'When writing it's just you, the wall and whoever your first reader is . . .'
Peter Murphy's second novel is inspired by events from his hometown, and it covers a huge range of topics, from preaching to psychiatry - in just 250 pages
‘An epic novel in 250 pages,” is how the musician and journalist Peter Murphy describes his new novel, Shall We Gather at the River. It sounds like a brave – or foolhardy – aspiration; certainly the book is brimming over with ideas, themes, characters and esoteric information.
It contains evangelical preachers, father-son relationships, psychiatry, Middle Eastern flood myths. It also takes on one of the most difficult, delicate, painful subjects of contemporary life in Ireland and elsewhere: the occurrence of suicide clusters.
The idea for the book came when Murphy – a long-time writer for Hot Press magazine and a regular guest on RTÉ’s review show The Works – interviewed two members of the Welsh band Manic Street Preachers.
Famously, the band’s guitarist and songwriter Richey Edwards went missing in 1995, his car found abandoned near a bridge on the river Severn. The topic of suicide cycles came up in the conversation, and Murphy mentioned what had happened in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, in the winter of 2002, when a number of people drowned in the river Slaney. “Nicky Wire, the Manics’ bassist, said, ‘That’s a novel.’ And I went home and thought, Yes, it is,” Murphy says.
In the book, which has no connection to the real-life tragedies in Co Wexford, the stories of the nine fictional characters who drown are hinted at rather than fully realised. “I appreciate it’s a raw and painful subject for many people,” says Murphy, who was born in Enniscorthy. “I didn’t enter into it lightly; and I did my best to be truthful with it. Or to be emotionally truthful. Even though a certain character’s story might be addressed and dispatched within three pages, I wanted their predicament to be almost as potent as a poem. I wanted the reader to feel that they wanted more of everyone because their lives were cut short.
“All the characters have this relationship with their place. And they’re all under the spell of their environment – specifically, the river.”
Power of recorded sound
It’s a theme deep and dark enough to overwhelm most fictional narratives. But Shall We Gather at the River has all those other aspects to lighten the load. Among other things, for example, the book pays heartfelt tribute to the power of radio and recorded sound. “My whole life has probably become a homage to sound, one way or another,” Murphy says. “I grew up listening to Radio Luxembourg, having the transistor to my ear under the bedclothes.”
His story takes place in 1984, “the last retro-futuristic year”, as he puts it. “I remember playing Space Invaders, going to the cinema and seeing Videodrome and The Terminator. And a lot of the music, though it sounds dated now, was futuristic, using analogue synthesisers. So that all fed into the idea of sound: the sound of the river itself, the invisible patterns and reverberations . . . the voices in one’s head.”
True to his musical passions, Murphy has recorded a musical version of Shall We Gather at the River. He also did this with his highly praised debut novel, John the Revelator. The result is a kind of hybrid, not quite audiobook, not quite live gig, but a bit of both – and an album as well – which he still performs live with a band called The Revelator Orchestra.
“I’ve been in bands for years,” he says. “I love the performance aspect of this. When you’re writing, you don’t often get to collaborate. It’s just you and the wall and whoever your first reader is.”
He plans to develop a full-length live show based on Shall We Gather at the River by the summer, and to launch it at a literary festival – a radical idea in the book world, which, Murphy insists, is nothing like as innovative as it sounds.
“It’s a very, very old tradition. In the Middle Ages, court poets had to stand up in front of an audience. You had to be able to tell your story; you’d better be able to hold an audience. It’s just a different way of telling a story.”
Like John the Revelator, Shall We Gather at the River is full of arcane scraps of information. The main character is called Enoch O’Reilly. Enoch – as regular readers of gnostic literature will be aware – was the only human being ever to have been taken to heaven while still alive. Murphy’s Enoch O’Reilly, at one point, finds himself in the distinctly hellish environment of a carnival sideshow: “Zoetropes and Kinetoscopes and animatronic mannequins with names like Roland the Brain and Dr Kill-a-Watt.”
Where does Murphy find all this stuff? “Books,” he says.
Murphy is a voracious watcher of films, but an even more voracious reader. “I live in a farmhouse in the country with my partner, Paula, and it’s almost like some sort of theorem that has to be worked out – some sort of Alice in Wonderland spatial mystery – as to how all these damned things fit in the house.”
But everything comes in handy sooner or later. “A CD called Sermons – part of a box set called Goodbye Babylon – given to me by Jinx Lennon, the great songwriter from Dundalk, gave me firsthand experience of the power and poetry of evangelical sermons from the 1920s and 1930s. How they were structured, and the black energy of them. Genius recordings. They’re like James Brown or Jerry Lee Lewis.”
The view from the countryside
Murphy came to Dublin in his 20s, but says he’s a country boy at heart. His fiction is strongly informed by his own sense of place – and there’s nothing romantic about it. “The walk home from Enniscorthy to where I lived was about two miles, and the last stretch of it was pitch dark,” he recalls.
“All you could hear was the rustling of rats – and you’d be passing the fabled three-cornered field where such and such wandered in and never came out. Fairy forts and all that stuff. It was great fodder for the imagination. And also, it was the 1970s, and we had no television. So my parents or uncles or neighbours would still sit around and tell ghost stories. I love fables. Creepy sci-fi stories, horror stories, all that.
“I spent a lot of time knocking around with older kids from the farm next door. There’s a great line from a Tom Waits song, ‘there’s always lots of killing has to be done down on the farm’, whether it’s the elimination of pests, or traps, or accidents. It’s not some idealised vision of the countryside. It’s hard and practical and quite tough.”
In the book, the portrait of nature as malign is turned up – as the rock fraternity might put it – to 11. Is Murphy’s a black view, both of nature and of human nature?
“I don’t necessarily think it’s a dark view of the world so much as a practical, realistic one,” he says. “Maybe the Earth doesn’t like us. Maybe we’re a virus. Maybe we’ve stepped outside a state of biological co-dependence or harmony. Maybe we’re now just a malign presence on the planet, and maybe we’re going to get burnt off.
“Maybe we don’t belong here any more, in which case, it makes sense to look upon the environment as hostile.”
He pauses, looks up, grins. “Though it never was exactly sugar and spice, was it? Hurricanes and floods and things are not exactly new.”
Shall We Gather at the River by Peter Murphy is published by Faber and Faber
Playlist for a novel: What Murphy listened to while writing
Bruce Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska
“The rage in those records really moved me when I was a kid. The songs seemed to be about small places, or about being trapped – in your body, in your car, in your circumstances.”
The Who, Baba O’Riley
“The way Roger Daltrey sings, ‘It’s a teenage wasteland’. The incredible intensity between 16 and 21 – a dangerous time for anyone, but particularly for a young bull of a male. Having all that aggression, and not having an outlet for it. It’s all there in this rock’n’roll classic.”
Terry Riley, A Rainbow in Curved Air
“This is what inspired Pete Townshend to write Baba O’Riley; those beautiful recurring electro-patterns.”
Manic Street Preachers, Faster
“As mentioned, it was an interview with the band – and listening to their music – which inspired this book.”
Elvis Presley, Blue Moon
“There are two versions. This is the one without the bridge. It’s much eerier. It sounds like it was recorded on Mars. And the vocal on it is the most wraith-like, ghostly sound I’ve ever heard. What a singer.”