Saturday, 3 September 2011

AUTHOR INTERVIEW - JIM MURDOCH






 What is your name, where were you born and where do you live now?

Jim Murdoch – Glasgow, ScotlandGlasgow.

What is the name of your latest book, and if you had to summarise it in less than 20 words what would you say?

It depends what you mean by ‘latest book’. In print that would be Milligan and Murphy in which two grownup Irish brothers find themselves compelled to run away from home but they have no idea why; in electronic formats that would be The Whole Truth which is an omnibus collection of my first two novels, Living with the Truth and Stranger than Fiction, about a bookseller who gets to spend three days in the company of the personification of the truth, and the last novel I’ve finished writing is Left, about a woman who learns the truth about her dead father through the things he’s left behind after his death.

Do you have plans for a new book? Is this book part of a series?

Not at the moment. Although there is scope for a further sequel after Stranger than Fiction I never planned to write a third book. To my mind it would have been like writing a third act to Waiting for Godot. To be honest I never intended to write a sequel to Living with the Truth but the friends who read it wanted more and so I ended up adding a second day to the first book and then I wrote another entire novel.

How long have you been writing and who or what inspired you to write?

Forty years, if you count the juvenilia. I began, like most of us do, writing poetry and have continued to this day. At heart I will always be a poet before anything else. Writing prose was an accident, a fortunate happenstance as it happens, but it was never part of the plan. I was going through a bad depression, hadn’t written any poetry for three years and so, partly out of desperation, I thought I’d have a go at prose. I had no plans to write a novel. I just sat down one day and wrote and when I stopped I had a novella.

Do you gift books to readers to do reviews?

Yes. Up until recently that’s meant sending hardcopies which is okay if they’re only going to UK reviewers but the postage to the States and elsewhere is not cheap and that’s one major reason for moving towards e-books. I still intend to release my novels as paperbacks first though.

        How do you come up with the Title and Cover Designs for your book/books? Who designed the Cover of your books?

Titles are important. I’d love to say that I put a lot of thought into them but I never have because the titles were always obvious. In my first novel as a man is forced to face the truths about himself, the trope I employed was personification – I made Truth a flesh and blood person who comes to stay – and so, in a very literal sense, the protagonist lives with the truth but, like all of us, he has been living with the truth all his life. The title for the sequel is, of course, a truncation of the idiom, “The truth is stranger than fiction.” This was an appropriate title because there is a stronger fantasy element in this book; it is also a little less concerned with the protagonist and more with the bigger truths.

Milligan and Murphy’s title was the only one I conceived right from the outset. It is based on Samuel Beckett’s novella Mercier and Camier a book in which the eponymous characters wander around an unnamed Dublin and end up basically where they started off which is typical of so many of Beckett’s characters who expend a great deal of effort going nowhere. I’ve never especially liked Mercier and Camier. Many people view them as prototypes for his most famous male pair, Vladimir and Estragon, but I’ve never seen it. It’s easy to develop a fondness for Didi and Gogo and I imagined when they were younger they’d be just as likeable but I didn’t want to write Didi and Gogo: the Early Years so I created two Beckettian characters of my own and, instead of making them do a lot of pointless work, I did the very opposite, I opened every door for them, making their escape inevitable if not exactly destined.

Book covers sell books. We all are so well aware of the old adage not to judge a book by its cover but we do. I am also conscious of the power of logos: Superman’s shield, Nike’s swoosh, Mcdonald’s arch – these are known the world over. I decided to use the inkblots devised by Hermann Rorschach which are now in the public domain. It was my wife who had the brilliant idea of wrapping the inkblot around the spine and she has produced versions from classic inkblot designs for six of my books. They are different, minimal and reviewers often comment on them. I’ve always liked publishers who think ahead when creating covers and plan for the future.

6.        Have you ever based characters on people you know or based events on things that have happened to you?

As far as individuals I’ve known are concerned, not really. There are snippets of people but there isn’t a single character when someone from my past could come along and say, “That’s me, isn’t it?” I quite often borrow names: Jonathan’s sister, Mary, in Living with the Truth was named after my best friend’s younger sister but there the similarity ends; the two fishermen Edgar and Polson are named after two women I used to work with and Andrew Danzig is named after a boy I used to be friends with only I modified his surname and made him of Polish decent.

As for events, yes, I have incorporated the odd thing. For example, in Living with the Truth the protagonist remembers this:

Up until the morning before, his life – his whole universe – had revolved undisturbed like a little gyroscope. He'd had one when he was young, when he was four, to be specific. In the hospital, when he'd had meningitis (the bad kind) his parents weren't allowed to visit him and all the nursing staff wore white masks all the time but, for some reason, he never found them menacing. His father had it brought in. It really was too much for him – it wasn't a toy – and the nurses had to make it go. Somehow, to their credit, there always seemed to be someone available for this task.

When I was a boy – about four or five – I was rushed to hospital with bacterial meningitis and I did have a toy but it wasn’t a gyroscope – I was bought one of those later – what I had then was a clown on a monocycle who would balance on a string. One end was tied to the end of my bed; I held the other and could get the clown to cycle up and down.

 Is there a certain Author that influenced you in writing?

My novels have been compared to the writing of Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Franz Kafka, Alan Bennett and even Charles Dickens. I find the first two amusing because I’d never read either at the time I wrote the books in question. I have only set out to evoke any author’s tone in my novel The More Things Change in which a wannabe writer gets trapped in a Beckettian universe and essentially turns into a Beckettian character but even there I was keen not to mimic or parody. Since the novel references most of Beckett’s works – virtually all the characters are named after characters in Beckett – you could call it a pastiche but I’m not sure that would be the right term either. It is its own thing.

The reason I became a writer though I can blame on Philip Larkin, and in particular his poem ‘Mr Bleaney’. This was the first poem I read that made sense to me. There were no babbling brooks, no fields full of daffodils, no vagabonds wandering down to the sea and very little of what I had come to think of as poetry – even all the rhymes were in the ‘wrong’ places – and it completely opened my eyes. Later I discovered William Carlos Williams and much later Charles Bukowski, plain speakers all.

Which format of book do you prefer: ebook, hardback, or paperback?

My wife bought me a Rocket eBook twelve years ago and so I was an early adopter of e-books. I suppose because of my age – I'm  fifty-two – I will never appreciate digital media in the same way as my daughter’s generation will. Books are things to collect and the same goes for music. I have an office with bookcases crammed with books – mainly paperbacks because I’m a Scot and we watch the pennies – CDs and, because I’ve been collecting for so long, over 1000 cassette tapes. Of course they don’t sound any different to anything I might download but when you’re looking at a wall full of uniform spines it does look good.

I have a few hardbacks – mainly textbooks – and I have nothing against them bar the cost. I have no intentions of publishing in hardback though.

What is your favourite book and Why?  Have you read it more than once?

Impossible to answer. When my wife and I were getting to know each other we made up Top Ten lists, at least that was the plan because I could never list less that twenty-five anythings but there have been a number of significant books in my life that never leave my Top Ten. Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse is one and the one whose influence I personally see most in Living with the Truth, although the book that actually provided the germ was The Pigeon by Patrick Süskind, even though I’d only read the first pages and didn’t get around to finishing the novella until a couple of years ago having given up on it twice before.

The first book I bought after leaving school was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I was sixteen at the time and I still own that copy. I reread it every ten years or so and it’s amazing how a book can change as you age and your perspective changes.

I’m a great lover of science fiction, although I’ve read comparatively little, certainly when you compare what I’ve read to what I’ve watched. My favourite science fiction author is Philip K Dick and I can see his influence in Stranger than Fiction. Probably my favourite of his books is A Scanner Darkly.

Do you think books transfer to movies well? Which is your favourite/worst book to movie transfer?

On the whole, no. There are exceptions. I can think of two: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Ken Kesey’s novel is narrated by the Indian, Chief Bromden. After seeing his father, an actual Native American chief, humiliated at the hands of the government and his white wife, the Chief falls into despair and starts hallucinating. He begins to believe that society is controlled by a large, mechanized system which he calls "The Combine." Very little of this makes its way into the film and yet Bo Goldman’s screen adaptation works perfectly looking at the book’s events objectively.

There have been two filmed versions of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The one most people will know will be the one starring John Hurt but there was another made by the BBC staring Peter Cushing. Both are different from the novel and from each other emphasising different aspects of the book and are fine examples of how there isn’t necessarily a ‘right’ interpretation of a book.

As for bad adaptations, don’t get me started: I:Robot, all three goes at I Am Legend (the 1964 film The Last Man on Earth, the 1971 version, The Omega Man and the most recent version with Will Smith); the remake of Cheaper by the Dozen (Clifton Webb was perfectly cast in the 1950 film but, as much as I think Steve Martin is a comic genius, he was completely wrong in this role); Orson Welles took a hatchet to Kafka’s The Trial (the 1993 film by the BBC was a brave attempt – I sat with the book and followed along as I watched it) and I pretty much hated everything about the big screen adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I could go on and on and on…           

What are you currently reading? Are you enjoying it? What format is it? (ebook, hardback or paperback)

I’ve just finished A.S. Byatt’s retelling of the Norse myths: Ragnarock: The End of the Gods. I was never very interested in Norse mythology growing up. Other than Thor and I’m talking about the Marvel comic. Haven’t seen the film yet. I’ve heard that Branagh has done a respectable version but I’ll wait and see. The copy I’m reading is an ARC sent by the publisher, a paperback. On the whole I did enjoy it – there’s no doubt that Byatt can string a sentence together – but no matter how good the writing if you’re not interested in the subject in the first place it can mean an uphill struggle. The frame story about her as a child was fascinating however.

  Is there a book you know you will never read? Or one you tried to read but just couldn't finish?

There have been a couple I’ve never finished. I read the first Don Quixote novel but I got bored with the sequel. I gave up on Gertrude by Herman Hesse and I’ve never been able to finish Dangling Man by Saul Bellow. On the whole I’m quite good at finishing what I’ve started. I get offered quite a few review copies and mostly I can say yay or nay but occasionally something unsolicited will plop through the letterbox that I would have preferred not to read. Then again I’ve also made a few discoveries that way. One year out of the blue Canongate sent me a biography of Bukowski plus a large volume of his poetry which was a complete revelation and I wish I’d discovered him earlier.

I tend to stay clear of anything pre-twentieth century which means I’ve never attempted to read Dickens or Austin but I have made exceptions – it’s not hard and fast rule – and I would have hated to have missed out on Kafka although I could live without Dostoyevsky.

  Are there any New Authors you are interested in for us to watch out for? and Why should we watch out for them?

Before I started doing online book reviews, most of the people I read were either dead or dying. I suppose I was a bit on a snob that way and I guess I still am. In my early twenties I went through a phase of only reading books by authors who had won the Nobel Prize. I have a great love of literary fiction and not many are attracted to that these days. Even General Fiction is suffering. It’s all genres, genres, genres and I’m not a big fan of anything formulaic. My wife and I watch a lot of crime shows on TV and the writing on some of them is just terrible; the only way we get any real entertainment value out of them is deconstructing them as the show progresses: no one coughs in a show like that unless there’s a reason for it.

I read next to no indie fiction. Two reasons: firstly, there’s very little that jumps off the screen and says, “Buy me! Buy me, now!” and, secondly, time. I did enjoy Jonathan Gould’s Doodling as a quick read reminiscent of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince. I’ve also downloaded Coffin Dodgers by the Glasgow writer Gary Marshall which looks promising but I’ve not got to it yet; the premise and opening looks promising though.

Is there anything in your book/books you would change now if you could and what would it be?

On the whole, no. There comes a point when you have to let go. I remember a scene in Truffaut’s The Man Who Loved Women where the lead, a writer, is watching his book being typeset (this is in 1977) and he asks for the colour of a girl’s dress to be changed at the last minute. We could all do that. I wrote my first two novels almost twenty years ago now. I pottered with them for five years and basically let them sit in a drawer for ten years after that but when I decided to publish them I did do a final edit. What I noted in particular was the opening line which, like most other writers I imagine, I had fiddled with more than any other sentence in the book. Out of curiosity I went back and checked the sentence in the very first draft of the book and it was exactly the same, word for word. I probably thought about that sentence for maybe twenty seconds before I starting writing. You can overthink things. I’m with Paul Valery: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” The same goes for prose in my experience. Besides I’m not the same man now who wrote that book. I need to respect the man who did.

What do you think about book trailers?

I played with making one for Living with the Truth. It was okay but I never posted it anywhere and I’ve never considered making another one. I’ve not seen one yet that really impressed me and too many feel like PowerPoint presentations.

What piece of advice would you give to a new writer?

Don’t. See how long you can last without needing to write. If you can live your life quite happily without writing then don’t bother. If, however, you find yourself wandering round like a kid whose lost their pet puppy and the only way you can stop feeling that way is to write about it then you should; you must. I define a writer as a person whose natural response to life is to write about it. Anyone can be trained to write or dance or play the piano. There are kids aplenty out there with Grade 10 ARCT certificates who are skilled but they aren’t naturals.

That doesn’t mean that those pianists can’t earn their livings playing pianos in bars or working as session musicians and the same goes for writers. There are those who will go to university and obtain a degree in Creative Writing and be able to knock out boilerplated thriller after thriller and make a decent living doing so and, as long as they’re not deluding themselves thinking they’re the next Prousts, that’s fine.

Do you or would you ever use a pen name?
                       
According to HowManyOfMe.com there are 1376 people in the United States called Stephen King, 161 named Charles Dickens and 129 John Grishams. There’s even one George Orwell (and 237 Eric Blairs). There are loads of reasons to write using a pseudonym. The Australian poet Gwen Harwood used a whole range throughout her career which has made compiling a definitive collection of her complete poems something of a challenge. I really have no strong opinion on the subject but if I was a kid called Stephen King in Tuscaloosa, Alabama with a passion for writing I might think about changing it, but probably not to Richard Bachman.



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