An Interview with E.R. Murray
E.R. Murray’s Caramel Hearts is a coming-of-age novel about friendship, family and food. It tells the story of Liv Bloom, a fourteen-year-old with a very complicated life – her father gone, her mother in a recovery centre for alcoholics – and how she learns to cope with these difficulties and embrace her family, despite their problems. We spoke to author E.R. Murray about her inspiration for the novel, why she decided to make food such a fundamental part of it, and what books spoke to her when she was a fourteen-year-old girl like Liv.
Q: What sparked off the writing of Caramel Hearts? What was the original inspiration?
A: I’m not very good at explaining where book ideas come from because I live with the characters for a while in my head before I start writing anything down. Also, I write organically, without plotting or planning beforehand, so my stories are Darwinian and always evolving. I start with a character, the setting and the tone, and that’s about it! There are so many changes and twists that I can’t really remember where I began. However, I definitely wanted to tackle a story about the effects of addiction on a family unit, I wanted food to feature, and I also wanted it to have an element of hope. Life can be difficult, but where there’s hope, there’s a chance of getting through the things that are thrown at you.
Q: Liv Bloom’s life is pretty tough, particularly with her parents being absent. What drew you to this character and her life story?
A: Liv was talking to me for some time before I wrote the story. I had a sense of who she was from the very start, but it took a while for her to fully emerge. Liv’s life is tough but there are a lot of people out there with equally tough lives, just getting on with it and doing the best they can with what they have. It’s difficult being a teen; you have a sense of who you are and what you believe in, your emotions are raging, but you don’t always have a voice. I could feel Liv spiralling and wanted to help by writing her story, by giving her a voice.
Q: At what point did you decide that this book had to have recipes within it?
A: I love food in fiction and I also love books that feature other media such as songs, maps, poems, newspaper articles etc, so I thought I’d play around with some ideas and see what happened. The handwritten cookbook was inspired by an invite to the National Library of Ireland to view a 16th century cookbook full of wonderful ingredients like ‘frosted plums picked by moonlight’. It had such a strong voice – I was blown away. It was after this visit that Caramel Hearts really began to take shape in my mind. But it wasn’t until I’d grown to know and understand Liv’s character a bit better that I realised cake recipes were central to the story.
Q: How do you feel the recipes complement the rest of the book?
A: The recipes work on a few different levels; they structure the narrative, so they’re weaved into the stories, reflecting Liv’s mood and circumstances as she navigates her world, trying to make sense of it. They also give us an insight into Liv’s mam, who is absent for quite a lot of the book. But I hope the recipes also balance out some of the darker moments. They’re almost a character in their own right.
Q: How important is food and cooking for your life and your family?
A: Great question! I think food is so important; essentially it fuels our bodies and brains, so I believe that the way we approach food says a lot about our sense of well-being and our connection to the world around us. I work long hours but every day, my husband and I sit together to eat a meal. No TV, just music and conversation. It’s the perfect opportunity to unwind, chat about the day, make plans and stay connected.
I used to live in Spain and there’s a real respect for food there. Meals can take hours, there’s lots of sharing, and all generations of the family are included. It’s the highlight of the day. I love travel and wherever I go, I find that food is an important method of communication – it’s so much more than fuel. And yet, there’s such conflicting attitudes about food and an obsession with what is good and bad and rules about what you should eat and shouldn’t. It’s exhausting, and often misinformed. There should be more focus on health and increasing exercise than making food a negative entity. We need food to live so I believe it should be pleasurable.
Q: Are there any autobiographical elements to Caramel Hearts?
A: There is an autobiographical element, in that I grew up in a single parent family affected by addiction, but the characters and events in the book are complete fiction. This is Liv’s story, not mine. However, the feelings and emotions are very real; this is the autobiographical part and I had to draw on some unpleasant memories to get this right. But this was an important part of the process because I wanted Caramel Hearts to resonate with anyone who has been affected by addiction. Every addiction story will be different, but the feelings of anger, resentment, shame, blame, and disappointment are common ground. And although times are tough, there can be good times too and I wanted hope to shine through.
Q: Where do you see Liv’s story going next? Or is there a sequel in the works?
A: I have some ideas – it’s the curse of the writer to be brimming with ideas, with not enough time to bring them all to fruition! I’d love to continue the story, or maybe look at one of the other character’s lives (Mad Dog is hassling me big time!) but it takes a long time to write a book, so I would probably want a sequel to be commissioned by a publisher for me to explore it next. There are other stories calling.
Q: What one message would you like readers to take away from Caramel Hearts?
A: That you can’t be in control of, or responsible for, other people’s actions towards you or anyone else; but you can take responsibility for yourself and your own behaviours and make positive changes to your life.
Q: How does writing for Young Adults compare with writing for other age groups?
A: Any author, whatever age group or genre they’re writing is, should be aiming for one thing: to write a really good book. You have to follow your heart and write the book that is calling you, the characters and story you feel passionate about, and you have to make that book the very best it can be.
Q: What kinds of book are you normally attracted to yourself?
A: This is a tough one! So many books, so little time. I like bits of everything but I’m naturally attracted to tales that are dark and quirky, books that have unusual and exotic settings, books that require suspension of belief and play with form. Literary fiction, young adult and children’s fiction – including picture books – would be the main genres I read, but I also love historical fiction, travel writing, short stories, nature writing, and horror. Well-written horror is so underrated! What I’m looking for are incredible characters I don’t want to leave behind, strong settings that give a real sense of place and add to the story, and intense explorations of emotions. I want to feel the book, live it, and for it to then linger afterwards.
Q: What books were your favourite when you were fourteen (Liv’s age)?
A: There wasn’t the wealth of Young Adult fiction when I was growing up that exists now, and what was available didn’t reflect my own life at all, so I was reading adult literature from a young age. I had an ‘adult’ library ticket two years early – that’s where I got all my reading material and the kind librarian could see me thirsting for more than was available in the teen section. The agreement was that she had to check my choices first; I thought that was a fair deal!
Aged fourteen, I would have been reading classic authors like Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, Thomas Hardy, Bram Stoker, and George Elliot. I adored Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte) – that’s the book I’ve read most in my lifetime – but I also loved horror. Stephen King and James Herbert were my favourites. Then there were incredible books like Lord of the Flies (William Golding) and The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood) and 1984 (George Orwell). Myth and legends from various cultures, modern and ancient, were also a big draw, and I loved biographies of explorers and people growing up in other countries. I was fourteen when Wild Swans by Jung Chang was published and I clearly remember having to take deep breaths every time I closed it up. I loved books that moved me and made me think. I still do.
Q: Have you always wanted to be an author?
A: I think so, but it took me a very long time to realise it! Books were my sanctuary and I read constantly. When I was seven, I used to say I wanted to be a poet or a teacher – but to be honest, I was from a very poor background so being able to survive financially was my main concern. Also, writers were magical beings; these were pre-internet times, so you never met an author. They were almost mythological!
I always wrote as a child and I would lie in bed and make up stories. The next night, I’d recap and continue on, and this might go on for weeks. I guess I was already starting to write books, but I didn’t actually realise it at the time. I had a few poems and stories published by magazines and anthologies when I was at school, but when I left, I forgot all about writing. I still read voraciously, but I put myself through university so I concentrated on my degree and then the career ladder. It wasn’t until I set up a blog in my late 20s – I was living in Spain at the time – that I started writing again; terrible poetry and awful short stories that eventually improved enough to get published. Have you heard of the NaNoWriMo challenge? You write 50,000 words in 30 days just for the fun of it. I tried it on my 30th birthday and it changed my approach to writing; I suddenly had the urge to write book-length fiction.
When I was headhunted for a job in Dublin, the move brought an unexpected change. I was earning a lot of money and yet, I had no interest in what I was doing or how a corporate environment functioned. As I attended workshops and befriended lots of aspiring writers, writing began to take on a more important role. By 2010, I decided I had to dedicate time to my writing. I saved enough money to quit my job and turn freelance; this meant that I could be master of my own working hours and concentrate on writing books. I guess it was then that I truly believed I could actually be an author.
Q: What advice would you give to a YA writer starting out?
A: Read widely and passionately and regularly. Make time to write, no excuse. And never, ever give up.
Liv Bloom’s life is even more complicated than that of your average fourteen-year-old: her father walked out on the family when she was young, her mother is in a recovery centre for alcoholics, and her older sister is struggling to step into Mum’s shoes. The only person she can turn to is her best friend Sarah, who gets her out of scrapes at school and is a constant source of advice and companionship. One day Liv discovers a book of recipes written in her mum’s handwriting, which sets her off on a journey towards self-discovery and reconciliation – but a theft, a love rivalry and a school bully are just some of the many obstacles on the way. Structured around real cake recipes, Caramel Hearts is a coming-of-age novel about love, disappointment and hope, and discovering the true value of friends and family, no matter how dysfunctional they are.