I met author Cerece Rennie Murphy at an East Coast science fiction and fantasy convention called Boskone a few years ago. She was sitting at table, selling books, and shouted out to me as I passed that I looked beautiful.
Naturally, I paid attention.
As soon as I turned and looked at her, I realized she was beautiful too — beaming out with right good will, all bright colors and a megawatt smile. She was friendly, and extremely interesting, and right there on the spot, my husband and I bought her book, The Order of the Seers, which I promptly went home to read.
Since then, Cerece and I have become friends — on social media, yes, but in real life too — penpals when our schedules permit, pizza-buddies when she’s in town. I am so pleased and excited to bring all you Black Gate readers this interview.
C. S. E. COONEY: I love, love, LOVE the story about how your first series dropped on you like an anvil-shaped lightning bolt one day while you were doing dishes. But I don’t want to get it wrong for posterity! Would you mind telling me that story again — starting with your background up to that point, and how it changed you from that time onward?
CERECE RENNIE MURPHY: Okay, so I have been writing poetry since I was a teenager. I love poetry and I loved my poetry because she was the keeper of all my secrets (even the ones I kept from myself), but she always told me the truth. I never shared any of it and I never wanted to. I’ve always been an avid reader, but I never imagined that I could write. I used to tell myself that I didn’t have the attention span to write anything longer than 5 pages. (Mind you, at the time I was Director of Development for a non-profit where I regularly wrote 20 to 50-page grants, but the thought never occurred to me that I could write a STORY).
Fast forward to January 1, 2010. I woke up and immediately started thinking about a fan fiction idea that I had that would combine the characters from Twilight with the storyline from one of my favorite Hallmark movies, The Love Letter. The idea had been in my head for months, but I kept telling myself that I couldn’t do it. That morning, on New Years Day, I woke up and immediately started thinking about the story and as usual started shutting myself down.
Then, God stopped me. We had this hour-long conversation in my head about all the ways that I’d shut myself down over the years, invitations to submit my photography that I didn’t take because I thought my work wasn’t good enough, invitations to choreograph something that I had to be dragged into even though dance is absolutely the soul of who I am — my first and best language.
Over and over I saw this pattern of shutting myself down before I even got out of the gate. It broke my heart. It broke God’s heart and I decided then and there that I would try to write the story that was in my head. The story is called “Spirit to Flesh” and it took me two and a half weeks to write the first draft by hand. It was pure joy, like running down the side of a hill with no fear of falling. That’s when I knew that I loved to write. To this day, when I’m fully immersed in a story that is still exactly how it feels.
After I finished writing “Spirit to Flesh,” I found an editor who helped me clean it up and publish it on fanfiction.net. It was lovely, but I still didn’t see myself as a writer. I had no plans to write anything again until about six months later. I was washing the dishes and I had a vision of this man walking towards me. He had a cataract-like film over his eyes and ash blonde hair even though he was a Black man from Tanzania. Instantly, I knew that he was a Seer. I knew that he was enslaved for that ability and that the organization that sought to control him was giving him drugs to access his ability and that’s why he looked the way he did. I knew there were people all over the world who were suffering the same fate. I remember feeling this jolt of excitement.
I had a story idea! An original sci-fi story idea of my own! I had no idea if I could write the type of story that was in my head, but I knew I would try. I’ve never looked back. How has it changed me? Well, now I call myself a writer. LOL! But, I think more than anything that New Year’s morning instilled in me a discipline of stepping into things I think I can’t do creatively (as an artist). No matter how afraid I am, I try not to slam the door in my own face anymore. I know how to force myself to put one foot in front of the other.
So, that’s the first series. But I’ve just read The Wolf Queen, which is quite a departure from Order of the Seers. Where did that idea come from? Was it an image? A single character? An interaction? A world you wanted to build? A circumstance you wanted to defy, perhaps (you rebel you)? Do any external forces work upon your internal dreamscape to create the seed of a longer work?
The story for The Wolf Queen came from a lot of places. At first, I thought it would just be an expanded retelling of an African Folktale I heard on an audiobook titled Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales. There is a story in it about a young woman (called Ameenah) who lives alone in the forest and doesn’t want to marry the Sultan. To evade him, she puts on a magical wolf pelt and turns into a wolf.
My kids loved the story and so did I, but one day, while we were listening to it, I started asking myself, ‘How does a young woman in ancient Africa come to live in the forest by herself and why doesn’t she want to marry the Sultan?’
Well, you know how it goes from there. This whole world opened up in my head and the more I thought, the more I knew the fairytale had it wrong. MY Wolf Queen was born.
Once, I claimed Ameenah for myself and started thinking about the world she came from a few ideas and questions that I’d been thinking about for years started bubbling up.
A couple of years ago, I went on a spiritual retreat in Sedona that really crystallized a lot of ideas for me about the original role of women in society and how the traditional modern (mostly western) narratives and religions have sought to steal and/or rewrite our place as leaders in our homes, our history, and our world. I started thinking about what kind of world women with power would create. What institutions, religions, and traditions? The answer to all of those questions became a part of Ameenah’s journey.
The FOOD in that book! I’ll run out of lentils soon, I kept needing to get up and eat them. Alas that I had no injera at hand. INJERA! MY BELOVED INJERA! I WILL HAVE TO WALK TO BROOKLYN FOR IT! Tell me about how food and music and dancing and craft-making all work their way into your books as different forms of magic. If you please. Also — why wolves? (I mean, I know why I love them. What about you?)
Well, the last question is the easiest, so I will answer it first! I feel like because of the origin of how I came to this story, the wolves chose me, but the more I get to know them the more I love them. 🙂
But the food…
I must confess that I am a HUGE Ethiopian food fan from way back. My mom used to take us to this Mom and Pop restaurant in DC when I was a kid, so I love it! My favorite is the veggie platter with all those collards and yellow lentils (I always order extra!). So first and foremost, I put in the book what I love to eat. But also, the setting for the book is inspired by ancient Northeast Africa. The ports in this area brought food, spices, and materials from all over the world and I wanted to reflect that in the story.
When at home, Ameenah is isolated by choice. She has to make, grow, buy or barter for most of what she has, so everything from the farm to her skills as a craftswoman works together to show you how she is living. Having grown up without a lot, Ameenah is also fairly thrifty. As with so many things, she’s always protecting herself against loss, so knowing how to cook and weave and make her way on her own is essential to this narrative that she keeps telling herself that “I am alone,” even though it’s not really true.
I also like the idea of her having a craft that takes a long time to produce. Tanning and weaving are things that she could pour her heart into. It seemed to suit her OCD personality. I also believe that everything we put our time into leaves a trace of our own personal magic in it. This concept in the book is just more extreme (or maybe just more recognized) in Ameenah’s case.
As for the dancing, I think women’s bodies are miraculous things. The way we move is dance even when we don’t intend it to be. We are mesmerizing to watch. Dance, movement, just makes sense to me as a communication device. I also think dance is sensuality and freedom combined and I love the idea of a society of women that don’t stifle that impulse. Quite the opposite. Instead, they intentionally imbue it with power. Music and dancing are some of our earliest expressions. The Amasiti are elemental beings, so it made sense to me that they would have a language of dance that they could pass on to their students, even before they could talk.
I notice that you’ve been doing a series — both blog and YouTube — of author tips. What inspired this?
I started the YouTube video series as a way to just share what I know. At every convention, I always meet someone who says they are “trying to write.” They have a story, but they are too scared, too tired, or don’t know where/how to start. My video series is for the novice — the people I meet who just need someone to talk them through the basics and make it seem a little less scary and a little more doable. I’m trying to post once a week, usually on Wednesdays, and I’ll go until I don’t have anything left to say. It feels awesome to be a part of the virtuous circle of authors who have helped me. That generosity is one of the best things about being in the author community.
You are one of the most entrepreneurial women in the self-publishing industry I know. You do it all! Writing, hiring a team of editors and proofers, hiring audiobook actors, designer merchandise, hoofing it to conventions. How do you do it all?
Cerece Rennie Murphy
The short answer is I don’t, at least not all at the same time. I am constantly fighting fatigue and a general sense of being overwhelmed or woefully behind. I try to take one thing at a time. Right now, I’m in heavy writing mode, so marketing is taking a backseat. I want to get some help with that, but it’s hard to find reliable people, so for now, I just have to deal with the fact that I may not sell a lot of books this month.
I published my first book in 2012 and since then I have been the worst boss I’ve ever had. It’s really just been in the last year or so that I’m trying to find a better balance. I am a VERY self-motivated and driven person, so it’s hard for me to accept that I can’t do everything when there are SO many things I want to do or I know I could do differently/better. BUT… Our kids are a priority. Our marriage is a priority. *I* am a priority. I struggle to balance all those things with everything I want to do.
When you were just starting out, beginning to learn all these aspects of publishing — did you read a lot of self-published authors blogs, or figure it all out on the fly, or do you have a background in business, or what???
I am easily overwhelmed, so I don’t read a lot of self-publishing blogs, etc. I find that after the 2nd or 3rd article, I either start to experience diminishing marginal returns or develop a huge inferiority complex. LOL!
I’m a one-on-one type of person and I take advice well, so in the beginning, I asked other authors, exhibitors, and marketers for their advice and they were very kind to me. Then, I took what worked for me and did my best. I have also run my own real estate development company before, so I do know a bit about how to run things on my own and I’m very comfortable making decisions.
But I also think my personality has a lot to do with it. As a child, I felt like my sense of self was constantly under attack and it took a lot of therapy to unearth and reclaim the person I am today. It took many years to find my voice again and I am fiercely protective of her. Having had that experience, I am very wary of lending my voice to something I don’t control.
I don’t like being told what to do, especially if I disagree with you. I don’t like the idea of turning over ownership of my work to someone else and then not having a say in how it’s produced, marketed, and presented, especially as a woman of color in speculative fiction. Somedays I fantasize about having a publisher, someone to take care of everything, but they would have to work harder than I do for my books and that’s very hard to do.
What do you enjoy most about the business end of publishing? What do you like least? Any advice for newbies?
I love the ability to put the exact story that I want to tell into the world and chart the trajectory of my own success. I don’t have to listen to anyone’s limited notions of who my readers are or what I have to write. I can go out on my own and try things, meet people, and do what I dare. That is my favorite part of the business aspect of what I do and as challenging as this journey has been, it is the part of what I do that I can never see giving up.
I do not enjoy online marketing, but that’s mostly because I don’t understand what the hell I’m doing. LOL! One-on-one interactions I get. Online is just too much. I’m still figuring it out, mostly because I don’t enjoy the process of figuring it out. I have yet to divorce my own fears and judgments from the process.
What I would say to newbies is pick what you can do. Start small and build. Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. What difference does that make if you can’t, won’t or don’t want to do the same thing?
I have a friend who makes thousands of dollars a month writing lovely books that I don’t want to write. I’m happy for her. I admire her. I’m PROUD of her. But I only want to make thousands of dollars a month selling the books *I* want to write. If I can’t do that (and I’m not convinced that I can’t), then that’s just the way it is. I’m still proud of what I do, just like I’m proud of what she does. I don’t compare myself to her. We are doing two completely different things. In marketing, in writing, in publishing, figure out what you’re going to do and do it to the best of your ability.
Tell us more about your children’s books? What are they about — why did you write them — WILL THERE BE MORE?
So… I am in the middle of hiring a new illustrator for the 3rd book in my five-part Ellis and The Magic Mirror Series which I write with our son, Aryeh.
The series started when our son (who was 6 at the time) picked up a copy of Order of the Seers and asked if he could read it. When I told him “Ah, NO!” he asked me if I could write him a book that he could read — so I did.
The series is about a little boy who discovers that he is a Stonekeeper, an individual who has a sacred duty to bring light into the world. Each book takes you on an adventure as Ellis discovers a new stone that represents a character trait that he will need to build in order to fulfill his role in the community. I’m having so much fun with it. I write the books with Aryeh and our co-author, Carol Kim.
The best part is, now that he’s older, Aryeh can come up with whole story plots all on his own. He actually developed the story arc for our latest book, Ellis and the Cloud Kingdom. I’m pretty damn proud.
Of course, our daughter is now getting in the mix, too. After Ellis is finished, I will be starting on a whole new series with her.
Which authors are you most excited about reading right now? And why?
Anytime I get a chance to read a book I didn’t have to write it feels like a blessing. I’m excited to read: Gerald Coleman’s When Night Falls, Book 1 in the Three Gifts fantasy series. I met him at Boskone and he was just delightful, which made me curious about his work; Rosarium’s Super Sihk comic because I’ve never seen anything like it and I’m always excited to see some aspect of my friends depicted positively in fiction; The Rebel Mages by Laurie Forest because I am IN LOVE with the Black Witch Series. Laurie really tackles the anatomy of bigotry and hatred in these books, while creating a mesmerizing world that I love to go back to again and again; Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse because my good friend and author, Lynn Emery recommended this book and I trust her judgment. Plus, I met Ms. Roanhorse at Boskone and she was just so nice. 🙂
And finally, I am looking forward to Rebel by Beverly Jenkins. I have been using romance novels as my great escape from stress and Beverly Jenkins does a wonderful job of celebrating the history of African Americans in this country beyond slavery while telling a wholly swoon-worthy tale. If you’ve never read her work, start with Indigo. After buying a second copy on Kindle, I lent my mother my paperback copy and she refused to give it back to me.
Please tell us all about Nazaru, you fiend and genius and goddess!!! Just another amazing thing you do, and I want EVERYONE to know ALL about it!
Okay. NARAZU.com is an online platform designed to help sci-fi fans connect with some of the best independently created sci-fi content out there. We feature books, films, graphic novels, visual arts, crafts, and comics – all created by indie creators and small press publishers. Everything you see on the site has been read and/or watched by one of our editors and is stuff that we genuinely LOVE. Our monthly newsletter is free and features a selection of work across mediums that usually focuses on a specific theme or genre within speculative fiction. NARAZU is a labor of love, but I hope to really expand it in the coming years to incorporate more features and tools for building a community were independent artists can reach a broader audience of sci-fi and comic fans who are open to their work.
I am so interested in your process and your brain — what you like about your own writing, and what aspects you’d love to strengthen, and where you hope your journey will take you.
Hmmm. My process. I’m a big believer in outlines and working out the story before you write it. Not the whole thing, but the broad strokes and all the major plot points that drive the story. I do this because, while I LOVE to write, I can’t rely on inspiration. By the time I get a chance to write I am usually in some lesser stage of exhaustion, so my brain is only partially working (which I think ends up being a good thing because I resist less when I’m tired.
Hhmm! It never occurred to me before that my low-grade fatigue may function as a way to lower my fears and inhibitions enough to just WRITE! And of course, once I get into a rhythm, writing usually energizes me. WOW!)
Anyhoo… outlining gives me a road map for where I’m going so that when I sit down to write all I have to do is be present in the scene. Then, the magic happens. I’m not worried about if the scene will work or what is going to happen, I’ve done that work already. All I have to do is try to see how it happens, then write it down to the best of my ability. It’s my favorite part of what I do, racing down the tunnel with my characters, trying to record the experience in such a way that you feel it too.
What do I like about my writing… I like that I tend to be focused on the emotion in a scene. I like it when I’m able to make the reader feel exactly what the character is feeling. When I’ve written something well enough, I know it because I forget I wrote it. I’m just in the scene. When I mess up, I start thinking about my word choice, then it’s all downhill from there. LOL!
I want my writing to be cleaner. All the meat, the tears, the sweat, none of the fat. I want to give you only what you need to get it and nothing more. I want to write in such a way that you forget your reading. I want you to just be in that world with my characters. I don’t know what I’d have to do to hit that target every time, but that’s what I’m always aiming for.
I’m hoping this journey will take me to the completion of all the stories in my head. I hope that I will produce a collection of work that will inspire people for as long as there are books. I hope my children will be proud when they read them and I hope I always have the means to put the stories that I want out into the world in exactly the way they need to be told. I would like the confidence and the know-how to produce some of my stories as films, graphic novels, or even a TV series, but that’s gonna have to wait. Right now, I have to finish book 2 of The Wolf Queen and Ellis and the Cloud Kingdom. One step at a time.
If you’re a nerd & proud of it, join Cerece Rennie Murphy and others on Narazu. Nazaru is building a place where geeks can find the BEST sci-fi content on the planet! Follow Cerece on Twitter @cerecermurphy
C.S.E. Cooney (csecooney.com/@csecooney) lives and writes in Queens, whose borders are water. She is an audiobook narrator, the singer/songwriter Brimstone Rhine, and author of World Fantasy Award-winning Bone Swans: Stories (Mythic Delirium 2015). Her novella Desdemona and the Deep debuts at Tor.com in July 2019. Other of her short fiction can be found in Ellen Datlow’s Mad Hatters and March Hares: All-New Stories from the World of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Sword and Sonnet: An Anthology of Battle Poets, and elsewhere.