Children’s author E.R. Murray is a Middlesbrough transplant in West Cork. She has also lived in both Dublin and Spain, among other places, and her sense of place has a great influence on the setting of her novels. Ebony Smart, the protagonist of the Nine Lives Trilogy comes from West Cork and finds herself transplanted in Georgian Dublin. Over the course of the series she transitions from her initial feeling of loneliness and displacement to embracing her new home.
The first book of the trilogy, The Book of Learning, begins with the death of twelve year old Ebony’s beloved grandfather. She is quickly whisked out of her cherished home in the fictional village of Oddley Cove, West Cork, by the mistrusted figure of Judge Ambrose, to live with an aunt she has never met in Dublin. We are then taken on a fantastical journey with Ebony through the world of the Order of Nine Lives, where she meets and is helped by characters both human and animal, and discovers that she has a purpose in life she could never have imagined.
“It was the landscape that spoke to me first; the streets of Dublin”, says Murray. “My Georgian apartment was the inspiration for 23 Mercury Lane, and the landmarks I included were places I loved to visit and to write in. The story was always going to have a dual setting – I wanted the character to look at Dublin with fresh eyes like myself – and a chance visit to West Cork, where I now live, brought everything together nicely.”
She spent hours exploring the countryside of West Cork to find the right elements for the story, inventing the village of Oddley Cove so it had everything the story required – sea, hills, cottages, woods, cliffs – but wasn’t instantly recognisable as one of the real towns of West Cork.
Ebony ititally prefers Oddley Cove because that was the home she knew and loved. Murray loves Dublin too, though, and finds it an ideal complement to her countryside home. Although Ebony is at first nervous of her new city surroundings, Murray shows her coming to embrace her new home over the course of the trilogy as she finds fantastical elements to the city, such as an underground hideaway beneath Stephen’s Green park.
“I think environment has a huge impact on our lives”, says Murray, “and so I had to have a dual setting for the Nine Lives Trilogy as I wanted Ebony Smart to be seeing Dublin through fresh eyes, like I was witnessing it. I wanted her to be Irish, but also lonely in and alien to her environment, to allow for the adventure. I guess the books pay homage to both West Cork and Dublin because they’re both deep in my heart.”
Murray enjoyed spicing up familiar locations with magical enchancements in the books. Ebony’s Dublin home, 23 Mercury Lane, often reveals itself to have fantastical elements, such as the underground lair of a prehistoric wildcat or a locked room containing secrets to be discovered. Well-known and loved places such as Dublin Zoo and Stephen’s Green are used as settings for the story’s twists, turns and battles. The fantasy world of the books is built directly on top of the recognisable world of Dublin city.
Murray learnt from her mistakes while creating her fantasy world, though. “I didn’t make any notes as I edited The Book of Learning”, she says. “Many things changed along the way and I just went with it, but didn’t record the changes. So when it came to writing the follow-up, The Book of Shadows, I’d created real problems for myself.”
She had to reread book one, which was time-consuming. After this experience, she made detailed notes while writing book two, so that she could easily reference them to complete the trilogy believably in book three.
The Nine Lives Trilogy is aimed at readers between 8 and 12 years old. When asked about how she chose her her target age group, Murray explains that for her the story and the characters came first, and it then became clear what age group she was writing for, rather than the other way around. This dictated the story’s classic gothic tone, and she then redrafted naturally in an age-appropriate way.
Her other novel, Caramel Hearts, is aimed at a YA audience, but again she didn’t set out with this intention in mind. As the protagonist, Liv, emerged, it became clear how old she should be, and since children and teenagers tend to read about protagonists of a similar age to themselves, that set the target age group.
Ebony represents both a strong female character and a strong child character. She rebels against adults that she suspects of wrongdoing, she prioritises doing the right thing over doing as she’s told, and she’s not afraid to stand up for herself. When asked whether she envisaged Ebony as a role model for readers her age, Murray reminds me that she doesn’t think about her audience until after several drafts.
“I definitely wanted to create a strong female protagonist that didn’t rely on a boy or adults to get through what she had to get through”, she says. “But I also didn’t want her to be perfect – Ebony makes mistakes and is sometimes too impulsive.”
This is true. Ebony’s tendency to trust those who seem good to her along with her mistrust of others occasionally leads her into situations where she finds herself on the wrong side and then feels betrayed. This flaw serves to flesh her out as a character, to make her rounded and human and utterly relatable. It also helps to contribute to the story’s twists and turns, and ensures that the reader can never be quite sure who’s on which side. This keeps us compelled to continue turning the pages until the end.
“In life, many children struggle to belong”, says Murray. “Fiction is often a safe space to explore real life situations and emotions, so if Ebony Smart proves a positive role model and helps some children navigate difficult circumstances, then that’s more than I could ever have hoped to achieve.”
While reading the books, it’s easy to see the story playing out in front of your eyes like a film, and indeed the film rights to The Book of Learning have been sold. Murray says that she sees scenes play out in her mind like a film as she writes, so she’s delighted when anyone else can picture her stories in this way. She’s really excited about the prospect of seeing The Book of Learning on screen in the future.
The Book of Learning, The Book of Shadows and The Book of Revenge are published by Mercier Press, with The Book of Revenge having been released just this February. Watch out for one of E.R. Murray’s short stories here on HeadStuff next week.