Wednesday, 17 September 2008

An interview with author, Jim Murdoch

Links on Tell Me a Story


  • I’ve not met Jim Murdoch in the flesh, yet I feel I know him well. It isn’t often you come across real characters in the blogoshere, but this is one genuine Scottish character that makes you sit up. You can almost feel the abrasion in his writing. He comes across as a man of intense emotion and deep thought.

    Jim, you write both poetry and novels. What is your favourite medium?

I do Anthony, I also write short stories and plays. I don't honestly have a favourite medium anymore. When I was seventeen I thought of myself as a poet and so I stayed with what I knew. What I found was that I was having ideas that were too big to be expressed in the kind of poems I was inclined to write. The answer was simply to allow the text to dictate its own form. A few weeks ago, for example, I sat down and wrote only my second piece of flash fiction totally in dialogue. The conversation provided the context and there was no need for anything more.

  • Do you find the two writing forms interfere or compliment?

Without a doubt they compliment each other. I think of myself though as a poet who happens to work in other forms. This is not to get all snooty and suggest that poetry is the highest expression of all written styles but it is where I come from. Poetry taught me compression, how to say a lot in a few words. I cannot say in all honesty that I bring anything from prose back into my poetry however.

  • You’ve already completed four novels. Will you share with us how you came up with the idea for your latest book?

If by "latest" you mean the one I'm working on at the moment it was an amalgam of a number of things. I had just read The Body Artist by Don DeLillo and Shadow Child by P. F. Thomese, both of which deal with the loss of a loved one; in the latter book this is an infant and in the former a partner. These books highlighted the fact that I had not dealt fully with the death of my parents. The third thing that came into the mix was the flat my wife and I are living in at the moment. I started looking at all the things we have and wondering what my daughter would make of them once we weren't here. What she will be left with when I die is a puzzle to unravel and all these things lying around the flat are the clues. What she will make of them, who knows. She also will have been left; she will be one of the clues. The working title for the book is, predictable enough, Left.

  • Let’s talk about your routine. Do you plan your stories first with an outline or does it come to you as write it?
I have never been able to work with an outline, Anthony. I place a character in a situation and 'watch' what happens. Events aren't nearly as interesting to me as people. Many of my short stories for example are monologues and no reference is ever made to where the narrator is when they're talking. Intelligent readers are very good at filling in the blanks.
  • A good point to make, Jim. I’ve said time and again that what you DON’T say, says more than what you DO say. Do you know the end of the story before you start to write?

Only once, with Milligan and Murphy, my fourth novel. After I had completed the first chapter it was inevitable where the two protagonists would end up and so I sat down and wrote the final chapter there and then. Then I had to work out how to get them there. The details really weren't especially important, who they saw and what they did on the way, but this was very much the exception. I hate to read a story where the structure is as obvious as the piping outside the Pompidou Centre. Also, all my work is character driven. As far I'm concerned a book doesn't need a plot but without a point the whole thing is…well, pointless.

  • Do you have a process for developing your characters?
As they respond to the situations I place them in their personalities develop naturally. With Milligan and Murphy one had to be the dominant and one subordinate. It didn't matter but as I gave them lines to speak how they responded in one situation dictated how they would react in later situations so, although Milligan is subordinate (and the younger of the two), he also became the more adversarial.

The problem with my current project is that I found myself making the daughter character into my own daughter and commenting on our relationship so I scrapped everything and began again with an older woman. Then I found a third person narrative was keeping the woman's personality at a distance so I began again writing in the first person. Getting the voice right is paramount. This is actually the very opposite of what John Irving did with his last novel which began life in the first person and which he later rewrote in the third because it was too personal.

  • It’s said authors write themselves into their characters. Is there any part of you in your characters and what they would be?

Every word I write comes through me and so they're all tinged with me. That is inevitable. In a recent review of my first novel, the Irish playwright Ken Armstrong made a very astute observation: after reading my blog for several months he'd got used to my personality and he observed that I was both protagonist and antagonist and, of course, he's right. We are all a mishmash of different characteristics that it's not hard to isolate some of them to make a character. What I did with the hero was go back to a certain point in my life and wonder what would have happened if, from that point on, I'd made all the wrong choices, where would I have ended up? He's a caricature every bit as much as the character of Truth is.

  • You are, of course, talking here about your novel Living with the Truth which was published in May. Would you like to give us a brief summary?

The premise of the book is very simple: what would you do if you had a chance to spend a day with the personification of truth? What would you want to know? What wouldn't you want to know? Then what I do is take a man who doesn't want to know anything, who has carefully avoided knowing things and have Truth knock at his door. In the blurb I call him the least likely person to be the hero of anyone's novel but what strikes me listening to readers' comments is how willing they all have been to overlook his flaws. I never wrote him to be a very nice man and yet, and maybe it's a British thing, we always root for the underdog.

  • What is your most favourite part of your new book?

I suppose the right answer here is: how does one pick? But I have. I don't know if it's my favourite part of the book but it expresses well the kind of banter that goes on between Jonathan and Truth.

If I can set the scene: the two of them are in a cafĂ© and Truth has said grace. Jonathan realises that this means there must be a God, and so he asks…

“What’s He like?”
“Hmm?” responded Truth, who was in the process of dribbling lemon juice into some neat little cuts he’d made in his fish, “Who?”
“God, of course!”
“Oh, Him.” He was deliberating which chip to impale upon his fork; now really wasn’t the time for isagogics or theosophy. It was hard enough simply spelling them, let alone doing them, not that there was anything simple about spelling them. “Well, let’s see: his full name is Ubiquitous Eternity God, he’s a sixty-two year old unemployed song-writer living in California in a single room in The Brazil Hotel (it sounds grander than it really is), he’s got a fondness for Budweisers, massage parlours and walking out in front of oncoming traffic and stopping it with a wave of his hand while he crosses the road.”
“No, He’s not.”
“Oh, yes He is.” This was in danger of turning into a panto.
“I don’t believe you.”
“Suit yourself, but it definitely says ‘God’ on his bus pass.”
“God—‘Our Father who art in heaven,’ the creator of heaven and Earth in six days—gets the bus?”
“Oh, you mean that Gawd!”
“You knew full well I meant that Him.”
“You need a Saint Bernard to find your sense of humour.”
Jonathan let that pass: “Well?”
“He’s a bit like the picture of Him in the Sistine Chapel. Only older.”
“No, I don’t mean what does He look like. What’s He like?”
“Oh, you know, loving and wise and merciful and powerful and that sort of thing. Good fish this isn’t it?”

  • Jim, that's a very amusing passage. You actually finished Living with the Truth ten years ago and yet it's only now appearing in print: how come?

Long story. Short answer: I let my job get in the way. I was working myself into the ground – in fact I did (twice) – and I had no time for anything. I wrote in the cracks and that was it. Two years ago I had the mother and father of a breakdown and decided that the time had come to draw a line in the sand.

  • Sorry to hear that, Jim. What struggles have you had on the road to first being published?

That's the thing. In the past ten years there has been one hell of a change in the publishing world. Getting a deal with a publisher is simply not what it once was, though, when you read about the difficulties encountered by many of the authors of old, I'm not sure that it ever was what it once was. As you yourself realise the marketing support that comes with a book deal is nothing to write home about; the burden falls squarely on the author's shoulders. I had a decision to make and I chose to opt for self-publishing. For a lot of others reasons too.

  • What has been the best part about being published?

Maybe it's just me but I didn't get terribly excited about it. I don't think that's that unusual. Once Woody Allen has finished with his film then he's finished with it. The end result is not the point. The creative process is the point. In many respects I think about what I've written as what gets discarded when I'm done working out the issues that are central to the piece. I'm done with it. It doesn't interest me anymore. Okay, I'm exaggerating for effect but, no, I wasn't especially excited to hold my book in my hand. That said, it was a nice book to hold – lovely cover.

  • What do you want readers to remember and carry with them after reading your novel?

If I was to answer that then I'd ruin the book for them. Suffice to say the responses I've had, although varied, have all got the point. One was downright angry with me – "How dare you!" she said – and another ended up in tears, one was puzzled and another confused and every single one of those responses was a natural and personal and appropriate reaction to what happens in the book.

  • I understand. One or two readers have asked why I ended Without Reproach the way I did, but we tell the tale we want, that's why we're authors. Tell me, Jim, which authors' work inspires you?

The problem with answering a question like that is that people will automatically either look for evidence of those writers in your work and I'm not sure I live up to my heroes. An appreciation of Samuel Beckett wouldn't hurt when reading my third novel but the first two owe more of a debt of gratitude to Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar and there's definitively a touch of Spike Milligan to the fourth. The fifth? We'll have to see. As for poets, Larkin without a doubt and also the American William Carlos Williams.

  • Do you have a website for readers to go to if they want to know more?

If they go to my website they can read an extract from the book and there are links to about a dozen online reviews – all positive I hasten to add. I do run a literary blog, The Truth About Lies, where I often write essays about my writing and provide links to sites where you can read my poems and stories.

The publisher's website is the best place to go (and probably the cheapest overall) but the book is listed on Amazon and a few of the usual suspects.


    Anonymous said...

    I found this to be a very valuable insight into Jim and his writing. (plus I got a mention whoo!!

    In a world where so many writing blogs turning out to simply be 'I think I might write something' or 'I've written one thing aren't I great?' blogs - Jim's is the real deal.

    If you want to learn a little more about what it's like to be a writer down to your bone marrow - go and visit him there.

    Oh, read his book too, it's dead good.

    Congrats on a great blog and a great interview.

    Jim Murdoch said...

    You're very kind, Ken, just don't let the plug go to your head.