Sunday Salon: An Interview with Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies
I have reported earlier how much I enjoyed Skippy Dies. Today, Sunday Saloners, I am posting an interview with the author of the book, Paul Murray, who has kindly answered my questions.
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?
PM:Apart from a brief and unhappy stint teaching English to a Catalan businessman, who pointed out many faults in my grammar I had not known about hitherto, I’ve never taught.But I have close friends who are teachers, in very different schools, and I’ve always found their stories fascinating.It’s such an incredibly important job and I really admire anyone who can do it well.For Skippy Dies, I drew on my friends’ experience in the classroom, but I also remembered my own schooldays quite vividly.I have a pretty poor memory, but when you spend ten years in the same place it tends to etch itself in.
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?
PM:Well, you’re very kind.For me there were three key characters, Skippy, his friend Ruprecht, and Howard, the history teacher.Each of them had to do quite a lot of narrative work, and each of them presented his own problems as a narrator.I felt affection for them as I did for all of my characters, but they were too important for me to play favourites with.The supporting characters in the book, because less rested on them, were a lot more fun to write.There’s a character called Mario who’s kind of a sex maniac, I like him a lot.But I think my favourite is a boy called Geoff Sproke, who’s just this tremendously nice kid and has somehow escaped the cynicism that’s infected everyone else.He’s got love of bad jokes and a fear of jelly.
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.
CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
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.
CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
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.
CD: What is happiness?
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.
CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
I know that some days will shine in my memory. Today the air in Lowdham shimmered in a blazing June.
Behind the walls of a village hall in Nottinghamshire
leading onto a small field filled with tents
stalls and people.
and more books.
The Primitive Methodist Chapel down the street housed another series of talks.
While this trio, from the National Trust, told tales from the workhouse of 1841.
My event was here, in the Lit & Phil tent
festooned with the poster that Simon Hicks from Seren made for me.
It worked. It drew people in
They were coming from the other end of the village, I heard. A capacity crowd, and then a few peering in from the entrance. It was one of the most friendly audiences I'd ever had with lots of good questions - and well worth the three-and- half hours it took for me to get there.
I went to the railway station today to pick up the tickets I'd ordered on-line. There are quite a few. Just the look of them is exciting my wanderlust. There is something I love about being transported on a train. I like to see the countryside passing, to see something new and to just sit back and read.
Tomorrow it starts - with a talk at the Lowdham Festival in Nottinghamshire - and since I have Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Marukami on my iphone as an audiobook, and Ann Cleeves's Blue Lightning (one of the 7Day Holiday reads) in paper I shall be in good company.
I have just come across an excellent website through librarything: Pack-a-book. Before you travel it the author of this site recommends you read - not just travel guides but novels set in the place - and has matched up location to novels.
I think this is a truly excellent idea. Travel guides are all very well, but I think novels help to give an even better feel of a country - especially if they are written by a native. I did manage to find a good few novels about China before I went there last year, but I have spotted a few more on this site that I missed. So I am going to get them now instead so I can relive my journey.
My previous launches have been in bookshops. The first, after my novel won the Kathleen Fidler award in 1995, was the most glamorous. Hodmandod Senior and I were flown up to Glasgow (the second time I'd ever been on a plane), put up in a swanky hotel, taken out to dinner with my editor, Emma Matthewson (soon to be editing a rather more famous series of books about a boy wizard), and Theresa Breslin (who had just won the Carnegie medal and was a previous recipient of the award), and then taken to a bookshop which seemed to be filled with piles of my books (it wasn't, but that's how it seemed). There was also a big iced fruit cake, and I was allowed to take that back with me on the plane back home.
My adult novels, with another publisher, I arranged myself in the local Borders. Unfortunately no one from my publisher was able to attend, but then I asked the local sales rep to come and he was great - as were the staff at Borders. They served wine and bought and sold a large number of my books. Keeping up the tradition of cake-making I made 2 cakes for the Wegener launch (one depicting Pangaea, the other the continents now)
and for my 98 Reasons one I just did a cake with Struwwelpeter on the top.
I read a little out and so did some of my friends for me, and all went well.
Alas, there is no Borders now, and our local branch of Waterstones is so small it finds it difficult to staff its shop after hours. They are also more cautious with the number of books they wish to stock - no doubt a sign of the times. So after some searching and thinking I have come across the old theatre in Chester. The main part of the theatre has been dismantled but the studio and bar have been renovated, so my publisher, Seren, is hiring that for the evening. I am presenting my films and giving a few short readings in the theatre, and then will be serving canapes, wine and a cake in the bar upstairs. The cake is yet to be finished. It has been marzipanned but the crucial decorating stage is to come, but when it is, I shall, of course, be presenting the result here.
My article on making my movies is now live on The Literary Platform. This is a fascinating on-line magazine on the interaction between literature and technology and you can receive regular updates by joining the mailing list.
I rarely sleep longer than about three hours at a stretch these nights. I wake and hear the creatures that live beneath our house start moving trucks. They reverse and stop, go forward and then stop again, on and on; the longer I listen the louder it gets. I try and imagine who they are, these creatures. I think they are small and squat with impassive cuboid faces, and mouths that never move, a lipless line. They are grimy and coloured only in the way a a moonlit scene is coloured: grey-red, grey-brown, grey-blue, but mostly grey-grey, the colour of water used for too many pans.Some might say these creatures are selfish, but really they are not. It is what they do. As we live by day so they try to sleep too, and grumble at our lack of consideration. Sometimes I wonder what their ancestors did before there were engines, and I think maybe they rolled drums full of water; drums not of steel, but skin and wood.
So what can I do to chase away the noise these creatures make? Last night I went to my study and switched on the Mac. I listened to McEwan's Solar and it seemed that every word delighted me. Eventually I plugged in my earphones and listened in bed, and night became day, and the birds started taking gasps of breath to sing as loudly as they could, and the creatures beneath our house became sluggish, and then, as the narrator of the book went on, began to fall asleep too.
I woke then, and there were pieces of the McEwan that I'd missed, and there was nothing else to do but play them again. At last the book was finished, and I decided that the book was, in the end, about love. I found it very touching. Altogether a great book.
I have no idea what I did the rest of the day. I answered emails. I downloaded some more audiobooks, and now have a Zadie Smith's On Beauty, Sebastian Barry's Secret Scripture, and Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore waiting for me when life resumes to normal and I take my place in the gym. Then tonight I marzipanned my cake.
For now the grey creatures are quiet. But then they only come out in the middle of the night. They thrive, I know, on my fears. When they come close my rib cage seems to flex and then tighten. You are not here, I tell them. But they know that they are.
Today, having finished the impressive Thinner than a Hair by Adnan Mahmutovic (more on this later), I started on a massive rich fruit cake for my launch.
It had to be baked for about five hours, during which warm day smelt pleasantly of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg - reminding me not of Christmas but of spiced bread on some exotic holiday. I lined the tin twice with buttered greaseproof paper, then tied four layers of brown paper, put a similar number of layers on top and place the whole thing on a whole newspaper and I am very pleased to report it caught not at all.
While it baked I weeded the garden, cleared the house for visitors and then actually enjoyed doing some ironing - but only because I was accompanied by Ian McEwan's 'Solar' - it is an indication of how good this is because after an interval of several weeks the characters and story are still fresh in my mind.
What I watched last: Down By Law directed by Jim Jarmusch This was rather like watching a good piece of theatre. Excellent characterisation and photography and some great writing.
What I'm listening to: a free download of Ellis Paul's new lead single, 'Annalee', from his new album. 'The Day After Everything Changed'. I really like Ellis Paul's voice and songs. He's accompanied a lot during my travels over the last few years so I'm glad to hear he's got a new album out.
What I'm reading: Thinner than a Hair by Adnan Mahmutovic. I'm not meant to be reading this book, but I picked it up and finding it so compelling, I don't want to stop until I've finished.
What I'm doing next (after I've finished the book): Making a cake for my book launch next week
Jim Murdoch's post on Historical Imagination and Historical Consciousness
Today, Jim Murdoch has posted a fascinating study into history and historical fiction, with a few references to my work. He considers, summarises and generally has a lot of intelligent things to say about the sometimes fuzzy line where non-fiction writers make little excursions into fiction, and where fiction writers might depend too much on fact.
Last night I went to Wrexham library for Aled Lewis Evans's launch of Driftwood, his first collection of short stories and monologues in English. Normally Aled writes in Welsh, and even though I don't understand much I love to hear him reading his work. But last night I heard, for the first time, his stories translated into English. These turned out to be affectionate character studies of the people around him. Some of them were funny, and several had a poignancy which I think could only be Welsh. There was a large audience; clearly many people are hugely fond of Aled, and looking at this picture it is easy to see why.
Aled is a member of Chester Poets, but I've also come across him at various events in Wrexham Library. Wrexham Library, according to the librarian who introduced him, is one of his favourite haunts, particularly the cafe, and he has written a novel in Welsh called Y Caffi, which is based on characters in a cafe (which I suspect may be inspired by some of the people he has met in Wrexham). Driftwood contains a dramatic adaptation from that novel at the end, and also a short story involving one of the characters. Aled read it out last night: a subtle story of a love affair that never really started, and I liked it for everything it didn't say.
Driftwood is published by Gwasg y Bwthyn and I've admired the cover ever since I saw it on the invitation a few weeks ago. Apparently it is a photograph of a piece of driftwood from a beach of that name on the Pacific coast of America.
At the end we were able to look around the newly refurbished library (which makes a change these days because most of the news in England is of libraries shutting). It is an impressive complex of rooms - all brightly lit and inviting.
Well, it's taken some time to arrange, but I've finally got there. This summer I am going to have a busman's holiday. I am going to travel to all the Waterstones bookshops in Wales with my films and sit in store at the busiest time on a Saturday hoping to generate some interest in my book. Or I may hide under the table...
I've marked all the places I'm intending to visit on the map below with a purple dot. I'm really looking forward to these journeys because, in my opinion, I'll be passing through some of the most beautiful countryside in the world.
Saturday July 3rd 2-4pm27 Great Darkgate Street, Aberystwyth, SY23 1DE Tel. 01970 611222 Saturday July 10th 10.30-11.30am The Old Carlton Cinema, 17 Oxford Street, Swansea SA1 3AG Tel. 01792 463567
A friend's bad news last night meant I couldn't sleep. In the end I gave up trying and finished Owen Sheers's White Ravens. As in Russell Celyn Jones's book, the Ninth Wave, I admire the way the Mabinogion has inspired this story. There is no dogged following of the plot, but something more subtle - a kind of nod to both the elements and the message of the story. A girl, called Rhian, has two brothers, just as Bronwen has two brothers. The brothers go bad, after they have endured much suffering (another resonance with the original tales) and there is a connection between Wales and London, once again like the medieval version.
Rhian then encounters an old man on a bench. There is something magical about the way he talks, and the way he seems to have an affinity to her. He tells her a tale that is, in some way, her tale too. He tells of ravens, a giant man, a girl called Bronwen and a man from Ireland who falls in love with her. The pivotal scene is the one that most resembles the original Maginogion: the maiming of the horses by Branwen's brother - and it is after this that things unravel. The storyteller draws back and the lovers withdraw too. We follow not the specific but the general. We learn they change. We learn how it all comes apart. The giant crosses the north sea, but instead of allowing himself to be a physical bridge across a river for his army, the giant in this modern story needs to build more metaphorical bridges. When he fails to do so disaster follows. It is a satisfying and poetic interpretation of a myth.
I've enjoyed each of these retellings of the Mabingion. I think they way they have been re-interpreted has allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of the myths themselves. There are two more 'branches' and I'm really looking forward to reading these too.
As usual, I am behind with everything. I have promised, I realise, four articles to various newspapers, websites and blogs. I am grateful to have the opportunity, but today they have been preying on me, and because of this I have only done one of them. Instead I talked to Hodmandod Senior, cooked an elaborate meal and took photographs of bees wriggling into sage flowers. They reminded me of effete waiters at an expensive restaurant, constantly fussing and rearranging, with a low-level busy hum.
It impressed me how well the bees fitted into the trumpets of the flowers, no doubt ensuring they were covered with pollen and that pollen is distributed from one flower to the next. Also I have started reading Owen Sheers's 'White Ravens'. There is another 'fitting' here, which is just as impressive. This time it is how the just the right words fit so aptly - and (or so it seems to me) make the sentences blossom.
I've been reading this book this afternoon: Shedworking by Alex Johnson and finding it an inspiration. There are all sorts of sheds in here, sheds in trees, sheds by ponds, sheds made with bricks, wood and concrete and one with mirrored walls so reflective that it tricks the eye and fools it into thinking it is not there at all. I like to look at this but I don't think I'd like to have it at the end of my garden.
Then there's a section on all the famous people that have worked in sheds and it reminds me what a peaceful place it is, especially in summer, and that soon I must go out there again. Even though there is no reason for me to work in the shed any longer since I am the only one in the house all day, still I want to go out there. There is something relaxing being out there, away from everything, alone with the keyboard.
The following section is on building a shed of your own. This too is interesting, and reminded me of the way my husband adapted the shed we had built - insulating it so it will be warm enough in the cooler months. One thing I have noticed is that these working sheds have better doors than mine, and this is really something I need to improve. The door I have is leaky and the handle difficult to use (although pretty to look at). There is a handy section on factors to consider when building your own shed, and the door is one of these.
I actually recognise a few names from the section on 'At Work in the Shed': there's Sylvia Petter, whose excellent short stories I've read, and Christine Farmer, an artist who produces the most stunning pictures of clouds. Then there is Warwick Collins who wrote the novel 'Gents'. He has a very sturdy writing shed built from bricks, with what looks like a wood-burning stove. I am envious.
Then there are futuristic sheds, and green sheds - a particularly apt section I think, because working in a shed seems to lend itself particularly well to economical living. Inherent is the idea of taking up little space, and of being immersed in nature - so it seems only right that the shedworker should try to leave as little impression on the world as possible.
I have a few sections to go, and I am really enjoying the pictures and the words. Interspersed with the prose is a little poetry which is unexpected but works really well. Altogether a thoroughly entertaining and interesting read - which I think I may well finish in my little office outdoors.
Tonight I went to the local library to listen to Nik Perring, Caroline Smailes and Jon Mayhew talk about writing and the publishing process. It was a packed house with a lot of postive comments from the audience.
Nik Perring, Caroline Smailes and Jon Mayhew at the Chester Library.
I've now finished my little investigation into the Pwyll story in many versions, and I do like the way Russell Celyn Jones decided to tackle the story. He transposed it into the a not-too-distant world - one close to one of the central worlds of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas or Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker. But instead of somewhere English this was a futuristic south Wales - a post-industrial blend of decay and encroaching wilderness. In the Ninth Wave I recognised the streets and scenery of Swansea, and I think, Pembrokeshire. According to the 'landscapes' book I have, these areas of south-west Wales Dyfed, Narberth and the Gower are real Mabinogion territory.
In this world cars are again a novelty and people have reverted once more to horses. Odd bits of a more advanced past survive - like goretex overcoats - but in most places the factories have been turned over to recycling or left empty. It is a world ideal for this branch of the Mabinogion.
The prince is inspired by the soldiering of the present Prince Harry, and the disappearance of the prince's son is engineered by itinerants rather than a monster. Rhiannon is sassy in a way that is at once both modern and medieval, and I particularly like the way Russell Celyn Jones transposed her punishment (inflicted because she was falsely blamed for losing her son). This was a beautiful and really affecting depiction of a psychological struggle. The worst aspect of Rhiannon's punishment - whether carrying people on her back in the old version, or cleaning out other people's toilets in this one - did not lie in her public humiliation but in the loss of her child. The scene where they are reunited is a study in reaction and interaction and rings bleakly true. Close to the end there is a brilliantly described section on surfing - using the challenge of riding the waves to explore the relationship between father and son, and the child's increasing dominance over the father.
It was quite a surprise to come across this. I had expected a retelling of the Mabinogion to stick to something lyrical but I think this is better. Reading the story in the different versions really helped me to appreciate the story more and allowed me to realise its timelessness.
Clare DudmanClare Dudman is the author of four novels: Edge of Danger (Putnam), One Day the Ice Will Reveal Its Dead/Wegener's Jigsaw (Viking/Sceptre), 98 Reasons For Being ((Viking/Sceptre) and A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees (Seren) - and numerous short stories. Further details on this website.