First came Side Effects May Vary‘s Alice, then came Dumplin’s Willowdean, and now there’s the titular Ramona Blue.
Julie Murphy has a knack for crafting memorable YA protagonists, and the ones at the center of her latest novel are no different.
Ramona is devoted to her family, especially her older (and pregnant) sister Hattie, even working multiple jobs to help them stay afloat. She’s also dealing with her newfound feelings for her childhood friend Freddie, the first boy Ramona — who’s only ever been romantically interested in girls up until this point — has ever liked.
EW caught up with the best-selling author to discuss her new novel.
You’ve said this is a more personal story for you. What inspired it?
My second book, Dumplin’, is about me in very obvious ways. People can look at me and make assumptions about how I might relate to that book. But I felt a lot more tied to this book in a really personal ways that people can’t see just by looking at you. I’ve always been bisexual or pansexual or queer or whatever label you want to put on it. I’ve always dated both guys and girls, and when I married my husband, I experienced this really weird thing that I didn’t expect to experience in that I kind of felt like I wasn’t straight enough for all the straight community and I wasn’t gay enough anymore for the queer community. It was this really happy time in my life and honeymoon period in my marriage when I should’ve been really thrilled, but I was having to come to terms with this shift in identity because I would never, for as long as we’re married, experience that feeling of walking into a restaurant and holding hands with a girl, and for people to just identify me as queer. So I wanted to write a book about that shift in identity and how we take such great comfort in our labels. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think we also have to be very willing to go easy on ourselves and be willing to allow for shift and changes in that.
There are so many “coming out” stories, but this is a “sexuality is more fluid” story.
Right. Well, I’m from the Chasing Amy generation, so I always loved that movie. But I knew that there were things that were wrong with that movie. It was done through the male gaze, and it’s so obvious, going back as an adult and watching that movie, thinking all the ways that it was catered to a male audience. But I clung to it because as a bisexual teenager, there was so little media out there for me. It was important, but I wanted to rewrite that and give my teenage self that story, but without that male gaze of, “You know, I’m dating a lesbian. This is so hot.”
Ramona isn’t just questioning her sexuality, but she’s also dealing with what her future might entail. How did you approach balancing both those story lines?
Our identities are really intermingled, and while we may look at this as different categories of ourselves; what roles we play in our family, how we’re going to excel in the future, all these different things. If you can imagine yourself as a filing cabinet, you probably think of all of those things as different files, but that’s not how we as humans are in reality. All of those things interact with each other. Your sexual identity is always going to interact with your role in your family, or how you settle into different friend groups and things like that, or even how you examine your future. So the book plays with identity in lots of different ways, but ultimately it’s all from the same mixing pot.
Before the book even begins, Ramona and her family have been through a lot because of Hurricane Katrina and then her mom leaving. How did you navigate the impact these various things might have had on her?
What that comes down to is setting. I really fell in love with the Mississippi Gulf Coast and all of the people I came across as I traveled this part of the country and researched it. It’s like this part of the country was ignored post-Katrina. Not to say that New Orleans was well-handled or anything like that, but I mean, for as much attention as New Orleans got, this part of the country got even less. I was really interested in what type of person that type of environment would create. That’s where I think all of the heavy past with Ramona and her sister Hattie and their mother comes from. What would a teenage girl look like today if she had survived Hurricane Katrina at a very young age? How would this still have a footprint on her life? How would this echo through her everyday world? So that would happen in ways like with her mother who is no longer present but still is, in a way. Those big things that we see happen on the news like hurricanes or wildfires, for those of us who don’t live that reality, that’s just one day of news, but for the rest of the world, that echoes through their entire lives.
What do you think is the biggest thing you’ve learned in the process of writing this book?
It’s discussed in the book, but I didn’t realize just how devastated that part of the country was, and how much we just swept them under the rug and how much easier it was to just ignore them. For so long, there was no major source of economic revenue, and it was just so devastating. Those people stayed there because they can’t afford to go elsewhere. For some people, they were able to move on to other places like Texas or Florida. I don’t think that we as a country have enough of a handle on what it really means to be poor in the United States. Not just poor as in, “I have just enough money to get my groceries,” but poor as in, you have no wiggle room. There is nowhere to go. It comes down to simple things like if you get a flat tire, you could lose your house.
I grew up relatively poor, but I did not grow up that poor, and seeing the realities of that and how an event like Hurricane Katrina could just decimate people’s lives, it just really shakes you to your core. I’m really fond of this part of the country now. I just feel really connected to it. My family and I go down to the Emerald Coast of Florida every year, and now we make a habit of stopping through this part of Mississippi and staying for a few days and really just soaking up the culture and all the great food. They’re rebuilding, but it’s a really slow process.
The economic difficulties Ramona faces are such a big part of the book, and as a reader, you’re rooting for her so hard. As a writer, were you tempted to just give her a win at certain points?
Yes and no. I wanted it to be realistic. When I graduated high school, my parents lost their home, and I wasn’t able to go to college for many years. I know the realities of what it feels like to be poor, so I wanted the reader to understand the realities of Ramona’s economic situation, but I didn’t want them to necessarily feel bad for her. I wanted them to root for her and for them to see that she’s really aggressively trying to make something out of her life. Any wins Ramona has are of her own doing. Anytime she buys something or does something that we, as the reader, get excited about, that it makes it even more rewarding for her.
In terms of her love interest, Freddie, did you play around with possibly of having him be a new guy who comes to town, or was he always someone from her past?
Freddie was always someone from Ramona’s past. I did this very purposefully because I wanted for it to be very clear that he wasn’t just some guy. Not to say that that would have changed the validity of her sexuality in any type of way, but I wanted it to be very clear that there was an emotional connection and there had been for quite some time. That childhood friendship is what helps you, the reader, hopefully, be able to really root for their relationship or just their friendship in general and hope it ends well, because there’s so much time invested there. I definitely did that on purpose.
Ruth and Saul are both queer. Was it super important for you to have that kind of representation in Ramona’s immediate friend group?
Yeah. Part of what I experienced soon after I got married and realized that I didn’t present as a queer person anymore was feeling like I was abandoning my friend group. It was really important to me that Ramona had, in a way, fought for her label and really gone out of her way to dig out a spot for herself in this town with Ruth and Saul. And then for her to have to battle with the reality of, “Am I going to lose this in some way if I embark on a relationship with Freddie? Is this going to change my standing with my only two queer friends I’ve ever had in my entire life? Do we still have anything in common? Does our friendship hold up? Is it just our sexuality that we have in common? But is there more to that?” It was important to me for Ramona to not be the only queer representation in the book. I wanted for you to see other people who weren’t struggling with their identity, who knew exactly who they were.
So many characters in the book are dealing with going or not going to college. What advice would you give your readers about their futures?
At that age, I was so ready to put a label on myself. I was so ready to just decide on something, even if that decision as the wrong one, to just let it be done so that I could just move on and have an adult life. Especially after having gone to college and having gotten a degree in something that I’m definitely not working in now and having never thought that I could ever be a professional writer, I’ve just had to learn that it’s okay to take your time, and it is totally okay for you to move at your own pace, for you to let your life evolve naturally, and for you to not put such a time stamp on everything. We’ve got this idea of you graduate high school, and you’re in college for four years, and then after that, you have this amount of time to get a job, and you should be living with your parents for this long. It’s just not realistic. It’s definitely not realistic for people who have the same socioeconomic status as Ramona.
Ramona Blue is currently available for purchase. Order it here.