Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published in The Irish Examiner. 21st February 2009.
Sometimes, when Peter Murphy is sitting in a pub in Enniscorthy, a stranger will approach him.
“Invariably it’s a chap with a beard and a ponytail,” says Peter. “Without introducing himself he will launch into a monologue about an obscure album. And he will ask me what else he should check out by this person, then he’ll wander off, leaving me no wiser as to who he is.”
We’ve met in one of Peter’s favourite haunts; the Library Bar in the Central Hotel in Dublin. He told me that story when I asked him about fame; and of the strangeness for an arts reviewer and interviewer finding himself answering questions instead of asking them.
A senior writer for Hotpress, who appears regularly on TV in ‘The View,’ Peter has always thought of himself as a writer rather than a journalist.
“For me, it was just writing about the stuff I am passionate about.”
A former musician, Peter needed to work hard at it, in order to provide for his three daughters
“But I like the job,” he says. “It’s provided a good education and brought me out of myself. It got rid of all that shyness.”
It’s hard to imagine that Peter was ever shy. Drummer in several bands over the years, he was married to the effervescent Doodle Kennelly- only daughter of the poet and Trinity lecturer Brendan. They split up last year.
“Perhaps the word is quiet,” he says, agreeing that he shares characteristics with the boy hero of his debut novel, John the Revelelator. “As a kid I was watchful.”
The novel was inspired by the Wexford scenery. Bought up in Enniscorthy, Peter returned to live there last year.
“I returned for practical reasons,” he says, explaining that he needed a house big enough for his daughters to live in, with him, every weekend. “I couldn’t afford a house in Dublin. I know the lay of the land; the girls love it. They find the place calming.
“Co Wexford is a southern Gothic place for me,” he says. “There’s all that physical beauty; all that mystery and that strange, ineffable, almost supernatural strangeness at times. There’s a magic about it, and a darkness.”
Writing, Peter says, is in the marrow of the place. Together we list the extraordinary talent that the County has unleashed; from Billy Roche, Eoin Colfer and John Banville, to Colm Tóibín.
The latter has been vocal in his praise of the book. On the cover he called it ‘fresh, so original and disturbing and brave.... an absolutely wonderful novel.’ Booker winner Roddy Doyle has raved over it too. But that’s not so surprising, because this extraordinary debut has universal appeal. It combines potent imagery with page turning narrative.
“I was amazed at how seriously the novel was taken,” says Peter. “I wrote the best novel that I could, but I feel like a barbarian reared on rock music and science fiction.”
The novel has been a while in the writing. Peter found his title in 1998, falling in love with the phrase when he saw it as a song title in The Journal of American folk music. The following year, listening to a Canadian band called God Speed You Black Emperor, he was inspired to write a draft of the scene that became John’s haunting end of the world dream.
It wasn’t until 2001, though, after his father had died, that Peter started trying to write fiction in earnest. A year later he finished a novel; one that was almost published; but left him determined to explore exactly what it was that he was burning to say.
“That novel had been pretty good story wise, but linguistically it was not up to it, so I swung the other way and immersed myself in the bible, in Cormac McCarthy and the other maximists; but then I found all that I had was language. There was no story. I was lost.”
Murphy was ‘saved’ by a chance meeting with the reviewer Jane Ruffino. Joined by journalist Nadine O’Regan and writer Sean Murray, they formed a writing group; meeting initially in The Library Bar, and then, twice monthly in each other’s houses. Without their support, Peter says his novel simply would not exist.
“Something happened that was as fluky and as random as a band forming,” says Peter. “And having been in bands that formed and broke up I thought, ‘just enjoy this and make it as fruitful as you can.’ There was a sense of urgency about the novel. I had these amazing writers and readers, and the only option was complete surrender.
“I would be like a chef asked to serve up two eggs and a burger. They would say, ‘the novel needs this,’ and I would go home and do it. They were all so diligent,” he says. “They were almost parental about midwife-ing it.”
Sean, in particular, helped Peter to hone his prose. And the novel feels perfect; with not a false note. The dark jokes are memorable, and fit the general theme.
“That was a rule of the group,” says Peter. “If there is a one liner it had to a Rolls Royce.”
Peter can’t stand mid-brow fiction. He is vociferous on how these incessantly grey tomes are ruining the book trade. His inspiration comes from the bible; and from Irish mythology.
“Irish myths, like Leda and the Swan, are so outrageous; so surrealistic and off the wall. They’re genius. I love the insane multi coloured energy of them.”
As a boy John becomes obsessed with worms. Crows feature in his dreams. As harbinger’s of death and decay that is entirely appropriate. Because the novel explores sickness of the body; of the mind; and of the spirit.
Principally the story of Lily; John’s chain smoking bible quoting mother; John the Revelator also features James Corboy; a weird older teenager who attracts trouble, yet who ultimately proves a redemptive influence on the younger boy.
“I had a few friends, boys and girls who were like Jamie. They were hyper-intelligent, they were rascals and they were prone to getting into trouble. Yet they were decent if as yet unformed human beings.
“I wanted to populate my book with males who were flawed but good. And it was crucial that whatever John did to Jamie didn’t matter; because Jamie loved his friend.”
Towards the end of the writing of the novel, Peter felt subsumed by it.
“I felt I did not have a body anymore. For the last six months, without the children or the job suffering, everything else was the book, the book, the book. I took special care when I crossed the road because I did not want to be hit by a bus with the book not finished. There was a sense of what a bummer that would be.”
Peter is now ensconced in his second novel. He finds the idea of writing fiction full time tantalising; yet he feels the journalism prevents isolation.
“I live in an empty house surrounded by dead trees. Occasionally I have a drink with my brother, but Journalism is pretty much my social life,” he says.
John the Revelator by Pater Murphy is published by faber and faber at 12.99 euro.
© Sue Leonard. 2009.