Wednesday, May 11, 2016

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Michael Murray

When Michael Murray was a child he could fly. Now that he is a man, a man who cannot grow a beard, he rides a bicycle, as riding a bicycle is the way that people in the city live. Michael is of the city. He has won The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest and is so good-natured that he was once mistaken for a missionary while strolling the streets of a small Cuban city.

He currently lives in Toronto where he works as a journalist and creative writer. Michael has many talents, some of which include floor hockey, being a genius ad guy and blogger, as well as totally dominating social media and his fantasy sports leagues.

He has written for the National Post, the Globe and Mail, the Ottawa Citizen, Hazlitt Magazine, CBC Radio, Reader’s Digest, The Grid, The Toast, and thousands of other prestigious publications and companies that pay obscene sums of money.

He has a book coming out in the spring of 2016 called, A Van Full of Girls, published by Insomniac Press.

His Blog has been studied in North Korea and read by Ryan Gosling.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

A Van Full of Girls will be my first published book, and I imagined that this event would envelope me like a beautiful, validating cloud, and lifting me up, I would forever forth float forward through the world, anointed and wonderfully fragrant, but no. It's been nothing like that, more like getting on a bus and taking that bus to another bus stop where there, I wait for another bus, slightly worried that I lost my transfer along the way.

My first novel, which is unpublished for reasons both prosaic and thrilling, was a collaborative work, written during a period when I had cancer, and it was a truly transformative experience. It was falling out of one thing and into another, a wholly immersive experience that was shared—a little bit like binge watching a TV show that only the two of you know about. It was having a great and romantic secret, and it was very validating.

2 - How did you come to journalism first, as opposed to, say, fiction or poetry?

Poetry is hard. It's for scientists and masters. Way too hard for the likes of me. Fiction, the idea of fiction, was vast. Creating a plot? A coherent narrative? Are you kidding me? I wrote in bars to give myself something to do while drinking, but as fate would have it, one day I submitted something—it was on why we watch the Academy Awards—to the Ottawa Citizen and it was accepted. Presto! Just like that! I wrote a few more for them, and eventually a position opened up (TV critic, sort of) and they asked me if I would like to do that, so I did. I have thank Peter Simpson for that, as I had zero journalistic credentials and have never thought of myself as a journalist, as I'm sure nobody else does either.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I write quickly, like a mongoose strikes. I keep very few notes (I do keep them for journalism or observational pieces), and actually do my thinking as I write. Writing is how I think, I guess, it's how I work things out, and so it always takes place on the page. My first drafts are very, very close to the final draft and I type very loudly, as if I am damn well committed to whatever I am typing. The noise actually makes my wife angry.

4 - Where does a work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I am very much a writer of short pieces that might become something longer. The truth is, and this applies to film and most any medium, I am not that interested in narrative. I never care who the killer is. You can shower me with spoilers. I am solely interested with how something feels at the time, at the cinema of prose and don't much care about it whether it resolves particular questions or moves the reader from point A to B to C and so on.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I have only done one public reading in my life, beyond clumsy wedding speeches, that is. I felt kind of stupid doing it, although as I am excitable, I also enjoyed talking with my hands.  My feeling would be that readings are more for the author than the audience. They're about creating a tiny aura of celebrity, and they rarely add anything to the experience of poetry or prose, which are designed for the most part, to be read alone. When I'm listening to a reading, I always have a hard time keeping track of what's going on, and after a few poems fatigue has set in. That's a personal tic, though, and I must say, I very much enjoy those who are really good at it and can control a room, but most can't, and so it's usually awkward for everybody concerned, like suddenly seeing one another in a thong.

Ideally, a reading or performance would have nothing to do with the particular work that's being sold. You might all go bowling or sing a Bowie song, something spontaneous and interactive, just about anything that breaks down the reader/audience dynamic. 

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I think that the way people are communicating is changing very rapidly, as is the role of literature. Clinging to the decaying belief that the novel is the greatest, most prestigious expression of artistic achievement is absurd, damaging, even. We communicate in a much more visual, almost hieroglyphic way, digesting things in smaller and smaller installments. All of media are being combined, and I think work should reflect that, that artists should take advantage of it rather then feel confined by whatever the traditional structures of their form were.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think a writer is a canary in a coal mine, an entity that articulates what everybody is thinking or feeling, crystallizing a cultural sentiment, so to speak. How they do it is immaterial. It could be a graphic novel, a poem, a TV show, newspaper column or video game. I mean to say by this, that for me an author is somebody who must work in many media, or at least think in many media. A conceptual artist who works with words?

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I am horrible at spelling and grammar, so from that point of view I find them essential. However, the editor serves an institution rather than an individual (Well, they try to strike that noble balance), and are looking to best fulfill the duties of their job, not the desires of the author. There will always be that friction. That being said, editors are awfully nice and smart people who see things you wouldn't see, hear things you didn't intend, and can be a tremendous, inconceivable benefit.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

When you go out each day, expect to like the people you meet, expect them to like you, and try to create  light rather than consume it.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (journalism/non-fiction to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

It's very easy for me to move between the realms because I've always combined them. As a journalist I was never reporting fact, but opinion, and I always wanted to couch that opinion in a fictional, quotidian kind of setting. So, I would write about the experience of watching a TV show rather than just the TV show, so the journalism is found within the fictional shell, if that makes any sense.

Journalism, such as it is, is changing like mad, too, and it has never been an objective, flat presentation of an unaltered truth, but has been filtered through many, many lenses. I remember David Eggers writing, “The truth is round, not two-sided,” and this is very important to remember at all times, especially when approaching something of a journalistic nature. Journalism is a curated point of view, and sometimes it's propaganda or advertisement. I trust the distinctive voices and documentary/conversational style of podcast more than I do most of the traditional media forms we grew up with.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you -even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I get up around ten in the morning and sit at my desk looking out the window. I drink green tea because I read somewhere it's healthy. I am mostly wasting time on Facebook playing WordCrack and Lexulous, but I often get some writing done in there. This goes on for an hour or two, and then when Jones (my six-month old boy) and my wife get up from their nap, the day explodes into a million shining directions. I then might write late at night when everybody is back in bed, or in the older days, bars. For whatever reason, perhaps not wanting to appear needy or desperate, bars focused me like nothing else and I always got a tremendous amount of work done there, at least for the first 90 minutes.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

As if!

I just stop, I think. Move on to something else (unless I am on a deadline in which case it's just grind away), and then return to it several hours or a day later. I find getting out into the world and fleeing social media helps. The world, and the people in it, are crazy, and when you step outside all sorts of weird and lovely and impossible stuff is going to happen to you—it hugely influences everything I write.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Prime rib of beef roasting in the oven.

That's always been my favourite dinner, and when I returned to Ottawa from university to visit my family, they would always cook that for me and it would be the first thing I smelled when I opened their front door—and it was then that I knew I was safe and at home.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I disagree with David W. McFadden. Books come from everything, and yes, absolutely everything influences what I do. Imagine what a dry and loveless place it would be if literature only came from existing literature. Novels are a niche art form, and it's more appropriate now to say that books come from visual art or virtual reality or the theatre of life. I mean, c'mon!  What a dry and loveless place it would be if books only came from books. I'm all for intermarriage!! Let's strengthen the literary gene pool! And really, everybody knows that books came from drama, right? Didn't everybody's grade 10 English teacher tell them that while waving Shakespeare or Sophocles about?

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I am not going to list just writers, because writers are probably not the major influence on my work. Let's say Nick Cave, Terrence Malick, Garry Winogrand, Dave Eggers, Tom Hardy (actor!), Raquel Welch, Battle of the Network Stars, Podcasts like Home of the Brave or On Being, Joan Didion, the Coen Brothers, Tina Fey, Mallory Ortberg, raccoons.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I would like for the Montreal Expos to return to existence, and I would like my little family to move to Montreal where we had season's tickets and attend every ball game for one magical summer. Also, a blue routes tour through the US, including a visit to Dollywood.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I would have very much liked to have been a baseball player, and then later in life a noble detective, like Magnum P.I. If I had not fallen into writing, I would probably be unhappily and bitterly working in the service industry, or unhappily and bitterly trying to finish a PHD which would never, ever be finished.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I was drawn to writing at a young age, and I think it became a means of seduction and expression. I could never attract the pretty girl with my looks or tight spiral, so I wrote to her, employing an age old tactic of making the invisible visible.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I haven't read a book since the internet emerged into the world. I'm completely serious by the way. It's been said that reading is a shield we use to protect us against loneliness, which makes some sense to me, and if that is the case, once the internet came along I was never alone. There was always somebody to talk to, some life to participate in or observe, and I began to consume media through that apparatus. Much has been lost through this, but unimaginable gains have been made, too.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a collaborative novel about love and illness, It will change the world.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

1 comment:

Michael Murray said...

I forgot to answer the question that was the most fun!

What is my favourite movie?

The Thin Red Line by Terrence Malick. It is a stunningly beautiful meditation on mortality and morality, I think, buried in a long, plotless war film. I found it utterly mesmerizing and completely beautiful, but it isn't for everybody. As I like lists as much, if not more, than the next person, I am compiling a little list ( which I encourage anybody reading to do, too!) for my own amusement.

Mulholland Drive
Dead Man
Out of Sight
Galaxy Quest
Project Grizzly/Grizzly Man
Die Hard
Wings of Desire
The Fantastic Mr. Fox