I shall be engaging in a number of interviews with independent authors. May you find these informative, entertaining, and perhaps even inspiring to go out and locate their books!
This interview is with author Jim Murdoch.
Dear Jim, can you offer us a little insight into who you are?
My name’s Jim Murdoch. I’m a fifty-two year old Scottish writer who lives just outside Glasgow. I’ve been writing for forty years. I wasn’t much interested in writing as a child in fact even once I hit puberty I was more interested in composing than writing. I wrote poetry for twenty years before I ever thought about prose and my first novel was written quite by accident; I just sat down to write a something and once the words got toted up, well, what do you know. It was another ten years before I had a crack at the short story format and that was about the time I also tried my hand writing plays. At heart though I am, and always will be, a poet.
What is the reason that you started writing? When did you start writing?
To be honest it was to submit something for the school magazine. I would have been twelve at the time, maybe thirteen. Why I continued after leaving school is another thing entirely. By then I’d found that writing poetry was helpful. It was a way of getting my thoughts out of my head. They were easier to cope with when written down.
Are you writing under a pen-name, do you use your own, or is your work out in both ways?
Unless one has been cursed with an awful name like Maurice Micklewhite or Marion Morrison (that would be Michael Caine and John Wayne) or have the name of some existing celebrity (there is another Stephen King writing out there from Richmond, VA who hasn’t changed his name) I can’t much see the point.
What, do you think, is your best book? And why is that?
I have written five novels, three have been published: Living with the Truth, Stranger than Fiction and Milligan and Murphy. The two unpublished novels are The More Things Change and Left. ‘Best’ is a difficult term. My best book is probably The More Things Change but I expect it to be the least commercially successful. It’s my Ulysses, my most literary of novels. I see my most popular novel being Living with the Truth. Despite being a serious novel at its core most readers find themselves enamoured by the two lead characters especially the personification of Truth.
Naturally, after the best book, what is your worst, if there is one? And why do you feel that way?
When it comes to my poems I would always favour my later work over the earlier. Not so with the novels. I think Left is my weakest book because it was a book that refused to go in the direction I first envisioned and turned into something else entirely. I think what was written was worthwhile but I would rather have written what was in my head.
How do you think your writing has changed over time? Did it change at all?
Most definitely. They say that practice makes perfect and although I’m far from perfect I am growing as a writer. In the first book I grafted in things I thought a book needed (once I realised I was indeed writing a book) whereas in my last novel I refused to include anything that I didn’t think was absolutely essential; descriptions for example are almost non-existent.
And can you say that writing has changed you?
I am not a storyteller. That has never been why I write. I write to understand myself better and, to a certain extent, once I’ve gained that understanding, the writing, be it a novel or a poem, is superfluous and could be discarded. I’m savvy enough to realise that others can also glean something from my writing which is why I don’t toss my work straight in the bin.
What is the most daring thing you ever did or tried in your writing? In which book did that happen?
The More Things Change begins in the third person, switches to the first and ends completely in dialogue. I wasn’t copying Joyce when I did that but it’s partly why I call the book my Ulysses. There was also a long gap in the middle of writing the book and so when the second part begins my voice has completely changed; it’s what was needed but I think it will give most readers a jolt.
And, if your feel up to it, what is the most daring thing you ever did in your life? Feel free to skip this one, not everybody is up to revealing much about themselves…
I’m not an especially daring person but there comes a time when we all have to make hard decisions and about fifteen years ago I turned my back completely on my old life, walked away and never looked back. Ten years after that I felt it was time—finally—to start living like a writer and by that I mean having writing as the focus of my life. I wish I’d done that sooner but then there are a lot of things I wish I’d done sooner.
Is there something you still want to have a go at, in your writing life? Is there a challenge you envision that’s worth pursuing?
Only the next book. Every book has been different from the last. Every book has been a challenge. I am pottering around with what I hope will be my sixth novel and it’s going to be nothing like the other five. I have no desire though to write a musical or a film script. If all I wrote were poems from now till the day I died I’d be content.
Has your writing ever been compared to the writing of another (perhaps even famous) writer/author? And do you like that?
I’ve been compared to Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Charles Dickens and Samuel Beckett. I’m not like any of them although I can see why the people said what they said. I never set out to imitate or emulate.
Do you have one or two favourite books (written by someone else)? If so, what are they, and why do they appeal to you so much?
Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse has been a long-time favourite and I love the film too. If I was to compare myself to anyone it would be him. I read this book at the same time as The Catcher in the Rye and I’ve always thought of it as the British equivalent, quite unfairly, as they’re more different than they are similar. I related very strongly to Billy Fisher and still do; the last time I watched the film it had me tearing up at the end. Plus any work that can succeed as a stage play, a novel, a television series, a film and a musical has to have something going for it.
Richard Brautigan is a great favourite although I’d be hard pushed to pick a favourite. I think his last novel, So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away is terribly underappreciated. Brautigan was, like me, a poet who happened to write prose. No one has ever written books that contained so much imagery and yet were so easy to read. I admire him for the simplicity of his prose and I would love to have the confidence to strip back my writing even more than I have done.
Which book you ever read would you label as least readable book, so far? Feel free to comment as liberally as you want to the why.
I usually finish most books I start. I can think of three I never managed to complete: Dangling Man by Saul Bellow, Gertrude by Hermann Hesse and the second volume of Don Quixote. I can remember very little about any of them. I’m a big fan of Samuel Beckett and own and have read everything he’s ever written. If you can cope with him most other writers are easy peasy.
Is there a book that you know of that should never have been published, in your opinion?
Probably not. There is an audience for most things. Even a book like Mein Kampf. All I ever read of it was the first couple of pages but that was enough to underline what I knew already about Hitler. There’s a book called 10 Books That Screwed Up the World (And 5 Others That Didn’t Help) which does what it says on the cover and, yes, it does include Mein Kampf, but I can’t see that any of the fifteen was so bad that it should never have been published. There are gullible people out there who will believe anything but mostly the public is able to read in between the lines and know then they’re either being lied to or the author has no idea what he’s on about.
That said I’m sure if there’s probably an Idiot’s Guide to Germ Warfare out there that might change my mind.
Is there a writer that you would love to co-write a book with? And what genre would you like to write in then? Something you’re familiar with?
No. Absolutely not. I hate artists who have a team of helpers and then only they get the credit; they’re not artists, they’re designers. Writing is a solitary occupation. I just couldn’t cope. I take full responsibility for every word I write. Having an editor screen the work is another thing entirely because I would expect her only to pick up things I would have fixed myself.
Let’s see… is there something in the realm of ‘wise words’ you once picked up that you would like to share? This does not have to be limited to writing, there is more to life than writing. At least, I heard there is.
A while ago I asked some friends to provide some quotes from their own work, the kind of things you might like to see in The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations and only one got back to me with anything. I could provide a dozen without batting an eye in fact if you go to my website there’s one on every page. I think this is because of the aphoristic nature of my poetry that trickles over into my prose. For example, in The More Things Change I write: “Writers don’t have ordinary lives; they have ongoing research.” Here’s a poem about writing:
READER PLEASE SUPPLY MEANING
Writers are all liars. We all are.
But at least they are honest liars.
They write down those necessary lies,
the kind that move men to leaps of faith
or excuse us when we fail to jump.
In the end it doesn’t matter that
they let us down in the cruellest ways.
August 18, 1996
And as a last question, what is cooking with you? What’s your work in progress? Is there a tip of a veil that you can lift for us?
I don’t like talking about works in progress. I virtually never share anything with anyone, not even my wife. Before I handed my last novel to her to read all she knew about it was that it was called Left and that it was about a woman going through her father’s things after his death. And that was it.
The simple fact is the book changed as I worked on it and, as I’ve said, what I ended up writing is not what I set out to write. What I’m pottering around with at the moment is the subject of memory loss. People say write about what you know—usually people who know nothing about writing—but it’s probably better advice to say to someone that they should write about what they care about. I have a lot of problems with my memory both short and long term. It’s something that preoccupies and worries me and so that’s what I find myself writing about. How it will all come together I do not know.
If there is anything else you would like to share, for example a thought, some promotion for your book(s), then here’s your chance!
I’m always keen to promote my writing. I have, as I said, three novels out as well as a collection of poetry entitled This Is Not About What You Think which has poems covering about thirty years. My latest book is the one I’m pushing at the moment. It’s called Milligan and Murphy and is about two layabouts, forty years old and still living with their mother, who end up running away from home by accident. It was inspired by Samuel Beckett’s early novella Mercier and Camier and telling people that seems to have put them off because they assume that they’ll need to know a lot about Beckett to get it which is rubbish; you don’t need to know a lot about Dante to get Beckett but it certainly won’t hurt and it’s the same with my book. On one level it’s a metafiction about the relationship between a writer and his characters while at the same time it’s just a humorous novel about a bunch of Irish eccentrics. If anyone fancies a review copy all they need do it get in touch.
Thank you,Jim, for your time, and for sharing your words and your poem with us!