Interview with Author Heather Murphy Capps + Preorder Swag Giveaway!

It’s always a pleasure to welcome an author back to the Mixed-Up Files, but when the author happens to be my friend and former MUF contributor Heather Murphy Capps, it’s an extra-special treat! Today, Heather is here to talk about her sophomore novel, The Rule of Three, which focuses on racism and generational trauma. Lauded by Publisher’s Weekly as “noteworthy” and “illuminating,” the novel is out from Carolrhoda Books/Lerner on August 6. (To learn more about Heather’s fantastic preorder swag giveaway, scroll down for details 👇👇👇)

Interview with Heather

MR: Welcome back to the Mixed-Up Files, Heather! The first time you were here, your debut novel, Indigo & Ida, had just been released. How has life changed for you, now that you’re a published author?

HMC: I actually tell people I am an author. The thing is, my day job is instruction: I teach leadership, writing, and briefing skills to federal employees. Before Indigo and Ida, that was the only way I described my professional life. Now I say, “I teach writing skills to adult professionals and I am a children’s book author.” It’s an amazing feeling.

Why didn’t I do that before? Because I was super self-conscious about how to answer the inevitable question: “Oh, what have you published?” And I would have to say, “well, I am a pre-published author.”

Honestly, I hope all our pre-published friends do NOT follow my lead in keeping their work a secret. I think it’s great to be proud of who you are and what dreams you are seeking, regardless of where you are in the journey. I wish I had realized that before!

The Rule of Three

MR: Let’s turn our attention to your latest book, The Rule of Three, a contemporary novel with fantastical elements. Can you tell us about it? 

HMC: This book is so important to me for so many reasons—it’s got baseball, magical realism, mental health rep, and an important, often overlooked historical story.

When we first meet our protagonist in The Rule of Three, Wyatt, he is working on the first part of his three-part plan for life: 1) land a spot on the local elite travel baseball team; 2) play baseball in high school; 3) play baseball in college.

But his plans derail in the face of mounting racial tensions and microaggressions at school. On one particularly stressful day, he suddenly begins spewing smoke from his hands and feet in response to his stress. He’s watched his father do the same thing his entire life; he just never knew it was a trait he could inherit.

At the same time, he loses faith in his best friend’s willingness to stand by him, and then he gets kicked off the baseball team. Isolated and frustrated, he decides to use his smoke as a superhero talent to target bullies. But then he discovers that the smoke is linked to a painful family history. He and his father can heal if they are both able to face the past.

The Story Behind the Story

MR: What was the inspiration behind the novel?

HMC: I first decided to write this story years ago, when I happened to be talking to friends and mentioned the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia. They hadn’t heard of the incident and were naturally skeptical. I mean, who wouldn’t be? A city dropping a bomb on its own neighborhood?

Because my friends were so incredulous, I was halfway convinced that even though I lived on the outskirts of Philly that summer and watched the whole thing play out on television, I was remembering it wrong.

When I confirmed for myself that I was correct, I did a VERY informal and limited poll—and interestingly, it seemed most people I asked remembered extreme government responses in places like Waco, TX and Ruby Ridge—not Philadelphia.

Thus, I felt strongly that I needed to tell this important story. It’s sad, but it’s also one that offers a message of hope and resilience. The MOVE survivors eventually returned to their old neighborhood—and bought their childhood home.

I also wanted to write about the way families can pass on a genetic legacy of pain.

Three-Pronged Coping Strategy

MR: At the beginning of the novel, Wyatt puts up with racist comments from classmates, and from his coach, just to fit in. He also uses a three-leveled system to measure—and to cope with—his distress. Can you tell us more about Wyatt’s coping strategy? How does it serve him? How does it hinder him?

HMC: The number three is important to Wyatt—and for good reason. He notes himself at one point in the book that “3” is significant in baseball, math, and survival, to name a few. He organizes his life in threes because the number speaks to him and gives him structure—including his three-part system of reactions to people who stress him out.

Level One: pretend to laugh it off and eventually the bad feeling goes away;

Level Two: pretend to laugh it off but take the bad feeling out on someone else;

Level Three: unable to laugh it off. Eventually, Level Three becomes smoke.

The smoke hinders and scares him, but ultimately it also leads Wyatt to the counselor who helps him and his father begin the healing process.

MR: In a similar vein, Wyatt doesn’t say anything about the mistreatment he’s receiving because he doesn’t want a reputation as a “troublemaker.” This is, unfortunately, a common reaction from kids who are bullied, whether it’s for their skin color, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Can you speak more to this?

HMC: It’s such an unfortunate misconception that you’re being “whiny” or “extra” if you call people out on bad behavior. Even in today’s more aware, evolved culture, the onus is still too often on the person experiencing bullying to put up with it, and I think we still praise those who can look the other way or have a “stiff upper lip.” It’s true that those responses can help deflate a bully—and you can always refuse to dignify their behavior with a response. But while those responses help turn the bully’s attention elsewhere, they don’t get at the root of the problem.

While I think we’ve come a long way in learning to listen to the victim and stop excusing the perpetrator, we still have more work to do.

Understanding Epigenetics

MR: Inherited racism, or epigenetics—the scientific theory that a person’s traumatic experience can affect their genetic material—is a topic that you explore closely in the novel. Can you tell MUF readers more about epigenetics? What kind of research did you do to deepen your understanding of it?

HMC: What we know about epigenetics is that—as I mentioned above—it is a genetic legacy of pain. The descendants of people who have experienced trauma can inherit chronic conditions: diabetes, heart disease, mental illness—without having experienced trauma themselves. Our current understanding is that this inheritance is a product of gene expression (whether a specific gene turns on or doesn’t) rather than a fundamental change in the DNA itself.

I ran across a fascinating study in my research that really spelled it out for me. I want to acknowledge here that my summary of this study is VERY brief, but I do welcome anyone who’s interested to check out this article (one of many that reported this study) for more detailed information.

In 2013, Emory University biologists Kerry Ressler and Brian Dias exposed mice to the smell of acetophenone, a chemical that smells like cherries and almonds. At the same time, they administered small electric shocks. (I have to interject here that the fact that they tortured animals bothers me immensely.) With subsequent generations of mice, they exposed the descendants to the acetophenone smell but did not shock the mice. But—the mice still responded in fear. Ressler and Dias concluded they had inherited their fear of this smell based on previous generations’ trauma.

Again—this is a very brief summary, but even with these spare details it’s enough to see how the study of epigenetics provides important understanding and perspective about one of many reasons descendants of traumatic experiences: the Holocaust, slavery, war, starvation—struggle with physical and mental illness at such high rates.

Ignorance and Microaggressions

MR: Most novels are somewhat autobiographical, and I’m guessing The Rule of Three is no exception. What are the similarities between you and Wyatt? The differences?

HMC: Some of the microaggressions Wyatt faces were drawn directly from incidents that happened in my local school district. Others were drawn from news reports around the country. I’m a lot older than Wyatt, but I am sad to say that when I was his age, I too faced microaggressions and had to figure out how to navigate ignorance at the same time I was trying to work through complicated feelings about my identity.

I wasn’t as brave as Wyatt; I definitely stuck only with Wyatt’s Level One “laugh it off” reaction because I was afraid I wouldn’t have any friends if I chose another response. Wyatt’s three levels of reaction to stress are very similar to mine, even to this day, sans the smoke.

Three Is a Magic Number

MR: The number three is like an additional character in the novel. What is it about the number three that’s so intriguing, and so magical? Also, do you have a special connection with the number three?

HMC: It’s one of my lucky numbers. And I’ve always been fascinated by the notion that the rhythm of three is what people listen for in music, poetry, even when you’re presenting an argument, people naturally listen for three reasons why you think your argument is strong. Religion, mythology, and legend all organize important concepts and characters in threes: Christianity’s three is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; Greek mythology has lots of threes including the Muses and the Furies; the Celts have the all-important triad; and the Buddhist Chintamani symbol for happiness is three circles arranges in a semi-triangular pattern.

Calling All Baseball Fans!

MR: Another non-human character in your book is baseball. Are you are a baseball fan, Heather?

HMC: Huge. I love baseball so much, and was the announcer for my son’s high school baseball team. I actually prefer to watch baseball when I know the players. High school and college ball is perfect: the seats are good, the games are competitive, and the feeling is collegial. (See what I did there? Three reasons.)

Magical Realism

MR: And finally, let’s not forget the third non-human character in your novel: The smoke that emanates from Wyatt’s body when he’s angry or upset, an inherited trait from his father and grandfather. Can you tell us more about the smoke? How did you come up with the idea?

HMC: I knew I wanted to use magical realism as a literary device to tell this story because I needed to find a way to make a painful subject accessible. This led neatly into my other goal, which was to give Wyatt a visible manifestation of stress so that we could actually see what was going on with him.

Originally, he shot electric currents from his body. (This story has been through SO many different incarnations!) But ultimately, electric currents were harder to visualize, and somehow the idea of smoke felt really right. The smoke chose me as much as I chose it as a way to help us all see Wyatt’s pain.

MR: What are you working on now, Heather? 

HMC: Another extraordinary boy character. Can’t wait to say more but I’m not quite there yet!

Lightning Round!

MR: And finally, no MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…

Preferred writing snack? Apples and soynut butter, Twizzlers, any kind of salty snack.

Coffee or tea? Both

Cat or dog? Both but currently I only have a cat. My mother’s dog comes to visit frequently, which is wonderful.

 Favorite baseball team? Minnesota Twins

 Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? Nay – Zombies are one thing I just can’t get behind. Vampires on the other hand? YES. And of course witches, who are already among us.

Superpower? Teleport! I LOVE the idea of getting places quickly.  Conversely, I do believe the journey is important. But I really hate traffic.

Favorite place on earth? In front of a body of water with a good book, good food, and beloved people.

If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be? A book, a cell phone, and some matches

MR: Thank you for chatting with us, Heather—and congratulations on the publication of The Rule of Three!

HMC: Thank you, Melissa! I’ve had such fun chatting with you and thanks for having me back! I will always be so proud that I was once part of this amazing team of writers. <3

Preorder Campaign/Swag Giveaway!

Heather is running a fun preorder swag giveaway for all preorders. (To preorder, click here.) She will send a specially commissioned pack of FOUR baseball cards featuring the main characters in The Rule of Three. This amazing character art was designed by the same artist who did the cover illustration – the fabulous Jethro Unom. To get all four cards, which include fun stats on the back, preorder and then send a copy of your preorder receipt to:

To learn more about the preorder campaign please visit Heather’s website:

(For more on Heather Murphy Capps, check out last year’s MUF interview here.)


Heather Murphy Capps writes about history, social justice, science, and magic. She is a mother of two, an Army wife, and an education equity activist. As a biracial author, Heather is passionate about creating diversity in publishing. Learn more about Heather on her website and follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Melissa Roske is a writer of middle-grade fiction. Before spending her days with imaginary people, she interviewed real ones as a journalist in Europe. In London she landed a job as an advice columnist for Just Seventeen magazine. Upon returning to her native New York, Melissa contributed to several books and magazines, selected jokes for Reader’s Digest (just the funny ones), and received certification as a life coach from NYU. In addition to her debut novel Kat Greene Comes Clean (Charlesbridge), Melissa’s short story “Grandma Merle’s Last Wish” appears in the Jewish middle-grade anthology, Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories (Albert Whitman). Learn more about Melissa on her Website and follow her on  TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

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Melissa Roske
Melissa Roske is a writer of middle-grade fiction. Before spending her days with imaginary people, she interviewed real ones as a journalist in Europe. In London she landed a job as an advice columnist for J17 magazine, where she answered hundreds of letters from readers each week. Upon returning to her native New York, Melissa contributed to several books and magazines, selected jokes for Reader’s Digest (just the funny ones), and received certification as a life coach from NYU. In addition to her debut novel Kat Greene Comes Clean (Charlesbridge), Melissa’s short story “Grandma Merle’s Last Wish” appears in the Jewish middle-grade anthology, Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories (Albert Whitman & Company). Melissa lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter, and the occasional dust bunny. Learn more about Melissa on her Website and follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
1 Comment
  1. This sound really intriguing and an event I hadn’t heard of before. Congratulations to Heather on it’s release.