Interview: Author who didn't go by the book to win fans

Children's writer Peter J Murray takes great delight in scaring a class of primary school kids. While some authors may reluctantly go into a school and spend a quiet morning reciting chapters of their books, the Rotherham author of Mokee Joe and Bonebreaker, literally throws himself into the part. He takes a suitcase of costumes and props and dresses in character.

"One of my transformations is into the seven-foot-tall Mokee Joe character," explains Mr Murray. "I've got a scruffy, old coat and hat and the most amazing pair of platform shoes which were made especially for me. When I put them on I'm seven feet tall and I loom over the class. They love it."

Mr Murray, whose new book, Scabbajack, has just been shortlisted for the Northern Children's Book Award, says he has made it his life's mission to get children hooked on books.

"Because you're going into school, they don't have any choice but to be there. All those who think it's going to be boring are captivated by the performance," he says.

"We get lots of reluctant readers hooked into books, especially with the spooky genre that I write. The teachers absolutely love what I do, and the parents get very excited about them getting excited about books."

His performances certainly seem to be going down a storm; he is booked solid for the whole of 2011 and is also embarking on an international tour – he has been sponsored by the Carmel Hill Fund to go on a month-long tour of the United States, taking in New Orleans and New York in the spring.

"The kids over there are going crackers for the Mokee Joe books," he says. "I am now writing a fourth Mokee Joe book with their help."

The writer is consulting his American fans for the names of locations to create a storyline in New York and is acting on their suggestion of a derelict hospital in Harlem.

And the success of the former steel worker, who was brought up in a Rotherham council house, is even more remarkable given that he is a self-published writer. Indeed, his sales figures – up to 1,500 books a week – reveal that he is one of the most successful self-published writers ever.

Blessed with a steely determination, Mr Murray, 59, has overcome his fair share of obstacles.

He left school with a grade three CSE in maths and joined his father and uncles in the local steel works. At 21, he decided he wanted more and went back to college to start again. From failing his 11-plus as a boy, he went on to a degree at Sheffield Polytechnic, then won a place at Cambridge University to do a masters in Metallurgy.

He took a job as a maths teacher at the tough Aston Comprehensive, in Sheffield, and then went out to Dubai to work as a metallurgist before returning to work as assistant head teacher at Prince Charles' former school, Cheam School, in Newbury.

It was during his spell at Cheam in 2003 that he turned his hand to writing. But when four large publishers turned down his first novel, Mokee Joe, he decided to go it alone and published it himself.

Then rather than sit back and wait for the sales to roll in, Mr Murray embarked on a hugely successful book promotion tour visiting countless schools to get children interested in his spooky story-telling. As his books flew off the shelves, three of the publishers who had previously turned him down, suddenly took an interest.

"When the first Mokee Joe hit the 12,000 sales mark and it was in all the branches of Waterstones, we ended up in a bidding war," he recalls.

He signed up with Hodder Children's Books, and wrote the next two books in the Mokee Joe trilogy. A couple of years later, he realised he could sell as many books himself through his own well-oiled publicity machine.

"We thought all our dreams were answered but, in fact, after about two years of working with Hodder, we decided that we could work better without them. So I took the very unusual step of buying back all my copyright, which cost 85,000. We did it because we knew it would be worth it, and it has been."

He has now sold 89,000 copies of Mokee Joe and nearly as many copies of his next most popular book, Bonebreaker.

"The amazing thing is that after seven years, the first Mokee Joe book is still selling really well, but, of course, this is down to all the school visits.

"Altogether, we're getting close to half-a-million books and people won't believe it. But it's because we're doing it by the educational route and not the commercial route that we're a little bit underground."

Now, however, he admits he might be a victim of his own success. Along with his wife, Kath, he has just spent a week boxing up 500 books to send out to schools in Dubai to tie in with his Middle East tour.

"We're distributing our own books and it's hard. We're physically boxing books by their hundreds. We're almost getting back to the stage where we're struggling to cope now and we're wondering whether we should go back to a mainstream publisher. But publishers are terrified because what we've already got is beyond what they can do.

"The question is do you grow and take people back on board or do you say, we've got a lovely thing going now, it's very lucrative, let's stay where we are? The problem is there is always that ambition to go to the next level."

Two of his books have been translated into Japanese and there has been some interest in the film rights. For now though, Mr Murray is happy to tour schools, along with his son, Simon, 30, who has launched his own line of independently published children's books.

Simon Murray, who was born in Rotherham, but now lives in Newbury, also has a background in teaching, but now works as a full-time writer and illustrator with his own set of successful picture books, called Icky Doo Dah.The father-and-son team are visiting 14 international schools in Dubai this month.

Simon says: "I love going into schools with dad; it reminds me of when he used to tell us stories when I was eight. He's an inspiring person really."

Mr Murray senior admits he has come full circle. Along with his wife, he now lives back in Rotherham with his 78-year-old mother.

"You can't over-emphasise how important it is for families to read to their children at night when they're young. It bonds the family in a very special way," he says.

"My ambition is to get as many books into as many children's hands as possible. I could never be an author who just sits at home and writes books. It's the schools that keep us going and it's the kids that makes you want to write the next book."

setting the scene for success

Location is the inspiration behind many of Peter J Murray's books.

Mokee Joe is set in the industrial waste lands of Sheffield.

Bonebreaker is set in the Norfolk Broads where Mr Murray used to go on holiday.

Dawn Demons is based in a rundown seaside resort. "Bridlington was a very rundown town when I used to go there," he recalls.

The ghostly limestone scenery of Appletreewick inspired Moonwailer.

His latest book, Scabbajack, is set in the West Yorkshire town of Steeton, which goes by the name of Steetly.