January 2008

Donna Seaman


An Interview with Yannick Murphy

Yannick Murphy is a remarkably original and lyrical fiction writer. Her language is as specific and resonant as poetry; her first-person narration is entrancing, and her humor is wickedly barbed. Her sense of the world is at once as fluently archetypal as dreams and vividly of the moment, and she achieves breathtaking velocity and psychological nuance in prose of gem-hard clarity and fiery radiance. Twenty years ago Murphy published her first book, the short story collection Stories in Another Language. A decade later her first novel appeared, The Sea of Trees, a complex tale narrated by the daughter of a Frenchwoman and a Chinese military officer that begins immediately after World War II in a Japanese prison camp in Indochina, then moves on to France and the U.S. In her second novel, Here They Come, an intense, many-faceted coming-of-age tale, Murphy entwines the profane and the sublime.

Murphy’s current triumph is the hauntingly beautiful novel Signed, Mata Hari, a dazzlingly empathic and imaginative variation on the life of the glamorous Dutch-born exotic dancer executed for espionage by the French in 1917. Soon to appear is Murphy’s long-awaited second short story collection, In a Bear’s Eye, in which she continues her inquiry into the depths of childhood, the failings of damaged parents, forbidden desires, our connections with other species, and death. Also slated for release is Baby Polar, Murphy’s second children’s book following Ahwoooooooo! The recipient an O’Henry Prize, a Whiting Writers’ Award, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and a MacDowell Colony fellowship, Murphy, after long stints in New York and California, is now living a rustic existence in Vermont. She shares a wood-heated home with her husband, a horse doctor, their three children, and two Newfoundland dogs on land that embraces streams, a pond, and lots of wildlife. Murphy made time while in Chicago on tour for Signed, Mata Hari to appear on Open Books Radio. This is an excerpt of our hour-long conversation.

Your novel Here They Come is an intense and gritty portrait of an off-kilter family in 1970s New York City, narrated by a tough, observant, and pragmatic thirteen-year-old girl. Is it true that this is an autobiographical tale?

Yes, there is truth in it. A lot of the events that took place were true, but then a lot obviously weren’t. I had fun going back and remembering what my life was like as a kid, and then I thought, “This has to be a book.” It had never occurred to me before, during all the years of being a writer, that there was a book in that. Then one night it was revealed to me that there was a lot of interesting stuff going on back then when New York was a much grittier place.

When you go to New York now, there are nice, fancy little shops on every corner in some of the neighborhoods I grew up in where there was nothing before. So it was a different place, and I liked the idea of bringing that back to life.

The world you describe does not seem like a place where a kid did a lot of reading or writing. Were books part of your childhood?

They were. My parents had a really wonderful collection of books. I grew up in a loft and one end of the house was solid bookshelves. My father had gone to Harvard and he kept all his books. He majored in English, so all of the classics were up there. And my mother loved to read. So I was lucky. During a long, hot, boring summer when there wasn’t much else to do, I could pull down a book and read.

For some reason, I keep thinking that you have some connection to France. There’s something French in your aesthetic, perhaps your background.

There is. My mother is half French and half Chinese. I grew up understanding French, but never being able to speak it, and always being reminded how terrible the French were and how wonderful the French are at the same time. This made me a very confused individual, I think.

So do you remember when you first thought about writing?

No, but I remember it happening early on. I remember in school I always liked writing and it came easy for me. As I got older I thought, “Well, I’ll become a neurosurgeon.” But I always wrote. When I got to college and people said, “You know, you’re really good at the writing thing,” I thought, okay, I’ll write. I’ll give up being a pediatrician or whatever my thoughts were about the medical field.

You attended New York University and studied with the well-known editor and writer Gordon Lish. What sort of experience was that?

Well, it was amazing. I was a first-year graduate student when I read an article about him that Amy Hempl wrote for Vanity Fair. I put down the magazine and I said, “I need to study with this man. I need someone who is going to push me.” I felt that I could be a better writer if only there was someone there to help me do it, and I had a hunch that he would be the one. So I went to the director of the program at NYU and I said, “I want to take this course.” And he said, “No. It’s not open to first-year students.” I think I cried. I think I tried the old tear routine and it didn’t work. So I said, “Just forget it.” But I went to Gordon’s class that night -- I knew where it was going to meet -- and I stood outside. I recognized him -- there was a photo in Vanity Fair -- and he was there and I said, “I’m not supposed to be here.”

Little did I know back then but that was Gordon’s favorite idea of conflict -- you’re there but you’re not supposed to be there. I think he said, “It doesn’t matter. You’re in the class. You’re in if you want to be in.” That was wonderful. No teacher I had come across was like Gordon, who paid such fine attention to detail and believed in everyone. Believed anyone could write. We were really diverse in that class. Then I ended up studying with him in his private classes. There were people from many different backgrounds. Being young, then, looking around the room sometimes I would think, “Well that person’s never going to be a writer.” That thought never crossed Gordon’s mind. It was always, “You can all do it.” And once I started, that kind of attitude was infectious. You really do start believing you can be this amazing writer. Having that faith liberated a lot of people. So it was a lot of fun in those workshops to see how those people who started off as tentative writers came into their own.

The debate over Gordon Lish’s approach to editing Raymond Carver’s short stories has been reignited as new evidence appears revealing exactly how much Lish cut and how responsible he was for the minimalist style Carver became famous for.

Well that’s Gordon’s style, and he does it better than anyone else. You can hand him a twenty-page manuscript and when you walk away it may be five pages. But those are the best and the most crystalline five pages you’ll ever get. It was always exciting for me to sit down with him during the editing process. The two of us would come up with what needed to be added and what needed to be taken away and a lot of it did need to be taken away. He made the stories come to life just by being able to take those parts away that detracted from the story or that were just, to use Gordon’s famous expression, a “writer jacking off.” A lot of it was stuff that as a young writer you’re doing just because you can get away with it, and here’s somebody saying, “No, you can’t get away with it. For the sake of art and art’s sake, be true to yourself and write honest sentences.” So I can imagine if Raymond Carver’s work was edited in the same fashion mine was there probably were a lot of pages that were not used.

Signed, Mata Hari is certainly a beautifully pared-down novel. What inspired you to write about Mata Hari?

I wrote about her because I read an article in Smithsonian magazine. It was a very short little article stating that she had been a spy and an exotic dancer and commemorating the anniversary of her death. It said she had been killed by a firing squad at the age of 41, which is the age I was when I had first read the Smithsonian article. And you know, all of that comes flooding into your psyche. I started thinking, “Well, I had a whole life. I had children. I had done and felt all these things. If my obituary was this short and missed all the wonderful kind of images and experiences I’ve had throughout my lifetime, I would have felt a little P.O.’d about it.” So it was interesting to write about her.

You must have done a great deal of research. Mata Hari is one of those figures who are at once enigmatic and extensively written about.

I tried not to do a lot of research because I knew that would be the one thing that would kill my imagination. News and information negate meaning in my book and in my frame of thinking. So I ended up learning the basics about her by going online and the things that I found out about her seemed like they weren’t really factual. The more I read the more I started thinking, “Wow, what if Mata Hari read this? How would she feel about this? She would probably scoff at it.” And I ended up actually getting my voice for her through reading all that and thinking, “How would she react?” I imagined her as being, obviously, an erudite woman who spoke all these languages, was very smart and beautiful, and comfortable with her sexuality, so I could just see her responding to these things. That became a strong part of the book, her authoritative voice.

The scenes in Java are so intense. Almost hallucinatory.

I know. And I’ve never been there. I should go there. I would learn that all of the things I wrote probably about aren’t true.

Like gibbons falling out of trees.

Right! I was living in California at the time I wrote the book, and I would be walking down the street and smell jasmine from the neighbor’s yard and imagine, “Well, I bet jasmine smells the same in Java, too.” It was a very exciting book for me to write. I was always ready to go and work. I was trying to force everybody out of my life just so I could get my pages in on a daily basis. You’re always looking at things thinking, “Can I include this in my book?” Or “How would that work?” Or “See how the cat jumped off the table? How would I put that into my book? How would Mata Hari have seen that?” So it was one of those books that I really immersed myself in.

Yes. And you had a ready made story, which seemed to free you up, rather than burden you. It’s impressive that you didn’t feel dutiful about facts.

It was helpful to have a ready-made story, and when I read about the facts I thought, Oh my God, this poor woman. What she went through here, and how she overcame that and did this. At the same time, though, I knew that presenting her life would be much more interesting if I showed the things that no one could find out about. I was excited when I thought I would write this book because I said to myself, “No one else is going to write this book the way I would.” That secret knowledge of “I’ve got something that nobody else is going to do” was very exciting. I knew that I would use images to help tell her story, and repeat those images because the structure and form in this book create a dynamic of fact. So that while I was writing it, it seemed to have its own little engine on the page. The form itself was helping me write it and it really took on a life of its own for that reason.

You write so perceptively about the paradoxes of womanhood. Of how a woman is damned for being beautiful and damned for not being beautiful. If you’re smart that’s bad, and if you don’t use your intelligence, then you’re just a stupid female. You’re either a saint or a slut. You address this double-bind in so many subtle ways in Signed, Mata Hari.

I think that’s probably just how I operate as a writer, too. Having things that are ironic, or just stating things that are in opposition to one another, always seem to create the dynamic force within a book and propel the book forward so that it becomes something not even the writer is aware of as they’re doing it. That’s what I love about writing, when that presence takes hold of the book and the writing lifts off the page and all of sudden you realize what you’re creating is more of an object than a linear or regular piece.

There’s so much momentum in your prose.

Yeah. I don’t know where that comes from. A lot of times when I’m thinking in the first person, my thoughts are that way too. They just tumble one after the other. I imagine that’s probably what happened with Mata Hari; she ended up having so many different thoughts all at one time and they just poured out. I like that energy on the page, as long as it makes sense and is reigned in to a certain degree so that the form is still evident, then it’s successful.
Do you read much fiction?

I do. Fiction inspires me. A lot of time I’ll read fiction and I’ll get mad at it and say, “These are just witty ruminations about motive.” Or I’ll say, “I can’t believe that.” A lot times I’ll read fiction and I’ll get scared and say, “This person is writing so well. I better get to work to see if I can write as well.” The people I really admired when I first started writing were Grace Paley. I’m not Grace Paley but I love her writing. And I’ve always loved William Faulkner, but I don’t write like William Faulkner. A lot of people ask, “Who do you like?” And then they say, “Gosh, you’re not like those people at all.” So maybe I just interpret them differently. People consider Signed, Mata Hari a historical novel, but I wouldn’t consider it a historical novel. I’m not an historical novelist. For me, the surprise is how I can surprise myself. What will I write next? I don’t know.

Art is about freedom, although it requires discipline.

I think it’s interesting that there are rules. You don’t ever want to forget what you’ve presented on the page. You don’t want to make those mistakes where you talk about something once and never talk about it again. For someone like me, though, those rules are liberating because then I know I get to go back to it and rename it and present it in a way that it wasn’t presented before so that the reader gets his or her own images from the repetition of it. What’s exciting for me as a reader is when I read someone who has presented these objects to me -- and hasn’t explained them to me -- so I end up interpreting them in my own way. It’s as if I’ve helped to create the story because the writer didn’t tell me all the feelings of the character, but instead simply showed them.

It’s always fun. It’s always surprising. As I said before, that’s what I enjoy about writing. If the work can surprise me, then I know it can surprise you as the reader. If it doesn’t keep me up at night writing it, it won’t keep you up at night reading.