Epic, in a small setting
Interview by Alan Kelly.
Peter Murphy’s John the Revelator has everything you could possibly want in a novel: mystery, love, fear, friendship, grief. With a pitch-perfect ear for Irish dialect, the novel is peppered with gossipy anecdotes, characters all to willing to offer some sort of revelation, regardless of whether it is relevant to the plot or not. Murphy has a crafty hand at creating characters who harbour secrets. John Devine is a 15-year-old boy yearning to escape the dull confines of small town life, a loner of sorts who mostly stays in the company of his not-quite-fanatical-but-close-enough religious mother Lily and her friend Mrs Nagle, a creepy harridan who even when she’s not on the page can be felt hovering somewhere on the outskirts of the narrative. Meaning is desperately sought but John is rewarded not with a delivery from his misery but a cruel indifference to the circumstances in which he continually finds himself. Plagued by self-doubt and terrifying dream sequences until he befriends Jamey Corboy, a kindred spirit with a reckless side. John the Revelator is Hotpress-scribe Peter Murphy’s staggering debut.
3:AM: When I first opened John the Revelator, it held a specific resonance for me. I am from a small village [Rathnew] in County Wicklow.
PM: Same terrain. It could be set in any town in proximity to the sea…the presence of the sea seemed important to it; I’d probably go mad in the midlands. It could be anywhere on the coast, anywhere on the coast of anywhere. But you know I was probably more influenced by American literature. To be honest I don’t read much Irish literature.
PM: Yeah, I love Sean’s style. He is a beautiful prose stylist. He doesn’t go in so much for story or plot. I’d love to see him attempt that but yeah, he is a brilliant writer.
3:AM: You have a unique style, very spare, elegant, a random air of weirdness cuts through the narrative. Does this have anything to do with growing up somewhere insular?
PM: You know what it never felt insular to me, remote yeah, not insular. It always felt really expansive to me, just the landscape. I always felt really free to ramble about as a child. But the remoteness, yeah, there was always a sense growing up as I’m sure you felt the same, of being at a remove, not plugged into the mainframe. When you’re a teenager that is frustrating and can drive you up the wall, but as a child, and then as an adult, it is a beautiful thing, a really beautiful thing.
3:AM: How much of you is in J the R?
PM: That’s the fun part of it, you get to express sides of yourself, in every character, that is not appropriate to express in everyday life. I get to be Gunter kicking the crap out of Jamey, while being Jamey getting the crap kicked out of him by Gunter.
3:AM: I read one critic, over at Laura Hird, saying that John has a personality severance and Jamey is sort of a darker alter-ego?
PM: Really barking up the wrong tree. That’s been done in Bret Easton Ellis’s fiction, it’s been done in Fight Club. Its been done so many times I wouldn’t even consider it.
3:AM: The books conclusion, it’s stunning, dreamlike, very effective. Did you know where the story was leading you from the outset?
PM: That’s a hard one because I kind of had a sense of where it would go, but I didn’t have a plot arc, but I knew that scene would be in it and as the story began to take shape it seemed inevitable that that was where the story would end. I mean, that was one of the germs of the book, one thing that I am sure it hadn’t been done in fiction. After my father died in the immediate couple of months afterwards, I had a couple of really vivid dreams about him that felt more like visitations than normal dreams. And I’m sure this happens to many people who suffer a bereavement. I know a couple of people who’ve experienced it, those dreams are not like any other. It was something I wanted to write, a scene that I wanted to write that John would meet Lily again in a strange liminal space that was neither realistic nor hallucinogenic. It was just like a dream but that it would somehow, if not heal him, allow him to stand up straight and begin his life again. The book is like the Bible in reverse. It starts with the apocalypse (Revelation) and ends with Genesis – I mean, we kind of leave John where he is ready to begin, the entire book is a prologue to his life.
3:AM: I did read somewhere else that you’re superstitious about talking about other projects, but I’m gonna ask anyway: What will you do now, after J the R?
PM: I’m gonna do a different story. Probably a wider time-span, same kind of environment. Theres another book in me set in that environment, slightly older and darker and more adult I would say.
3:AM: I have to confess, I was a bit surprised, because I had followed your column, I thought the story would be darker. Well obviously there is darkness there?
PM: Yeah, early drafts of it were and just from working with my three friends in the writers group which I had, whom I trusted, I trusted there tastes and their judgement. There was always the inclination was to pare down and pull back. There’s always a tension; we expect John to go bad at some point, and he has it in him, he has the capacity. And similarly with Jamey, Jamey is a much darker character but in actually the last scene in real-time we see of him – without giving to much away for the readers – is an act of forgiveness, it’s sort of a Christian act of forgiving John for what he’s done. I like this sort of tension of people doing these unexpected things, of doing things that seem out of character and yet are probably truer indications of what the characters like. And at some point, Alan, I decided I’d had enough of testosterone-driven male nihilistic 90s fiction.
3:AM: Yeah I agree..
PM: Yeah, I’d overdosed on it…
3:AM: Bret Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk?
PM: I’ve read Chuck Palahniuk, at least four or five of his books which I loved. I’d read Ellis and loved him. Trainspotting, the whole canon. It just seemed done. Maybe I’d gotten that little bit older, the anger was still there but it wasn’t nihilistic… Now I just think that a nihilistic for the sake of it novel is a cop out from humanity….
3:AM: Yeah, there seems to be a lot of fiction which is nihilistic and bleak…
PM: You look at the proliferation of websites and writing clubs and all that kind of thing where it’s just first-person nasty male narrative doing transgressive anti-social stuff, and some of its amazing, but it just seems the area seems overpopulated. And, you know, as the book became truer to my own upbringing, once I got over that adolescent hump, I was never really like that anyway.
3:AM: So that old cliché, “write what you know,” works?
PM: I hope it did…
3:AM: It did, it did… There are so many voices in on-line publishing, they are so insular and have such inflated opinions of themselves.
PM: There is a lot of posturing going on.
PM: And the influences are there, from Burroughs, but in strange ways, or Denis Johnson or even Bukowski or Raymond Carver, from that school of writing. But it would be ludicrous of me to pass myself off as that kind of writer. I just don’t have it in me.
3:AM: I did feel a sort of intimacy with John. He is that boy we all encounter, who hardly speaks, who doesn’t really want to be seen. He is like an antithesis to every other teenager. And another thing I noticed was the novel seemed timeless, like out of time. It could be anywhere?
PM: I wouldn’t say I was conscious, well actually, do you know what, part of the point of divorcing the novel from the work I done in journalism was to make it absolutely not time-specific, not to be hip or set in journalism or the music industry. I just fell in love all over again with these books like To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men. What I loved about The Wasp Factory is that it could have been set in any time as well. That is one raging nihilistic book which I liked. To me there is a certain magic, Tom Spanbauer’s The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon or Mark Richards‘s book of short stories, The Ice at the Bottom of the World. All those books seem timeless. They are outside of things, even though there are references to things in the modern. Because the book was written in Dublin and it was written through the prism of memory, so it was impressionistic, not reportage of what was going on where I grew up. Because it was drawn from memory, and memory distorts, but what I’ve discovered since moving back down last May, there are actually two different worlds, two different time-zones coexisting…The reviewers have been very kind, but some of them have said is this not a bit anomalous, is Lily not a much older character, does this not seem like a much older 1970s Ireland. And the answer to that is within the metropolis, within the confines of Dublin, that in the country, yes, you still have the African, Russian and Polish communities and internet cafes and the technology and all that. But you still have people who are pure country and their mindset hasn’t really altered. It’s not that they’re old fashioned, there just out of time completely, they’re in a flux. Which is a compliment, It’s a kind of ancient mentality.
PM: You go into any pub on a Friday night in a small town and you’ll see all the young folks dolled-up, listening to Lady Gaga or whatever and you’ll also see the old bloke in the corner in his tattered old Crombie who is from another world…
3:AM: You have your boy racers, you have the gypsy in the caravan – you don’t know what she sees which is creepy – and then you have others who reveal stuff, the characters who appear only to disappear just as quickly. They seem inconsequential. The random placement of certain characters your intention, or am I reading too much into it?
PM: No. No, one thing I noticed about a really great film is there are no bit parts.
3:AM: Like Janeane Garofalo?
PM: Theses characters, they leave an impression, they leave residue behind them. Brad Dourif is another, who is Doc in Deadwood And, you know, this happens all the time in David Lynch’s work. People are apparently random characters who have some totem significance and it’s always kind of creepy. I had trouble seeing the character Jude until I saw on Wicklow Street one day this very slim, very beautiful almost dandified black guy and that solidified him.
3:AM: Your book is holding its own against critics…
PM: Oh no, god, I’ve no complaints. The reviews have been amazing. There are certain points brought up which are interesting reading it socially. Or it’s almost like the reviewer asks you a question and you can’t answer it, you’d love to sit down and have a coffee with them…
3:AM: It is the ambiguity, that’s why it appeals to the reader. It is the David Lynch thing again… Out of curiosity, what where you listening to while writing?
PM: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the Deadman soundtrack by Neil Young and Arcade Fire’s first album Funeral. And others.
3:AM: Every village and town has an overbearing old witch like Mrs Nagle. Someone you’ve crossed paths with?
PM: She’s many people I’ve encountered, as I’m sure you have to. They have this terrifying energy about them, and a terrifying sort of blithe ignoring of social conventions that allows them to gatecrash your life. She is a cuckoo, she’s a parasite who lives off the energy of Lily and John.
3:AM: What I thought was affecting was John having to watch his mother crumble, the centre of his world turn to ash…
PM: Most kids don’t have to go through that at that age, but we do when we reach our 30s and 40s…
3:AM: Loss is prevalent throughout. Not just death but when her health deteriorates, her mind begins to wander. And having Mrs Nagle there would make it even more horrible….
PM: It’s almost a hammy Good versus Evil showdown, but in such a tiny domestic situation I kind of got a kick out of John wrestling with the devil. It’d be epic if it wasn’t in such a small setting.
3:AM: But there is an epic quality to John the Revelator.
PM: Well, that’s lovely to hear. Maybe if there is any tension in it… It’s the telescoping of that bigness.. I mean, it’s life and death and sex and decay and dreams and reality and all that level. On a very human level I hope. Probably because it’s a first novel and I just had enough to learn and to master without trying to write on an epic scale.
3:AM: How long did it take to write?
PM: The book took about three or four years, but it came out of a process of eight or nine. Of learning how to write fiction. But if you wanna count from when I wrote stories for my English teacher from the age of 16…
3:AM So can a person learn to write fiction?
PM: If you want it bad enough, yeah. There’s the spark of the desire of wanting to do and everything after that is sheer will power. There were mornings when I was exhausted and thought I’d never get to the end of it. But got on with it with the help of my friends. Got on with it.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Alan Kelly is the contributing editor to Dogmatika. He has worked for a number of specialist magazines, Film Ireland, Pretty Scary, Penny Blood, Bookslut et al.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, April 15th, 2009.