'When writing it's just you, the wall and whoever your first reader is . . .'
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.