Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Q&A with Sara Flannery Murphy




Sara Flannery Murphy is the author of the new novel The Wonder State. Her other novels include Girl One. She lives in Utah.


Q: What inspired you to write The Wonder State, and how did you create your cast of characters?


A: I’ve always loved houses. Unlike my characters, I don’t break and enter, not even abandoned places. But homes fascinate me, both as buildings and as containers for people’s lives.


The Wonder State grew out of this obsession – what if houses held magic inside them, what if they could influence anyone who entered? I love haunted house stories, but I wanted to complicate that. Not just haunted houses, but blessed houses, cursed houses, mysterious houses.


Brandi Addams and Jay Carr were always at the core of the story. Their close friendship holds all the ambition of the teenage years … the way you want your childhood BFF to follow you into a new life, but also have this uncomfortable awareness that people grow apart.


There’s this tension where Jay adores Brandi, but is also getting curious about who she might be without this long-time friend. Her desire to leave Arkansas also intersects with the way she feels about Brandi, who embodies some of the stereotypes about the state that Jay wants to shake off (in all her youthful arrogance).


The rest of the group grew around these two. The twins, Hilma and Max, are the outsiders who take risks for fun, but don’t have as much skin in the game. Charlie is a smart misfit who’s been secretly longing to be pulled into an adventure. And Iggy is the guy who seems like he’s too popular to ever spend time with this ragtag group, but of course becomes an integral part.


I had a lot of fun bouncing the six friends off each other, both as brash, hopeful teens and then as jaded adults.  


Q: The story is set in the Arkansas Ozarks--how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: I lived in Arkansas for the first 23 years of my life, and my teenage years were spent in the Ozarks. The town I lived in always felt beautiful and weird to me, full of Victorian architecture and hot springs, still influenced by the hippies who’d lived there in the 1970s. Also, the surrounding forests are so beautifully green – these steep rolling hills and towering bluffs.


I always knew I wanted to write a book set in the Ozarks. Maybe this book could’ve been set somewhere else – there are small towns all over the country, and the themes of belonging, nostalgia, and magic could apply to many of them. I certainly hope that holds true for my readers.


But for my particular writing process, I’m not sure I could’ve tapped into those precise emotions without returning to the Ozarks.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: Initially, the friends were coming back to town to investigate a murder, not a disappearance, and this darker tone also influenced the ending. Once I shifted to exploring a disappearance instead, I also began to weave more hopeful threads into the overall story, including the ending.


I was writing this book during 2021, and maybe the overall stress and desire for escapism of that year influenced my decision to focus on a more optimistic sensibility. I felt like I couldn’t be overly cruel to my characters when everyone was already struggling.


And this softer approach ended up giving the book some more magic, I hope, as well as some of the nostalgia and warmth I miss from my favorite childhood reads.


Q: The writer Polly Stewart said of the book, “Sara Flannery Murphy’s The Wonder State is many things: a bittersweet coming-of-age tale, an engrossing portrait of life in the small-town Ozarks, and a brilliant allegory in which childhood longings for permanence and stability take a concrete form.” What do you think of that description?


A: I’m incredibly grateful to Polly for this description (and want to remind everyone to check out her thriller, The Good Ones).


I appreciate that she touches on so many of the things I only hoped to accomplish – coming-of-age story and a tribute to the Ozarks. It’s validating, after writing in the dark, to have your book emerge into the light and have writers you admire see some of the things you’re doing.


And I love the idea that the houses serve as an allegory for this longing to return back to a place you once knew and walk back inside the magic you’ve left behind. So much of The Wonder State grapples with questions of nostalgia: both the sweetness of it, and the way its dark undertow can capsize your current life. I appreciate that Polly articulated this so beautifully on my behalf.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve started working on my next novel, and I’m having a lot of fun with this project, which helps distract from the pre-pub nerves.


This book-in-progress plays with the relationship between readers, writers, and characters, which is something I’ve thought about endlessly as a reader. And my theories on the reader-writer relationship have only deepened since I became a published writer.


This novel is also my first attempt at horror, albeit more lighthearted horror, and plays with tulpas, fandom, deals with the devil, and amateur private investigators.  


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: My dedication acknowledges that this book was partially written for my fellow daydreamers, the people who are always looking for secret doorways and magic portals around every corner. I hope anybody who enjoyed portal fantasies as a kid (or beyond!) will find something interesting or relatable here.  


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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