David Murphy is the author of a well-received novel LONGEVITY CITY (USA 2005), novellas ARKON CHRONICLES (2003) and BIRD OF PREY (2011), and several volumes of award-winning short stories (most recently LOST NOTES – Ireland 2004). He is a founder editor of Albedo One. Visit his website at http://davidmurph.wordpress.com/
Tell me one little-known fact about David Murphy?
I did a lot of hitch-hiking back in the seventies. That was in the days when hitching was so popular books about it were in the bestseller lists. I travelled the roads of Europe over three or four months one summer. The most I hitched in any one day on that trip was over 400 miles from Salonika to Belgrade. This caused a delay at the Greek-Yugoslav border because the guards had never seen an Irish passport before! – this was back in 1975 when Irish people did not travel much. How things have changed.
Tell me a little about your published work .
LONGEVITY CITY is probably the best of my novels and novellas in that it was published by an imprint of a big US publisher and has sold more copies than any of my other books, also getting a lot of good reviews along the way. It seems to be the best of my longer works and I enjoyed writing it but to be honest short stories seem to come more naturally to me. I’m more drawn to the idea of creating a perfect slice of fiction in three or four thousand words rather than in a novel of a hundred thousand. Getting the fiction perfect though is a very tricky thing to achieve. The writer Sean O Faolain once said that a short story is like a little bird. Get it right and it will soar. If you don’t get it right, your story is stuck on the ground like a flightless sparrow. I like trying to make little birds that, hopefully, will take wing and fly – if only occasionally.
How many of your short stories, do you think, achieve that flight? Are your favourite stories necessarily the most popular?
That first bit is a 64,000 dollar question. It’s hard for a writer to look objectively at his or her own work. Publishers, magazine editors and reviewers are perhaps the best judges of what works and what does not. Sometimes a story that the writer doesn’t rate much gets taken and turns out to be the most popular story in the issue of whatever magazine it’s in. That’s happened me once or twice.
A few years ago I was approached about a film option for a story I wouldn’t even put in my own top thirty stories, so you can’t always tell what’s going to be popular or not. It’s all down to taste and whatever strikes a chord at a particular time. As regards the best though – the very best – I think a writer knows when they’ve cracked it with a really good one. Don’t ask me, though, to put a percentage success rate on the seventy or so short stories I’ve written so far – I might be tempted to exaggerate. Sometimes you have to write bad stuff out of the system to let the good flow through.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve written very little genre material over the past two years. A handful of short stories including “Night of Our Red Eye” in Albedo issue 42 – that’s about it. Instead I find myself concentrating on the sort of stuff I never dreamed I’d write just a couple of years ago. Non-fiction for instance, and poetry. Where the poems come from I’ve no idea but I’ve been writing them a while now and find them a good way of getting the lyrical juices going, which is something I’ve been striving to inject a lot of into my recent prose.
I use that awful word ‘prose’ because I don’t know how else to describe a recent book I’ve just finished. It’s short, coming in at over 36,000 words, and is a strange amalgam of fiction and fact, a hybrid which is part travelogue, part memoir, part fiction. It’s ostensibly about angling but in fact it’s about everything. Five of the eleven chapters are fictionalised accounts of fish or fishing or sea-related activities, including “Lost Notes” the story that won the Maurice Walsh Award. All of the eleven chapters are linked thematically; dealing with the art of fishing, but overall, the book is about a lot more than angling. The factual chapters act as a unifying force that binds the whole into a unit greater than the sum of the parts, or so I hope! It’s a very Irish book but has appeal that I believe would be broader than that. Whether I can interest a publisher or agent in it or not is a different matter – as you might imagine this new manuscript is a very strange fish indeed.
Do you see yourself moving completely away from writing SF?
No, I wouldn’t say I’m moving completely away from SF although the focus of my writing has shifted from it over the last few years. They say things should come in threes so it would be nice to have a third genre novella published to go along with ARKON CHRONICLES and BIRD OF PREY. It’s something I think I will definitely write, and ideally would like to see the three novellas in a one book format at some stage. However I don’t see myself committing to a full-length genre novel, not at the moment anyway. But you know what they say – never say never. I’ll continue to write short stories and they all contain some element of genre within them. I find it next to impossible to write a story without at least some hint of the fantastical creeping into the pages somewhere.
Is there any genre element to your poetry?
There isn’t – and I find if I try to introduce a genre element, it falls flat. Mainstream seems to be my focus there, of that there’s no doubt, but then these are basically a sideline – writing exercises, you could call them.
These writing exercises – do you submit them for publication?
Yes and a few have sneaked into semi-reputable, or even reputable, publications. Put it like this: it’s all about what keeps the fire burning in the writer’s belly. It can be hard to keep those embers burning when you’re not engaged in a major piece of work – like a novel, for instance – so you’ve got to keep the fire stoked in other ways. You can do it by writing various bits and pieces as I’ve been doing with these ‘exercises’ as I’ve called them. But of course the best way of retaining that fire in the belly is by writing about what inspires or excites you, or even what upsets and infuriates, as long as you control these emotions and filter them through a good story with a good situation, good conflict and good characters.
Do you find it easy to channel real-world concerns into your SF?
Sometimes too easily. Back in the nineties a lot of my best stories, near-future tales such as “Broken Heroes” and “Something Small”, were about the power of the church which was a very powerful institution in the Ireland of that time. Thankfully that has now changed so I no longer find myself writing about it. Most writers go through phases where certain themes come to the forefront of their work. Themes can be politically motivated or personally motivated depending on what’s happening in your life or in the world around you at any given point.
In recent years I’ve centred stories around things that concern me such as advertising and media. I have concerns right now about the growing prevalence of social networking, communications technology and the loss of individuality – though that last one has been a bit of a recurring theme. Not to mention the economic mess we find ourselves in because property speculators and developers in cahoots with politicians have ruined our country and economy so thoroughly that who’s picking up the bill and paying to bail out the bankers, builders and other chancers? The ordinary Joe Soap is, the guy who had nothing to do with creating the mess in the first place. Now all the debt accrued by reckless bankers and their cronies has been turned into sovereign debt so that the payment of it can be imposed on every single Irish citizen. Meantime those who caused it all get away with it all and continue on their merry way with little or no sanction. Now that’s a theme I’d like to address but at the moment I feel too angry about it and therefore would be unable to channel it correctly – it’s too raw.
You’ve got to be careful if you’re writing about something that’s exercising you politically though. You can’t preach in fiction. The subject has to inform your writing in a very filtered way for it to work. The message, if there is to be one in a story, has to be subtle and subservient to character and setting. You’ve got to find the right peg to hang your message on. Anyone could write a short story about the influence of the Murdochs, for instance, so you have to be extra thoughtful if you want a story such as that to work successfully – you guessed it by the way, I’ve written about Rupert Murdoch, too.
What writers (or novels) have influenced you over the course of your career?
I read plenty of mainstream novels and short stories in my youth including a lot of the very best such as Joyce, de Maupassant, Rabelais, etc. A moment of epiphany came when I walked into the Cork city library one day and borrowed one of those big old yellow Gollancz editions of RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA. This was around the time of the release of “2001” so Clarke was hot. It just blew me away that a writer could spend maybe three pages basically just describing a cylinder in space but doing so brilliantly. That was the start of my interest in literary SF rather than just any old literary stuff.
Some of my favourite novels would be THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV and THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES and short stories by Philip K Dick, though my all-time favourite short story collection is Hermann Hesse’s STRANGE NEWS FROM ANOTHER STAR. I also have favourite reads by writers who are still alive! Michael Cunningham, Cormac McCarthy, Jonathan Safran Foer, Michel Houellebecq, to name a few.
What other media have influenced your writing?
Well I suppose the aforementioned “2001” brings us to films. Movies like “Fahrenheit 451” and the “Planet of the Apes” series and lots more, all of these had an influence on me in my student days. For some reason the Nic Roeg film “Walkabout” stayed with me, too. Why I’m not sure – and no, it wasn’t the Jenny Agutter factor. It was more the atmosphere, the visual poetry of the whole thing on the big screen.
Sam Beckett had an influence also, not through seeing his plays on stage – I’m not much of a theatre-goer and have only seen one live performance of a play of his and that was “Ag Tnuth Le Godot”, an Irish language production, but I’ve read extracts of his work in one of my favourite books, John Calder’s “A Samuel Beckett Reader”. Of course television is unavoidable, as evidenced by those 80’s cold war classics “The Day After” and “On the Eighth Day”. These definitely coloured my writing as did the surreal and off-the-wall – Monty Python, for instance.
I used to read Marvel and DC comics as a child. There was a shop on Shandon Street in Cork that always had a supply of them. I don’t know where the shopkeeper got them from. Years – decades – later someone told me that bales of comics were used as ballast on banana boats and the like and then off-loaded for a few pence to second-hand book dealers in whatever port the boat happened to dock in. I don’t know if that’s true but it’s a good story. Don’t tell fans of graphic SF that I used to deface and destroy the comics by cutting out pictures of spacecraft and keeping them in a little scrapbook.
You mentioned writing poetry earlier – any poets whose work stays with you?
One of the poems I like best is “Song of Wandering Aengus” by Yeats. Another is by Sam Beckett. Not a lot of people know that Beckett wrote poems. I particularly like a short one of his called “Dieppe”. I also like some English beat poetry I suppose you’d call it, from the seventies. One of my favourites is called “Breaking Bread in Bedlam”. Then there’s TS Elliott’s “Prufrock”. But most of my favourite poetry is in another medium entirely – music. The likes of Leonard Cohen, Warren Zevon, Paul Simon, John Fogerty, Jim Morrison, Dylan, Springsteen, I regard their work as poetry. Not to forget a particular track, and this really is a poem that does stay with me – I can recite it at the drop of a hat. It’s by Graeme Edge of the Moody Blues and is the title track from “On the Threshold of a Dream”. Now the Moodies were much maligned for their quasi-mystical pretentiousness, in particular the poetry of Edge (he had one poem on each album) but the funny thing is that sometimes the poems actually worked – for me anyway.
Ah, the poetry of music – you’re obviously a big fan. Give me a quick top five – CD/LP. And a top five songs.
Ok. Albums first and in no particular order: Camel “Moonmadness”, Fruupp “The Prince of Heaven’s Eyes”, Springsteen “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, Mike Nesmith “Nevada Fighter”, Granham Parker “Howlin’ Wind”. Most people regard the Parker as not even being his best album but to me it’s the nearest thing to a live performance, which I had the pleasure of witnessing once.
Songs: Strawberry Fields, Famous Blue Raincoat, Blister on the Moon (Taste), Watching and Waiting (Moody Blues) and Septimus (Loudest Whisper). That last one is, in my opinion, the best prog-rock song ever written. I could go on about music, you know.
Do you listen to music while you write?
Now that’s something I’ve tried to do once or twice but it doesn’t work. I used to think that if I put on music, for instance a Van Morrison album or even a bit of classical like Mahler or Bach’s Brandenburg concertos, that I’d be somehow inspired to write better. Instead I found myself being drawn by the music and just sitting there listening like an eegit rather than writing. I guess I’m a traditionalist in that I like to sit alone in a small, quiet upstairs room at the back of the house with the PC in front of me and no distractions. In that situation I can hear a creak on the bottom of the stairs at a thousand paces so music would be a no-no. My computer is on a desk in front of a north-facing window. I love sitting there on dull or rainy days, which of course in Ireland means most days, and writing away. On rare occasions when the sun shines I go outside as I like outdoor pursuits such as walking with Marie and fishing, even kayaking and golf. Sometimes I scribble a few notes or write a para or two on paper downstairs on the sofa or sitting on the bus going into town, but for anything sustained I have to use the PC. We’ve a holiday home on the south coast and I do some writing on a keyboard down there as well. Who knows, I might even invest in a laptop one of these days.
Has getting into poetry affected how you write or what you write (prose)?
Not really. Although there’s no doubt but that it’s eaten into my writing time. I’ve probably written fewer stories in the last couple of years than I might otherwise have, but on the other hand the quality of the stories I now write may have improved as a result of dabbling in poetry. Poetry does takes up writing time, it takes up writing energy, but I find that those are the only senses in which my main writing has been affected. It’s not like I’m moving away from fiction and am glad to say I’ve just started – well, two days ago – began a new short story and a proper little dark fantasy it is too that seems to be writing itself well, so far anyway.
You say the story is writing itself – how much work do you have to do once the iece is down on paper initially?
Depends on the piece. In the case of this new story it is pretty much writing itself in that the plot is straightforward and traditional with a beginning, middle and end. It demands to be told in a simple, linear fashion. When the first draft is done I’ll trim it back – I’m a great believer in throwing in everything, including the kitchen sink, at the first draft stage (on the basis that it’s easier to take stuff out than it is to put stuff in). I don’t think there’ll be much to do after that. Not with this story, anyway. But then, who knows? I may get someone to cast an eye on it for me and they may say, ‘you should start at the end and work your way back’. In that case I’ll grimace and thank them profusely! However I don’t believe that will happen with this story.
There are other times when a short story can be very convoluted, not linear at all, where structuring can be challenging and demanding. In those cases the initial drafts may only be the beginning with lots of re-writing called for. Usually, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a rule of thumb, the more drafts you have to go through the greater the possibility is that you’re not getting the words right, and the thing just isn’t working. In that scenario maybe it’s time to move on to the next project. I don’t mean you should abandon it altogether, but sometimes it’s best to let something stew for a while before going back to it. Happily though, this new story is of the get-it-down-on-the-page-quick variety.
How long does it take you from conception to finished work for a story in general?
Again, it varies from one story to another. There are no hard and fast rules. Sometimes a story arrives fully formed. On other occasions it starts out with just the germ of an idea. Very often writers who are starting out in their careers get an idea for a story and just write the idea. An American editor, whose name escapes me now, came up with an acronym for that type of short story: A.N.I.T.E. – A Nice Idea The End. Orson Scott Card in his book on writing science fiction says that when you get a Nice Idea don’t be happy. Take it to a higher level. Twist it for all that it’s worth. Make the most of it.
Too often at Albedo we get stories submitted to us that are A.N.I.T.E. They inariably get rejected because the writers just wrote the idea and failed to give it that extra shake, that extra twist, to get the most out of it. They allowed themselves to be satisfied too easily. I can think of several stories of mine that, initially, were Nice Ideas. But when I’m writing something new I always try to think of Card’s dictum – I think every writer should carve the words ‘don’t be happy’ on their desks or laptops! Sometimes it may take days, weeks, for that twist to suggest itself to you that brings the story up a notch. Other stories arrive complete, like that one I’m writing now, hopefully.
We’re approaching the end. Two more (trivial, fun) questions.
You’ve been convicted of murder (wrongly) and will be executed in the morning. What is your final meal?
A good hot chicken curry, so hot it would make my eyes water – as if I wouldn’t be crying already. And maybe a big bottle of cider and a pint glass full of ice to wash it all down. And followed by a big sundae with lots of strawberry sauce. And I almost forgot, a strong Irish coffee.
If you were an artist (musician, painter, actor, film directoretc.) in a discipline other than you currently operate, and you were going to be remembered for only one piece of work (a one-hit wonder), what would that piece (song, painting, movie) be? One single piece of existing ‘art’ by someone else.
That’s a hard one. I had the good fortune earlier this year to see Picasso’s Guernica in a gallery in Madrid. It’s a huge painting about seven metres long and about half that in height. Guernica is constantly being examined and x-rayed and re-examined by an array of cameras and scanning equipment because, apparently, Picasso hid a lot of details under the surface by painting over them. It’s extraordinary to see a painting take up almost an entire gallery wall and to witness the emotion it wrought in the faces of those looking at it. As a painting it’s childishly drawn, yet profound in what it says. It’s so simple yet full of symbolism. It says everything that needs to be said about war, greed and the world – the whole caboodle expressed on a canvas. I found it very moving, perhaps more so than any other art form I’ve ever seen. Now that, or its literary/cinematic equivalent, who wouldn’t give their right arm to produce something like that?