Author Peter Murray on workshops, the switch to writing and how his career has become a family affair
PUBLISHED: 12:44 02 December 2014 | UPDATED: 12:44 02 December 2014
Former teacher Peter Murray knew that children loved to be 'safely spooked' and it led to his writing career, he tells Danielle Auld
It’s now 10 years since Peter Murray quit his day teaching career to become a full time author - taking the monumental leap of leaving the security of a successful career as Deputy Headteacher at Cheam (the school on the Berkshire and Hampshire border where both Prince Philip and Prince Charles spent their early years).
Since then he’s sold over 1,000,000 books and yet Peter’s modest demeanour belies his phenomenal success. His beautiful West Berkshire home overlooks acres of spectacular countryside, with the River Enborne rushing nearby. It’s a place where an author could really let their creative juices flow. Handy, as Peter is currently in the process of writing Mokee Joe 6, which is scheduled to be launched in October 2015 in Dubai, where the book is based.
Peter, who also writes the chilling Bone Breaker series for youngsters, has won the Stockton Children’s Book Award, the Sheffield Children’s Book Award and been awarded Bedfordshire Children’s Book of the Year. The talent has to be there, but Peter says it’s all down to a creative imagination, a game of hide and seek, the school pupils he meets and the 250 students he knew at Cheam.
He spends a large part of his time running workshops for key stage 2 pupils in schools: “I love to hear when students enjoy the workshop but I remember one occasion in particular when I was visiting a school in a deprived inner city area and a young girl came up to me after the session and she said “I really enjoyed that, you’ve inspired me to write, I mean, if you can do it anyone can, right?’” Whilst the compliment may have seemed back-handed, the girl was actually referring to Peter’s unlikely beginnings as a children’s author.
Peter started life on a council estate in Rotherham and failed his 11+. His worst subject at school was Maths: “They didn’t even let me take my maths exams”, he remembers. Quite something considering Peter went on to receive a Masters in Maths and Science at Cambridge University and to become a Head of Department in Mathematics at Cheam School .
So what was it that made this man take such a gutsy leap into the world of children’s fiction writing? “It all started when I went back up to Rotherham and met up with my niece (who was grown up at this point) and she said with a smile ‘Uncle Pete, do you remember when we would play hide and seek and you would dress up in a big floppy hat and a long coat and come to find us? You would call yourself Mokee Joe and it was the scariest game ever!’ This was the moment I realised that I had to write a book about this character.”
At this point Peter went back to Cheam School for work the next day and started eight months of getting up early to write the first Mokee Joe book ‘Mokee Joe is Coming’. Peter says: “I felt as though the story was already there and that I was discovering it as I wrote.”
Refreshingly, despite Peter’s meteoric success he and his wife Kath have an admirable air of grounded normality. Maybe this is due to the fact that things haven’t always been plain sailing. “In the early days the biggest challenge was getting into the schools. When I had to call up schools I always started with those that I knew.”
“We were visiting 10 schools a week and it wasn’t long before we reached burn-out. We had to take stock of what we were doing.” Peter then secured an elusive publishing contract with a well-known publisher but was dogged by various supply issues, so he, Kath and son Simon made the decision to return to self-publishing.
Now Peter’s writing is very much a family affair. Kath travels with Peter and helps out on the school visits: “Kath is always very visible on the stage supporting me in making the sessions interactive, dressing the children up or supporting my own dressing up as characters in my books. We are very much a family business and Simon, my son, author of the Icky Doo Dah books, illustrates the pages of my books.”
Peter writes spooky stories for children aged 7-13, and when it comes to the front covers he pulls no punches in adding to the ‘scare factor’ as his front cover illustrator designed and created the covers for Stephen King’s earlier books. “Children always love to feel scared so long as they feel safe,” says Peter, and he should know as he and his wife were house parents to 20 boys aged eight each year whilst working at Cheam school.
“I didn’t really start story telling until I was in my forties, although, as a child my teachers at school always commented on my imagination so maybe it was always there, waiting for an outlet? When I taught at Cheam I would make up stories for the boys at the school. The spookier the stories, the more they loved them. “
One particular story completely changed the dynamics of Cross Country when the boys found themselves having to repeatedly run past ‘The Demon Tree’; a tree in Cheam woods that appears to have two arms and a face and which later formed the basis for the story ‘The Demon Tree’ that features in his collection of short stories ‘Ten O’ Clock Caller’.
So with 12 published books and three children’s book awards, Peter and Kath seem the happiest of couples. I had to know what it was that drove them to keep living out of suitcases whilst visiting around 90 schools in an academic year, everywhere from Great Yarmouth to the Cayman Isles. “It’s watching the children enjoy reading; hearing the individual stories of both reluctant readers and able readers that thoroughly enjoy my books,” says Peter. “I love to see the children with the books, smelling that magical new-book smell and feeling the glossy covers with the embossed print; soaking up the images on the front for every last bit of detail. It’s the magic of a book that was such a big part of my childhood and it’s wonderful to see children enjoying books today in a world so dominated by technology.”
• Ex-Royal Marine Colin Bunting on his long haul to set up dream equine operation in West Berkshire
• Bonnie May on catering for Frank Sinatra, the work of GIG and her favourite things about Buckinghamshire