I was born and raised in Troy, New York, in a two-story white house with green shutters, built from the hard work, fierce pride, and great hopes of my Irish immigrant grandparents, Nora (Casey) and Mark Murtagh, aka, "Nana and Papa." The house was set on a hill, and from my bedroom window I could see a sliver of river and railroad tracks –two invitations to journey.
An only child until I was six, cared for by my Nana during the day as both my parents worked full time, I relished my Saturday bus trips up-town with my mother to the Troy Public Library. A white-marble building with castle-heavy doors and two lion-head sculptures beside it, this magical place offered me books in exchange for a card with my signature on it. Reading was, and still is, my favorite sport. I love books.
Happily for me, eventually siblings filled our home, one sister and four brothers. I don’t recall writing stories as a child, but I did write some really corny songs and sappy plays, coercing my siblings into performing them. My sister and brothers were unbelievably good sports. I paid them with penny candy from Mrs. Milos’ store. Nana laughed until she cried and our Uncle Mark insisted we should be on television.
I attended St. Joseph’s grammar school in South Troy. I loved writing, but disliked being taught sentence structure and such. Once a teacher diagrammed a beautiful sentence of mine on the board and it was like she was dissecting a frog. I have a big place in my heart for creative kids who enjoy writing but get beaten down by rules.
In fourth grade, a nice thing happened. I wrote a poem about a robin which won first place in a poetry contest. The day I read that poem in front of my class was the worst and best day of my then 9-year-old life. It was the worst because my capped-front-tooth (from a Brownie injury in 1st grade, but that’s another story, smile) flew out of my mouth and landed on a classmate’s desk as I was reading the poem in a "loud proud voice." It was the best because I wrote something that won a prize. I was a writer.
I went to Catholic Central High School in Lansingburgh, NY. Again, here, I don’t remember writing stories – I read stories —all the books that were assigned and any others that struck my fancy—and I kept a diary—which in retrospect was great training for getting to the heart of the matter. In my senior year, a wonderful teacher encouraged me to enter a writing contest sponsored by a major publisher. Surprisingly I won first place in the playwriting category and college scholarship money for a play I wrote based on a theme from the book ALIVE, by Piers Paul Read. That felt good. I was a writer.
Next, I went to The College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York where I majored in English (with a minor in Communications) and spent four glorious years soaking in all the best books from some of the finest teachers on the planet (while working three jobs to help pay tuition). After graduation, I got married and moved to Connecticut where I worked at a large advertising/public relations firm days and attended classes in the evenings to earn a Master’s Degree in English from Trinity College, another fine place.
Relocating back to the Albany area, I worked at Russell Sage College, first as a publicist, then as Director of Communications for The Sage Colleges, managing a staff responsible for all internal and external communication, media relations, publications, advertising, a monthly newspaper and quarterly magazine. I loved that job and the people there, but I began to want to run my own business. I had so many ideas! I would get up at four in the morning to sketch out plans and concepts before I left for work.
Two years after our first son, Chris, was born, I took out a small-business loan, left my “safe job” at the college and founded Books Worth Writing to publish a product I’d developed called The Remembering Book. This heirloom-quality tribute to a loved one’s life was created after losing my best friend to cancer shortly after she gave birth to her first child. I wanted to ensure that the memories of those who knew Mari-Beth best were recorded in a book for her daughter. Distributed through funeral homes throughout the US and Canada, The Remembering Book sold more than 10,000 hard-cover copies.
Our second son, Connor, was born in 1992. I cut back to part-time work, teaching a course in public speaking at Russell Sage (I had all women students and I loved inspiring them to speak with confidence and conviction) and doing free-lance writing assignments for business and non-profit clients.
When our third son, Dylan, was born in 1994, I hopped off the career train to devote my best energy to my boys. Now with three children under the age of five, I woke each morning plotting out days filled with learning and adventure, art and exercise, good food and fun, and books, lots and lots and lots of books.
I wrote a song for each of my sons and sang them as lullabies. I kept a journal, wrote poems, and “roasts” for friends’ birthdays, planted a perennial garden, then a vegetable garden, joined one book club then founded another, cleared a walking trail through the woods behind our home and transplanted wild flowers along the borders (this trail became the pathway for the annual Easter egg hunt and a favorite shortcut for deer heading down to the creek at the bottom of the hill).
With my three young sons in tow, I returned to my “library days." We were weekly visitors to the Guilderland Public Library where we’d fill an L.L.Bean sack full of picture books and head home to snuggle up on the couch and read, read, read. The boys especially liked the rhyming books and the funny ones. (At a writer’s conference once I had the pleasure of telling author Pat Thomas how her book Stand Back Said the Elephant I’m Going to Sneeze always got the biggest belly laughs.)
I didn’t realize it at the time, but in addition to all of that reading being enormously FUN, it was fabulous research. As I was devoting my best creative energy to my children and sharing my love of reading with them, I was also soaking in valuable lessons in characterization and plot and structure and rhythm and language – feeding my writer’s voice in happy hibernation. I didn’t know that I would one day write children’s books, yet everything in my life was leading me that way. Ironically, I’d meet former business colleagues out and about and they’d say
“you’re writing children’s books now, right?” I can’t tell you how many people asked me that. It was never my intention or goal, but that's where life was leading me.
Then, on the morning of my son, Chris’s tenth birthday, a life changing awakening occurred. I was out running (I jog six days a week) when all of a sudden a story began playing in my mind like a movie. I could see scenes and hear characters talking. Where did that come from? I ran home shaking and typed the story out as best as I could remember it. When I finished I said, “That’s a book.”
From that moment on, more and more stories came and I caught them like fireflies in a jar, writing them down as quickly as I could. I was on my way!
My first book, a picture book entitled How Prudence Proovit Proved the Truth About Fairy Tales, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2004. My ½ million selling first novel, The Wedding Planner’s Daughter, Simon & Schuster, 2005, launched a popular series, now published worldwide, and was twice optioned for a movie. (Countless Willa fans are still hoping!!)
In 2014, my tenth anniversary as an author, my 20th book was published, 3 more are under contract.
Breaking in to this business was the hardest, longest race I’ve ever run. I wrote and revised daily for a year before I felt anything was ready to send an editor. Then, once I began submitting manuscripts, it took two years before I got a contract offer --179 rejection letters later.
If you want to be published, you have to want it badly. You need to read, read, read and write, write, write, and revise, revise, revise, and listen to people who are wiser than you, and learn from your rejections, and keep your spirits up, and catch those fireflies of inspiration before they fly off forgotten, and most of all, you’ve got to BELIEVE in yourself. Believe, Believe, Believe.
I am incredibly grateful that my work is my joy. I am happiest when I am writing. This is what I wish for my three sons, for everyone – find what it is you love to do-- because that is your gift—and then find a way to share it.
Christopher graduated from Hobart College with a degree in English; Connor graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in Integrated Marketing and Communications. Dylan studied English and Psychology at Hudson Valley Community College and recently transferred to Loyola Marymount in LA. They are smart, kind, compassionate young men. I am so proud of them.
In 2008 I moved back to my birthplace, Troy, NY, to a small house on a hill overlooking one of Troy's great old public parks. I can't see the river or railroad tracks, but am loving the journey still. Spark*Spark*Spark