The Wild Girls | July 18, 2008 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Living - July 18, 2008

The Wild Girls

Young writers come of age in 1970s Danville

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

When Joan and Sarah, 12-year-olds from Danville, have to go onstage to read their prize-winning fantasy about two girls who live in a forest, they feel unhappy and out of place all dressed up. When someone leaves her lipstick on a chair, they know the solution: Cover their faces with fierce-looking stripes to declare they are the wild girls, not conventional young misses. War paint in place, they step onto the stage and begin to recite: "We are the wild girls who live in the woods."

"The Wild Girls" is a young adult novel set in 1972 by author Pat Murphy, who lived in Danville at that time. The book explores Joan's move to Danville at the age of 12 and her friendship with Sarah, who spends her free time in a woodsy lair going by the name Fox as she communes with nature, which she prefers to her peers. Joan adopts the name Newt. They become the wild girls in their secret life and imagine even more fanciful wild girls for the writing contest.

"What was fun for me was writing a book for the kid I used to be," said Murphy. "I was conscious that I was writing a book that would have meant a lot to me at 12, 13. There's something very powerful about that."

Both Joan and Sarah have challenging relationships with their families: Sarah's mother left her and her motorcyclist/writer father when she was a toddler; Joan's overbearing father cruelly dominates his wife and teenage son.

Joan and Sarah's tribal face paint as well as their short story attract the attention of the flamboyant Verla Volante who teaches a summer writing course at UC Berkeley for gifted adolescents. When both girls join, they learn from Verla how to question everything, and their interviews with each other's parents start them on the path to finding their own answers about life.

"I hope kids who read it will experiment and find how writing can help them explore their relationships," Murphy said.

She moved to Danville from Connecticut with her parents and three brothers in the late 1960s when she was in the seventh grade. Her home was on Wildwood Court off Sycamore Valley Road, near the railroad tracks and surrounded by walnut orchards.

"I thought it was a very friendly place to move," she said. "I remember Charlotte Wood school (on Front Street at the time) and walking there."

She graduated from San Ramon Valley High School in 1972 and went to UC Santa Cruz where she majored in biology.

"I went to college knowing I wanted to write but figuring I needed something to write about," she said.

She inherited her love of science from her father, a chemist, and her love of the outdoors, which is reflected in "The Wild Girls," from her mother, who often took her children hiking.

Murphy has made her living writing non-fiction. She started out at the Crucible in Oakland, a nonprofit educational facility that trains people in fine arts and industrial arts. Then she worked at the San Francisco Exploratorium for 20 years, doing any writing that was needed, from exhibit explanations to editing the quarterly newsletter.

"In the last 10 years I ran the book publishing company for the museum, science books for kids," she said.

She has written science fiction novels and received both the Nebula Award and the World Fantasy Award. She taught science fiction writing in the 1990s as part of Stanford University's Creative Writing Program.

"I've had to lean on nonfiction writing to earn a living but I can still write the books that call to me," said Murphy.

She now commutes from her home in San Francisco to Palo Alto on Caltrain to her job with Klutz Books ("Juggling for the Complete Klutz") in Palo Alto.

"I get on the train, open my laptop and spend 40 minutes writing," she said. "Writing on the train is great. It's a time when nobody bothers you. You're being productive - and you're going somewhere."

"The Wild Girls" is her first young adult novel.

"I was really conscious of writing a book I would have really needed and liked at that age, which made me start thinking about where I grew up," she said. "Knowing the orchard where I used to play and knowing my way around 1970s Danville made it a lot easier."

The Booksellers Association named "The Wild Girls" as 2007 Book of the Year in Children's Literature, among other honors. A review in the New York Times said Murphy "render(s) the knotty friendships of girls with gravity, whimsy, intimacy and melodrama." Murphy said many readers have written to her, which she enjoys.

"The Wild Girls" started as a long short story, said Murphy, and appeared in an anthology.

"Often what happens with me is when I write a story I realize there's more I want to say about these characters," she explained. "I often think I'm done but then the characters don't go away."

The good news for fans of Joan and Sarah is that Murphy is working on another book about them. The wild girls apparently have continued to have adventures - and Murphy is chronicling them for her readers.