Julie Murphy made a splash with her acclaimed 2015 novel about a one-of-a-kind Texas beauty queen, Dumplin’. Now, Murphy is back with her highly anticipated follow-up, Ramona Blue, a story about another strong, marginalized teen doing her best to make sense of who she is.
Ramona Leroux is a 6 foot 3, blue-haired, gay teen who lives in a trailer with her dad and sister, Hattie, in Eulogy, Mississippi. Things aren’t looking so stellar for Ramona after her dreamy summer romance comes to an end, and her grand plans to leave Eulogy don’t look quite as likely when her family suddenly needs her more than ever. But when her childhood friend, Freddie, moves back to town, their reconnection brings more than either of them ever expected.
Ramona Blue is a beautifully rendered YA novel, and Murphy is adept at “tackling issues of economic, racial and sexual diversity with love, humor and hope.” We asked Murphy a few questions about finding—or shedding—your labels, what she hopes readers learn from Ramona's story and more.
Your 2015 YA novel Dumplin’ garnered rave reviews. What was it like to take on another writing project after establishing such high expectations?
Releasing Dumplin’ out into the world was such a thrilling experience. It’s always hard to work on a new project privately while you’re touring and promoting another book—one many people are connecting with in a significant way. It was really daunting, and I knew I wanted to take my time writing Ramona Blue because of the subject matter I planned on tackling. Not publishing a book in 2016 was hugely helpful. It gave me the opportunity to pass on a few publicity opportunities and fully concentrate on Ramona Blue.
Ramona and her family live in a trailer in small-town Mississippi, 13 years after Hurricane Katrina. What inspired you to set your story in this particular place and time? Did you have a personal experience with Hurricane Katrina?
Well, first off, I spend a lot of time along the the Gulf Coast. It’s a part of the country where I truly feel at home. It’s just southern enough to remind me of Texas while still maintaining its own distinct flavor, so I feel like I’m getting away. At the time of Katrina, I was living in Dallas-Fort Worth, which is where I still live, and we saw a huge influx of people moving in from the Gulf Coast. Some of those people became really close friends, so I saw firsthand how this one event has forever changed the course of their lives. I was also in college at the time and becoming more socially aware—beginning to understand all the social, class and race issues at play—so Katrina was very formative for me. My husband’s family is also from that part of Mississippi, and many of them still live there. I think that part of the country, especially outside of New Orleans, is slowly starting to bounce back, but when I spend time with my husband’s relatives, it’s very clear that the Mississippi Gulf Coast was forever changed, and not only that, but many locales feel like they were forgotten in favor of New Orleans during the rebuilding efforts. I can only commit to settings that intrigue me and places where I am sure my stories can live. The Mississippi Gulf Coast, with all of its beauty and conflict, turned out to be one of those places for me.
“As a teenager I was in a rush to label myself in certain ways, whether that was gay or straight, rich or poor, goth or prep. But being in such a hurry didn’t leave much room for discovery, and letting go of those labels was much harder than applying them in the first place.”
Ramona is attracted to girls and to her male friend Freddie, but rejects labels like “lesbian” and “bisexual.” What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of labels like these?
I don’t know that I would say Ramona rejects labels, but I do think she’s hesitant to rush into labeling herself in light of her attraction to Freddie. One of the advantages to claiming a definitive label is that it can give us a sense of place and safety. Letting go of that label puts her at risk of losing those things. But Ramona is adamant that her attraction to Freddie doesn’t diminish any of the female relationships she’s had in the past. As Ramona is questioning her sexuality, she uses those labels in conversation, but she doesn’t outright commit for many reasons, but mainly because she’s taking her time figuring things out. I think that for many people, they just know what and who they are, but as a teenager I was in a rush to label myself in certain ways, whether that was gay or straight, rich or poor, goth or prep. But being in such a hurry didn’t leave much room for discovery, and letting go of those labels was much harder than applying them in the first place. I truly believe that labels are great and hold so much importance, but I also feel that it’s perfectly fine—healthy, even—to take your time deciding what fits you if you’re not sure.
In addition to the prepub buzz about this book, there has been some confusion surrounding Ramona’s relationship with Freddie, and claims that it undermines the experiences of teens who identify as lesbian. How would you respond to this criticism?
The difficulty with prepub buzz is that readers only have a few paragraphs of jacket copy to work with, so a lot of the criticism has been a response to early efforts to clearly communicate what the book is about, which is a complicated story about identity and identity markers. I can tell you—as a bisexual woman who has never felt at home in straight or queer communities—all the reasons I wrote this book, but ultimately it’s never the author’s place to tell someone how they should feel about a book. My hope is that when readers have access to the full text, the conversation will shift. Ramona Blue addresses sexual identity, yes, but it also confronts issues of class, race, geography and even pregnancy. We did rewrite the jacket copy, though, because we quickly realized that the public perception did not reflect the book.
Freddie is somewhat ignorant about Ramona’s sexuality and what it means (and doesn’t mean). What do you hope readers learn from this aspect of the story?
Well, it’s my hope that readers will see that it’s OK to admit your ignorance about specific identities and cultures as long as you’re making active strides to learn and broaden your worldview. Over the course of the novel, we also learn that Ramona is just as clueless about Freddie’s experience as a black teenager. Perhaps I’m speaking for myself, but I was never naturally enlightened. It took exposure to people whose experiences differed from mine, and as an adult I’m still learning every day.
One detail of Ramona Blue that stood out for me was its inclusion of consent. Before two characters have sex, one repeatedly asks the other for verbal consent—including the reminder “you can change your mind whenever you want.” Why was this an important detail for you to include?
Without giving away too much, I will say that it was important for me to express that these were two actively consenting parties. Consent is always, always necessary, but it was something I wanted the reader to be hyperaware of in this case.
At one point when her life is particularly confusing, Ramona muses, “I’m starting to think that maybe the gist of life is learning how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Is this similar to your personal philosophy?
I have many personal philosophies, and while I don’t know if this is one of them, I do believe it’s a lesson I learned while becoming an adult (which I still feel like I’m in the process of, if I’m being honest). This specific quote doesn’t mean that Ramona believes it’s OK for her to allow others to make her uncomfortable, but instead she’s learning that growing is impossible without growing pains. Some of the most amazing things many of us will ever do oftentimes start with very difficult and uncomfortable situations and discussions. The sooner you can come to terms with that, the more personal growth you open yourself up to. For example, learning how to speak in front of others can be horrible and uncomfortable, but will it serve a long-term purpose that could potentially provide you with lots of opportunities? Yes. Totally.
What’s next on your writing agenda?
I am currently writing the companion to Dumplin’, which should be out in spring or summer of next year. I’m having a blast revisiting the setting and characters, and I can’t wait to share more details with readers.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Ramona Blue.