In her new collection of linked stories, The Enigma of Iris Murphy, Edina librarian and writer Maureen Millea Smith constructs the world of single mother and Nebraska public defender Iris Murphy. Many characters chime in to tell Iris’ tale. Two of the stories are written from the perspective of Iris’ son, who is in the foreign service. Others are from the point of view of a character in prison. Two characters who share their stories have an unusual ability to understand animals. There’s even a contribution from a librarian’s viewpoint. Which makes sense, as Smith is a librarian at the Edina Public Library at Grandview Square. There, her specialties are general reference and programming. She’s worked on the Great Decisions program and Edina Reads. She also writes the monthly Read column for Edina Magazine.
Smith tries to write every day for at least 15 minutes. “I’ve learned to milk the minute,” she adds. And it seems she’s milked many, as this is not her first book. In 2006 she published a novel, When Charlotte Comes Home, which won a Minnesota Book Award, and was part of a project for an MFA that Smith received from Hamline University in 2000. Smith refers to the advice of some of her favorite Hamline writing teachers on the process of writing and submitting manuscripts to publishers: “Never put all of your emotional eggs in one basket.” Writers need to submit their work, Smith emphasizes, even when submitting work will undoubtedly result in rejection at times.
In the case of her recent work, Smith started writing individual pieces, which might have been chapters or might have been short stories, in late 2011. “I had nine or 10 of them,” she says. “I put them together and sent them to my [then] agent, who took three months to get back to me, saying he was no longer representing me.” Another agent gave Smith some good feedback but ultimately dropped communication with her. Reasonably disenchanted with agents in general, Smith turned to Poets and Writers Magazine and found a number of short-story collection contests. She spent many months in late 2014 and early 2015 submitting to many contests. “You press ‘submit’ and then you forget it,” says Smith.
In June 2015, she became a finalist in a contest sponsored by University of Alaska at Fairbanks but hadn’t won. Then later that month she opened an email that said, “The Enigma of Iris Murphy has been chosen for the Tartt First Fiction Award. Do you want it?” I was thrilled,” says Smith. The contest was sponsored by Livingston Press of the University of West Alabama in honor of Ruby Pickens Tartt, a Depression-era librarian who was also a short-story writer. What goes around comes around, it seems. “Just keep at it,” is Smith’s advice.
What is enigmatic about Iris Murphy? “The enigma is Iris herself,” says Smith. “She’s a mystery. She really cares about people—the people she represents as a public defender, for example, or her sister, who is deaf.” You may even find some social commentary in the book, says Smith, but it won’t be preachy. “Any social commentary comes from the characters,” she says. “You will learn from the characters.”
The Enigma of Iris Murphy will be released July 31. Pre-order is available at Amazon and Livingston Press at the University of West Alabama or check local bookstores later this month.