Jim Murdoch has kindly agreed to be my first interview of the new year so here it is.
Tell us about your latest project.
At the moment all my time is being taken up with promotion of an ebook entitled The Whole Truth, an omnibus edition of my first two paperbacks, Living with the Truth and Stranger than Fiction. Here’s the basic blurb:
Jonathan Payne is a jaded bookseller at the end of a wasted life which has been spent in a dull north England seaside town. He could be an everyman, but seems to have missed the boat somewhere. He’s both distastefully pathetic and oddly sympathetic. A passive character, he has been happy to read about life without experiencing either great joy or great despair. If Death were to knock on his door it wouldn’t trouble him greatly.
The knock comes. Only it’s not Death. It’s the truth. Literally. The human personification of truth.
Truth proves to be a likeable, if infuriating, character with a novel mode of expression: “glib dipped in eloquence and then rolled in a coating of irony,” to quote one reviewer. He knows everything and has no qualms revealing intimate details of lives of the people who cross his path while he’s with Jonathan. He’s quite indiscriminate. The same reviewer described him as “one of the most endearing antagonists I have come across.” Comparisons with Peter Cook’s devil in Bedazzled are not unreasonable.
Jonathan learns what he’s missed out on in life, what other people think and the true nature of the universe which is nothing like he would have expected it to be. At the end, having learned far more than he ever wanted to know, he finds out that it’s usually never too late to start again. Only sometimes it is: no Ebenezer Scrooge or George Bailey-esque turnaround for poor Jonathan.
I also have the paperback edition of my fourth novel, Milligan and Murphy coming out before the end of the year so I’ll need to start promoting that too soon. It’s a novel based on the writings of Samuel Beckett, specifically his novel Mercier and Camier.
What’s your favourite genre to write and what’s your favourite genre to read?
I don’t consider myself a genre writer, in fact in my naiveté I assumed that most writers weren’t. It’s only since I’ve been online that I’ve realised how mistaken I was. Until I started reviewing books on my blog I read twentieth century literary novels almost exclusively – during my twenties I went through a phase of only reading books by Nobel Prize winners. My aspirations were always to be a literary novelist which meant punching above my weight, especially at the start, but my third and fourth novels definitely fit the bill. Not so sure about the fifth.
The first two books are really unclassifiable however this quote from the author Kay Sexton talking about the first novel probably nails it:
“[T]his is one of those novels that bookshops must hate: not ‘hard’ enough to be spec fic, not ‘weird’ enough to be fantasy, too realistic for the humour section and yet too humorous to shelve easily with the lit fic. And that, I suspect is going to prove to be its charm; for those who do read it, it’s a singular take on the world, and it will either resonate with you or leave you cold. […] But I can recommend that you try it — if you like distinctive fiction that rings no bells and blows no whistles but creeps up on you with its absurdities, this book will satisfy you, as it did me.”
She did slightly better with the sequel:
“I tried to come up with one of those pithy one-liners that you are supposed to use to encapsulate a project for the movie industry (which is popularly supposed not to be able to cope with more than a sentence of information at a time) and what I decided on was Alan Bennett meets Douglas Adams! […] I loved it.”
When and why did you start writing?
I didn’t write when I was very young. Apart from one poem, in Scots, when I must have been about eight. It was about a public hanging of all things. I have no idea where that came from but I’m afraid I don’t have a copy so I can’t give you a taster. During my primary school years the poetry that we concentrated on was in the Romantic tradition, sometimes with and sometimes without the capital r, the likes of Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson, Wordsworth, Walter de la Mare, John Masefield. But when I moved to secondary school (I’d be about twelve at the time) I started submitting poems to the school magazine and every year I would get a handful published. It was here that I was first exposed to poetry that wasn’t quite so pretty, specifically the war poetry of Wilfred Owen, but the real change for me came when I was sitting in a cold classroom on a dreich Tuesday afternoon. Our teacher handed out roneoed copies of Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Mr. Bleaney’. We groaned en masse but as she started to open up the poem I found myself captivated. There were no similes, no metaphors, no alliteration, no onomatopoeia, no babbling brooks, no blokes sitting in fields full of daisies. Suddenly I realised what poetry was; all the rest was window-dressing and for the next twenty years I wrote poetry almost exclusively. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-thirties and in crisis that I thought to try something else. And that something else proved to be two novels written back-to-back in about three months.
Why do I write? That’s like asking me why I breathe. In 1997 I wrote this poem:
The Art of Breathing
To find room for the new
you have to let go of
so to learn how to write
I had to forget how
and for a time I thought
I had to write to keep
which makes such perfect sense
but only if you’re a
20 November 1997
I believe that the need to be creative is something natural, something we all have. Some people paint, some write music, others dance or crochet and others write. I define a writer as a person whose natural response to life is to write about it. I didn’t discover that need until I passed puberty but then that’s often the time when we start to come into our own as rounded individuals. I don’t write to tell stories, to entertain. I’m not interested in making a name for myself. If I found myself alone on a desert island I’d still write.
I no longer draw any distinctions between the kinds of writing I do. The material dictates the form. I began as a poet but poetry, at least the poetry that I find myself capable of writing, has its limitations. Since I completed those first two novels I’ve written another three, two plays, a ton of short stories and I’ve even dabbled with flash fiction. But in my heart of hearts I’m still a poet before anything else.
Have you released any of your poetry to the public?
I’ve only published one poetry book, This Is Not About What You Think. It’s a collection of poetry covering just over thirty years arranged in such a way that it moves from poems about childhood through to old age, a sort of seven ages of man. You can read the whole of the first section of the book on my website here along with some other poems. There are some audio and video readings here and in the right hand column of my blog there is a list of poems and stories available online that I update whenever anything new goes up anywhere.
What’s your perfect writing day like?
Being a writer these days is far harder than it used to be especially if you’re foolhardy enough to go it alone. Yes, it’s a great time to be a writer because getting into print has never been easier, but being read has never been harder for a lot of reasons. Even those who have written something that they’ve managed to get accepted by a traditional publisher are not immune and only the big names like Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy can afford to keep their distance from their adoring fans. The rest of us have to roll our sleeves up and wade out into the social networks and try to get noticed. I could be writing now but instead I’m doing this interview, my second today as it happens. Not that I’m complaining. As long as the questions are interesting I’m happy to prattle on about my writing all day long but while I’m doing that I’m not doing any new writing. So my perfect writing day would simple be to write and not have to worry about checking my inbox or Facebook or making sure that I’ve responded to all the comments on my blog or kept up with the books I have committed to review. It would be nice just to get up and have nothing to do bar write. I’ve written two lengthy blog posts about this recently, one on boredom and the other on intuition, but the thing that comes out of both of them is that a writer really needs space to be creative, literally time to be bored and when was the last time you could afford that luxury?
What’s one piece of advice you could give to other writers in this new day and age of self publishing and ebooks?
Be professional. I used to be an IT trainer a good few years back. One of my trainees once she’d finished her qualification used to help me out preparing assessment materials. She was keen and efficient but sloppy. The thing is, whenever I pointed out her mistakes, her response was always the same, “It’ll do. Give me something else.” Er, no, it wouldn’t do and I always ended up fixing her work before I could use it. Never take an “it’ll do” attitude towards any aspect of your work. Perfection is unattainable – don’t go the other way – but never settle; if it’s not good enough and you know it’s not good enough do something about it before it gets pointed out to you.
What are you planning on doing next? What else are you up to?
I’m not a big planner. Not as far as the writing goes. I know what books I’m planning to release next – after Milligan and Murphy I’m aiming to put out a collection of short stories near the end of 2012 called Making Sense – and I know what books I have to read and review before the end of the year but as for what I’m going to write next I’m just allowing nature to take its course. I have an idea that I can’t seem to be able to rid myself of but I have no clue if I’m up to the task in hand. Like most of my books I have no story but that’s not so weird: the film director Mike Leigh never starts out with a script, just a concept, and Harold Pinter would often begin with just a voice in his head – no context and maybe not even a gender – and that would be his jumping off point. I get that. When I got the idea that blossomed into Milligan and Murphy I had just crossed the St Andrews Suspension Bridge in Glasgow when I heard the words, “Milligan and Murphy were brothers,” and the rest, as they say, is history. So I’m in no rush to start my next novel or whatever it turns out to be. I’ll be living with it for a good three years – prolific I am not – and that’s a long time to be stuck flogging a dead horse. No, I’ll know when the time is right. It’s only nine months since I completed Left, my last novel.
You can find Jim’s books at the links below: