Thursday, 27 October 2011

Words with... Jim Murdoch

Thanks to Jim Murdoch for this interview

How long have you been writing?

Forty years. I started with poetry when I was twelve. I was sixteen when I started to see those poems in print, and I’ve continued to write and publish poetry ever since. I wrote my first two novels in my early thirties, back to back. I had no aspirations of being a novelist – I didn’t even write short stories at the time – but I hadn’t written a poem in three years and thought that I was done pretending to be a writer. Then one day, in the middle of a serious bout of depression of all things, I sat down and just started writing with no idea where it was going. A couple of weeks later I had the draft of my first novel done.

Do you have a day job or do you write for a living?

For most of my life I have had the kind of job that you couldn't just leave in the office, and so all my writing was done in the evenings and at weekends, and it’s surprising just how much one can get done in that time. Nowadays I stay at home to look after my wife. To be fair, at the moment she doesn’t need a lot of care and attention, and so effectively I’m a full-time writer these days.

What do you feel is the ideal recipe for a good novel/story/poem?

My poems are nothing like my stories and my stories are nothing like my novels. Certainly, as far as prose goes I’m with Fitzgerald: “Character is plot, plot is character.” On the whole, though, I’m basically opposed to anyone who says there is an ideal anything or a certain way you should be doing things. There are always exceptions. Look at the current establishment, whether that be writers, artists. musicians or even comedians – a few years ago, Michael Palin CBE FRGS was best known as a member of the groundbreaking comedy team Monty Python and Roger Daltrey CBE was hoping he would die before he got old. New gets old very quickly. Moulds get broken only to be replaced by newer moulds.

What/who inspired you to write and still inspires you?

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. 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 and all the rest was window-dressing. It was nothing less than an epiphany. 

Later I discovered William Carlos Williams, Richard Brautigan, Alan Bennett and Samuel Beckett. 

Sadly, most of my heroes, for want of a better term, are now dead and I’m afraid there aren’t many living writers whose work I would buy on its day of release. This doesn’t mean there aren’t many great writers still alive, but none who have had the same effect on me as those listed above.

I dislike the term ‘inspiration’ because I feel it tends to get romanticised – needless to say I’m not fond of the term ‘muse’ either. As far as I’m concerned, inspiration is nothing more than a good idea, plain and simple, and if you don’t have a good idea then run with any ol’ idea.

What books have you written? Do you stick to one genre?

I have written five novels: Living with the Truth and its sequel, Stranger than Fiction, The More Things Change, Milligan and Murphy, and Left

I like to think of myself as a literary author and I define ‘literary fiction’ as the kind of writing where how something is written is more important than what is being said. Now I have seen some authors who have gone too far and produced books that are essentially unreadable, and I don’t see the point to that. At the same time I’m not especially interested in just telling a story: books that are simply entertainment irritate me. I like to make my readers think.

I gave up a long time ago trying to categorise my books. Living with the Truth includes the character of Truth, who literally is the personification of truth, but other than that everything takes place in the real world. So, yes, in absolute strictness it’s a fantasy novel, but I doubt most people who are fans of that genre would class it as such. The author Kay Sexton described it as follows:

“In all, this 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…”

Milligan and Murphy is actually a metafiction. Left is essentially a mystery in its structure, but I can guarantee that lovers of Agatha Christie’s mysteries will probably be very disappointed by my approach to the problem.

How long did it take you to write your book/s?

I’ve written five novels in about eighteen years so we’re talking about four years apiece on average. Left took longer because I fell ill in the middle of it and didn’t touch it for two years. There was also a two-year break in the writing of The More Things Change, which I filled writing a collection of themed short stories.

Do you have any works in progress?

Probably the most honest answer to that is: I don’t know. I know a lot of writers feel guilty if they’re not scribbling away on a scrap of paper or rattling away on a keyboard, as if one can only be a writer when engaged in the physical act of recording words, but I’ve started to appreciate the need to not write, to allow ideas to gestate and see what comes to the surface naturally. That doesn’t mean I’m not busy. My blog certainly keeps me occupied. If you’ve not read my blog before, I do a lot of in-depth book reviews and literary articles, essays if you will. There is always new stuff to learn and so I pick a topic, research it and write about it. I average about 1000 words a day.

Which character from your books do you like most / are most like?

I don’t actually like many of the characters I write. Most of them aren’t especially likeable. There are no evil bastards or anything like that, but I tend to focus on rather sad individuals, disappointed with themselves and by life, whose lives I then proceed to turn upside down. And the thing I’ve noted is just how much people will end up rooting for the underdog. No one ever finished reading my first two novels hating Jonathan Payne; in fact the first person who ever read the novel said to me, “How dare you…” when she saw what I did to him at the end of the first book. She was genuinely outraged on the character’s behalf and you can’t ignore a reaction like that. 

To be fair though it’s hard not to like Truth. He’s exactly what it says on the tin, completely honest. Sometimes he comes across as cruel or flippant, but he’s never less than honest. He’s a bit like Data or Mork – he states things as he sees them. The difference is that he never misinterprets things: a spade is always a spade. One reviewer, the Irish playwright Ken Armstrong, called him “an 'Enfant Terrible' of quips, verbal side-swipes and non-sequiturs”.
As for which character I’m most like, let me refer to what Ken had to say in the same review:

When Lady Diana gave her famous doe-eyed interview to BBC reporter Martin Bashir on the 20th November 1995, she indicated that '…there were three of us in this marriage'. In a somewhat similar fashion, there are also three people in this novel.

That 'third man' is everywhere, he's lurking behind the bookshelves, at the next table in the restaurant, across the aisle on the train.

That 'Third Man' is the writer, Jim.

Nowadays it seems that every single novel in the world requires the writer to be like a puppeteer, manipulating the characters quietly from behind or beneath, never showing himself or taking an active part.

Jim shows himself all over the place in his writing. He cannot resist providing knowing commentary on the proceedings as they proceed. If there's a good cultural reference to be utilised and the characters of the book can't handle it, never fear, Jim will get it in there himself.

And this is by no means a criticism, in fact, I bloody love it. By deliberately putting himself forward as a succinct personality within his own book, Jim puts himself in the company of some of the writers I treasure the most – those who have fearlessly done the same. Writers like Flann O'Brien, Tom Robbins and Spike Milligan. These men are present within their own books like puppeteers who have stood up from behind the striped curtain to play out in public with their own little Punch and Judy dolls. It isn't easy to carry off – you need a distinctive voice for a start – but Jim does it admirably well. In fact, I would go so far as to say, "That's the way to do it!"

Where and when do you write? Do you have set times during which you write or is it just when the mood takes you?

I am one of those lucky writers who can write anywhere. I can work on a computer or I can write on paper. I have an office – I always  wanted an office, but since my wife bought me my first laptop I’ve taken to working in the living room with her. I have a kind of mini-office set-up in the alcove by the front window. But I have written everywhere.

Nowadays I have a more structured life, but I’m still well aware of how a writer is not always as much in control of the writing process as he’d like to think he is, and my wife understands completely if I say I have to get out of bed and write. Poetry, however, I don’t force. Which means I don’t write a lot of it, but I don’t have the same passions I had when I was a teenager. I write when I have something to say.

And it’s a bit like that with the books too. I’m not interested in telling stories. I’m interested in making points. I’ve always said, “A book can live without a plot but it can’t without a point”. I don’t always know what the point of the book is when I start it – the whole point to the writing for me is to find the words to make that point – but once I’ve done it everything falls into place. In Milligan and Murphy this was when an old priest tells them that there are no reasons for unreasonable things. Once he said that (or I made him say that) I knew what the book was about.

Have you ever based a character on someone from real life? Has the person guessed?

Yes and no. I borrow characters from real life all the time, a bit from this one, a bit from that, but I’ve never gone so far as to describe anyone real or incorporate real events. An example: in Milligan and Murphy, Milligan wakes up after a night of heavy drinking:

“Murphy? Is that you?”
“Of course it bloody well is.”
“Can you move?”
“I don’t know. Can’t you?”
“I think my head’s been nailed to the floor.”
“Don’t be daft, man. Who’d do a thing like that?”
“That I have no idea. Will you have a look?”
“I don’t think I can, Murphy.”
“Why not?”
“I think they did the same to me.”

I had a friend once called Tom who told me a story about his father’s first experience of tequila. When he woke up in the morning he was convinced his head had been nailed to the floor. I would imagine his dad is now dead so that would leave just one person out there who might make the connection.

How do you find the marketing experience? Any advice for other writers? Do you use a blog or twitter, etc?

Marketing is hard. We’re always being told about the potential audience there is out there, but how do you make contact? The internet promises much but it has its limitations. It’s like a dictionary. A dictionary is a wonderful thing if you know the word you want to look up. And so if you want to see if Stephen King or Ian McEwan has a new book out then it takes a matter of seconds. But what about Douglas Adams? We know he’s dead so he won’t be writing any more books and it doesn’t look as if Sir Terry Pratchett will be around for an awful lot longer. What are you going to do when you’ve read all their books? You could try typing 'reminds me of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett' into Google and you’d get Die Schildkroten, an English major at a public university in California, British novelist Jasper Fforde and me:

Murdoch's writing style reminds me of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett's humour but at the same time it has its own sense of quirkinessBCF Book Reviews

That means there are thousands of readers out there who stand an above average chance of actually liking one or two of my books, but they don’t know me and I don’t know them.

I have no quick tricks up my sleeve, nothing that you won’t read elsewhere, and most of it is common sense anyway. The thing is to be prepared for the long haul and keep at it. This is me keeping at it right now.

One day you’re walking in the forest and you bump into an alien librarian from Mars. He wants five book recommendations from you…

When my wife – who’s an American by the way – and I were getting to know each other we tried this, making up Top Tens and I suck at it. My Top Tens are usually about twenty-five long and counting. But I’ll give it a go. These are not my favourite books:

·         Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
·         Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
·         One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
·         Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
·         Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A Heinlein

Some of your fave things: Animal? Food? Drink? Film? Colour? Band? Song? Place to chill out?

Animal – cat.
Food – chocolate.
Drink – raspberry milkshake (banana at a push).
Film The Man Who Loved Women (the Truffaut original), Solaris (the Tarkovsky original), Alien, Blade Runner, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and pretty much any Woody Allen film between 1969 and 1999, although his recent films see him back on track.
Colour – green.
Band – Pink Floyd, Marillion (the Fish years especially), Tangerine Dream (I have 60+ albums), The Monkeys, Velvet Underground, Deep Purple, Blondie, Slade, and I could provide lists far longer for favourite solo artist and favourite classical composer.
Song Maria by Blondie, Freaks by Marillion, No More Heroes by The Stranglers, Everybody Knows by Leonard Cohen, Surfs Up by Jim Steinman, Wild Wood by Paul Weller, Complex by Gary Numan, Hurt by Johnny Cash, Will You’ by Hazel O’Connor, The Passenger by Iggy Pop, Silent All These Years by Tori Amos, Clocks by Coldplay, Why Does It Always Rain on Me by Travis… I mean, seriously, I could go on and on and on, and I could provide lists every bit as long for favourite film score and favourite album.
Place to chill out – in front of the TV.

Which book do you wish you had written?

Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse. It was later adapted into a play, a film, a musical and a TV series, and works every time.

What other hobbies/interests do you have or has writing taken over?

Basically these days I write until I can’t write any more and then watch TV until bed. TV gets a lot of stick. I find it endlessly stimulating.

What would you like to achieve in the next five years?

A sixth novel. I’d also like to be getting known a bit by then. Maybe sell a few books. I am in no rush. These things take time.

If you won the Lotto, what would you do with all it?

Start a publishing company. I know some people think that in a few years we won’t need these, but I’m not so sure. There will always be writers out there whose singular talent is writing, not marketing or editing or cover design. I would like to find writers like that and support them. Oh, and I’d concentrate on shorter works like novellas and short story collections, too long neglected.

And now for the creative bit. Please complete this story in 100 words or less…

There was a young frog called Kipper…
“I’m sorry?”
“There was a young frog called Kipper.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought you said.”
“Do you not think I’m a bit old for stories about frogs?”
“Frogs are interesting.”
“Not to me.”
“Since when?”
“Oh, I dunno, since I maybe turned twenty-three.”
“So you don’t want to hear about Kipper?”
“Not especially.”
“Did I mention he was a Jedi frog?”
“Come again?”
“A Jedi frog.”
“There’s no such thing.”
“As Jedis or Jedi frogs?”
“Either. Neither.”
“You’re just no fun.”
“Oh, yes I am.”
“…………….I’m not going there.”

Lastly, what question do you wish I'd asked and, of course, what is the answer?

Why are you a writer?

A writer is a person whose natural response to life is to write about it. At least that’s how I define it. I’m a writer because that’s what I do naturally. It’s no different to sleeping or eating or having a pee as far as I’m concerned. I get the urge to write, I write and I feel better afterwards. The actual writing itself can be a bit of a chore at times, but that doesn’t mean it’s not natural.




  1. Good to hear you again, Jim, in the context of this interview. Thanks, Vickie. But this time I noticed Jim, and I'm sensitive to these things, apart from your wife, all your heroes are men.

    Every book you mention here, apart from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, (unless I missed one ) was written by a man. Where are the rest of the writing women?

    Otherwise, I enjoyed your ideas and I particularly appreciate your insistence that we should avoid the absolutes.

  2. It is a valid point and one that I would like to draw to the attention of the educational establishments I’ve attended over the years. I’m pretty sure that I never read a book or a poem, or saw a play that was written by a woman until I had left school. I certainly never avoid work by women. If the subject matter interests me I don’t care who wrote it. I have a large collection of classical music by women composers but the sad thing is there are simply not that many available. When I was at school I don’t think we were ever introduced to any female composers. I knew of Elizabeth Maconchy, Thea Musgrave and Elisabeth Lutyens – they were the three major British female composers as far I was aware at the time – but I never heard anything by any of them until fairly recently. I have one CD by Maconchy – one! I don’t have to tell you how that compares to my collections by Vaughan Williams, Holst, Britten, Bax, Alwyn, Arnold, Elgar, Walton, Rubbra and Tippett. I have a few compilation albums with the odd track – Ethel Smyth’s, The Wreckers is about the only thing by her that you’ll hear nowadays – and that’s where I think my Musgrave and Lutyens live. I don’t know if you saw the comment I made on Facebook recently about the composer Doreen Carwithen who I’d just discovered but I was appalled that I’d managed to get to the age of fifty-two and never realising she existed. She was another like Clara Schumann and Imogen Holst whose ability got overshadowed by a male; in Carwithen’s case it was her husband, William Alwyn. Things are changing but males still dominate. There aren’t many female composers out there with a decent back catalogue. Rachel Portman, the soundtrack composer, is one I’m fond of, and I have a few of her soundtracks but to be totally honest the only big name I can think of is Sofia Gubaidulina – you can buy a lot of her stuff. The only Australian female composers I have complete albums by are Elena Kats-Chernin and Miriam Hyde.

    Female writers have certainly fared better than female composers certainly from the 18th century on – with the sole exception of the 12th century Hildegard of Bingen I can’t name a single female composer prior to 1831 – but the authors I read when I was young were the authors I read about. People wrote about Beckett and Kafka and so I read Beckett and Kafka. I never consiously avoided Woolf but she was about the only major modern female writer I could say I was aware of. Nowadays I’m trying to play catch-up but there is just so much out there that I haven’t read. If I live to 75 and read a book a week I have time for about 1200 before I die. That’s a sobering thought.

    I don’t know if you noticed though, in Living with the Truth I do tip my hat to at least one female writer, Jeanette Winterson. Carrie has all her books. I’ve read some and what I’ve read I’ve enjoyed. Reading her always makes me want to write.


Thanks for commenting - have a kitty cool day! :)