Emily Bain Murphy on Setting and the Senses in Enchanted Hill


Emily Bain Murphy has made her name as an author through her previous two novels, both in the young adult fantasy genre. As a historical mystery for the adult market set in 1930s California, her newest novel, Enchanted Hill (Union Square, 2023), is a departure from what came before. In Enchanted Hill, Cora and Jack, who knew each other in the past when they lived on a prison island, meet again at a large estate where they rub elbows with Hollywood bigwigs. They are both working undercover for different ends, and neither of them trusts the other. Their pasts intrude on the present until they are forced to confront what they have been running from.

On why she made such a shift in genre, Murphy said, “Moving from young adult fantasy to adult historical mystery wasn’t so much a calculated decision as it was realizing that a different vantage point was what this story needed—and so I decided to pull on that string and see where it led.” For Murphy, it was crucial to write this as an adult novel because of the demands of the story. She observed that while young adult novels are concerned with the coming-of-age process, Enchanted Hill required “the perspective of what happened many years after that fateful point—how a single choice had changed and molded Cora throughout the following decade. The benefit of that hindsight and the perspective of how deep regret shapes a person was key to making this story what it is.”

Indeed, Murphy gives most of her characters pasts that haunt them and influence their motives, an approach that reflects her interest in constructing a mystery that is concerned not only with aspects of plot—she is just as interested in “the why of a whodunit” as “the who or the what.” As a result, the reader is able to sympathize even with unlikeable characters.

The novel’s action takes place primarily at fictionalized versions of Alcatraz and Hearst Castle. Murphy began to conceive of the novel when she and her family stopped at Hearst Castle on the way to Disneyland. “I’ll never forget,” she said, “the way the bell towers appeared out of the mist in the middle of nowhere, or catching my first glimpse of the wild zebras that were grazing at the foot of the mountains. It was like stepping into a different world.” She had also visited the other settings in the novel, which are “so rife with atmosphere that I was excited to knit them together into a single story.”

author photo by Randall Kahn

In order to recreate the lush historical setting of Hearst Castle, Murphy researched its history in a variety of ways. She looked at “the museum’s website and social media pages, online articles, blog posts, and maps” and “read archived correspondence between William Randolph Hearst and Hearst Castle’s architect, Julia Morgan.” Because her goal in conducting research is often to create atmosphere, she immersed herself in that era’s trends: “I sometimes wrote while listening to a playlist of the popular music of the time and created Pinterest pages of men’s and women’s fashion in 1930, including everything from tennis flannels to old Hollywood glamor: day dresses, white tie, and gowns.”

Murphy’s research about the food of the time has resulted in mouth-watering descriptions of the repasts served at her character Truman Byrd’s estate. “I had fun looking at menus of meals that were once served at Hearst Castle and what arrangements were made for special guests,” she said. From lime rickeys to oysters, chilled watermelon soup, and herbed omelettes, readers will be able to taste their way, along with the characters, through the novel’s parties. For Murphy, including this type of sensory detail was crucial for developing atmosphere. “I love the way food descriptions can enhance a book’s atmosphere,” she says, “to the point that I can practically smell the way golden butter is browning in a pan or the crisp, floral elderflower in a spritz. I think this goes all the way back to my love of Brian Jacques’ Redwall series growing up.”

For Murphy, creating a distinct atmosphere is in service of the story. She uses her research findings “as a sort of scaffolding” for the narrative, yielding “enough details to richly bring the world to life while leaving enough room for my imagination to create its own story.” The warm, moving story she has created is about trauma and its aftermath, and “the spectrum of ways that we respond to that as humans: bitterness, revenge, forgiveness, grudges, redemption—ashes that stay ashes, or the beauty that can rise from them.”

About the contributor: Elizabeth Crachiolo is a reviewer for Historical Novel Society.

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