Michael Murphy’s ambitious first novel is perfect for our time when talk of apocalypse is routine and using the word “normal” is offensive. Morgan Wells, our protagonist, is a modern Holden Caulfield and Murphy’s bold writing is similar to that of Bret Easton Ellis and Douglas Coupland. A brazen debut.
Michael Murphy lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His work has been published in The Fiddlehead, The Windsor Review, and filling Station. He has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Windsor, and is currently studying at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University. A Description of the Blazing World is his first novel.
I once got a call from someone who saw my picture in the paper and asked me if I was the Kerri Cull from Fogo. We have the same name and, apparently, we look alike. If I was Morgan Wells, what would I do about that?
Morgan isn’t really much for making conversations. I think that’s partly why readers might find him disarming. I’ve heard some people describe him as “creepy.” So if he were to get that phone call, I have a feeling he likely wouldn’t say much.
What fascinates Morgan, and what really drives him to do the things he does, is the satisfaction he gets from making discoveries about the people who have his name. He also has a tendency to take completely random occurrences and turn them into something they’re not. Signs of something bigger, more cosmic, happening to him.
In the end, the phone call would likely lead Morgan to start searching for this other Morgan Wells, in much the same way that the postcard does in the story. If the person also told him that the other Morgan looked like him … I suspect that might up the ante.
The teenager is cynical for his age and thinks about his own death and the apocalypse without fear or emotion He’s also terribly funny thinking “jam is for sissies” and that “the extreme poverty of youth is the second worse thing about [his] life.” Twenty years from now, what kind of person would he be?
It’s hard to imagine what might become of a fictional character. When I come up with a character, they’re often fused to a moment, and so their traits become intimately connected and bound up with the story itself, where it goes, what it says, etc. The story is the character, and the character is the story, so anything outside of the story is hard for me to imagine. Especially when it comes to a character like the kid. He’s a teenager, and is completely immersed in his teenage world. His capacity to see and understand the world around him is quite limited, but he believes completely that he sees everything for exactly what it is. He’s angry with his brother, and disappointed with his mom. These feelings are offset by his various morbid obsessions and perversions. Even though the kid is, in many ways, a “loser,” he refuses to see himself that way. He is the hero who dies tragically, again and again. He is the centre of his own small, weird universe. In lots of ways he’s a regular teenage kid, and I think that this disposition is something that a person can’t really hold onto for very long. Only people between the ages of 14 and 17 can be that pessimistic and still continue to function without completely imploding. For that reason, I think a lot of people in the book are somewhat willing to tolerate him. To a point. But at thirty-four, I think the kid would have probably shed a lot of that angst. If not, someone would’ve probably killed him long before his thirty-fourth birthday.
What are your thoughts on post-its?
Post-its rule! As do generic sticky notes.
When Patricia Dawn Robertson reviewed your book in the Star, she said these two characters would never be popular on Facebook. What would an average wall posting look like for these two characters? Would they portray themselves honestly or would they, like most of us, cut and shave their unlikeable traits?
I think they would both portray themselves honestly, because neither of them are completely aware of just how strange other people think they are. They’re the normal ones; it’s everyone else who has a problem.
But I think Morgan is far too private to ever have a Facebook account. If he did, he would have no wall posts, no personal info, no profile picture. And yes, it’s true, he’d probably have no friends, but he might try to “friend” people nonetheless. After all, he enjoys observing strangers. He enjoys crossing that boundary between the private and public sphere, especially when it can be done without being detected. And isn’t that what Facebook is all about?
The kid, on the other hand, would definitely have a Facebook account. Throughout much of the book he is attempting to reach out to people. Unlike Morgan, he doesn’t want to observe others without being detected. Rather, he wants to connect with them. Talk to them. Record their observations. For all his anti-social tendencies, the kid does reach out to others. He wants others to notice him. He gets rejected again and again, but that doesn’t stop him from trying. So if he was on Facebook, he’d put out lots of friend requests, likely to total strangers, and would get very few responses. His status updates would likely feature regular diatribes about his brother and his mom’s boyfriend. I don’t think he’d waste a whole lot of time telling people what he ate for breakfast.
Describe your writing process.
Lots of writers say that you need to be consistent with your writing practice. That you need to sit down for a set amount of time every day and just put stuff on the page. I don’t know if I follow those guidelines. I probably should, but I don’t.
I don’t know if this could be called a process, but I try to keep the story going in my head for as long as I can before putting words on the page. It almost has to get to the point where the story is so full in my head that I have to release it. Get it out of there so I can start thinking about something else.
With The Blazing World, I had those characters wandering around in my head for months before I finally knew how to write about them. And how to write them. In an early draft, the Morgan I came up with was nothing at all like the Morgan in the book. And I wrote about seventy pages before I realized I was moving too fast. That I wasn’t getting it right. I trashed that draft and never looked back. Went back into my head until it came out right.
Once I’m writing, I like to do everything in units. Like, if I start working on a new chapter, I won’t leave my desk until that new chapter is finished. When I’m writing and not just editing (though those two things are impossible to really keep apart), I want to feel like it’s all new, so each time I sit down I’m going forward. It keeps things fresh for me, and hopefully that translates into a good reading experience too.
What’s your next project?
I’m a not a superstitious person at all, except when it comes to telling people what I’m working on before it’s reached the end of the first draft stage. Because you never know how an idea will change once you take it out of your head and put it on paper. It changes even more once you start editing it. Because what seems like a good idea in your head might become an embarrassingly bad thing on paper. But I can say that my next project is a novel that’s split into five separate parts. Each part offers a different perspective on a single event. In incredibly broad and vague terms, it’s about memory, and guilt, and forgiveness. And dead birds.