Writing of Revelations
INTERVIEW:His first novel, ‘ John the Revelator’, is generating quite a buzz among Ireland’s literary establishment, but ‘ Hot Press’journalist Peter Murphy is happy to position himself on the outside, writes C atherine Cleary
THERE IS A SMALL grove of laurel trees by a pond on the outskirts of Enniscorthy in Co Wexford. Underfoot are dry brown leaves, overhead a dome of branches. Peter Murphy stands here remembering how he sat as a 10-year-old boy with his bicycle beside him. Across the swamp through the treetops he could just make out the backs of brontosaurs. We are on a short tour of the ordinary and secret places in the Wexford landscape that inspired and appear in Murphy’s novel John the Revelator. The debut novel is the product of eight years of writing, a workshop formed by fluke and Murphy’s iron determination to produce something worthwhile before the chance passed him by.
His book deal is stellar for a first novel. It will see the story of small-town teenager John Devine and his mother Lily translated into German as well as being sold in Australia, the US and Britain. The Hot Press journalist had the cover design from the book tattooed on one shoulder to mark his 40th birthday last year. He greets his success with a mixture of delight and relief.
Murphy is a soft-spoken man with regulation rock’n’roll hair and black waistcoat. It is not difficult to picture the foppish teen he remembers being, who “thanks to the grace of people here” was not beaten up regularly on the steep streets of Enniscorthy. His accent is not a Wexford one, though he’s been told he reverts back to it when reading from his book. He takes the kind of care with his words that comes from knowing how things look in print.
Growing up as the youngest of five in a cottage on the outskirts of the town, Murphy had a childhood of rambling and reading. His mother got rid of their television when he was eight or nine. “So all you could do was read and listen to music. I used to venture into the crypt of my big brother’s room and look at the record sleeves.”
He lived for Fridays when his 2000 AD comic was in the newsagent’s, stumbling head down along the footpath, unable to wait until he got home before he started to read it.
When he saw the song title John the Revelatoron the back of a Harry Smith anthology of American music, it resonated with him immediately. “I couldn’t believe that nobody ever called a book that.” In his neat, sparse kitchen he plays the track on the small CD player on the counter. Singer Blind Willie Johnson rasps the lyrics in deep-bass gravel tones. “Who’s that writin?” he sings. “ John the Revelator”,the high reedy voice of Johnson’s first wife replies over and over again. The recording, from 1927, is almost punk in its rawness, Murphy says.
In a bit of musical serendipity, Angus Cargill, Murphy’s editor at London publishers Faber and Faber,was listening to Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour as he read Murphy’s manuscript for the first time. Dylan played John the Revelator as Cargill turned the pages. His editor is among a number of people whom Murphy says “just got it” when they read the book.
The fans are joined by fellow Wexford writer Colm Tóibín and Roddy Doyle. The writers, like two bookends of literary and storytelling Ireland, have lavishly praised the book.
John the Revelatoris technically Murphy’s third novel. “When I was about 25 I sat down and I wrote an entire novel, single spaced on a typewriter, called The Passenger, after the Iggy Pop song, and I never read it. It was about 200 pages, total nonsense.”
Does he still have it? “I probably do. But I’ll burn it if I find it. I think it was more the act, the discipline of doing a few pages every night for three months. But it wasn’t writing, it was typing. There was no sense of shaping it. In fact I knew it was bad so I didn’t even annoy myself by reading it.” Then, in April 2000, his father died and Grace, the youngest of his three daughters, was born, the two events happening a week apart. Murphy began to wake in the middle of the night wondering what he had done with his life and whether he would “die obscure and unfulfilled”.
For the next five years he “got up at five o’clock in the morning, most mornings” and wrote for two hours before the family got up. He contacted the literary agent Marianne Gunne-O’Connor. “I sent her some samples and we met in March 2002 and she got it. She understood it and she signed me up. Shortly afterwards, the Cecelia Ahern thing blew up and I felt like the last man off the Titanic into the lifeboats.”
After that, he wrote a second novel. “It was good but it wasn’t good enough.” Though it came “within a hair’s breadth” of being published, he is glad now that it wasn’t.
Then about five years ago he went to Montrose to do a film review for the RTÉ radio arts show Rattlebag and met freelance reviewer Jane Ruffino. They got chatting about writing and he mentioned he was thinking of trying to set up a writers’ group. She said to count her in and that was the beginning. Scottish writer Sean Murray and journalist Nadine O’Regan made up the rest of the group. “We met up one night in the Library Bar in January, 2005, and we arranged to meet at Sean’s place two weeks later and to e-mail each other work. Four of us turned up on the night and we continued to meet up every two weeks for almost two years, and that was where the book really started to get written. I had these readers whose taste and judgment I completely trusted, who were amazingly talented writers themselves, who were very kind and supportive but also brutal in their critiques.”
Taking his writing from the “early morning murk” into a more public arena was a process of growing up, Murphy says. “Anybody can be James Joyce in the attic, but it’s the real world outside. Two of us would submit work so at any one point you were sitting there with three other people critiquing the work. It was really crucial. Sean is one of the most amazing prose stylists I’ve ever read, Nadine was brilliant with story – the classic thing was Nadine sitting there going, ‘Peter, this is beautifully written but where’s it going, where’s the story? I don’t care.’ And Jane was a bullshit detector with an incredible sense of humour. Nadine’s from west Cork, Jane’s from Boston and Sean’s from Elgin. It was really nice to have that spread of culture and background, particularly because some of this stuff is in the rural dialect. It was nice to see how it translated.”
The group seized on the character of Lily Devine and her son John from a piece Murphy submitted one week. “They said, ‘That’s your story. Follow her and follow him.’ ”
The result is a tale of boyhood in small-town Ireland; an intense friendship with an odd and wildly intelligent boy; a mix of drink, sex, violence and nightmares; and a solidly believable mother-son dynamic shot through with blunt dialogue. There will be comparisons with Pat McCabe’s The Butcher Boy, a book that came out when Murphy was in his 20s. “There was a sense after that that you could not do what Pat did. You attempted that at your peril because the voice was so distinctive. So in many ways a lot of us of that generation had to metabolise him and get that book out of our system.”
Murphy’s childhood reading took him from “an anthology of the true-life stories behind Vlad the Impaler and werewolves” to Alfred Hitchcock and devouring everything Stephen King wrote in the 1980s before finding Steinbeck. “I’ll never forget the couple of months it took me to read East of Eden and a lesser-known book that’s really fascinating called To a God Unknown. It’s not trumpeted as one of his major works but I really love it.” Another major influence was the US novelist Flannery O’Connor. “There was something about the great Southern Gothics, with all these Irish names. I recognised something in the odd characters and the sense of place and the landscape and the storytelling and the sort of beauty, but the harsh bluntness of the language. And I think what resonated with me about The Butcher Boy was that it could have been a Faulkner narrative. It could have been just as easily set in the Deep South.”
Writing has been a salvation for Murphy, who left school to become a drummer with dreams of a life as a working musician. “When that didn’t pan out, there was a lot of floundering when I became a father and a lot of struggle and frustration, signing on the dole or working crummy jobs. And I got quite lost for a year or two, but the journalism was a way out of that. And when I started to write about music, I really loved it, the work and the privilege of getting to meet musicians and authors and artists in general and just pick their brains and write about it afterwards.”
Last year he separated from his wife, moved out of Dublin and bought a house on the outskirts of Enniscorthy, “a spit away from where I grew up”. He had had enough of city life, couldn’t afford a house in Dublin and wanted to give his daughters some connection to their cousins and a place where they can have some of the freedoms of his childhood. The three, Meg (17), Hannah (12) and Grace (8), visit at weekends and he collects them from the train. They “civilise me”, he says, and are delighted at his success.
He is writing his next novel on a MacBook at his small kitchen table. The bare winter garden of the semi-detached house in the small estate has decked steps leading down to a stream – the only sound he hears as he goes to sleep. A short walk away at his childhood home, his mother’s flower-filled garden has been replaced by the new owners, leaving the house stark and bare. His mother is seriously ill and has been for a while. One thing he feels he can do for her is read to her, “things like To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn”, but not from his own work.
He has gotten rid of his car and has no television. “I’m like some back-to-the-lander in Idaho. But the girls come down and spend the weekends here and they really like it.”
The move has turned him into an afternoon and evening writer. There are shadows of himself and his teenage friends, as well as his family, in John Devine’s story. “You can’t write about a mother in your book, without your own mother figure looming in. It doesn’t get any more close than someone carrying you in their body for nine months. But there’s as much in her manner and her bizarre sense of humour and the way she speaks that is my father. And the tension is that sort of brusque male voice in the form of the mother. Lily’s sort of a frontierswoman I guess. I always think of her as Calamity Jane with a shotgun on the porch.”
Did it feel brave to write so unselfconsciously in Irish dialect? “If you transcribe it directly, it looks stagey. It doesn’t work on the page like it does when you hear it. So there is a sort of paring down, tweaking and recalibration of what works.” Working with language has humbled him, he says, and “bleached out” all the ego and ambition that prompted him to start to write fiction. “You could almost feel yourself become invisible, and the story starts to tell you what to do. Then it becomes irrelevant what you thought you were trying to write about.”
His book deal has the potential to let him give up the day job and become a full-time novelist. But he is ambivalent about the opportunity. While he would “like nothing better than to sit all day and stew in a story”, interviewing other people gives him a chance to keep learning, he says.
Having explored young Irish maleness, does he have any thoughts about that group’s levels of despair and suicide? In the space of a few days in Enniscorthy, Wexford and Bunclody in 2002, five young men took their own lives.
“We always make the mistake of assuming some sort of catastrophic event like that is modern when in fact it’s recurring. I’m sure you could go back through the parish records for 400 years and find the same thing . . . Is there a crisis? There’s something amiss, and it may be common all over the world, particularly with respect to young men. I’ve been reading a lot of mythology and writing about the importance of a rite of passage. It seems crucial to any youngster coming into a sense of himself and I’m not sure that we have that anymore. I think it’s disastrous in terms of the psyche for a man in his 20s not being able to afford to leave home and to anaesthetise that by getting hammered at the weekends.
“Without getting too airy-fairy about it, there is something very practical about those rituals, like in Aboriginal culture, a boy being taken at the age of 12 and sent on walkabout. Having said that, I’m very suspicious of the whole Iron John thing too. I don’t think you have to go slaughtering small furry animals to get a sense of your own masculinity. But that’s what’s so haunting about it. It’s a mystery. I can’t answer it. None of us can. What’s wrong? If we knew we might be able to do something about it.”
John the Revelatoris published by Faber and Faber, £12.99