Interview with Peter Murphy

Back in March I reviewed Peter Murphy’s second novel, Shall We Gather at the River. I asked Peter if he’d mind doing a quick interview for the Multiverse and he was kind enough to oblige. If you haven’t yet read SWGATR I recommend you rectify that immediately!

Photograph by Graham Keogh
Photograph by Graham Keogh

Shall We Gather At The River is your second novel. Do you find the process has gotten easier? 

It’s a bit like climbing a different mountain every time. There are new traps, pitfalls, mistakes, skills to master. For every trick you’ve gotten the hang of, there are another nine to learn. You often hear writers say they naively thought the second one would be easier, only to find it’s just as hard, if not harder. As a writer you’d hope your technique is getting better, but there’s also a compulsion to try something new with each book, erasing your tracks, reducing yourself to a remedial level and starting over. I feel like I’m only a pup, learning the hard way, by trial and error.

The relationship between mothers and sons seems to be a theme in your two books. Is this coming from your own experience? I have a theory that the relationship any of us have with our mother, be it good or bad, shapes our human interactions for the rest of our lives. What do you think with relation to your own writing?

I can’t say it’s a theme I would’ve ever imagined I’d be worrying at, but then again, the relationship with the mother is primal. John Devine’s bond with Lily in John the Revelator [Peter’s first book] is way different to Enoch O’Reilly’s relationship with his mother. Maybe because my stories take place in sightly heightened or unreal worlds, I find it necessary to counterpoint that by rooting them in family. Broadly speaking, the first book was about mother and child, the second about the son and the father, even if that father is a mythical or even Oedipal figure. I always thought I had a fairly grounded and undramatic bond with my mum. But a shrink might differ.

I’ve heard that the media is hesitant to report on suicides for fear of sparking copycats and I know the idea for the book came from a cluster of suicides in Wexford a number of years ago. Did you find it difficult to research this, in practical terms and in terms of the mindset of the suicidal person and motives, and how did you do it?

When the 2002 suicide cycle that sparked the book was happening I read contemporaneous news reports. But the idea was percolating away for about five years before I set about the book. I was more interested in the mystery of the event, the many questions: sociological, supernatural, environmental or mythological. I did read Night Falls Fast by Kay Redfield Jamison late in the writing process. Most of the information in the book was anecdotal or autobiographical. I’ve never been suicidal, but I’ve known people who’ve been close to it.

I was fascinated by Marconi’s theory of eternal sound waves. Is this something you already knew about or did you discover it in research for the book? I know you’re a drummer and so will be more educated than most about this. Do you personally believe it’s a valid theory?

I was fascinated by Marconi’s work, not least because his mother grew up half a mile from where I did, just outside Enniscorthy. I first learned about the theory of eternal sound from Greg Milner’s very fine book Perfecting Sound Forever. My mind lit up when I read it. I wasn’t so much concerned with its scientific viability as I was its elegance as a metaphorical or poetic concept. To think that it might be someday possible to trace and hear every sound that has existed since the dawn of the universe… That makes Youtube seem pretty crude.

Are you working on a new novel now? Can you talk about it in broad terms yet or are you of the same mind as Hemingway – “you lose it if you talk about it.”

I am working on another yarn, but I’m at a stage where I think it’d do no good to verbalise it. Sometimes it can be useful to test a story’s strength in a sort of campfire or pub setting. But not when you’re in the belly of the whale.

Lastly, because I’m always fascinated by other people’s writing process, what’s a typical working day for you?

The last two books differed. John the Revelator was a morning book, Shall We Gather at the River was an evening job. I try to get to work between 9 and 10am and stay there until 1 or 2. Then it’s time for printouts, read-overs, prelim edits, correspondence, walking the dog. You can’t always make the morning sacrosanct, but I get my best work done when it is.