Saturday, 13 April 2013

Working Magic - An Afternoon in Shrewsbury Library with author Peter Murphy

Thanks for having me, and thanks for turning up.  It’s an extraordinary library you have here. I’ve never been into such a beautiful library.’

Peter Murphy stood before us, book in hand. He was a slight man, dark-haired and pointy with a whiff-beard, silver rings in his ears and something steely about his eyes which belied his tousled appearance. Over the next hour, he promised, he’d endeavour, whether on books, libraries, rivers or mythologies, to speak coherently and with interest. 

The venue was Shrewsbury’s Castle Gates Library, the event organised by Shropshire Library Service, who are always working hard to bring books, authors and the pleasure of reading to as wide an audience as possible.  Shall We Gather At The River was the book we’d come to hear about this time - Peter Murphy’s second novel, which had garnered some stunning reviews. He kicked off by reading us its Prologue. If we hadn’t known before why his publishers had sent him to Shrewsbury, we quickly found out:

On the first day of November in the year of ’84, that enduring river turned on the town of Murn….  The current picked up speed and the river swelled to the lip of its banks…Local radio issued flood damage updates on the hour…. Everywhere was besieged and soaked as that bloated old river conquered the valley slopes and threatened the town’s worried heart…

This was a book of rivers, floods and death. And we in Shrewsbury understand rivers.  We get what they’re about.  We also understand about floods. In their dreams the townsfolk do not speak.  Because they do not wish to rouse the river, read Murphy.  And beyond Castle Gates, carving its path around our town was a force of nature that we, too, don’t wish to rouse.    

 In 2002, there had been a series of incidents in Enniscorthy, Peter Murphy’s home town, a succession of young men entering the swollen River Slaney over a period of days and drowning themselves.  Why, everyone had asked - and it was to answer that question [or at least find ways of asking it afresh] that Murphy set out to write Shall We Gather At The River. 

Enniscorthy is the second largest town in Ireland’s County Wexford. It has a long history, going back to 465 AD, and is one of the longest continuously-occupied sites in Ireland. Growing up in Enniscorthy, Peter Murphy remembered Marconi living up the road.  ‘You know, the man who invented the radio,’ he said.  ‘And our local church was a great, hulking Pugin cathedral.  The sort of place you’d expect to see the Hunchback of Notre Dame swinging from the belfry.’

Certainly Murphy had plenty to draw upon. At one point, he’d amassed so much material, about so many characters, that he wondered if he was writing two books. He read to us again, introducing the book’s central and most  commanding character, the schizophrenic radio evangelist and Elvis acolyte, Enoch O’Reilly, tuner-in to the airwaves of God. 

Enoch dons his tinted glasses and draws himself up to his full six foot one and breathes deeply and gives himself a bit of a wet-dog shake. Down the hall he goes, his heartbeat tolling every step. He mounts the stairs and prowls the wings like a caged animal until ‘O Fortuna [Carl Orff] has crested its climactic final movement, and then he strides on stage…

There was a moment’s stunned silence, as befit those who’d just witnessed  Enoch O’Reilly in full flood. A pause. Then applause.  ‘Thank you,’ Peter Murphy said. 'Any questions, comments anyone?' Then the comments started coming. Somebody wanted to talk about the sense of harrowing in the book, that drove men to the river. Someone else wanted to talk about vertigo - that drawing to the edge of things, with its destructive urge that they described as a vertical force. Murphy said he wished they’d been around five years ago. ‘I could have written what you just said.  You could have saved me a lot of time,’ he said.

People talked about the powerful sense in the book of shadow forces at work, that did not exist for anybody’s benefit.  Self-sabotage was what Murphy called it. The stuff of all great gothic novels.  ‘Give me an audience,’ he said with a puckish flash of a grin, ‘and I want to have fun.  But what do I do instead? I bang on about suicides, death and things like that.’

‘Aaah,’ growled an old man in the audience.  ‘I always says when sumoon falls in the Severn there’s a lot a reeds in there.  There’s not much hope for ‘em.’

‘Robert Mitchum,’ Peter Murphy quipped.  ‘Night of the Hunter. One of my favourite films.   There’s a scene where he’s murdered the mother and she’s lying in the bottom of the river, her hair entwined amongst the weeds.’

So, who is this Peter Murphy, writer of books, recipient of rave reviews, creator of Enoch O’Reilly and answerer of questions on the subject of floods? What makes him tick?  And, more importantly, how did he come to be a writer?  Later, when the talk was over and the room had emptied, I had the chance to interview him. Here he was, I said, everybody calling him the latest this and best that, and an Irish writer of substance, and the most exciting new talent to watch.  But what were his beginnings?  How had he got to where he was today? 

Peter Murphy lives again today in Enniscorthy.  His dad was a post office clerk, his mother a some-time model and a telephonist in between raising five children.   Peter was the youngest of the five.  ‘The one who got ignored,’ he said,  adding, ‘in a good way, though.  I’m not complaining. I was fond of my own company. I liked reading. I liked playing on my own.’

Educated by the Christian Brothers, young Peter Murphy made it through primary school and two years into secondary education before being thrown out for refusing to wear a uniform.  Back in those days, it was music and comics that grabbed his attention.  And books, he said - his family were readers; it was a constant in their lives. 

‘Going to the library was a ritual,’ he said.  ‘It was something we as a family always did.  It was just a bare room too – not a library like this. It had a strip light and shelves full of books.  I used to pick out the action adventures.  Alistair McLean. Stephen King. James Herbert.  Typical boys’ stuff.  Horror and fantasy. Then I came across John Steinbeck – my first truly literary writer, I suppose, and that lead to the Beats, and Hunter S. Thompson, Raymond Carver and James Kelman.’

There are moments in Shall We Go To the River that seem to me pure Raymond Carver, the story literally hanging between the lines of words.  Some writers are just storytellers, but Peter Murphy is a craftsman.  Where did he learn to write, I wanted to know. 

At the age of 17, entered by his school, Murphy won a national essay-writing competition and was sent off round Europe sponsored by the European Union.  This was the first time he ever went abroad or saw the world outside his small-town Irish life.  Interestingly, the subject of that winning essay hadn’t particularly engaged him.  It had simply been a job of work.  More engaging was drumming, and rock ‘n roll.

‘For nine years I was a drummer in a rock band,’ Murphy said.  ‘I learned to be a performer. It was a full-time commitment. I enjoyed playing - but it didn’t provide a living and I had two small children to support.’ 

Murphy remembers working as a kitchen porter and deciding enough was enough. That’s when he turned to writing. Submitting to magazines features about Stephen King or Motorhead certainly beat kitchen portering. And it paid more than drumming.

It didn’t take long for Murphy to discover that one magazine in particular, Hot Press, would take all the work he sent its way.  It didn’t pay much but if he worked hard he was able to keep his head above water. It was a self-betterment exercise, too. ‘One thing led to another,’ Murphy said.  Soon he was doing major interviews and working on radio and TV, a regular guest on RTE’s arts review show, The Works. For six or seven years he worked this way, and he might have carried on.  However, both on the same week, two things happened that changed his life.

‘In 2001 my father died,’ Murphy said.  ‘Then, within a few days, my youngest daughter, Grace, was born. A month after that, I started writing fiction. Within a year I’d started my first novel.’  

John the Revelator was the novel in question.  In 2003, Peter Murphy was signed up by the agent  Marianne Gunn O’Connor.  She had a six-year wait for his first book [in this modern publishing world of deals and dates and deadlines, good to see a writer taking his time] but when it came out, John the Revelator was published to great acclaim.  

‘There was an emphasis on collaboration in writing John the Revelator,’ Murphy said.  ‘I worked together with a group of writer friends work-shopping each other’s stuff.  We’d email work to each other by a certain date, then meet up and spend three or four hours at a time going through it.’

Again, in Shall We Gather At The River, Murphy said that openness and collaboration was important, sharing work with authors he felt close to, in particular the writer Sean McNulty.  ‘I trusted him,’ he said.

Shall We Gather At The River is a far more complicated novel than John the Revelator.  As well as drawing on local Wexford life and times, it draws on legends about suicide cycles, flood mythology from Christian and pre-Christian eras, the strange nature of obsession and the Gaia theory of nature as a living entity that, as well as giving life, can devour. It inhabits familiar territory to anyone who’s seen Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter, or who’s read the novels of Flannery O’Conner, that most uncompromising of authors, writing about Bible belt evangelists and holy roller prophets in the Deep South of the US. 

Indeed, it was from O’Conner’s Wise Blood that Murphy took the name Enoch [along with a bit of Enoch Powell and his ‘rivers of blood’ speech, and Enoch in the Gnostic gospels - the only mortal taken without dying to heaven]. It was a form of homage, he said.

Was Murphy a religious man, I wanted to know. It was the spiritual, Murphy said, that interested him, not the overtly religious, especially the how, when and why of spiritual manifestation in philosophy and ideas.  We talked about the power of religious language, words used as a means of locating members of one’s own tribe.  ‘Certain words have incredible power,’ Murphy said.  ‘They speak a sort of code.’  Writing was all about weeding out the mamby pamby words, and getting to the juicy, high protein stuff.  ‘Like the pots of stuff my dad used to cook up for our dog,’ Murphy said.   ‘Writing’s a bit like getting a gumbo going, reducing it down to a pure stock.’ 

Within a couple of weeks of handing in the final manuscript of John the Revelator, Murphy began work on the Prologue to Shall We Gather At The River.  At this stage he'd no idea where he was heading.  All he had was a few pages of words. The spark that set him off, however, came from a Hot Press interview he did with the Manic Street Preachers, published in May 2007. In it Murphy mentioned the winter of 2002 in Enniscorthy and the two-week period when more than half a dozen young men walked into the River Slaney.  'Fucking hell,' said Nicky Wire.  'That's a novel waiting to get written.  Jesus Christ.'

He was right as well.  It was. But it was a long hard process before that novel saw the light of day. 'Four years of divorce, moving house, bereavement and turning forty’ is the way Peter Murphy described it. But encouragement came from his writer friends, and from the Manics, especially James Dean Bradfield.  ‘He’s been a powerful ally ever since. There’s something between the Irish and the Welsh.  A connection or something,’ Murphy said.

Currently Peter Murphy's not writing but travelling instead, doing book readings or performing with the Revelator Orchestra. This is an experience worth getting up on YouTube.  ‘Imagine, if you can, music that sounds like Tom Waits on drums and 
Lightnin’ Hopkins on a battered hollowbody thumping away down in the 
cellar while Murphy reads. The Sounds of John the Revelator is a neat
 piece of work that somehow combines the weirdness of Poe with the 
coolness of the Beats over a soundtrack that might’ve been created by
 the Velvet Underground.' That’s what one reviewer said. 

What about the next book? There had to be one, surely. Murphy didn’t know, he said. He’d have to write it to find out. I loved that for answer.  I never know, myself, what I’m up to when I start a new book.  This was my sort of writer.

It was getting late.  There was a girlfriend at the door, and a dog, and a car outside, and a ferry waiting at Holyhead to take them home. I packed away my notebook, thinking we were done, glasses in pocket, pen in bag.  ‘Thank you,’ I said.  ‘You put stories together, characters, words on a page, and magic happens,’ Peter Murphy said. 

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