From Scientist to Storyteller

By Jenny Argante

Lee Murray didn’t set out to be a writer. Her plan was international glory as a scientific manager. So she picked up two master’s degrees, married a physicist, and dashed off to London for Her Brilliant Career.

A few dusty scientific reports later, she and husband David moved to France where Lee wrote more reports as New Zealand’s Energy Advisor to the OECD. Useful, but not exactly setting the world alight.

When her daughter was born, a friend gave her a silver pen and stern instructions to use it to write a novel. Inspired, Lee began to record quirky episodes from la vie en France, though, as it turned out, Peter Mayle pipped her at that particular post. That was where Lee’s writing began, with numerous attempts to create a bestselling blockbuster. Most ended up in the bin.

Her family was on the move again, back to New Zealand and then on to Wisconsin, where Lee started writing a children’s adventure story. Homesick for New Zealand, she imagined that Wisconsin’s ancient effigy mounds were secret portals to other places. Choose the right doorway, and it would spirit her back home to Tauranga...

This basic idea grew into Battle of the Birds, to be released this month by Taramea Publishing, a Coromandel firm. “People say you can never go home,” Lee comments. “Things change while you’re away. New buildings go up, new roads develop, and people move on. When I wrote Annie’s adventure, I wanted to take this idea to an extreme, and also draw on my love of running along forest trails. So I sent my young heroine, Annie, back to a time when Moa and Te Hōkioi dominated the wild New Zealand bush.”

Bay of Plenty landmarks feature strongly in all of Lee’s published work, including her science fiction story Consumed (in A Foreign Country), short-listed for this year’s Vogel Award. Her unpublished ‘chick lit’, a fast-paced and hilarious Dash of Reality featuring Mauao, won the People’s Choice at Tauranga’s 2010 Inaugural Speed Pitching Awards. She is still awaiting a publisher for that.

One told her it was “compelling, but too New Zealand in theme.” Lee defends passionately her desire to write such stories.

“Writers here have a unique voice not heard elsewhere in the world,” she says.

Lee doesn’t miss that management career or her power suits. “Writing gives me the excuse to stay in my pyjamas until lunchtime!”

Her next project is a young adult novel, working with mentor Graeme Lay under the NZSA Mentorship Scheme. And after that? A thriller, set in the Te Urewera ranges.

With such diversity it is unlikely that writer Lee Murray will fail to prosper and enthral.

Jenny Argante