Contributor Q+A with J. Thomas Murphy

J. Thomas Murphy’s work has appeared in Heavy Feather ReviewSpry LitGravel Mag, and elsewhere. Their story “The Price of Teeth” appeared in Sundog Lit Issue 17. After teaching English in Korea for two years, he decamped to the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his wife and cat. Find them on Twitter @Dale_Croupier.

Tell us a little about your writing process (from the first word to the last edit).
Usually it starts with a sentence or a phrase. I used to like to start with endings, but these days I’m finding that beginnings are much more interesting. I write and find the story as I go, then I let the ending surprise me. Sometimes I figure it out in the first draft, sometimes the fifth. I like to iterate my stories the way software companies put out updates to apps with major and minor revisions. Major revisions follow big changes: structure, plot, character(s). Minor revisions follow less important details: word choice, dialogue, line edits. Often I’ll power through a draft and a few revisions before things start to feel hopeless, like the whole thing has gotten away from me. I’ll let it stew in a drafts folder and when I’m feeling apathetic or stuck on another piece of writing I’ll flip through it and look for something good: a word, a phrase, something that makes me think a story might be worth revising, or something that makes me think that I might actually had a modicum of talent, that all this time spent sitting at my desk, staring at my laptop screen isn’t all just a waste of time. I guess that’s the real secret. Most of the time when I’m writing I’m just sitting there, trying to prove to myself that I can still do it, that I even had it to begin with.

What is something you’re fascinated with at the moment?
I knew a guy once—still know, depending on how you look at it—who watched Cool Hand Luke every day for a month. I couldn’t tell you why. I don’t think he could tell you either. Which isn’t how fascination works. Something grabs you and holds you down, eats up all of your attention until you come out on the other side totally wrung out. Your fascination has nothing left to give, and you have nothing left to take. The last, great casualty of this pandemic has been my attention span, the energy I would normally give over to fascination and obsession. Of course, in some ways fascination necessitates the obfuscation of the real world. The fascination blocks it out, or at the very least makes it hard to see and hear and taste and smell. But we live in fraught times. The days events, no matter how banal, seem to loom over us, make the consumption and creation of art feel trivial by comparison. There’s just so much stuff in the psychic ether these days: Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram or whatever. Makes you long for the days you could sit around watching Paul Newman eat eggs.

Is there a place that has inspired your writing? If so, where is it and what about it made for good material?
I grew up in Massachusetts and while I’ve been away for the last four or five years it follows me. It feels as monolithic to me as California, New York and Texas probably do to the people that live or grew up there. I’m full of its morals and ethics, its contradictions and hypocrisies. The people in my stories are caricatures of the people I grew up with: opinionated, stubborn, either troublingly unaffected or comically exaggerated in their responses to the world. Even after living abroad and in two different states I don’t think I’ve ever really left it: it’s musty basements and rocky landscape, prim churches and wild turkeys. I could be frozen in ice and wake up in a thousand years and there all of my characters would be: over-educated bigots and holy fools, lurking in the chilly shadows of Protestant churches, lurching from the office to the bar to home, not quite sure about salvation, but not entirely convinced of the other thing, either.

What are you working on now?
I’m revising a novel that I wrote in a single, blissful month of unemployment while I was living abroad. It’s an anti-travelogue, a haunted house tale, a pastiche of all the Victorian novels I consumed while I was there. There are a dozen stories in various states of disrepair, a few novellas. Mostly I’m working on not working, being OK with just not being very productive. I have to hope that one day my strength will come back. Someday I’ll be able to prove to myself that I’ve still got it, that I ever had it to begin with. Or maybe not. Maybe I’ll just become a dad and get really into hockey and lawnmower maintenance. It’s an infinite universe, and becoming unremarkable in old age is a far, far better end to go down to than we give it credit for.

Any recommendations for readers, i.e. books, movies, television, art, anything under the sun?
Yasujiro Ozu’s Good Morning. Camara Laye’s The Radiance of the King. Deep Space Nine. Salads. A long nap. Call your mother.