Interview with Herta Feely
Herta Feely’s book, ‘Saving Phoebe Murrow’ is out today in paperback, published by Twenty7. I asked Herta all about her novel.
Can you tell me a bit about ‘Saving Phoebe Murrow’ please?
(The novel is divided into three sections: Conflict, Revenge, and Justice. And it is written from five people’s point-of-view—three adults and two teens.)
The story revolves around a cyber-bullying episode that targets the young teen, Phoebe Murrow, who self-harms by cutting. The cyber-bullying occurs in the first chapter, which ends without the reader knowing whether Phoebe will commit suicide or not. Then we roll back in time two months to see what happened to cause this in the first place.
The novel explores social media and its prevalence in teen lives, the conflict between two women with very different parenting styles, cliquish women, mean girls, self-harm in the form of cutting, and the complexities of mother-daughter relationships. And finally, it’s about a woman juggling a demanding career and the responsibilities of family, but trying her best to keep her daughter safe in a complex world.
In the final section (Justice), we experience the ramifications of the cyber-bullying on the two girls’ families and the extended community of students.
How long did it take you to write this book?
The first draft took the length of a pregnancy, nine months, but that was followed by three years of revisions.
Where did you get your ideas from?
The inspiration for this novel came from a newspaper article I read back in 2008 about a 13-year-old girl named Megan Meier, who took her life after a cyber-bullying episode (on MySpace in 2006) led by a 16-year-old boy named Josh Evans, whom she’d never met. After quite a bit of online bullying, in which friends she knew piled on, he suggested she kill herself and she did. Some weeks later Megan’s parents discovered that Josh was not a boy at all, but a 47-year-old neighbor woman who knew Megan and wanted to find out what Megan was saying about her daughter, with whom Megan had been friends, but had had a falling out. It was shocking to me that someone could do such a thing to a child, especially one she knew was vulnerable, as Megan was.
Almost immediately I knew I wanted to write a novel about social media and its impact on girls. The characters and key elements of my novel are very different from the Megan Meier story, though there a few similarities exist.
Did you have to do any research?
The primary research focused on self-harm and some medical issues, which I can’t say more about here. After writing the novel, I did quite a bit of research on social media and its impact on teen girls, in particular, and I feel quite concerned about what’s happening. I have read and heard anecdotally that girls are experiencing quite a lot of anxiety because of active, maybe over-active, participation on various social media platforms. There are many reports of suicide, and even reports of murder, the latter related to girls meeting strange men online and trusting them. Such an incident occurred recently in the US. After “meeting” a student from Virginia Tech through a Facebook group, Nicole Lovell snuck out of her house late one night to meet him and three days later she was found murdered. The student, David Eisenhauer, is in prison on murder charges. This latter case, hopefully, is an anomaly, but social media does lend itself to predation.
Do you think this is a story lots of parents will be able to relate to?
In a word, yes. I’ve had lots of readers respond, often saying it should be a book club choice to give parents (women, in particular) a chance to discuss the various issues that are raised in the story. I intentionally featured two female characters that fall on either end of the parenting spectrum—one too rigid and controlling (Isabel) and the other (Sandy) too lenient and wanting her daughter to be popular. This will allow readers to discuss the parenting issues they are concerned with, and to critique the choices made by the mothers in the story.
What do you want people to get from your book?
First and foremost, I want people to enjoy the read. And second, I hope the novel helps to stimulate discussions about parenting and about social media and its role in our lives, particularly that of young people. How does one parent effectively in this era of heavy Internet use and over-reliance on our various technology devices?
The other themes in the book too, such as mean girls, cliquish behavior among women, the importance of recognizing the need to be good role models to children, and mother-daughter relationships are topics that I hope will be discussed.
Certainly, social media has many positive attributes, especially in its ability to connect us, to enable us to keep up with numerous friends, to promote products and services, to spread news quickly and so on. However, in all of this connection, we can also feel estranged. We may experience not really being in touch with the people whose messages/images we are reading and seeing on a screen. Social media cannot (and should not) take the place of real face-to-face friendships, real activities, and so on. And yet, being active on social media can eat up considerable amounts of a person’s time. Especially young people inexperienced in the world and overly vulnerable to other’s reactions.
For example, there have been numerous suicides that resulted from cyber-bullying. A quick check on the Internet will provide you with numerous examples.
As a result of all this, parents have quite a lot of challenges these days, especially relative to social media. First, because most parents did not grow up with social media, they have a lack of familiarity with it; second, it’s hard to keep up with the ever-changing and new social media platforms—Instagram, Snapchat, Kik, Twitter, etcetera; and third, parents have to figure out how to establish boundaries and limits and then monitor use, all of which can be extremely challenging.
I hope the novel will spark conversations along all these lines.
Do you think it would make a good TV drama?
I suppose most people say yes to this question (I’d like to insert a smiley face emoticon or a winking one here!), but considering the contemporary nature of the topic raised in Saving Phoebe Murrow, I’d say this is a definite yes and much needed for the reasons listed in the above question. I’ve focused more on adult readers in regards to the hopes for my novel, but in terms of good TV drama, I think it would also be helpful to see this from the children’s angle. I’d love to see a drama that explores social media and its dark sides so that teens have greater awareness of the dangers and negative aspects. Certainly my novel could be seen from both the teen and the adult perspectives (just as it is written), and it could also be expanded upon, with a series that explores more and more forms of social media and how this affects girls and boys and their parents.
What are your feelings about social media and do you find it useful?
I do enjoy using social media (mainly Facebook and Twitter) to keep up with friends, to hear the latest news (world and also book news), and to promote my own novel. And, yes, it is useful. Sometimes, though, I find it tedious. And time consuming. I’m beyond that point where I’m worried about whether people like a post or a tweet, though occasionally I’m subject to the same anxieties I’ve read young people can have. I even question whether I’m using the media appropriately and/or effectively. So I guess I’m not entirely immune to what “other people think,” am I?
I think I’ve expressed myself pretty fully about other aspects of how I feel about social media. It’s good and bad. It’s all in how we use it and/or how we let it control us!
Are more books planned?
Indeed. The next novel, ALL FALL DOWN, is about a woman who reaches the pinnacle of her career (in the human rights field), only to have her entire world slip out from under her. And, I’ve discovered, it’s a love story. Between Charlotte Cooper and Damian West, a Nigerian sculptor she met at Oxford as a student. It also takes place in different parts of the world, and explores human rights violations there and the destruction of archaeological artifacts in the Middle East.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Lately, there hasn’t been much free time. But I do enjoy traveling with my husband, biking, hiking, and eating good food. I attend plays at local theaters quite often, and recently saw “Hamilton” with the original cast in New York.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I always loved to read…always. From the time I was about eight I began writing plays for the kids in the neighborhood to perform, and I enjoyed writing the occasional story. Once, in 6th grade, I had to write part of a play that had to do with the future. So my main character was a woman, who became the first woman president of the United States, and she had a secretary who was male. Perhaps I was prescient?!
I didn’t seriously consider being a novelist until later in life, somewhere in my early forties, and then it took some time to get my writing “legs” and figure out what I wanted to write about. Now I can’t imagine life without it.
What’s your advice to anyone trying to write their first novel?
First, I would say, yes, do it. Life is short and you should give it a whirl. But I also believe that people often don’t fully appreciate how much writing you need to do before you can churn out your first decent novel. It requires much practice. Becoming a successful writer requires dedication and discipline with regular and frequent bouts of sitting and writing. There’s simply no way around that. You can have the most brilliant idea, but then you need to sit down and write it.
Everyone has their own method, but I highly recommend allowing time for your idea to gain traction in your imagination and jotting down characters that come to you, snatches of dialogue or interior thoughts, and the occasional scene. It can be very helpful to do a little bit of plotting and figuring out what the main character wants and what stands in his or her way. Identifying the conflict. Doing this sort of pre-work can really help when you get stuck, staring at the computer screen and not knowing where the story is headed. Then you can turn to your notes or do a little research and that can give you the confidence or push to keep going.
And, finally, I would say that though we all write, writing fiction requires some contact with the “muse.” Without going into much detail, I believe this is the ability to open oneself up to the creative spirit and believing in it and letting it flow through you and onto the page.
About Herta Feely
Herta Feely is a writer and full-time editor, working with a wide array of authors and writers from around the world. Born in former Yugoslavia, she and her parents emigrated to Germany when she was three, and then to the United States at the age of seven. Her work (both short stories and memoir) have been published in a number of anthologies and literary journals, and she has received the American Independent Writers’ award for best published personal essay. In her previous work, she was a journalist, press secretary and activist, co-founding Safe Kids Worldwide, an organization dedicated to saving children from unintentional injuries.
She now lives in Washington, DC, with her husband and two cats, Monty and Albert. She has two sons, Jack and Max.
‘Saving Phoebe Murrow’ is available to buy from Amazon UK:-