Writing Walking on Ripples, by David Murphy
The latest entry in the well-stocked category of fishing books in the great literary or romantic tradition – reflective, speculative, full of allegory, memory and metaphor
David Murphy: Walking on Ripples is that rare creature: a fiction-memoir, a daring blend of fact and award-winning invention, a hybrid rarely seen and seldom caught
Walking on Ripples began life as a simple article based on fishing abroad – Spain, Portugal, Canary Islands and further afield (Florida, Mauritius) – the idea being to sell it to somewhere like Gray’s Sporting Journal. But at 4,000 words it was way too long for magazine publication.
Undaunted, the author began another article set in his favourite Irish location: Donegal. This article is divided into three sections: sea, rivers and – the jewel in the crown of Donegal – secret mountain loughs where trout are small and taste of salmon. Another 4,000 words. This last segment leads seamlessly into short fiction, a story based on fishing a Donegal lough, which won an award for short stories many moons ago.
Suddenly, the author had more than 10,000 words – three chapters, a quarter of a book! The rest of the text suggested itself with ease: stories of fish caught elsewhere in many parts of Ireland. Waterford features heavily because the author has a holiday home there. So does Cork as it’s where he’s from. The book did not take long to write, helped by the fact that 40 per cent of it was already in existence in the shape of five short stories which make up almost half of the 11 chapters in the book.
So what do we have? Eleven chapters: five totally invented but based on fishing or other water-related subjects. The other six are factual and true: and about angling. General readers will enjoy this evocative look at the world down the length of a fishing rod, with a frequent touch of humour thrown in. In true fishing tradition, one of the six factual chapters contains a tall tale: an exaggerated catch.
So what kind of book, exactly, are we talking about?
Walking on Ripples is the latest entry in the well-stocked category of fishing books in the great literary or “romantic fishing” tradition. In other words, it’s not a how-to manual about angling, it’s a fishing book in a well established line – reflective, speculative, full of allegory, memory and metaphor. Many writers have produced works like this, including Chris Yates, Thomas McGuane and John Gierach, to name a few. The best known is Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. What makes Walking on Ripples different, however, is the fact that five of the 11 chapters are entirely fictional.
There are stories about a kayaker who is a child murderer; an angler who fishes not for fish, but for souls of those who have taken their own lives; the story of a fisherman whose sad and tragic disintegration becomes evident through his fishing diary. There’s a story about a Stone Age tribe discovering ocean tides for the first time, resulting in the birth of a whole new religion. For good measure there’s a story about a sentient goldfish, a fish with genuine human feelings – what more could you want? There’s also a ghost story so it’s quite a blend, in places not a particularly light read, but the darkness adds to the mix. Overall, what makes the book work is that all chapters – fiction and non-fiction – are unified by this great watery theme running throughout. Everything is linked, the real and imagined, making for a smooth read.
Of course, inter-linking factual chapters with fictional ones (the short stories) is problematic. The book defies labelling. No easy classification exists to accommodate its pages. Because of this many publishers said no before David Givens of Liffey Press said yes in April 2014. The book appeared six months later. So how do we label it then? Do we shelve it under Fact or Fiction? Sport or Non-Fiction or Literature? One major Irish chain has got it right in their shops, I believe, by filing it under Irish Biography. Other shops struggle. An enquiry about the book in a well-known Dublin bookshop was met with the response that it was in the Sport section. A quick search under A for Angling led to no success until a quick change of tack revealed its discovery not under A for Angling but under F for Fishing! Not an easy catch, then.
Walking on Ripples is challenging. The reader has to concentrate to follow it correctly, to know what’s fact from fiction. Reference is made at the end of each factual chapter to the fact that the chapter that follows is entirely made up. This is made clear in the text, but may take only a few lines, so if the reader blinks and misses it they’ll scratch their head and wonder what the hell is going on!
Happily, factual chapters mix well with fictional ones and act as a unifying force to bind the whole into a unit greater than the sum of the parts. Walking on Ripples is that rare creature: a fiction-memoir, a daring blend of fact and award-winning invention, a hybrid rarely seen and seldom caught. To describe it simply as personal memoir would not do justice. The main character acts as narrator, and fishing is the narrative device to hold it all together.
The final chapter blurs the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction. As Walking on Ripples nears its conclusion it’s hard to tell what is factual and what is invented because everything is told through the viewpoint of the narrator. Here’s a flavour: “Some fishermen thrive on numbers. Good luck to them. That’s what floats their boat. Give me an hour, or two or even three, with nothing. Then one little fish to save the day. Give this to me any time, more fun than the relentless reeling in of bucket loads of suicidal fish. Grant me time to take a break from casting, to sit on flat rocks and contemplate the land, the water, the birds that fly and cartwheel in overhead sky ... The inhaling of things that matter, like smell of salt spray; tang of it in my nostrils of a windy day when I stand thirty feet up to be truly safe from breakers smashing into the rocks beneath, a day when my eyes witness but refuse to believe what happens next.”
It’s a life story told through an obsession.
And now that story is available in a wonderfully presented package (a book with wings!) from all good bookshops or from the Liffey Press.