Originally from Edinburgh, STRUAN MURRAY is a lecturer and researcher in genetics at the University of Oxford. His Bath Children’s Novel Award winning manuscript The Vessel had judge Sallyanne Sweeney and our team of junior judges hooked from the first chilling chapter in which a brilliantly inventive girl called Ellie rescues a boy from a beached whale. Murray describes The Vessel’s message as one of opening up to those you trust and here describes his writing journey; literary agent news and the experience of winning a prize shortlisted by kids…
As someone with a twitter profile which says ‘people keep telling me I’m a Hufflepuff’ how are you handling the limelight?
It was a bit strange! Writing is a very lonely pursuit and you get so used to spending so long working away at something then having maybe a couple of people read it. So to suddenly be in a room full of people who know your characters is very surreal. One of the most rewarding things about the whole competition was getting my novel into the hands of the junior judges – its intended age-range.
Did you road test the novel on other children before submitting?
Nope, this was the first time it ever got into the hands of its intended audience!
How was the award announcement night for you?
I wasn’t at all expecting to win on the evening – I had read the extracts from the other shortlistees and was very intimidated by the quality of the storytelling! It was such a pleasure to meet them on the night of the awards and I can’t wait to see their books in print!
Congratulations also on the exciting literary agent news…
I’m extremely excited to be working with Stephanie Thwaites at Curtis Brown on a new round of edits to the Vessel, taking on board the feedback I received from the Junior Judges. Following these changes we will hopefully be sending the new manuscript out to publishers!
When and why did you start writing novels?
As a kid I wrote a lot of stories about a 1920s grizzled American police detective. Sort of like Dick Tracy. When I showed the stories to adults they laughed at how unexpectedly bloodthirsty they were for an eleven-year old. So I kept writing them.
I properly started writing novels when I was about twenty. I had just started working in a lab, doing my PhD, and was suddenly learning what it’s like to be a scientist and watch experiments constantly fail. I needed something else to focus on in those times when science wasn’t going my way, and decided that writing fitted the bill.
If you could go back to your young teens and tell the future writer you one thing what would it be?
Don’t give up! And be on the look-out for competitions aimed at writers under 18. Often they’re free, so there’s nothing to lose – they’re a great way to keep motivated about writing.
Is The Vessel your first novel?
It’s my third. My first was an adult sci-fi novel about a bunch of deranged scientists trapped underground, and forced to do science against their will. The second was the first part of a planned YA fantasy trilogy, though parts of it were later cannibalised and re-used in The Vessel.
How long did it take to write?
The first draft happened in a mad dash of about six weeks. It got edited over the course of a year, something like seven or eight drafts. Major changes included changing the main boy’s character entirely – including a name change to ease the transition.
You created detailed drawings for the book, showing every detail of Ellie’s workshop. How do these help you write?
In between the first and second edit I decided to map out the world carefully to help me follow the plot through the city. I find drawing the settings really helps me to visualise the world, and to plant me firmly in the action while I’m writing.
Have people been surprised to discover you’re a novelist and artist as well as a lecturer in genetics?
I think people are surprised to discover I can tie my own shoelaces.
What’s the message of The Vessel?
It’s about opening up to the people you trust, and asking for help when you need it.
Why a whale?
I’ve always been a bit obsessed with whales. I’d read somewhere about how certain blood vessels in a whale are big enough for a person to swim through, and it fired up my imagination, about what it would be like to be trapped inside a whale. I’d also read about how whales can explode if they die on land, because of the build up of gas inside them. For research, I watched some fairly graphic youtube videos of this actually happening, including one where a whale is being carried down a busy high street on the back of a truck….
We were entranced by Ellie. Was it difficult writing a hero of the opposite gender?
I think she’s actually based more on me than on anyone else. I did make sure to have my partner read it through, though, to tell me if she ever did anything that felt off. It was a good education for me in the dangers of the ‘male gaze’.
Do you have a favourite scene?
Yes! It’s a moment near the end when the main character is at her lowest point. It’s dark and shocking and twisted and I suspect any editor will make me take it out.
You also submitted three middle grade manuscripts which all made the long longlist. Do you see yourself as more of a writer for middle grade or young adult readers?
I think I’m tending more and more towards middle grade these days. I find myself drawn to the strange and fantastical elements.
How many unpublished or unfinished manuscripts do you have?
Seven unpublished, four more unfinished!
You partner is also a debut novelist, how did you meet and do you ever write together and/or edit each other’s books?
Yes! My partner (Anbara Salam)’s first book is coming out in April, 2018.
We got to know each other because of writing. At first we were reading each other’s novels, then meeting up to talk about them and exchange notes. At some point they stopped being writerly discussions and became actual dates, though I was a little late in cottoning on to this. We once met for a picnic in the summer, but I just assumed it was an editing session, and brought along my notebook and my red pen…
Lastly, what’s the reaction been like from family and friends?
Everyone’s been so supportive! Writing at any level involves perseverance in the face of so much rejection. When you finally have something to celebrate, your friends and family are so thrilled to see your hard work pay off.
Interview: Caroline Ambrose
EXTRACT: The Vessel by Struan Murray
The city was built on a sharp mountain that jutted improbably from the sea, and the sea kept trying to claim it back. When the tide rose, it swallowed up the city’s lower streets. When the tide fell, it spat them back out again, but left its mark. Fresh mussels clung to windowsills, and fish flailed on the cobblestones. That grey morning, once the tide had retreated, a whale was found on a rooftop.
The pale dawn brought with it the people of the northern waterfront, who couldn’t fail to spot the creature. They gathered along the top of the seawall, craning over the parapet to gape at the roof below.
“It’s a sign from the God!” yelled the old preacher, his breath condensing in the freezing air. The crowd murmured incredulously.
“It’s not a sign of the Enemy,” snorted a sailor nearby. “It must have got stuck there at high tide.”
“How long will it live?” said a fisherman.
But nobody knew. The whale lay on its belly, stretched from one end of the rooftop to the other. It had beached itself on the chapel of St Bartholomew, whose rooftop poked above the waves at low tide, four tall spires at each corner. Slate had shattered and wood splintered beneath the whale’s bulk, yet the rooftop held all the same. The chapel was old but resilient, and would withstand the weight of a fifty-foot whale as well as it had withstood the sea.
“Can’t we help it, mum?” said a small, frightened boy, peering out from beneath a messy fringe. He watched the massive, wing-like flukes of the creature’s glossy tail, following their sorry rise and fall. Overhead, hungry seagulls screeched and seemed to laugh.
“It’s much too big, dear,” said his mother. “There’s no way to move it safely.”
“So it’s going to die?” he said, and no one else spoke because they all knew it would. The boy folded his arms across the parapet, watching the animal in dismay. He was so engrossed that he didn’t notice the girl who’d snuck in at his side, drawn down from the streets above.
She was years older than him, almost an adult, with tangled, blonde hair mussed up from a night of broken sleep. She leant forwards to inspect the whale below, and bit her lip.
“Its own weight is going to kill it,” she said.
The boy stared up at her, drawing close to his mother’s side. The girl’s face was pale and drawn, with three thin, red scratches down one cheek. She smelt faintly of fireworks. What was worse, she was dressed like a man, and not an upstanding one either. She wore a crimson scarf, and a coat that was long and hooded, stitched together from an assortment of weathered cloth and grey sealskin.
“It’s going to crush its own lungs sitting there,” she said, speaking more to herself than anyone else.
The boy’s lips quivered. He reached for his mother’s hand.
“Anna, could you go and get my flensing tool?” the blonde girl said, turning to a second girl standing right behind her. This one looked to be the same age as she was, fifteen maybe. She was dressed in a huge woollen blue jumper, and heavy black boots. She had a mess of curly ginger hair and looked bored. The blonde girl continued.
“If we don’t cut this whale open soon, it will explode.”
OPEN UNTIL 30th APRIL 2018: The Bath Novel Award 2018 is an international prize for unpublished or self-published novelists writing for adults or young adults. This year’s shortlist judge is Felicity Blunt of Curtis Brown with a first prize of £2,500, literary agent introductions for shortlisted writers and a new longlist prize, worth £1,800, of a place on Cornerstones Literary Consultancy’s new online How to Edit Your Novel course
The Bath Children’s Novel Award 2018 will open for entries from June until November 2018. Full 2017 results here
The Bath Novel Award & Bath Children’s Novel Award are sponsored by Cornerstones Literary Consultancy