Kitty Murphy talks all things bookish for the companion series to our popular podcast, Burning Books
Abduction. Accusations. And murder on the dance floor.
Sparkle McCavity, young drag queen and employee of Miss Merkin, is missing, presumed kidnapped or even worse. Naturally, Merkin turns to reluctant sleuth and friend to the community Fi for help, but clues and suspects are worryingly thin on the ground―and the drag king Stan the Man is proving somewhat distracting. When Merkin’s niece is then found murdered, spiked on a light pole in nightclub TRASH, it becomes clear that Fi’s friends are in danger. Again.
A book from your early days
The Worst Witch, by Jill Murphy.
I was six or so when I read this book and I loved it from the first page. It’s a story about Mildred Hubble and her best friend, Maud, two young witches at Miss Cackle’s Academy of Witches. Mildred is a bit rubbish as a witch. She gets her spells wrong, she’s always late, running in with her shoe laces undone and her hair a mess, and however hard she tries to do the right thing, she usually messes up. But she is loyal and kind, and her friendship with Maud is gorgeous.
The illustrations are also brilliant, drawn by Jill Murphy. The school sits up on a hill, tall towers and cold corridors, and the girls’ bedrooms are freezing. Mildred has pet bats in hers, and her witch’s cat is a tabby because they ran out of black ones…
I have reread the book over and over again since I was a child, including reading the entire series in lockdown. I’ve also gifted this book more than any other, to adults and children. I adore the friendship and the discovery of self.
Dog ears or book marks?
I feel slightly sick to admit it, but I have slipped to the dark side… Once a devout bookmark user, I recently found myself using anything from a ticket stub to a pencil stuffed into a book, and I have now found myself on occasion turning the corners. It’s a slippery slope.
A quote you can say by heart?
I don’t think I have any. I can repeat the entire Rocky Horror Show by heart with all songs and dialogue, so maybe there’s no room left in my brain?
Do you lend without expecting a book returned?
No. I give books all the time. I’ll very happily buy a copy of something I’ve loved and give it to a friend but I rarely lend them, with or without expectation.
A book you return to over the years?
Many. I have comfort re-read authors, like Terry Pratchett or Agatha Christie, and I have re-reads of books where I will check in to see if I’ll like them now, if I didn’t do so before.
I think I’ve re-read Christie more than anyone else, especially Poirot. There’s something very comforting in crime fiction to know that when a bad thing happens, we will have resolution. Unlike with real life, Poirot’s little grey cells will always find the baddies…
The right book at the right time?
Three Ply Yarn, by Caeia March.
As a young queer woman and a voracious reader, reading about people like me meant a great deal. Three Ply Yarn was the first book I’d ever read about women who fall in love with women. It has a special place in my heart.
A book that taught you something important?
Not so much a book, but an author. I saw Donal Ryan at a reading a few years ago. He was talking about using our own voices and being true to our own stories.
My voice is a mixture – half English, half Irish – and it’s mine. That’s who I am. That was important for me to hear validation. I’m not a university scholar, I’m not learned or special, I’m just someone who loves stories. And that’s ok.
A book you associate with a particular life event?
After my love of Jack London’s books when I was young, I finally got to visit the Canadian Wilderness and to go dog sledding in 2009, only to find that I was massively unprepared for the Wild. While still in Canada, I visited a bookshop, still shaken up from my showy experiences. (It’s a long story, but to cut to the chase it turns out that the wilderness contains wild animals. Who knew??)
I was browsing through the shelves, glad to be back somewhere with four walls, and the bookseller took one look at me and handed me Winterdance, a story of Gary Paulsen’s experiences running the Iditarod, the long distance dog sled race held every year from Anchorage to Nome.
Paulsen writes beautifully, with a gut-punching honesty. Winterdance is at times extremely funny, often tender and heart breaking, and (spoiler) is the only book I will knowingly read where a dog dies in the story.
One of your own books you would save?
One of my favourite things about books is that once a story is out there, it doesn’t matter if you’re reading a first edition hardback or a second hand, tatty old paperback with the spine broken and the pages marked by coffee stains: the story is real and the characters live.
I love all my book babies, but there was a short story I wrote a few years ago about a woman who gets into her car in a carpark and drives to the barrier, and then stops there. Other cars have to drive around her. She just stops. It’s dark, and snowing. She opens the window to feel the cold.
After a while a voice comes out of the ticket machine next to her and she talks with the young man about his life whilst she tries to work out how to drive on. I often think of that story. My writing has changed over the years and there are things I would do differently now, but it’s a tale from the time.
A book you’d leave in there to burn?
If this was like Room 101, where the flames are All Powerful and the book and its story and its very existence would cease to be once it burns, then none of them. Even if I loathe a book, someone else might love it.
But if it’s my own fire and I’m just burning one copy, then I have a LIST, and Jane Bloody Eyre is right at the top, followed by all of Dickens. And much as I realise this is heresy – Ulysses.
You can save one non-book item: what is it?
Counting that all animals and humans are safe, that my laptop is already stashed well away from the inferno and the calendar has been wrenched from the kitchen wall by someone else as they run out of the door (so I know what I’m doing next week) it’s probably my gardening tools.
There’s such a comfort in pulling on my old pruning gloves, formed over the years to fit my hands, or using the same trowel my dad once used when he was alive.
Also, you never know when you might need to dig a patio in a hurry…
Death in the Dark, by Kitty Murphy, is out now with Thomas & Mercer