Sunday Salon: An Interview with Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies
Paul Murray is an Irish novelist. He studied English Literature at Trinity College, Dublin, and has a Masters degree in creative writing from the UEA. His first novel, an Evening of Long Goodbyes was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize in 2003 and nominated for the Kerry irish Fiction Award. Following his recently published and critically acclaimed, Skippy Dies, he was recently named by the Daily Telegraph as one of the best British novelists under 40 (even though, as the Private Eye pointed out, he is actually Irish!).
CD: As a former teacher myself I was much impressed with your accurate depiction of life in a classroom. Have you ever been a teacher?
CD: The book is quite long (although I have to say it didn't really feel like it - I ripped through) and Hamish Hamilton have split into three smaller books (which I really like). Did you have much to do with this? Or do you have any comments to make?
PM: I’d written the book in three parts, but the idea to publish as three smaller volumes in a box was my publishers’. A similar thing had been done in the US with Steve Toltz’s book, A Fraction of the Whole, which is published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton. When I handed in the manuscript originally, it was even longer than it is now, and I think they felt that this would be a way of making it less daunting for the reader. And in itself it was quite a beautiful artefact, and helped to get the book some attention.
CD: There are lots of great characters in Skippy Dies - all of them very well drawn. Did you have a favourite character?
CD: I was really impressed with how you got string theory (or the M-theory variant) into the book and thought it worked very well. Why string theory? Do you have a particular interest? How did you come across it?
PM: I came across it on a BBC documentary I turned on quite by accident one Valentine’s day. I was immediately fascinated, for the same reasons I suppose as Ruprecht is in the book. It’s incredibly complicated, so complicated that they can’t even agree what the M stands for. And at the same time it comprises this very graceful, very beautiful idea that all matter and energy are simply vibrations on superstrings, so the universe is a kind of music…
When I was younger I read a lot of sci-fi, and I’ve always liked the idea of parallel worlds – of which there’s a long, long tradition in Irish literature and folklore. That aspect of M-theory –that our universe may be one of an infinite number, floating in 11 dimensions, really appealed to me. Also, the idea that reality is just not explainable. The claim that we can master reality – or even one facet of it, economics or demographics or whatever – I find really offensive. And it’s everywhere these days. Even when it ends in disaster, and all the experts are proved comprehensively wrong, as happened with the credit crunch, people will still line up to listen to whatever huckster appears next. I like M-theory because it seems to conclude that reality is fundamentally beyond our understanding.
CD: Did you have to do any special research to write the book?
PM: Well, M-theory and string theory are really quite difficult and I had to read quite a lot before I felt comfortable writing about them. There’s also some material about World War One. At first, I didn’t know what aspect of the war I wanted to write about. I went into the library and was confronted with literally thousands of books. Eventually I realised that for me to have any chance of saying anything original about the war, I needed to approach it from an Irish perspective, so I started reading up on the experience of Irish soldiers during the war. I’d known nothing about it beforehand, though I did history in school. Something like 50,000 Irishmen went to fight in the trenches alongside the British, and it’s simply not in the schoolbooks. I found all kinds of fascinating material. In 1916, while the Easter Rising was being put down quite brutally by British troops, Germans would hold up signs from their trenches, saying, Irish soldiers! The British are killing your kinsmen in Dublin! After the war was even more interesting. The Irish soldiers left Ireland as heros, but came home to find themselves viewed as traitors. Their entire contribution to the war was erased from history. It was really shocking to see that that’s how history works.
CD: I think you said in Hay that the novel started with a short story. Why did you decide to make it into a novel?
PM: It was more that it decided, really. I started it as a short story and I kept having more and more ideas. I remember telling my brother I was writing a story but getting quite worried about how I was going to fit all of these different themes in. He told me it sounded more like a novel. And I thought – Oh, hey, he’s right. If he hadn’t said that maybe i’d still be trying to get it down to twenty pages. I really liked the environment of the school, it allowed of so many disparate characters and themes, as well as a lot of quite rude jokes.
CD: What sets you off writing?
PM: Hmm. Masochism? I don’t know. Sometimes I’ll think of a joke, or a couple of jokes. Or a line, or an image, or an idea. You jot down ideas all the time, of course, but once in a while one will come along that’s like turning a key, and all of these ancillary ideas come flooding in on top of it. You open your notebook and you just can’t write it down fast enough. It’s a really exciting process, and you can understand the old concepts of divine inspiration. It really feels like it’s coming from somewhere. But that burns out pretty quickly and you’re left with the much slower and more prosaic job of trying to tie it all together.
CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
PM: I haven’t any connection that I can think of. I do remember a story I really liked in a book called You’re an Animal, Visskowitz! about a snail declaring to the rest of the colony that he was leaving to go it alone. Three days later he’s still in the process of leaving and they’re all laughing at him from the cabbage patch.
CD: What is your proudest moment?
PM: I’m quite wary of pride, because I always suspect that God will immediately counteract it by dropping a piano on my head or something. With writing, any pride you might feel in anything you’ve done is pretty fragile and quickly swamped by the terror of what to do next. I took up cycling a couple of years ago. That’s a tough sport. When you’re climbing a steep hill, and you’re thinking to yourself, I just can’t do this, but you keep going and you make it to the top – that’s a clearer and less complicated source of pride to me. Also when I passed my driving test on the nth attempt – I think that was one of the few moments of unalloyed pride and joy in my life.
CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
PM: Well, I don’t know that I believe that a single event can be definitively life-changing. They say that you could win the lottery or lose both your legs, and in either case after three months you’ll feel about the same as you did before. In one sense, our characters don’t really change. In another, I think all of us are changing all the time. Change is the condition of life. That’s the beauty of the whole thing.
PM: Oh god, I’m not going to open that can of worms. Silvio Berlusconi’s hair transplant would come close to the top, though.
PM: I’d love to be one of these very energetic people that gets up at six and keeps going till three a.m. I have about four good hours in me and then I shut down.
PM: It is a deeply misleading term used to describe about seven or eight contradictory states, the pursuit of which has caused untold misery and destruction.
PM: Feed the cat.