As a plus-size woman, Julie Murphy has often been called fat. But in recent interviews and conversations, as well as in her books, the Texas-based young adult writer uses the word as a common adjective.
According to Murphy, who appears Feb. 27 as a guest of the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series, using “fat" takes away its negative connotations.
“Sometime in my 20s, I just hit a point where I tried changing my body, tried changing my entire life, but it was not happening, and this is who I am,” Murphy says. “I want to call my body what it is. I'm tired of all the negative connotations associated with it. For me, it’s really important to use the word 'fat' in a positive way and a neutral way because it’s just a word.”
Murphy’s books celebrate characters who look and sound like her. Dumplin’, made into a Netflix film starring Jennifer Aniston and featuring songs by Dolly Parton, is about a plus-size teenager who enters a beauty pageant. Dear Sweet Pea tracks the life of a young girl whose divorced parents live in identical houses on the same street. And Murphy’s forthcoming Faith: Take Flight (HarperCollins) is about a plus-size high school senior who becomes a superhero.
The stories have a universal appeal that transcends age groups. At her young adult events, 60% of Murphy's audience is adult. “As a writer who is now making a career of this and is constantly moving on to the next book, it’s hard not to have your audience in mind,” she says, “and kind of remember my books are young adult books and I write for teenagers, but I also have a really wide adult readership.”
Murphy does enjoy the give-and-take of talking to children, comparing question-and-answer sessions with kids to “mini-firing squads.”
Unlike most writers, Murphy didn’t grow up an avid reader. In her working-class family, there simply wasn’t a lot of time for books. Storytelling, however, was part of the fabric of everyday life, and after taking up theater in high school, Murphy became a librarian, a job she held full-time until recently.
Now, she’s focused on creating characters who not only resemble her physically, but think and act like Murphy does.
“We still have a very long way to go,” Murphy says. “Even now we’re seeing more but it’s not nearly enough. Our books still don’t represent the world around us in a very fair or realistic way. I think we’re definitely seeing a huge surge, but real change is going to come when the publishing industry also diversifies. That’s going to take time.”