Once a proud Torontoist staffer, now a published YA novelist: Jill Murray is celebrating the release of her first book this week.
Break On Through is the story of Nadine, aka Lady Six Sky, a badass b-girl who dreams of winning the Hogtown Showdown with her breakdancing crew. But when her parents announce that they’re moving from Parkdale to the fictional suburb of Rivercrest, Nadine’s world is turned upside down. Now she’s lost her crew, her boyfriend, and is surrounded by a bunch of spoiled preppies at her new school. What’s a b-girl to do? Give up the dream? Hell no!
Celebrate with Jill at the free all-ages Break On Through release party on Saturday, February 16 (7:30–11 p.m.) at Street Dance Academy. It’s your opportunity to catch MCs Abdominal, Sunny D, and Jill’s main man More Or Les perform live while a b-girl team re-enacts a battle from the book. While you’re there, pick up a copy of this limited-edition t-shirt, and Nadine’s Mixtape, the book’s official soundtrack.
Despite being busy with talking to the CBC, YTV, and giving a reading at the Harbourfront Centre, Jill took a few minutes to chat with her old friends at Torontoist about what it’s like to finally get published for reals.
We know you love to breakdance. Have you ever faced any resistance as a female breakdancer, like Nadine did?
I’ve never tried to battle, so really, I’ve never put myself in a position to feel any resistance, which is the essential difference between people like myself—recreational dancers who do it for fun, health, camaraderie—and b-girls, who are necessarily competitive and driven to excel.
I have a lot of respect for b-girls and everything they work and sometimes have to fight for. You don’t see many women battling, and from what I’ve seen, the ones who do often have to contend with either easy props (no real b-girl wants that), being ignored totally no matter what they do, or not being respected as a dancer.
How did your friendship with shebang! contribute to your research?
I never set out to research this book. I was writing another book— let’s call it a practice novel— when I started taking break classes with shebang! A few years later when I was ready to start this one, I had a head full of breaking, plenty of bruises to show for my efforts, and my own perspective on the art, sport and attitude of the whole scene.
shebang! have been great friends, incredible inspiration, and of course excellent teachers. As I got to know them better, I did become somewhat curious about how their crew meshed together so well with four different personalities: Blazin’, Jennrock, MaeHem, and Ms. Mighty. Each of them is such a strong—and strong minded—individual in her own way, it’s remarkable how they merged into this cohesive super-unit over their mutual commitment to b-girling. So, in a way, that gave me the idea to focus on how individual personalities and experiences impact group dynamics. It’s basically your timeless “making the band” setup, and a rather fun way to anchor a story.
This is the first YA novel we’ve read that was set in Toronto. Even Rivercrest was recognizable as any one of a number of affluent suburbs around the GTA. Was setting Break On Through in Toronto a natural choice?
I’ve actually lived most of my adult life in Toronto, and its systems and viewpoints have occupied a lot of my creative consciousness for a long time. I haven’t lived in the suburbs of Toronto, but I have in Montreal, and I had some fun adding the tales of commuting co-workers to some of my own experiences to build this fearsome teenage dystopia.
We thought it was really refreshing that Nadine was written as biracial and non-white. Was it your intention to contribute a more multi-cultural view of adolescence and promote diversification of voice in teen fiction?
Three of my favourite recent teen reads are Coe Booth’s Tyrell, Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and E. Lockhart’s Fly On The Wall. These are all good examples of the variety of voice that exists in YA, and also of the enthusiasm of publishers and editors to include these voices.
In Break On Through, race actually plays much less of a role in defining its voice than does the simple fact of it being an urban-centred book, with characters whose experiences have been shaped by the city. I think we could do with a lot more of these urban stories in Canadian literature. A kid growing up in downtown or suburban Toronto is no less Canadian than a kid in an isolated fishing village, or a remote hockey town, or a traditional farming community. Canadian stories happen in cities.
Who are your influences in the world of YA fiction?
Maybe I’m an egotist, but when I’m reading, I don’t read for influence. I read for entertainment. And when I’m not entertained, that’s when I’ll start thinking, “If it was my book, I’d do it this way…” There is a whole raft of American YA writers who blog prolifically, and have plenty of advice that can pick a fledgling author up on a day when things aren’t going so well. I love comparing how differently some of these writers come across in their blogs, compared to their writing style in their books. Three YA blogs I read are The Longstockings, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Maureen Johnson.
What are you working on now? You moved to Montreal last year, so will your next book be set there? Or is Toronto where your heart is?
My next novel takes a secondary character from Break On Through and sends her on her own, totally different journey, in which she is recruited into a talentless Canadian pop-R&B group. Hilarity, scandal, and personal discovery ensue. Much of the action does take place in Montreal, because what could be more fun than getting sent to Montreal as a teen and left to your own devices?
Last question: if you could battle anyone in the world (that is, a fantasy world where everyone could breakdance), who would you battle?
You know what would make this question funnier? What writer would I battle? Because then we have to imagine all these writers rolling around on the floor: Margaret Atwood howling in agony as she’d be forcibly separated from her longpen; Yann Martel gesticulating obscenely in the general direction of JK Rowling, who’d just laugh and flash her bling. And then we could imagine making an X-box game out of it, kind of like that time on The Simpsons when Bart got stuck with a video game of My Dinner With Andre.
So, in my personal round of Dance Dance Revolution: The Writing’s On The Wall, or whatever they’d call it, I think I’d choose to battle Philip Pullman because while I’d have more training, he’d probably have some kind of crazy mongoose daemon, and that would be sick in a cypher. Or else maybe Nick Hornby. I bet he has some toprock up his sleeve.
Photo courtesy of Jill Murray.