E. R. (Elizabeth Rose) Murray lives in West Cork where she writes, fishes and grows her own vegetables. Caramel Hearts is her first book for young adults. Her debut novel for children aged 10–12, The Book of Learning – Nine Lives (Mercier Press) was chosen as the 2016 Dublin UNESCO City of Literature Citywide Read for Children. Elizabeth has poetry and short fiction published in journals across the UK and Ireland. Caramel Hearts is Elizabeth's sophomore novel - available from all good bookstores now.
1. Can you sum up Caramel Hearts in a tweet?
#CaramelHearts – a coming of age tale about family, friendship, betrayal, addiction, & hope, with real cake recipes!
2. What was the writing process like for you?
I wrote Caramel Hearts at a difficult time – my first book had received plenty of interest, but no book deal, so I made the decision to shelve it and write something else, something completely different. This was Caramel Hearts. Liv Bloom had been talking to me for a while, and I was compelled to write her story. I could feel her spiralling and I needed to give her a voice – but I was pretty frustrated at the time and disappointed that I hadn’t managed to secure a deal.
I knew the book was going to look at the effects of addiction and would contain a handwritten cookbook, but other than that, I wrote the first draft blind. I always write my first drafts organically, without any plotting or planning or editing, otherwise it kills the story for me and I lose interest. I also always write my first drafts in a month. Usually 65K words; I like losing myself in the intensity, then coming back to shape and sluice it later.
During the first draft stage, all felt great, but when I got to the editing stage, I suddenly found that I was completely torn up with worry over whether I’d be able to get it published. I’ve always been driven, so I still worked away at the manuscript, but these were pretty toxic conditions to be writing under. I realised that I had to let go; I had to stop focusing on the end result and enjoy the actual process. As soon as I managed this, I fell in love with writing all over again and the story flowed.
3. Who is your favourite character?
I actually really like Sarah. She’s quiet and unassuming, but she’s Liv’s rock. Sometimes, the strength of the quieter people around us gets overlooked, but I think Sarah shines through in this story.
4. Why did you choose to write from Liv’s point of view?
This was always Liv’s story, but I’m so glad you asked this because originally, I wrote Caramel Hearts in third person and I got it so, so wrong. I was about six drafts in when I realised; the plot worked and the characters were well developed, but there was something about the voice that wasn’t quite right. I decided to experiment and rewrite the first couple of chapters in first person. This doesn’t come naturally to me – I prefer to write in third or second person - but it was the right thing to do. My agent agreed, and so I rewrote the whole book in first person. It was a real challenge but it was also magic! Liv’s voice was much stronger and everything came together the way that I had hoped.
5. When you think of Liv, what words do you associate with her?
Great question! Creative, lost, loyal, willing, means well, sensitive and trying (in all senses of the word).
6. How do you think your perception of Liv will differ from your readers?
We all assess and make judgements about people all of the time, whether we’re conscious of it or not, and our reactions are so personal, determined by our own experiences, that I expect all kinds of reactions to Liv - and the other characters also. I expect that from all my books. Every time a person reads a book, it’s a completely unique experience that will never be replicated – that’s what I love so much about reading.
7. It’s no secret that Liv’s mum is an alcoholic. Was it a concern featuring this in Caramel Hearts?
Addiction was always central to the story. I wanted to explore the impact of addiction on a family unit as it’s much more common than people may assume and affects so many lives on a day to day basis. In Caramel Hearts, we’re talking about an alcohol addiction, but there are so many types of addiction and on so many levels; the common denominator, however, is the damaging fissures that it causes among family and friends. I wanted to create a story that resonated with anyone who has been affected by addiction – I wanted it to be realistic but to also have hope.
8. Were you worried that readers would write her off as an alcoholic instead of taking each page as it comes?
People often do judge addicts by their addiction so this may well happen. However, I’m hoping that readers will be able to see the different elements of her character, understand where the cracks surfaced and see how a person might descend into addiction. Maybe they’ll even look at a person with addiction in a different light afterwards? Good people can make bad choices and as a result, cause harm to those around them. Sometimes they get stuck. Some will break free, while others will never manage it. I’ve seen both many times in my own life. However, I’m a strong believer that we’re all responsible for our own actions and our choices; that even if we get lost, we can find our way if we choose. That’s what all the characters in this book have to learn in one way or another.
9. Sarah is meek and shy, but she has a fire in her. Do you feel she’s the moral compass of the story, in a way?
Sarah is certainly Liv’s rock. She’s the grounding force. She has a completely different background – though not without its own challenges – but she deals with it better because she has a much clearer sense of who she is and what she believes in.
10. How do you see Hatty and with the absence of their mum, how does this shape their relationship?
Hatty is at an important stage in her life – a life she has worked hard for and earned – but her freedom and choices have been taken away. She should be concentrating on finishing her education, but she has a strong sense of duty towards her younger sister and, because of her mum’s addiction, has been forced to step into mum’s shoes. Hatty is the one that keeps things balanced within the family, that smoothes things over – but by the time we meet her in the book, she’s exhausted and struggling with the responsibilities she’s been burdened with. Hatty has reached that point where she’s trying her best to cope, but with everything spiralling out of control, she also knows she’s out of her depth and there’s no-one she can really turn to.
11. Why include the recipes? What do they contribute to the identity of Liv and her mum?
As I delved into the character of Liv and got to understand her a bit better, I knew she really needed something that gave her a chance to shine. The handwritten cookbook was originally in the story to a much lesser extent, but they soon took on a more central role, almost characters in their own right. The recipes work on a few different levels. They are weaved into the story, reflecting Liv’s emotional state and circumstances, but they also give an insight into the mum that we don’t see; the mum that Harriet is still trying to believe in and that Liv barely remembers but longs for.
12. How would you sum up Madeline aka Mad Dog?
Oh, this one is a tricky character. She’s completely unpleasant but really, she is lonely and angry and this translates into being a rough, mean bully. There’s a real edge to her; the kind of person that you would always be nervous around, and that knows this so uses it to her advantage.
13. Was it important to show layers to her character?
People have so many layers and I think that sometimes we forget this; we expect everyone else to accept our own quirks and nuances, while being overly sensitive to those of others. So I think it’s always important to show the different layers of a character, otherwise they become flat or turn into a caricature. Mad Dog is not a nice character, but people’s circumstances and experiences do affect their behaviour, so I wanted to explore this. Again, it’s all about taking responsibility for our own actions and reactions; about having the strength to overcome challenges, however huge, or repeat the pattern. I don’t expect people to like Mad Dog but I do think they’ll understand why she behaves the way she does, even if they don’t agree with it.
14. Tell us about Jack. How do you see him in this story?
Jack? Oh, he’s a bad kisser – but we’ll try not to hold that against him! Actually, Jack has been through tough times but he’s come out on the other side. He began to make bad choices, but pulled himself around and as a result, he’s much more grounded and confident than his peers.
15. And lastly, what came first: the story or the characters? And how did it evolve from there?
The character Liv Bloom was talking to me for a while before I ever started writing this book, but I also knew that her story was around addiction. At first, I thought she might be the one with the addiction, but as I delved deeper I realised it was someone close to her – her mum. The story evolved through Liv; she had a really strong voice and even though it didn’t come through properly until I switched to first person narrative, she always propelled the story forward. I didn’t expect the food to feature so strongly, but this was a natural progression and the recipes became integral to the story, because they were so important to Liv – and you always have to make decisions that are right for the story.
Caramel Hearts is available now from all good bookstores.