This installment of the Inkpot Interviews welcomes Claire Rudolf Murphy on the occasion of the release of her newest book, My Country ‘Tis of Thee (Brian Collier, illustrator, Henry Holt, publisher.)
Please describe the book.
More than any other, one song traces America’s history of patriotism and protest. Everyone knows the words to “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.” What most don’t realize is that this iconic song has been a beacon of change for hundreds of years. Generations of protesters and civil rights pioneers have created new lyrics, beginning in royalist Britain and continuing through conflicts in colonial times, the American Revolution, the suffragist and labor movements, and the struggles for black and Native American civil rights.
As the story progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about? When did you first begin work on it? When did you finish?
This is one of my projects that simmered for years as I researched individuals throughout American history who had stood up for equal rights. I couldn’t find a riveting structure to hold all this material until I came across the suffragist verse to this familiar song. I can remember the moment when I thought—wow—I wonder if other protest groups also wrote verses for causes they believed in. I began discovering that they had from colonial protestors to abolitionists to Native American activists. Without all my research, I don’t believe I would have recognized what a great vessel this was to tell our country’s civil rights’ history.
It is important to keep writing, to not give reviews too much power, but when esteemed librarian Betsy Bird “got” what I was trying to do, I must admit to sheer delight. The marketing/publicity component of publishing is not a forte of mine, but the format of the book helped me use two of my strengths—a love of music and working with students—in my promotional efforts. Two local Spokane choirs recorded the verses from the book and they are now available on my web site for online listening.
My invitation at the end of the book to “write a new verse for a cause you believe in” has led to a national contest, inviting classes and individual students to submit new verses for a chance to win a book or a poster of Aretha Franklin singing at President Obama’s inauguration. New verses from Spokane students were shared at my book reading June 7th, such this one by a class of 5th and 6th graders.
My country ‘tis of thee
So sad the poverty
God keep them in your sight
Help us relieve their plight
Shelter them for the night
New hope is found.
Your first book was published in 1991—many, many years ago. What have you learned about the business of writing since then?
To keep believing in myself and my work, even when the market seems to be changing. My creativity is at its best when I am charged and confident and not worried about what publishers are looking for, but how best to tell a story that I believe in. I have also learned that rather than be intimidated by the new social media, my tech savvy friends will back me up and help get the word out there. We help each other in different way s and that’s what helps us survive this challenging and exciting writing world we live in.
Where do you do most of your writing?
I’d like to say at my desk looking out over the park, with nature and dog walkers inspiring my every word. But due to my busy mind, sometimes I end up upstairs in front of my light box, on the couch with my laptop, or when really desperate—at the Gonzaga University law library where no talking, internet or phone calls are allowed.
Do you remember the first book you loved?
Little Women. I know that it sounds cliched, but I truly loved that book and wanted to be—not Jo, the writer and actress, but Beth, the pianist and beloved sister. Yes, I know that she died. So today I hope I can be brave like Jo and kind and loving like Beth. I know, quite a lot to live up to, but that’s what books can inspire in us. I also read every juvenile biography on the shelf at our public library.
What meal would you serve to friends?
How I love to go out to dinner and be served. But lately I have become somewhat like Katherine Hepburn who stopped going out to restaurants because she was always disappointed with food or service. I eat mostly a vegetarian diet, so this time of year we are in garden heaven with all the fresh produce making its way to our table. What could be better? Times like this I wish that I lived closer to Hamline, so I could see some of my dear writer friends more often and talk over wine, pasta and fresh veggies.