Down by the River

An interview with the novelist Peter Murphy.

Darran Anderson

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Darran Anderson: Do you begin writing your books with a single image or line in your head? And where do you think your inspiration comes from?

Peter Murphy: It could be a title or an opening few lines or a tone of voice or an image. Then I have to write to find what the book's about.

DA: You said once, in reference to your hometown, that Twin Peaks was like a documentary about Enniscorthy with the accents dubbed over. How important is that setting to your writing?

PM: It was integral to those books, and to some vague manifesto I had as an apprentice writer, something along the lines of the tourist board version of Irish fiction failing to reflect the reality of the environment, which was more like Blue Velvet or Wisconsin Death Trip. I hadn't read enough John McGahern or Edna O'Brien to realise that they'd covered that kind of subject matter in their own way.


DA: One aspect of Shall We Gather at the River is the strange mystery or even mysticism of radio; foreign languages, extraterrestrial sounds, the almost spiritual idea of the ether, the idea of using radio-waves to communicate with the afterlife. Marconi, whose mother was from Wexford I understand, believed that sound-waves lasted forever and you could find ways of listening in on the past. Did radio hold a sense of mystery for you growing up?

PM: It was a portal to other worlds. A DJ's voice is like any narrative voice. It's confidential, in-your-ear. I used to listen to anything and everything: Radio Luxembourg, Tommy Vance's Friday Night Rock Show, Keep It Country with Pascal Mooney, John Peel, Ceili House, Dave Fanning, late night radio plays, Mark Cagney's Night Train. You could go from the parochial – death notices on local radio – to the universal – BBC World Service – with the twist of a dial. I can still remember my dad's old transistor. It was a battered but heroic-looking old black box with the paint flaking off. When I was writing Enoch O'Reilly's back story I was very taken with a shaggy dog story Tom Waits once told Jim Jarmusch about hearing alien voices on his ham radio set when he was a kid. Another light went on when I read about Marconi's theory of eternal sound in Greg Milner's book Perfecting Sound Forever. I should also mention Marina Warner's Phantasmagoria, a book about spiritualists and mediums and ectoplasm and ether, the whole hauntology trip.

DA: The format of the book flits back and forward in time and between characters, almost like turning a radio dial, was this a conscious decision from the beginning?

PM: It wasn't pre-meditated, it just became apparent over time that this would be a more Cubist kind of book than John the Revelator. I know I was listening to Richard Burton's reading of Under Milk Wood during the writing of the book, so that might have been an influence. And I loved Edward Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology, which is almost like a companion to the Harry Smith Anthology. All these polyphonic, disembodied voices telling their graveyard stories.

DA: Your novel John the Revelator has a biblical title but one gathered via Blind Willie Johnson’s song of the same name. Another of Johnson’s biblical songs 'Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground' was put on the gold record that was placed in the Voyager space probe. A song by a poor blind bluesman, who died sleeping in the ruins of his home, is now somewhere outside the solar system and may well outlive everything else that’s been created on this planet. It seems a remarkable example of the artist’s tendency to try to defeat death and achieve some form of immortality, even though it’s impossible. Were you conscious of this when you made the leap from writing about other artists as a music journalist to creating your own work in your own name?

PM: The Voyager story is a beautiful metaphor for Marconi's theory. I wasn't so much concerned with the idea of immortality as right now. I had ideas or stories to tell that didn't exist yet, and if I didn't bring them into existence nobody else would, regardless of their worth.

DA: Although your book has a great deal of humour, there’s a profound sense in Shall We Gather At The River that we’re dealing with deep troubling matters that are afflicting Ireland right now, not in an earnest, social realist way but through a prism. I wrote before, somewhat facetiously, about the fear in small-town Ireland being not that the world will end but that it won’t. In many cases these days, it does for a lot of people, I’m thinking of emigration and the terrible more permanent form of emigration that has blighted your home county; suicide. Where these issues on your mind when you wrote the book?

PM: The subject matter had been on my mind since the winter of 2002, when a cycle of drownings occurred in my home town of Enniscorthy... Throughout the so-called boom years I felt badly displaced. I was a freelance writer trying – and often failing – to rear children in south county Dublin. New money everywhere. I moved back to Wexford in May 2008 and immediately you could feel that mid-80s chill returning. The dole, alcohol, the boat, the river, Edge of Darkness, Darkness on the Edge of Town. I wrote a short story called 'The Blacklight Ballroom' that winter, which was a sort of sci-fi allegorical take on what was happening in Ireland. Like many people I was furious when agents of the state presumed to tell us that we'd had our fun and now we had to suffer in order to bail out their Galway Races cronies. I – and most of my friends – had to live very, very carefully when that mass hallucination called the boom was going on.

DA: In both of your novels, I get the sense of Ireland as a godforsaken and thus god-obsessed place. It came to mind particularly in a very funny but astute scene where Enoch seeks to join the priesthood even though he admits to not believing in God. Instead it’s the power these biblical stories give him that he’s interested in. The idea that you could be an atheist and still be enthralled by the language of the King James Bible or see the Book of Revelation as a piece of Outsider Art. And use them for your own ends. How much, if at all, do you feel religion has gotten under your skin and in what sense?

PM: Religion was nothing to me but a lot of boring catechism questions I was supposed to learn and regurgitate for the benefit of the Christian Brothers. That and some unfathomable sense of guilt and dread. I came to Biblical language through music and books and films: Johnny Cash, Patti Smith, Hank Williams, gospel and blues lyrics, Night of the HunterCape Fear, Nick Tosches' Hellfire. I love the power and rhythm and poetry of those words. Even something as familiar as the Lord's Prayer: “Our father who art in heaven/Hallowed be thy name/Thy will be done/Thy kingdom come...” I love the mad visionary lads too, from William Blake up to Iain Sinclair to Alan Moore. Elaine Pagels called John's Revelation the quintessential wartime text.

DA: Though there’s been a few exceptions such as Flann O’Brien, most Irish writers have avoided the rich pre-Christian mythology of Ireland since Joyce lambasted Yeats’ Celtic Twilight movement as ‘Cultic Twalette’. Even though the stories are well-known to us as children, modern writers seem to ignore them but you tend to go against this with references to the Salmon of Knowledge, the wind howling like banshees or caves going into the faery underworld. You also seem to challenge the mainstream historical narrative in your writing that the pagan era was a dark age before Christianity arrived as a civilising force. In fact, Christianity brought its own dark history. Do you think Celtic mythology contains a repository of stories and imagery that we’ve thrown away too hastily?

PM: 'Pagan' is still a derogatory term in this country, and yet we're a pagan people in our bones. How's that for self-loathing? Every time I hear Ireland referred to as a 'staunchly Catholic' or even 'post-Catholic' country it makes me wince a bit. We're a pagan people with a thin film of Christianity grafted onto our consciousness. That film is now peeling away. Joyce lambasted Yeats, but based Ulysses on Homeric legend – quite the double standard. For a long time I dismissed mythology as airy-fairy fantasy stuff, until I was introduced to Joseph Campbell and Angela Carter and Marina Warner. Those old stories have meaning and resonance and power. They're also madcap and surrealistic. Thomas Kinsella's account of Cúchulainn in full warp-spasm could be a description of an Iggy and the Stooges gig. If the Fianna were a band they'd sound like Neil Young & Crazy Horse.

DA: Your excellent work with The Revelator Orchestra is an both an intriguing accompaniment to your novels and an ongoing work of art in itself. In terms of your influences, there seems a crossover not just between literature and music (Blind Willie Johnson, Nick Cave, Johnny Cash and so on) but between rock n’ roll and evangelism; the singer as a preacher with a very different message. Are those crossovers something you’re conscious of when writing and performing? Is there an element of fiction about it all?

PM: Everything I do originates from the written word, but sometimes I think it's almost secondary to The Revelator Orchestra. We're just finishing our second album The Brotherhood of the Flood, adapted from Shall We Gather, and I'm excited about it. Music is lifeblood. Some writers don't like performing. I do. There is a huge element of fiction about it all, trying to convey the drama of the story using the music as backlighting. As regards other people's work, songs like 'Piss Factory' or 'From Her To Eternity' or 'Black Steel' definitely have a sort of shamanic charge to them, which is the essence of evangelism.

DA: I understand you got the tree from the cover of John the Revelator tattooed onto your person. It struck me as almost the kind of act that a character from one of your books would undertake. How did that come about?

PM: I had just turned forty, my first book was about to come out, and I figured it was the kind of vulgar, self-aggrandising act no middlebrow academic would ever entertain. It's in the family: my brother John is covered in tattoos. I'm way more comfortable around musicians and show-folk than literary or university types, and they certainly wouldn't find anything unusual about a tattoo. I'm long overdue one to mark the new book.

DA: You’ve been quite vociferous about the misplaced radicalism of the ‘everything for free’ culture online. There’s the suggestion that rather than being democratic as it’s been heralded, it seems to be leading to culture being a playground for the rich given no-one else can afford to not get paid for what they create. Do you see this as a foreboding time for writers?

PM: It's not just online culture, it's what's happened to culture in general. Convenience food, convenience gadgets, convenience music, convenience books. Grown men and women clutching their horrible little digi-toys, unable to be in their own skin for five minutes. Go to a concert and it's like attack of the smartphone slaves. My home town no longer has a cinema or a record shop. We drive twenty miles to sit in an empty multiplex where more than half the screens are taken up with 3D films made for illiterate American children. Journalism standards have plummeted because of dwindling resources. On the other hand, there are so many great books published every year I can't keep up with them. Writers will always write, musicians will always play, singers will sing and actors will act, because if they don't they'll go mad.

DA: In the event of some Riddley Walker-type apocalyptic occurrence, what three books would you save to pass on to future, possibly mutated, generations?

PM: Riddley Walker for one. And Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy. And maybe Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, or the collected stories of Flannery O'Connor, or JG Ballard, or Psychotic Reactions & Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs. The list could be completely different tomorrow.

DA: What’s next in terms of your writing?

PM: I'm at some sort of crossroads. I've many pages of titles, ideas, drafts and notes. I'm superstitious about talking too much about work in progress, but I'm definitely hearing the voices again.