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Paul Murray: The Powells.com Interview

Paul Murray

Paul Murray is no stranger to accolades: his first novel, An Evening of Long Goodbyes, was nominated for the Whitbread Prize, and his second, Skippy Dies, was long-listed for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. In a starred review, Kirkus calls it a "splendid, sardonic magnum opus....Long and impossibly involved, but also beautifully written, with much truth and not a wasted word. A superb imagining of a strange world." And the Times of London raved, "Noisy, hilarious, tragic, and endlessly inventive....Murray's writing is just plain brilliant."

A dizzyingly intelligent sweep through string theory, pornography, video games, and magical thinking — in other words, modern adolescence — Skippy Dies is a dark, hilarious, incredibly moving coming-of-age epic. We were so impressed that we included an exclusive printing of the first part of the book in Volume #21 of Indiespensable. It's one of the most-loved books among our staff this fall, and we guarantee you won't be able to put it down.

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Jill Owens: How did Skippy Dies begin?

Paul Murray: There was a dual genesis. I wrote the opening chapter about a doughnut eating race in which these two school kids are competing. And Skippy chokes on a doughnut. That was a short story I wrote initially long, long ago, back when I was in college, in maybe 1994 or so. Years later, I had an idea for another short story which was going to be about a teacher who starts suspecting that something isn't quite right about one of the kids in his class, on the basis of an essay the kid submits.

I started writing that short story, and I was really enjoying writing about a school and writing lines that fit into characters in a school, and it kept on expanding and expanding. Then I realized, "Hey, maybe I can use that little story from days of yore"Then I realized, "Hey, maybe I can use that little story from days of yore" to kick off what was becoming an extremely long short story. [Laughter]

At some point, I realized it was never going to be a short story. It just kept expanding and expanding. Because I was really enjoying writing it, I just kept going with it.

Jill: It was seven years between this book and your first book, An Evening of Long Goodbyes. How long did the process of writing Skippy Dies take overall?

Murray: It took the full seven years. There was a strange period after I had written An Evening of Long Goodbyes wherein I was trying to decide what to write next. I had three competing ideas, three different ideas for books, and I took each of those ideas to a certain point. There was this strange schizophrenic period of maybe six months where I was taking notes for each of these three different ideas. I had these huge Word files full of notes for the different books.

At that stage, I knew Skippy was going to be the longest and most difficult of the three, so it was the one I was trying to avoid. It was the one that I wanted to write the most, but at the same time, I was fearful of committing to it, because I knew it was going to be a long haul, and I knew it was going to be a strange and complicated book.

Finally I decided that if I was going to write a long, complicated book, this was a good time in my life to do it. I didn't have a mortgage. I didn't have kids. I didn't have a car at that point even. I could devote the time and the energy to it that I might not have later in my life.

I started it, and I knew it was going to be long and complicated, but I didn't know it was going to be quite as long as it turned out to be. From pillar to post, it took a whole seven years. Even looking back on it now, it hasn't been finished that long, but I ask myself, What was I doing for that long? It's hard to understand even for myself how a book can take that long.

It took maybe two years to write the first draft. I wrote the first draft longhand. Then I typed it up, and then there was this endless period of revision and refinement that just went on and on. Because the original manuscript was so long, every revision would take a year and that would be another year of life gone.

There was a strange doubleness to it because, on the one hand, there was a lot of anxiety attached to writing something that long, because obviously there's no money coming in during that time. On the other hand, more and more time's passing since you've written the first book. People stop asking you to festivals, and maybe your first book isn't in the shop anymore. You stop even thinking of yourself as a writer. On bad days, you start thinking of yourself as just some crazy person with an endless manuscript.On bad days, you start thinking of yourself as just some crazy person with an endless manuscript.

At the same time, there's a strange comfort to working on a project of that length. It becomes your whole life in a really unambiguous way. Have you seen the film Little Miss Sunshine?

Jill: Yes.

Murray: There's a nice bit in that where the Proust professor turns to the young teenager, and he's talking about Proust spending however long he wrote writing In Search of Lost Time, and all the agony and the misery of that process. Then at the end of it, after looking back, he realizes that was the happiest time of his life. It was so strange. I really liked that moment in the film because I could dig it. I really wanted to finish the book. It wants to get out in the world. But at the same time, I knew I'd miss it once it was gone.

Jill: It is long, but it doesn't feel that long when you're reading it. One of the first reasons I liked it so much is that your language is just amazing. There's something so inventive and playful and immediately noticeable about your prose. That's not often the case for books that are that long. You keep it up for 660 pages.

Murray: Well, firstly, thanks. That's a really nice thing to say, so I appreciate that. I guess that's maybe why it took so long because I really wanted to get it right. The voices of the characters were quite strong in my head, and I wanted to stay faithful to those. It's about school kids, and it's about growing up. I wanted it to have energy. I wanted it to be lively. And I wanted it to be something that people would enjoy reading.

I don't really like the idea of "literary" novels — novels that take for granted that the reader will approach them with a certain amount of awe and deference and readiness to be taught whatever lessons that the book has to teach. I wanted the book to be engaging, and I want it to be something that the characters in the book, those kids, might read and enjoy.

With a long book, you've got a responsibility to the reader to keep it interesting. The novel is a pretty embattled art form at the moment. I'm quite aware of that, and I'm aware of what my generation is taking its cue from culturally. I'm aware of what the novel's up against. So I wanted to make it — and I took a lot of time making it — something that had a certain amount of electricity, or dynamism, or whatever.

Also, those are the kinds of books that I like. I read 2666 last year. Have you read it?

Jill: I have not, though I know I'm about the last person on the planet who hasn't.

Murray: Yes, I'd read all these reviews about it, and all of my friends had been talking about it. As a sort of curmudgeonly man I thought, "Well, I'm sure it's overrated."

Jill: I think that's been my fear. That's why I haven't picked it up yet.

Murray: Totally. You've had enough people tell you something is great and they're all awestruck. And just out of sheer perversity you think, "I bet it's not great and I'm not going to read it." [Laughter]

But my friend gave it to me for my birthday, so I had to read it, and it's just terrific; it's a really fantastic book. He's a poet. Someone recently told me he wasn't a very good poet. But whatever the standard of his actual poetry, he's really alive to the capabilities of language. Every sentence has this punch to it.

Reading that book and reading books like it... I read Gravity's Rainbow when I was in college and that book really blew me away. With both of those books, and also writers like David Foster Wallace, you realize that if you have a strong style and a creative style and a style that at a sentence level has a certain amount of energy, then that gives you freedom to do other things. You can engage the reader on that level, and the reader will cut you slack in other ways. The reader will go with you to places where he or she might not have otherwise gone.

Sometimes if I pick up a big prize-winning novel — those books can sort of be stodgy — and if you're not really feeling in the mood for them, then you can lose interest halfway through. I didn't want this book to be one of those books that people got bored with. I wanted it to be, for better or worse, something that would be exciting to read and also give them a laugh, hopefully.

Jill: Definitely. Speaking of poetry, it features prominently in your book, too. There's the very memorable interpretation of the Robert Frost poem. [Laughter]

Murray: Yes — I feel a bit guilty about that, actually.

Jill: Why?

Murray: Well, someone said to me recently he can't read that poem now without thinking of anal sex. [Laughter]

Jill: I may have that reaction myself. Is poetry important to you, in a more general sense?

Murray:; Poetry is something that I came to quite late. Obviously we did it in school. In the Irish curriculum, you read Yeats, Seamus Heaney, Austin Clarke, Thomas Kinsella, and all these poets; you get a quick look at them. And it really goes over your head. It certainly went over my head. Then when I did English in college, the same thing happened. We did Milton, and Spenser, and all the canonical poets. Yeats again came up. And again I didn't really connect with it.

I think the first time I really started to connect with poetry was when I did a Master's in creative writing in Norwich, at the University of East Anglia. I was living on campus, and the campus is outside of Norwich. It's quite remote and it's quite desolate. It's this really ugly 1960s campus architecture. I was lonely there, and I was quite homesick.

I bought a copy of the  Collected Yeats in a local bookshop, and I read it from cover to cover. And I finally started to understand why everybody was so in love with Yeats. It started filtering down. He became kind of a touchstone. In my first book, An Evening of Long Goodbyes, Yeats figures into it; he has this cameo appearance.

I started reading poetry more seriously after that. To be honest, I find poetry pretty difficult. I don't really understand a lot of it, and it's something I have to sit down quite purposefully and forge my way through. But I think as a writer you're always looking for new ways to express yourself, new ways of approaching language.

Joseph Brodsky has a great essay where he says every writer in the world should sit down with their Norton Anthology and study the poetry from beginning to end. All the lessons you have to learn are there in the poetry, because everything is so compressed and every word is so important. Reading poetry is like a master class in how to create sentences.

Even though my own attempts at poetry are extremely terrifyingly bad... [Laughter] You could use them as the secret weapon in an episode of 24. Jack Bauer could be chasing a guy with a bunch of my poems in a metal suitcase or something.

Jill: Like the Vogon poems in The Hitchhiker's Guide.

Murray: Yes, totally! [Laughter] But I really got into other people's poetry. Do you know James Merrill?

Jill: Yes.

Murray: I don't know where I came across him, but I got his Collected Poems, and I read all of them. They're fantastic — really amazing poetry. Again, quite difficult, but really, really beautiful. And I think W. S. Merwin is amazing as well. Currently I'm reading Zbigniew Herbert. He's fantastic. I should really find out how to pronounce his name so I can drop it at cocktail parties. [Laughter]

What I really admire about poetry is its ability not to make sense; there's this inherent mystery to it that there is no solution to.What I really admire about poetry is its ability not to make sense; there's this inherent mystery to it that there is no solution to. There is no key. And that's the beauty of it. It's totally elusive, and at the same time it's so powerful.

That's something I aspire to, I guess, in my own work. I'd like to have the courage to let the reader make her own mind up about what's going on. I think that's one thing I'd like to do more of as I keep writing.

Jill: I think you do manage that in a sense in Skippy Dies. The book is so devastating and moving and yet funny. But at the end, you pull this magic and mystery out of very dark and also very crass circumstances, which was not how I thought the book was going to end somehow. I was wonderfully surprised by that.

Murray: In my head, I wanted the book to be about narrative. The way we live our lives is that we're in love with stories, and we're attracted to stories. We like celebrities because the arcs of their lives have got these strong narratives. We're attracted to these strange overarching narrative arcs in history as well. There's always some big story going on, be it the Iraq war, the credit crunch, or swine flu. The characters in the book are all trying to find some sort of narrative for themselves. That's how they get themselves into trouble, because life doesn't have a narrative. Life doesn't have an arc. The only way you can make your life into an arc is by distorting it, and by excluding things.

For some reason, I'm thinking of Luke Perry in Beverly Hills 90210. I'm not quite sure why. You look at him and he's wearing his leather jacket and he goes off on these mysterious surfing trips to Baja. And you think, "Luke Perry, on your surfing trip, do you not think it's so contrived and it's so false to be going off to Baja, and deliberately not answering your phone?"

But to a certain extent, that's what we all do in our search to invent narratives for ourselves. The only reality in our lives is loss, you know? We lose things. We lose things in big ways, such as death, and we lose things in other ways: friendships change and fall apart, and we move away from home. Change is the essence of life, and loss is inherent to that.

The kids in the last part of the book are realizing that, and realizing that all the illusions they've been chasing are false, and the only real thing they have is each other. That's a really important lesson for them to learn. So it gets really dark. It definitely gets really black, and I don't deny that. It was hard to write about that stuff.

But at the same time I think the ending has a certain amount of optimism to it, because even in the middle of this quite cynical system that they're in, these kids have made a valuable discovery, that they have friendship and they have this capacity to take care of each other.

Jill: You capture adolescence perfectly and terrifyingly in this book. I have a colleague who went to an all-boys school and he said, "Skippy Dies is dead on. It's exactly like that." Did you board at a boys' school, or were you a day student at a boys' school?

Murray: I was a day student. The school that I went to felt very similar to the school in the book. There were about 200 boys in each year, and there were about 20 or 30 boys who would board. Similar to the book, the day boys would look at the boarders with a certain amount of admiration because they were independent. They didn't have any visible parents. They had a certain amount of freedom and a certain amount of mystery. But we also looked at them with pity, because there they were stranded in the school, day after day after day. They couldn't escape it.

Jill: There's a wonderful passage about the doors of possibility closing as you get older — doors labeled "save the world from asteroid" and "get bitten by a snake." Then, you eventually begin closing those doors for yourself.

Murray: I didn't find school to be a really very positive experience. The school I went to was a very illustrious famous school. But it was a feeder school for business, basically. It didn't have much interest in encouraging the arts or any sort of interest outside rugby. In Dublin, where I grew up, the city is divided into north and south by the River Liffey. Obviously, these are big generalizations, but the south is viewed as a stuffy, bourgeois, stuck up part of the city, and the north side is viewed as the edgy, rough, crime infested half of the city. In the south side where I grew up, there really wasn't much going on. Culturally, it felt like a graveyard to me.

When I was growing up, I was always a dreamy kid, and interested in music, and art, and books, and comic strips, and films, and so on. I never had the sense when I was growing up that these were things that I could do, that these were things that were possible for someone from my background to do. When I look back on it, I actually feel sad about that.

I was really into American music and American culture and I would look across the water to BeckI was really into American music and American culture and I would look across the water to Beck or something like that. I really liked Beck. I'd look at him and go, Well he's only a year or two older than me. I'd think, Wow. If I was in America, I could do that. But in Ireland the sense was that you couldn't do that. It was just a strange little backwater where those things didn't really exist. There was no artistic community. There was no sense of, "Let's put on a show in the barn."

So the doors were definitely being closed. It was happening sort of... unconsciously isn't quite the word I mean, but that was the cultural norm; that was the prevailing sentiment in the world at large. Inside Dublin, you would go to school, and then you would get a good job in a bank, and you would get married, and buy a big house, and have kids, and repeat to fade.

School was quite programmatic. The sense was you had to work hard and get good grades on your exams to go and study actuarial studies at UCD and make 200 grand a year. The teachers were really quite cynical. I mean, maybe cynical isn't quite the right word. But there was definitely a sense that that was how real life was lived and everything else was a fey fantasy. And that's kind of sad.

Jill: Is it still like that in Dublin today, do you think?

Murray: I don't know. Dublin went through this really strange phase wherein it became really, really, really, super rich. For about 10 years, there was this enormous economic boom which transformed society. It was almost like money falling from the sky. Seriously, it was crazy. Ireland's historically a really poor place. I graduated from college in '97, and in my year in college, people would say, "Well, where you going to move? Are you going to move to London? Are you going to move to Paris? Are you going to move to New York?" Because there was just nothing happening job wise in Dublin. And the next year that conversation no longer existed, because there was opportunity everywhere. It was crazy.

That went on for 10 years. One effect of it was that the country became really, really materialistic. Everybody bought SUVs, everybody bought expensive kitchens, and everybody bought houses in Armenia and Bulgaria. The Irish, who were historically loved around the world as being kind of charming losers, showed this other side of their national personality which was that they were totally merciless players. So, people in Armenia were going, "We can't afford houses anymore because the Irish have bought up the whole town." It was really strange.

The arts were clobbered by that boom, because it was really expensive just to live, and the rents were going up all the time. It was quite tough. Also, there was a sense that the country wasn't really that interested in the arts. There was just so much other stuff going on. If you're buying a yacht, you don't really care that much about Paul Muldoon having a new poem in the New Yorker. It was quite a strange time.

That's not to say that people stopped writing books. Of course not. They didn't. In fact there were lots of new writers coming through and lots of new novels coming through, which was exciting.

But anyway, to cut a long story short, the economy tanked in exactly the same, completely over the top way that the boom went up. Immediately after Lehman Brothers crashed, suddenly the government turned around and said, "Actually, guess what? We are so incredibly broke that we are on the verge of the IMF moving in and taking over the country." The Irish went from thinking they were the masters of the universe to suddenly asking the World Bank for 30 billion euros.The Irish went from thinking they were the masters of the universe to suddenly asking the World Bank for 30 billion euros. So suddenly, everyone was really contrite. People were going, "Where have we gone wrong? Oh, no. All of our economists are wrong, and all our SUVs have brought us nothing, and our houses in France have turned to dust. But, look at the arts! The artists were right all along. They didn't let us down."

And so now, there's this resurgent interest in the arts. There's a certain amount of smugness in the world of the arts that's going, "Oh, look who's come crawling back. Well, well, well." In short, I think that, generally speaking when countries are poor, the arts are stronger. People need the arts more because they're insecure, and they feel precarious, and they need a sense of community, I guess, that the arts bring. That's where Ireland is now, very much.

There's good things in there, and at the risk of sounding perverse again, I think the crash has brought people together in a way opposite from what the boom had done. So it's not all bad, maybe.

Jill: How did you become interested in M-theory and realize it would be a good thematic thread in Skippy Dies?

Murray: I saw it on TV. That's the long and short of it. I was watching TV on Valentine's. I was visiting my girlfriend one Valentine's Day, and we were watching TV because that was much as I'd do on Valentine's Day. It's such a terrible holiday. We were watching TV, and a show about M-theory came on and it was fascinating. There was a scientist on it called Michio Kaku, who's partly the model for Professor Tamashi in the book. All those parallel worlds are something I've always been really interested in. When I was a kid I used to read a comic called 2000 A.D., which was this very influential British comic. There were parallel worlds in it and I connected with that. There's a long tradition of that in Irish literature.

I saw this M-theory program, and I thought, "Wow. That's amazing. All these new wormholes in space." I have dim memories of similar stories occurring in the Irish folklore stories that we did in school. As I researched it, I realized that this is one of the central themes in Irish folklore, this idea of dual worlds, and all these worlds existing on top of each other, and they touch at certain points. That recurs throughout Irish literature. Like C. S. Lewis, who's quasi Irish, and his Narnia stories. That's one instance of it. All the old fairy tales have that stuff there. Yeats, obviously. It's a really big thing in Yeats. All the stories of the sidh, the mysterious fairy people. So not to be pretentious about it, but I think that it's in the blood. It seems to be something that's inherent to Irishness, this belief in another world.

I started reading Robert Graves as well. Robert Graves has this crazy book called The White Goddess, which is in some ways about the same thing, all these strange myths that underlie our culture. He argues that countries like Ireland and Italy which have this strong Mariolatry, this cult of the Virgin Mary, aren't really Christian countries at all. They're actually pagan countries, and they are obsessed with this mysterious white goddess who's not like the Christian God, in that, in a pantheistic way, she's here. The other world is not this strange, distant place, but it's somehow alive around us. I really like that idea.

Jill: I love the Robert Graves thread through the book. The parallels between the science and theory and the magic and folklore resonate wonderfully throughout the book.

Murray: One of the things that really appealed me to was the fact that, like we were saying about poetry, M-theory has this negative capability. It's incomprehensible. Scientists don't know what it means. I love this idea of a theory that is actually inarticulable. Scientists are saying, "It's the total explanation of reality as we know it." And at the same time, they're quite happily saying, "But we don't actually know what it is." I thought that was really fantastic.

The key book on M-theory or string theory is The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene. I forged my way through that. Like a lot of those books, it makes sense up to a certain point. If you really try hard, you can understand relativity and you can almost understand quantum mechanics.

Then in his next chapter, he will say, "And here we come to string theory," and he'll start talking about Calabi-Yau spaces. He's pretending that it still makes sense, but it's completely turned into math. And if you don't speak math, then it's completely incoherent and unintelligible. [Laughter]

I thought the idea of a total explanation of everything that was unintelligible and will forever be unintelligible said a lot about where we are as a species. We've been given so many total explanations of reality. The reason for the credit crunch was because the economists said, "History has ended and we totally understand how the world works, which is market capitalism." Meanwhile, the financiers are saying, "We have invented these financial instruments called derivatives that are totally foolproof."

Everybody is peddling these total explanations of reality. And we, John Q. Public, are saying, "OK. That sounds plausible." In exactly the same way as in days of yore, or not so long ago in Ireland, the priests were saying, "Here is a total explanation of reality. Do what we tell you and everything will be fine."

Science and economics have replaced religion in this quite obvious and literal way, and it seemed to me that M-theory was a nice illustration of that, because it's so obviously not an explanation of reality. It can't help you in any way at all. You can spend the rest of your life studying M-theory, and it's a waste of time. It won't help you to live your life, and it won't help you to talk to your mother, and it won't help you to be a better person. It's useless.

All of the narratives, I guess, that the kids and the teachers are pursuing in the books are on a similar register. They are illusions. They are beautiful illusions. M-theory is so complex and it's so astonishingly intricate. It has the fascination of what's difficult, in the same way that drugs are fascinating, or music is fascinating.It has the fascination of what's difficult, in the same way that drugs are fascinating, or music is fascinating.

At the same time, ultimately, they are leading you down a rabbit hole and they are leading you away from the world, and they are leading you away from people into this little narcissistic closed circuit.

When I read about the black goddess, I was so struck. Writing the book was amazing, because you come across these things quite late in the process, and you go, "Whoa! That fits so perfectly." The black goddess was one of those things. I read this biography of Robert Graves, and he had this ridiculous life. He was pursing this poetic life, or whatever you imagine to be a poetic life. And it led him into all these absurd situations, where he was doing these silly and very destructive things because he was this grown man pursuing this idea of the white goddess.

Then at the end of his life, when someone tells him about the black goddess, which is this concept of tolerance and peace and wisdom, and he goes, "Oh, wow! OK. Huh! Right." I thought that was a really striking moment, to flip all of those silly and destructive things on their heads.

Jill: He went through all that ridiculous, destructive stuff just to get to the idea of peace.

Murray: Yes, exactly. To get to that Paul Eluard line: "There is another world, and it is in this one." There's a great bit in Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day — it's not his best book, but there is a great moment when one of the many, many characters is on the bus, and he has this Zen moment where he is looking around at the bus and he realizes, "This is it! This is all there is! This bus, and the street it's on, and the world — that's it!" There is no transcendent reality to be striving towards.

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I spoke to Paul Murray at his home in Ireland by phone on September 1, 2010.

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