Sunday, March 12, 2017

Interview with writer John P. Murphy

Hello again, campers. Today we're pleased to present writer John P. Murphy, whose fiction, especially his top-notch speculative fiction, is making a splash.

In fact, his novella “The Liar” in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction was so good, it's been nominated for a prestigious Nebula Award.

He's also been a guest on Sci-Fi Saturday Night, a fun podcast of all things science fiction, horror, fantasy, and beyond.

Here's John to tell us more about his work:

I intended this to be a novella from the start. I wanted to keep branching out from my shorter work, and I'd had some success with the novella form with Claudius Rex. It's a good length for me, since I'm long-winded but not too interested in intricate subplots.

I wrote it in 2013, after I'd moved to southern NH from the Upper Connecticut Valley not long before, and had spent some time up in North Conway and Melvin Village (near Wolfesboro). So I had New Hampshire on my mind. I also wanted to try something a bit different from my science fiction. When I decided to write a novella, then, a fantasy set in NH seemed like a fine thing to try.

Q. Did you start with the germ of an idea and start writing to see where it went, or did you map a good deal out in your head (or even outline) before crafting?

A. I started with the narrator character, Greg, and his particular talents as my base and teased out the small town setting and the plot from there. I got the voice down pat by listening to Garrison Keillor and Fritz Wetherbee (click for a video if you haven't met Wetherbee).

Once I had a good sense of what I had and what I wanted, I stepped back and did a basic outline and I more or less stuck to that outline through the rest of the process until it was published. One slightly unusual thing about it (at least for me) was that I outlined and wrote to a five-act structure. No particular reason, just something to try. I think it worked out pretty well.

Q. What do you feel is the main theme(s)?

A. In a lot of ways, this story is about truth in its varied, strange, and sometimes unfortunate forms. About what it really means to be honest. There are a lot of little variations on those themes, some of them serious, some just winking.

Q. Why do you feel this is important, and what would you want a reader to take away from reading this book?

A. I'm going to plead the fifth on this one. If I tell you what I want you to take away from the story, you'll leave it there and take something else instead. It took me 25,000 words to say all that; I either made my point or I didn't.

Q. What makes a good book or engaging story?

A. There's no one thing that catches someone's interest. Sometimes it's a matter of the right story catching the right reader on the right day. There have been stories for me that I tried five times to read, and then only on the sixth time does it catch me just the right way and I'm hooked.

Q. Are there writers with similar themes to yours? Who are your influences (can be writers, or even artists, musicians, or others) and what is it about their work that attracts you?

A. Oh, sure. I read pretty widely, but when it comes to the writers and artists I'm particularly influenced by, I come back to the folks who are gentle-natured and optimistic, who favor "wry" over "snarky," people who, even though their stories can get grim, their outlooks usually aren't: Garrison Keillor, of course, Hayao Miyazaki, Akira Kurosawa, Terry Pratchett, Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula K. LeGuin.

Q. Is storytelling mostly entertainment, or does it serve other functions? Do you have particular goals other than telling a good story?

A. Entertainment is a hell of a function; don't sell it short. Entertainment at its best is a particularly invigorating form of rest, and that's something people can really use.

Q. Any other goals you've set for yourself, professionally or personally?

A. Keep writing, keep improving. Those are the only things in my control.

Q. Some writers write fast and claim not to rewrite much. Do you do this, or painstakingly revise? When you send the book off to the publisher, are you happy with it, or just tired of it?

A. I produce pretty clean first drafts, because I edit heavily as I go. When I sit down to write, I'll often spend half my "writing" time re-reading what's already on the page. I'm terrible at deciding that a story is truly done, so I pretty much polish until a new project catches my eye, and get the old one out on submission.

Q. Do you have good editors, and if so, how do they help you? Do they look for particular things? Do you have different people for different editing levels?

A. I had excellent help, the benefit of a couple people at F&SF using an entire pencil's worth of lead to mark up my story. They pointed out the nitpicky stuff, but also called me out when something wasn't making sense, or when things were too abrupt.

Q. If a writer came to you for advice, how would you help?

A. By telling that writer to read. Read good stuff, read bad stuff, read weird stuff, and to stop occasionally and poke at those opinions: why do you have that reaction to this story, and how could you pull it off yourself?

Q.  Stories can be told by using a different medium. Can you see your book as a film, audio, etc.? How would that alter the telling?

A. It would work well as audio; I'm a very auditory writer and I read bits out loud as I go. I have a hard time seeing it as a film, though, since so much of the story is in the main character's head. Voiceover only gets you so far, and the conflict at the end would probably be terribly boring when not summed-up. So, any adaptation like that would probably have to deviate a fair bit to succeed. Where it would really shine, though? 8-bit platform scroller. (Konami! Call me!)   :-)

Q. What's the next step in your writing world?

A. Same as the last step: put one word after another until the damn thing's done. Polish it until I can't stand it anymore, then send it out 'til Hell won't have it.

Q. Tell us a fun fact about yourself.

A. I once drove a hybrid gas-electric race car that I helped build, out at the Louden Speedway. I was too terrified of the car (remember, I helped build it and knew exactly how safe it probably wasn't) to take it over 35 mph, and I pissed everybody off in the process of slowly completing my single inglorious lap. Still, nothing on it exploded, which is more than I could say for certain other cars that day...

Q. Any other information you'd like to impart?
A. The thing with the cell towers disguised as California pine trees is completely true.

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