alexis O’Neill’s

Tonight we have the brilliant Jim Murphy, an award-winning author of more than 35 fiction and non-fiction books for children and young adults. His books have been awarded the Newbery Honor twice (2004 for An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 and in 1996 for The Great Fire). He’s also received many awards including the Siebert Award for nonfiction, a Sibert Honor, three NCTE Orbis Pictus Awards for Nonfiction, The Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for nonfiction, a Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor Book Award, two SCBWI Golden Kite Awards, and nomination for the National Book Award. In January he also became the recipient of the ALA’s Margaret Edwards Award, for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults.

Come on. Say it with me. WOW!

The summer of 1793 was so hot and humid that the swamps around Philadelphia turned to muddy puddles and swarms of mosquitoes filled the air. As the church bells tolled, it was becoming clear — the city was being ravaged by an unknown killer.

Long before SARS and West Nile virus, Yellow Fever was a medical mystery that forced thousands in the nation’s temporary capital to flee and brought the workings of the federal government to a virtual halt. This is a riveting account of this country’s first large-scale medical epidemic.

This is the story of how half the city’s residents fled and half of those who remained died; neighboring towns, cities and states barricaded themselves; Washington himself fled, setting off a constitutional crisis; and bloodletting caused blood to run through the streets. It is also the story of a little known chapter in Black History in which free blacks nursed the sick only to be later condemned for their heroic efforts.

Meticulously researched, first-hand accounts, newspaper clippings, death lists, and period engravings recreate the fear and panic while exploring the political, social, cultural, medical and scientific history of the times. A final chapter explores the causes of the epidemic and provides a wake-up call about the potential for epidemics today.

In October 1871, as Chicago was engulfed in flames, 100,000 people became homeless and a flourishing city built of wood was transformed into a smoldering wasteland. Few believed that the city could ever rise again.

The Great Fire tells the riveting story of one of the greatest disasters in American history by weaving together the personal accounts of survivors — from courageous 12-year-old Clare Innis to reporter Joseph Chamberlin — with contemporary newspaper accounts and extensively researched Chicago history. In the process, Jim Murphy separates fact from legend, and explores the tensions between the haves and the have-nots that both fueled and followed the conflagration.

In clear and captivating prose, Murphy also reveals how the people of Chicago, in the face of despair, found the strength to rebuild and create a new architecture and a new city in the process. Maps illustrate the fire’s progress, while historic photos, engravings and newspaper clippings bring the Chicago of 1871 to life.


Jim will be presenting a keynote speech on Saturday morning: A Little Sugar, A Little Spice (Helps the Info Go Down Nice.)  He’s also giving a workshop on Sunday for nonfiction writers, and now that he’s settled in the cyber chair, on with the interview!

First off, Jim, what’s your favorite coffeehouse beverage?

Red wine. What, your coffeehouse doesn’t have red wine?  Tell them to get with it!

No, problem, I just so happen to have some in my purse. It’s for . . . um, you know, my grandmother. Yeah, my grandmother, that’s it . . .

Oh, and look what else is in my purse? Why, it’s your favorite snack, cheese doodles (the crunchy kind), followed by pistachio nuts, followed by anything salty.



They’re in my purse because I’m a bit of a suck-up always prepared! So let’s get going with the first question. When did you decide to be a writer?

When I discovered I was completely unemployable in the real world.  Actually, it was while I was an editor at Clarion books.  I was helping authors come up with ideas, helped them develop themes, sometimes even rewrote manuscripts.  After a while, I decided to give it a shot and see how it would work out (that was something like 34 years ago, so I guess it did work out okay).

How long did your path to your first book sale take, and what were your biggest hurdles?

I was very lucky.  I was an ALA convention and a friend asked me what I was up to.  I said I was thinking of quitting my editorial to write and she said she wanted to publish me and even gave me the idea for Weird and Wacky Inventions.  But after that it got hard.  I went two or three years before I sold my second book.  My problem, I realized later, was that I wasn’t focusing carefully enough.  I was trying to write novels, nonfiction, magazine articles…you name it and I tried to write it.  Sold nothing.  

Seeing as how hindsight is 20/20, what advice for beginners do you wish you would’ve followed?

See above.  Focus on the project and see it to completion.  Then send it off and start working on another project.  Don’t get bogged down worrying over one project (I have a friend who has been working on one project for over ten years).  Also, learn to revise.  You would be surprised at how many writers can’t or won’t revise.  

Amen to starting another project! Okay, where’s your favorite place to work?  

I work on the third floor of our house in the smallest room.  And it’s cluttered with…let me glance around…hundreds of books (for research and pleasure reading), piles of paper, paint cans, manuscripts (some very old, some new and about to be published), two air-conditioners, numerous giant manila envelopes, plastic boxes filled with royalty statements, publicity handouts, photographs that were used in past books, etc.) and lots of other stuff, plus a very cute, little puppy named Page (who, and I’m not kidding, just pooped on the only uncluttered spot in the room).

Aw, Page! Bad puppy. Okay, while you’re cleaning that up, how were you inspired to write your current or upcoming release?

My wife, Alison Blank, and I rented a cottage in the Adirondacks that happened to be an old TB cure cottage.  She was so interested in the idea she went to Lake Saranac and did some research and out of that grew our book Invincible Microbe: The Story of TB and the Never Ending Search for a Cure (due out next year in the spring from Clarion Books).

Nice! Congrats in advance. And what is your favorite line(s) from this book?

The End.  Sorry, I couldn’t resist that old joke.  My favorite part is the introduction, which took us six months to write and rewrite and rewrite again and again.  But it set the tone for the whole project.  It’s a tad long to put in here, so you’ll have to wait to see a finished copy.

Are there any other genres that you’d like to tackle some day? Or, what’s next on your agenda, any juicy projects you’d like to tell us about?

Also coming out next year is a book called The Giant and How He Humbugged America (from Scholastic).  I’ll let you guess what it’s about.       

I must admit. I cheated by Googling, so I won’t guess. 😦 And it’s time for the lightning round—no more than four words per answer!

Do you . . .

Outline or wing it?  I wing it.

Talk about works-in-progress, or keep it zipped?  Zipped until finished

Sell by proposal or completed draft?   Both.

Prefer writing rough drafts or editing?  I love to revise.

Dread marketing/blogging or love it?  Dread it.

Read Kindle or traditional books?  Kindle???

And finally, what’s your favorite:

Time to work?  In the a.m.

Music to listen to while writing?  No music.

Writing tool?  Computer.

Pair of shoes?  Sneakers.

Guiltiest pleasure?  Did I mention red wine?

Line from a movie?  All Work and No Play….

Hmm . . . I’ve never seen it, but that’s from . . .

. . . right? And thanks, Jim, for stopping by and giving us a great interview! We’re all looking forward to seeing you at the conference. 🙂

Happy writing, everyone!


About Laura Bowers

Laura is a writer, runner, reader, runDisney addict, blogger/vlogger at Write, Run, Rejoice and Joyful Miles, mom of two college boys, excellent chili maker, and obsessive list keeper. She clearly likes run-on sentences and adverbs. She also still thinks Spice World was an awesome movie and feels no shame about that.
This entry was posted in Conference Information, Interviews: Authors. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Coffee & Conversation with Jim Murphy!

  1. Pingback: How to Write and Sell Children’s Picture Books |

  2. Carole Lindstrom says:

    Thanks for these great interviews! I love getting to know the talent that will be there! I can’t WAIT!


  3. Edie Hemingway says:

    I enjoyed this interview, too, and was interested to know Jim Murphy was an editor before he became an author.

  4. Pingback: Coffee & Conservation with Jacqueline Adams! « As the Eraser Burns

  5. Pingback: The Tri-Regional Roads to Publication Conference! « As the Eraser Burns

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