About the Author
S. Kay Murphy is the author of four books, including The Tainted Legacy of Bertha Gifford. She is a graduate of the University of California, Riverside, and holds a master’s degree in Twentieth Century British and American Literature.
- Book title: The Tainted Legacy of Bertha Gifford
- Genre: Memoir
- Synopsis: At the age of 35, I discovered that my great-grandmother had been accused of multiple murders over the course of a twenty-year period, actions which, if true, would characterize her as a serial killer. The memoir recounts my journey to discover the truth about her guilt or innocence.
- Publish date: June, 2016
- Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
What was the defining event that made you start writing?
I was a shy, quiet kid with an unhappy home life who lived inside her head. One day my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Walton, gave us a homework assignment to write a story and use properly punctuated dialogue (a skill she’d recently taught us). I wrote a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end—before I knew that all good stories should have those elements. It was science fiction, a genre I had recently become interested in, about a boy who builds a robot in his garage from various parts he finds there. I smile at its innocence now, but that story had tension and conflict and resolution. When Mrs. Walton returned the graded assignment to me, she had written on it, “This is good. You could be a writer.” Her five-word sentence—“You could be a writer”—awakened me to my purpose in life. I made it my goal. By the age of 21, I was freelancing. My first book was published when I was 25.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I learned that language—and my own words—have power the same day Mrs. Walton returned that assignment to me. Before she did, she asked if she could read it to the class. I said yes, but I was terrified that she or my classmates would make fun of it. In fact, as she read the story, my peers listened—and laughed, but only when something was meant to be funny. And at the end, they applauded. Later at recess, several came up to say, “I liked your story about the robot!” For a troubled, withdrawn child, this type of praise and kindness was powerful in and of itself. Seeing firsthand how an audience can become immersed in a story of my own telling—yeah, that was a heady thing indeed!
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
This is a great question. Over the years, I have filled journals with my angst about not having time to write. The truth is, time and opportunity were always there for the taking, but I wasted time waiting for “life to settle down,” for there to be an era of calm and steadfast routine. For most people, this time never comes. Life is messy. Stuff happens. A peaceful, easy drift down the river of life happens only in rare moments; mostly we have to contend with problems and crises and interruptions in routine. If I could tell my younger writer self anything, it would be this: Write every day. No excuses. Even when your heart is breaking. Even when you’re worried sick about someone you love. Even when you’re so angry at injustice, you’re still crying because of it. Write especially in that time. Pour your passion into your words. Never let a day go by without doing so.
What other writing have you done?
As I mentioned, I began freelance writing for magazines when I was 21. Then came my first book (a how-to book on prenatal care and natural childbirth) when I was 25. I was divorced at 30 and for the 5 years that followed, I wrote little else besides papers for my college classes (although I did manage to write and sell a couple of children’s stories). I started teaching after that, and returned to freelance writing for a number of national magazines and a few newspapers. At 35, I learned that my great-grandmother had been tried for murder, accused of poisoning multiple people. Thus began a decade-long odyssey of research and discovery about her, her alleged crimes, and my mother’s relationship to all that. A memoir was born of it, a book I never expected to write (The Tainted Legacy of Bertha Gifford), and eventually, a second memoir followed (The Dogs Who Saved Me).
What made you choose this genre?
Certainly I didn’t choose it, it chose me, in terms of the discovery of my great-grandmother’s alleged crimes. I never saw myself writing a memoir. I’d written the original draft as a True Crime book—a genre I read often so had become quite familiar with. But an editor and potential publisher, after listening to me tell about traveling to the farmhouse where my great-grandmother had lived, finding it after my mother had been away from it for 66 years, attempting to interview neighbors while trying also to placate my mother, who was ashamed and embarrassed to even be in that town again, made the suggestion that I re-write the book as a memoir. I spent the summer doing just that, and sent it back to him. He called me three days later and told me he’d read it in one sitting, and that his wife was now reading it. Though he didn’t ultimately publish the book (we disagreed on his attempts to sensationalize it), he did me a great service by offering that bit of guidance toward a genre that better suited the story.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
When I do speaking engagements to writers’ groups, this is what I tell them:
Your subconscious mind is your greatest ally and your worst enemy. As writers, we need to learn to both harness its vast stores of material while simultaneously battling its defense mechanisms. Your subconscious mind is your absolute most valuable resource for ideas, experiences, and impressions, including all the passionate emotions you’ve ever felt from ecstatic joy to homicidal rage. (Actually, I hope you’ve never experienced homicidal rage. I have. It isn’t pretty.) You can learn to tap that resource by simply sitting still before you write, taking deep breaths, meditating on what you will write that day and ignoring all the other distractions. In this, your subconscious is your super-hero. Trust it—it will not fail you! However—as your super-hero, it also wants to protect you—from rejection and ridicule and any other unpleasant experience that may come from the crafting and publishing of your work. That’s the side you need to ignore—the voice in your head that distracts you, tries to convince you that the oven needs cleaning more than these words need to get on the page. After all, you can always write “later” or “tomorrow.” Don’t believe it! It’s just a ruse to direct you away from what could ultimately be painful if your partner or parent or publisher doesn’t like what you’ve written. Remember: You’re not writing to please them. You’re writing to please yourself. Because getting it down on the page—even if it’s messy and incomplete and needs adverb removal or dialogue spiciness—is the most satisfying and rewarding thing you can do right now. Not later. Not tomorrow.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
Two names leap immediately to mind. Just as I was beginning work on the memoir I wrote about my great-grandmother, I met James Brown, author of a number of memoirs, including and especially The Los Angeles Diaries. In the book’s first pages, he gives a wrenching account of how, as a small child, he sat in the car while his mother set fire to an apartment building. A woman on the top floor died of smoke inhalation. A few days later, police came to arrest his mother. At the time, Jim was five years old. When I met him at a gathering of writers, I asked if his mother had still been alive when he wrote the memoir. “Oh yes,” was his answer. I explained to him what I was working on, and admitted my worry that the telling of my own tale would be hampered by my mother’s deep love for her grandmother. Jim Brown told me something that day that I continue to remind myself of on a daily basis in my writing: “We all have our own truth,” he said. “What is true for you—what happens to be your story—may not be true for someone else. Don’t worry about anyone else’s truth. Write your truth. Write your story.” And so I have.
The other name that comes to mind is Harry Cauley, actor, producer, director, playwright, and author of the novel, Bridie and Finn (winner of the W. H. Smith Fresh Talent award). Years ago Harry told me this: “Writing is the loneliest profession in the world.” The truth of his statement hit me so hard, it nearly overwhelmed me emotionally. “We have to sit down all alone every day,” he said, “and block out every one and every thing. What we do, we must do alone. No one can help us. It comes from us and solely us and we are absolutely alone in the world when we do it.” Having spent so much of my life alone, I knew this was one reason I was struggling with having the discipline to sit in the seat every day and write. But his words changed me. I know I am alone when I write, and it is necessary so that the work gets done. There is always time enough to reach out to others after the work is done for the day.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Libraries are my temples of worship. I needed to see newspaper articles that were nearly 70 years old when I was doing the research for The Tainted Legacy of Bertha Gifford. I found them on microfilm in libraries in Missouri, where my great-grandmother lived. That meant some stalwart soul had, at one point, sat at a table somewhere, tediously photographing one page at a time of ancient yellowed newsprint so that someday, if someone like me needed to find that one article about the trial of Bertha Gifford, a previously unknown person living in rural Missouri, it could be found. I am humbly indebted. I also had to do some digging in the archives of ancient newspaper offices, sitting in dank basements that smelled of mildew and sifting through old copies of little throwaway papers. Fun stuff.
What did you edit out of this book?
Just before the final draft went to print, we celebrated my mother’s 90th birthday. I knew that she would be hurt by some of my frank characterizations of her in the book, so I read back through the final draft one more time and ended up chopping out about three different paragraphs. Keeping them wasn’t worth crushing my mom.
Do you Google yourself?
Probably about once a year, yes. Due to the sensitive subject matter of the book about my great-grandmother, I sometimes discover that people have posted things about me or her that are less than kind or less than accurate. Responding in a non-confrontational manner is a good way to keep people honest.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
Yes and no. I do believe absolutely that our subconscious minds will try to block us from participating in activities that may ultimately cause harm to our psyches. But just as absolutely, I believe we can stop that process by being aware of it, by sitting down to write despite how we ‘feel’ at any given time. Writing is a job. We’re required to show up for work, even when we don’t feel like it.
Irish breakfast tea (I’m not fully awake in the morning until the second cup.)
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Best holiday spot:
A tiny town called Cayucos on the Central California coast
Favourite song at the moment:
“In Hell I’ll Be in Good Company” by The Dead South
With writing, are you a plotter or (seat-of-your) pantser?
I start with a 3-act synopsis of the plot, then ‘pants’ it all the way through.
Star Wars or Lord of the Rings:
Number one thing to do on your bucket list:
Visit County Cork Ireland, particularly the graves of my great-great-great-grandparents.
Learn more about S. Kay Murphy at the following: