Peter Murphy, an Irish writer up until now principally associated with upmarket music journalism, comes from the provincial Irish town of Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford. His first novel, John the Revelator, is just out in the States with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and came out to considerable critical acclaim in the UK with Faber a few months ago. It is an impressive chunk of literary prose informed by high drama (which Murphy acknowledges) discovered in low places. Despite teasing out familiar Irish themes to do with mothers and Jesus Christ, it takes the reader on a pleasantly fresh faced and exhilarating journey.
Ireland is a land full of writers, many of them no good and utterly overestimated (not least by themselves), but few would doubt that the Irish have both an obsession with, and a facility for, words. This interest in the English language - many Irish people will tell you that the only good thing the English gave us was their language - comes utterly alive in the page-turning classic which John the Revelator surely is. It puts Murphy into a family tree which features heavy hitters like Joyce, Beckett, and John McGahern. He fits into this family perfectly, the slightly awkward cousin deserving of pride and support.
Joe Ambrose: Though the book is much concerned with very Irish themes such as Catholicism, small town life, and mother/son relationships, it strikes me that your inspirations are very much American ones that have been transposed onto the Irish landscape. Is this the case?
Peter Murphy: I think that's pretty true of this book. I didn't read a lot of Irish fiction growing up, was always more drawn to the Irish poets and folklorists. But the novels I did read from childhood - Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Steinbeck, all the way through the Beats and Flannery O'Connor and Poe and Melville, and then modern writers like Tom Spanbauer and Tim O'Brien and Denis Johnson - reminded me of the stories and characters that existed in Wexford. I'm probably just as influenced by Scottish or Russian or Australian or New Zealand writers, that'll come through more in the future I imagine. The thrust of J the R, from the title on, was a sort of what-if-Wiseblood-was-set-in-Wexford notion...
JA: The novel's title derives from a celebrated blues song - and one of the book's central characters is a very identifiable provincial Irish type, the semi-aesthete who knows a hell of a lot about American blues-based music. The Irish seem to me to have an almost unhealthy obsession with American roots music. Why, do you think, do the Irish relate so powerfully to music that comes from a culture utterly different from our own?
PM: Because it's not utterly different from their own. Maybe different from the coastal cities yes, but I find mid-westerners and southerners to be very Irish in their temperament. The songlines have been well traced, the obvious kinship between Irish, Scottish, Elizabethan and Appalachian murder ballads, and the ceili and cajun music. Course, you could just as easily focus on the Hindu or African resonances in Irish music. As for it being 'unhealthy', well, people love what they love. Nothing unhealthy about it. Unless it's bad Dylan imitations or dodgy country 'n' Irish combos.
JA: I read in an interview with you that part of the process that led to the book's completion was your participation in a writers group of some sort. Tell me something about this group and this process.
PM: Sean Murray, Jane Ruffino and Nadine O'Regan. Brilliant writers, brilliant readers. We met regularly over about a two year period and still swap work. Kind, supportive and brutally honest. The book wouldn't exist without them.
JA: The prose in John the Revelator seems to me to be exquisitely teased out - in terms of sentences and paragraphs having a powerful resonance to them. Do you enjoy rewriting? And do you devote a great deal of time to it?
PM: I have to write and rewrite and cut back and rewrite and cut back again in order to get to the core of what I'm saying. For all the writing, it's as much about stripping away. Some of my favourite parts of the book are close to one-takes, but it took an awful lot of work to get to that point. There is a correlation with music, I think. You play and play until you hit a deep seam and when you review the performance you keep the hottest part.
JA: Did you find that your day job, as a music writer, helped or cramped you when it came to writing fiction, insofar as journalism tends to be linear and fiction needs a few twists and curves and contradictions?
PM: It was a whole other discipline. You have to create a world and populate it, which involves using the imagination and drawing on your own inner terrain and human experience rather than imparting information. I do believe journalism can be an art, but it's a different kind of art. In practical terms it meant that I confined most of writing fiction to the early hours of the morning.
JA: What do you think about Catholicism and are you from a Catholic background?
PM: I rarely think about it so much as feel it, for good or ill. I'm interested in how it seeps through art and books and music. My family were Mass-going but not pious. I suppose, like most Catholics, it instilled in me at a young age a repertoire of stark symbols and a nose for high drama - as well as an aversion to any belief system being used as a means of social control. But we didn't study scripture, so I got the Bible through rock 'n' roll and blues and gospel and books.
JA: John the Revelator has been very well received, critically. Were you nervous and anxiously awaiting reviews or were you indifferent to them?
PM: I was curious to see what people would make of it. Reviewers and interviewers are readers, same as everyone else. I was gratified that people had an emotional response to it. As regards being anxious... My friends in the writers' group and my editor and other folks who read the manuscript were way more honest and brutal than any reviewer could ever be, mainly because they wanted what was best for the book.
JA: Who did the video promo for the book that I looked at on Youtube? I thought it simply and accurately capture the book's unsettling resonances.
PM: It was made by my friend and fellow writer Sean Murray. We talked about it a lot before he shot it, making the idea simpler and simpler until we arrived at a sort of hybrid of the Theatre of the Absurd, a Day of the Dead shrine and one of the coin-operated amusements that a friend brought me to see in Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum in Farmington Hills, Michigan. You can also hear musical adaptations from the book at www.myspace.com/therrevelator orchestra.
JA: You mention my pals in the Master Musicians of Joujouka. Why did you choose to mention them?
PM: I figured Jamey, being the kind of kid he is, would've been very much aware of and enthralled by the mythology of Tangiers and Burroughs and Brian Jones etc. Plus I saw an incarnation of the ensemble in Dublin in the early 90s at the Burroughs festival you were involved in, and I never forgot it.
JA: What are your ambitions as a writer, both professionally and artistically?
PM: Dylan Thomas: "These poems, with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions, are written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I'd be a damn fool if they weren't."
Joe Ambrose has written 14 books, including Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. Joe is currently working on his next book, Look at Us Now - The Life and Death of Muammar Ghadaffi, which is an expanded version of a story first published in the anthology CUT UP! Visit Joe's website for all the latest info: JoeAmbrose.co.uk.
March sees a greatly expanded reissue of Elliott Smith's most critically acclaimed album Either/Or