Naeem Murr interviewed by Nathan Oates and Amy Day Wilkinson
for Center,
Columbia, Missouri, April 21, 2005

Nathan Oates:     When and why did you start writing?

Naeem Murr:     I was terrible at English and writing when I was in England.  I passed my 'O’ level only on the third try.  I studied engineering and never ever thought about being a writer.  I know people who wanted to be writers essentially from infancy, but it never even occurred to me.  I’d never even really thought about books as being written by anyone.  Then I came out here, to America, to study aeronautical engineering after I dropped out of university in England, where I was studying civil engineering.  I ended up taking a creative writing class with Stu Dybek and then with Arnie Johnston at Western Michigan University.  I suddenly realized that all of my aimlessness and my fantasy life could be put to good use.  In truth, I don’t think there is anything else I could have done.  Even when I studied engineering, I never had any real sense that I was actually going to be an engineer.  I did it because it was there to do, and I had a certain facility with math and physics.  And here, in America, there were actually fellowships and assistantships for creative writing, so I continued, parasitically attaching myself to one institution after another.  I’m still going ... still feeding.

Amy Day Wilkinson:     Did you go back to England after studying at Western Michigan?

NM:     After Western Michigan I went to Syracuse to do my Masters’.  Then from Syracuse I went to Stanford on a Stegner Fellowship.  Then I went back to England for about a year, in which I finished my first novel.  Not my first published novel.  My first monstrous tumor of a novel that developed in my bedroom in the dank darkness.  That was a pretty miserable year.  I loved seeing my family, but a writer dissolves when he returns home (there is a great scene in Mann’s Tonio Kroger that expresses this).  No one was interested in that novel, so went to the University of Houston to do my Ph.D.  It was while I was there that I wrote The Boy, which I can see now came out of that very unhappy year in England, my sense of just having no self - nothing to be.  That novel came to me, and was written, very quickly.  

NO:     Do you feel more connected to the English literary world or that of America?

NM:     I don’t feel connected to a literary world at all.  I have writer friends who live in New York and they’re very much a part of that world.  It terrifies me a little.  There is already enough pressure on a writer without having to be in contact with all those ambitions, jealousies, stories about who got a million dollar advance, and whose book was dropped in the toilet.  I’m just not sure that’s a way a writer can be in the world. 

NO:     You’ve taught in lots of creative writing programs in addition to attending several.  Do you find the culture in creative writing programs different in some way from the larger literary world, or the New York literary world, and is it beneficial for writers?

NM:     I think the benefit for writers is, to a great extent, time to write and a community.  Time without too much pressure.  Programs are changing, though.  When I attended the Stegner program, they chose people who, generally, were not published.  I had one publication; most people didn’t have any.  I’ve been told that many now have book deals in the works even before they go.  There seems to be so much more pressure within writing programs, and so much more that is attached to the publishing world and publishing. There’s good and bad in the change.  The culture of publish or perish is useful in a way: writers aren’t writing for themselves.  But I think it can put premature pressure on some writers, with all the pressure to get an agent, and to send books out - often well before they are ready.   Better to take five years to publish a good book, than to publish two or three bad ones.  There’s starting to exist an established hierarchy of creative writing schools, also, which is problematic.

ADW:     Why do you think creative writing programs are less prevalent in England?

NM:     England still has the idea or ideal of a writer as being sort of a public intellectual.  Many more are freelance journalists, writing books between journals and reviews, than here.  But this will change, I think.  There are more and more creative writing programs. Give it another ten years; it won’t be any different.

NO:     To go back to when you were talking about being an engineer before being a writer, did you read a lot then?  And, if so, was it fiction?

NM:     I read a lot of things that seemed profound to me, in order to feel that I was profound.  I read all of the French existentialists.   I loved the mood of them: it felt like a heady draft of distilled truth.  They reflected the brooding, pretentious young person I was.
          I also still remember very vividly all the books that I read as a child, which had a profound effect on me.  I was completely open to them, as I am no longer, alas, as a “professional” writer. 
Once I started to realize that I wanted to write, I started reading very actively and analytically.   I’ve always been a very slow reader: I’m not the sort of person who can power through a novel in an afternoon.  Perhaps I’ve got some kind of learning disability.  Did I answer ... what was the question again?

ADW:     It was about influential books, basically.

NM:     As I say, I loved the French existentialists for mood.  I’ve recently re-read some of those books and can hardly see anything of what I saw in them then.  Another huge influence were the Russian writers.  At Syracuse Tobias Wolff taught a class in Russian literature, during and after which I read everything I could get my hands on - Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, and so on.  Tolstoy, in particular, was very influential for me in terms of structure, the way he dealt with group scenes, and, of course, the way he developed characters - all of those essential things.  Dostoevsky, you could never learn too much from because, while he’s brilliant, he’s also very sloppy and essentially mad.

ADW:     Your writing has been compared to Conrad’s.  Was he someone you read, who influenced your work?

NM:     Yes.  In The Genius of the Sea Conrad is directly referred to in the middle, when Daniel, the main character, thinks about the book he was reading when he was grieving for his mother.  This informs the story-within-story structure of the whole book.  I have a liking for “told stories,” such as Conrad often wrote.  When I was young my grandmother used to come and visit every Thursday.  In order to keep me amused she would tell me the plots of movies she had seen - and which I was too young to see.  I remember, in particular, a movie about a giant spider terrorizing England.   I had her tell me this same story over and over again.   This is the way I am.  Rather than someone who reads promiscuously, if I find something I like, I read it many times.  I read Anna Karenina four or five times.  The same with Middlemarch

NO:     Let’s move to some questions that are more directly related to your books.  In both of your novels, The Boy and The Genius of the Sea, the creation of fiction, a system of lies, plays a large role.  The title character of The Boy says, late in that novel, “I had to weave from all the events and incidents… a web in which the lie would quiver helplessly, bring the truth to life, send it scuttling to feed upon the vitality of the lie.  I had to calculate it very finely, to step out as far as I’d ever dared upon the thin ice of my instinct for people.”  What connection is there between the lie, or lies, and the truth, or truths, in a work of fiction?

NM:     I think a lot of fiction will inevitably be about fiction, because that is what a writer spends most of his or her time doing.  In Middlemarch, for example, almost every character there can be interpreted as an image of the writer.  A more contemporary example is The English Patient, every character a kind of metaphor - an oblique aspect of the writer.  In The Boy, the boy himself, who has various names, talks about the difference between fiction and memoir.  I think, to some extent, both my novels are trying to make a case for fiction.  Currently people seem more interested in “information,” facts.   Non-fiction, memoir, the internet - these provide an unadulterated truth.   Every age has a certain relationship to the truth - perceive what is true and not true differently.  Right now we seem to have shifted away from works of the imagination either toward works of complete fantasy or toward the so-called “literal” truth.  People seem to have forgotten for now what the imagination does to bring pressure to bear on what we know, and what we don’t  know we know.  In The Boy, the boy says to Sean Hennessy, that the fake journal he made up, is, in many ways, more true than the real journal (written by Hennessy’s daughter), which is merely expresses a banal and literal truth.  In The Genius of the Sea while the stories Amos tells are possibly fiction, they clearly come out of some essential psychological/spiritual/emotional need in Daniel.  They are in many ways more true than what might actually have happened.  As Philip Roth puts it: a writer’s work expresses his unspeakable truth. 

NO:     Do you have a sense that it’s somehow harder to be a writer in a time like ours, when people are turning away from fiction more and more?  The Atlantic Monthly, you’ve probably heard, is no longer going to publish fiction in their monthly issue. There seems to be a movement away from fiction in most of the major magazines. And yet there are all these creative writing programs and writers in the world.  How do you explain these two incidents coinciding?

NM:     It seems that there are an awful lot more people out there who want to speak, but are not really interested in listening.  The internet is an explosion of voices, sharing, but also competing.  People want to get their voices into the world on an unprecedented scale.  There are more, smaller venues, but the larger ones do seem to be consolidating, narrowing, focusing on work that is popular and profitable.  There are many fewer publishing houses, and those there are, are much less willing to take risks.
          And yet, since I began to publish, I’ve heard nothing but tales of doom about the publishing industry - its imminent collapse.  The apocalypse is around the corner, but it never quite seems to happen.  I hate making general statements, since I don’t know the facts.  People are constantly talking about the shrinking market for fiction, but I have a lot of writer friends who are doing okay.  I have a friend writing a very serious literary novel, for which he was offered a hundred and seventy-five thousand just recently.  If nobody is reading fiction, why would that offer be made?  In the end a writer can’t focus on these things.  Remember our great motto: live anxiously; die in poverty.

ADW:     What kind of relationship do you hope to build with your readers?

NM:     That’s a difficult question for me, since I think that the books I’ve written so far are, in some ways, quite different, and therefore might appeal to different kinds of readers.  My next novel, The Perfect Man, is also quite different from the first two, set in the 1950’s in small-town America, much of it from the perspective of children. 
          I am, though, thinking a little more about readers than I used to, about whether I may be getting more pleasure out of writing something than someone might get reading it.  One does, to some extent, have to think in this way to have and maintain a professional writing life.  But I need to be personally compelled by what I’m writing, and a writer is lost the minute he thinks that he must write a “NewYorker” story or a novel that will sell a million copies.  You have to write what is given to you to write, and be true to the characters that you can’t stop thinking about.  For me, character is everything, so I suppose I would like readers who are as haunted by the people in my books as I am. 

ADW:     Can you tell us about your new book, The Perfect Man?

NM:     It’s about a young Indian boy from London who ends up in a small Missouri town called Pisgah in the 1950s.  As I said, there are a number of perspectives, some children, some adult, and it covers the time of Rajiv’s growing up.  A couple of years before he arrived, something terrible happened to a young boy, and the pressure of this - and of other secrets kept by the adults - pervades the action of the book, and distorts or destroys a number of the characters.   Much of it is about the secrets people keep - particularly parents from their own children.  Also, a great deal is about the eternal and ongoing battle between women and men, between love and possession, romance and lust.  To give you an idea, throughout the novel there are sections from an increasingly corrupted romance novel being written by a woman whose partner killed himself.   I have no idea why I chose that place and time.  I’ve spent some time in this area of Missouri and something appealed to me about it.  For me, a sense of place is very important; once that is established, characters emerge - ghosts in a way.  Once I’ve been possessed by the characters, the story comes. 

ADW:     Interesting.  Did you do research?

NM:     I did a lot of research, which was very important for me, but I’ve used hardly any of it - just a few details here and there.  I’m wary of research.  It can be ruinous - take a look at George Eliot’s Romola, for example.  I think people often research in order not to work.  At least, one has to be aware of diminishing returns - beyond the perfect detail there is a whole world of useless information.  But you do have to find that perfect detail.   Again, it comes back to character: that is what is important.  Of course, there are many readers who are happy to read bad books because of the period details; they probably have Asperger’s Syndrome [laughs].

NO:     I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the way you go about writing your novels, because you say they’re all very different from one another.  Do you plan them all out in a similar way before you begin writing or do you begin writing before you have it all figured out?

NM:     I plan it all out.  One thing I learned writing that sprawling first book, which ended up being about nine hundred pages long, is how important it is to think about structure.  When I got the idea for The Boy - while I was on a train on my way to visit a friend - I was immediately determined not to launch aimlessly into this project, but to think carefully about how I wanted it to be structured, the developing narrative arcs for each character, even down to exactly what I wanted to get out of each chapter.  I wanted all the information about Sean’s past to be at the center of the book, like a pivot.  The more mysterious abstract voice came in just twice, at the beginning and end, and every character had about three chapters.  Once I had established this form, I could work very quickly.  The Genius of the Sea had been a novella before it was turned into a novel.  I will never do that again.  It’s very tough to change the form of something - to build a book, so to speak, from the outside in.  You have to bring every skill to bear not to create a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, adding limbs here and there, firing in lightening bolts of passionate prose.  Still, I learned a great deal, though it took me many years to finish the novel to my satisfaction.

ADW:     So are you at work on a new book or are you still working on The Perfect Man?

NM: I’m hoping to be done with The Perfect Man by the end of this month.  The British publishers have accepted it and I have some comments there and I’m whittling a few things away and hoping that in about a month or so – it might be the end of this month - I hope to send it out here in the States.  I’ll send it to my publisher here and see if they want it and we’ll see what happens. 

ADW:     Do you have something brewing for your next book?

NM: Yeah, my next book is going to be called Companions of the Fire.  It’s strange for me to have a title already.  This book is set in an alternate England that’s ruled by an oligarchy.  Of course, it is a way to look at our own world.  It is a culture in dissolution, balkanized, the cities becoming city states, and though there are many different cultures and peoples within England (and the book is filled with stories about these), there is no sense that there is a world beyond the sea.  So it is an environment both of cultural profusion and isolation.

NO:     Do you feel that writing novels has in any way become easier for you?

NM:     I always remember Stu Dybek answering a similar question at Western Michigan, during a workshop.  He looked up at the class with just a flicker of despair and said “It never gets any easier.”  I always think about that.  Perhaps the truth is that if it feels too easy, you need to make it a little more difficult.
I also remember Philip Roth, who was visiting Stanford, once saying that novels are impossible.  That too is true:  Any creative endeavor of any significance is simply not possible.  Until it is done.  And even then, it is almost certainly not fully achieved.  There are so many contingencies, there’s so much that’s precarious, and it’s impossible to think of bringing something to life that is whole and integral, any more than you can imagine your own child becoming a man or woman.  It is an impossible thing until it is done and that’s what you have to struggle with and against.  Novels  in particular are difficult because you have to generate and then balance, coordinate, and integrate so much, while trying not to let your life in too much.  That’s what makes writers the hollow, shriveled, self-protective, ruined creatures that they are.  However, if one looks at it from another perspective, it can get easier - if you are determined to learn your craft and keep learning, to develop stamina, and put what failures and successes you have behind you.  Success, especially early, can be just as poisonous and difficult to deal with as failure.  Saying all these things, I feel a little like Yoda, shriveled and wise.
          Anyway, the clear solution is to cut everyone and everything out of your life.  [laughter]  Lock yourself in a room. 

NO:     I recently read a piece by Saul Bellow about his time in Paris on a Guggenheim.  He was trying to write his third novel and it wasn’t working and it was when he gave up on that novel that he then began writing The Adventures of Augie March and it just poured out of him.  It was a sudden break through for him in writing.  When you talk about that first large novel of yours, do you feel that in some ways you learned from failing to write that novel you wanted to write?

NM:     I think that’s how a writer really learns.  So many people write that first novel that just doesn’t go anywhere.  It’s very difficult for me as a teacher, because you understand that people often have to write something that’s not going to work and while they’re doing that so much pressure builds up.  It’s a very common experience to work for years on something that just will not come to life, a Frankenstein’s monster.  It just happened to another writer friend of mine who had worked for two years on her book, which was due in a few months.  She bravely scrapped it and is now working on a book she loves.   At times like these you are just struggling, treading water, while something else is developing in the subconscious, and a certain critical pressure has yet to build up.   Poets, to some extent, are the same.  Chris Wiman who’s coming to visit here, has long, frustrating periods of time where poems just won’t come to him, and what he does is essentially tread water.  He’ll write prose and do all kinds of other things.  Recently, living in a house in Paris after a year of not working, he wrote his wonderful long poem,  “Being Serious,” in just a few months.  I think it can be important for some writers to develop strategies during fallow periods to deal with all the feelings of uselessness and self-loathing.  I think it is an important moment in any writer’s life, and part of becoming a writer, to accept that something is not working, even if you have worked on it for years, and move on.

ADW:     Did you go to Houston with your nine hundred page book thinking you could make it work?

NM:     No.  I’d been working on that book quite a while, four or five years, perhaps.  Maybe I was able to leave it behind because  I have a very short attention span and don’t tend to regrets, which has helped me.

NO:     Before you published The Boy you published the novella that became The Genius of the Sea.

NM:     There were a couple.  There’s “Benjamin” which is a long first-person, present tense story (I’ve never written another since), and then “The Writer.”

NO:     All of those are longer stories, novella length and you’ve written two novels and now a third and even a fourth novel.  Were you ever interested in writing short stories?  Or is there some distinct difference for you between writing novels and novellas as opposed to short stories. 

NM:     It’s a question of how one is constituted.  Some people are able to write good short stories, but, for me, everything just turned out longer.  When I was a child I wouldn’t clean my room for months.  When I finally did commit myself, I would take every single thing out of my room, clean it, fix it, paint it, and then put it all back in perfect order.  That was just the way I was even from a young age, and there is something in that part of my personality, I think, that makes me more inclined to longer works.

NO:     Maybe it came from reading all those Russians. 

NM:     Yes, even their short stories are long.  Bit I also loved Thomas Mann’s long stories, and Conrad’s, so it’s not such a surprise that my first stories were of the same length as stories like Tonio Kroger and Typhoon

NO:     What were the books that struck you as good when you read them in a way that what you’d read before was not.  And, also, in terms of your own work, what was the first thing you wrote that you really felt yes, this is good. 

NM:     In terms of my own work, that’s difficult to answer.  In the thick of writing something, I always think it is wonderful.  [laughter]  In my early years, I would love what I had written right up until I saw the despair on people’s faces in workshop as they tried desperately to figure out what they might suggest beyond amputating both my hands and blinding me.  Then of course the horror and self-loathing flooded in.  But often, when you like something that is not working, particularly as you become more experienced, you do so against your instincts - simple denial.   The first story I was ever praised for was the first story I published, “Benjamin.”  It was my first experience of general agreement that people cared about the character - at least believe in him and his predicament - and wanted to turn the page.  Prior to this, I had been interested in things other than character, as young people often are - in elaborate structure, style, beautiful writing (i.e. purple prose), and so on.  I spoke for all my characters; they all had the same level of diction; they pontificated about the nature of being and nothingness.  People often talk about how workshops tend to mediocrity, or that all those differing opinions and aesthetics make it impossible for the writer to know what to take.  In my experience, when something was truly good - which happens incredibly rarely - more or less everybody says it is good.
          I had the sense that “Benjamin” was a decent story, and I had the same sense with The Boy.
In terms of reading I’m not sure.  When I was young I just loved The Immoralist by Andre Gide.  I loved its purgatorial tone and its notions about culture.  That was the tone, the authority, I wanted to command as a young person, a tone reeking of mystery and experience.  I re-read it recently, and couldn’t find anything of what I had seen in it then.  But perhaps something of what I imagined to be this tone came out in The Boy a little bit.   But you get much more critical as you get older - especially if you spend every day writing.
 

ADW:     Has participating in workshop as a student and now a teacher helped you become more critical?

NM:     Well, I’m a pretty unconscious kind of person.  Certainly my teaching has helped me to clarify certain ideas, and why some works of fiction seem - are - so much better than others.  Of course, if you get too self-conscious, it can damage your writing.  In one section of The Perfect Man, I found one of the characters spouting a lot of my ideas about culture and fiction - an atavism, which was cut out.  I do think, though, that you can learn a great deal from applying yourself consciously to fiction.  I’m interested in writing some short stories now because I teach them, and I feel I am getting a much better sense of their form and how they work.  There are a number of students who can learn very quickly in this way; they realize there is a method, something to learn.  Such students tend to publish much more quickly, though it doesn’t ultimately, necessarily, make them a better writer than those who get to what they are writing by a more confused and circuitous route.  Anyone who thinks you can’t learn it is fooling themselves. You can. 

ADW:     Is there a teacher in the past whose teaching style you particularly appreciated, or someone influential? 

NM:     I admired a lot of people.  I admired Stu Dybek and Arnie Johnston a great deal at Western Michigan.  I had a class with Tobias Wolff at Syracuse, and I was very taken with how smart he was - how brilliant his criticism.  Also Mary Gaitskill at Houston.  But, possibly more important, these people gave me a sense that one could be a writer - that this wasn’t an utterly absurd notion.  I probably, foolishly, was more influenced by their poise, gestures, manner, inflections, and so on than anything else. 
          But I’ve never sought out mentors, nor have I ever encountered anyone who seemed particularly willing to mentor me.  I grew up in the British school system where there’s an adversarial relationship between students and teachers.  They’re weird, badly dressed creatures, whom you call sir or miss, and whom you imagine hanging upside down in their closets for the rest of the day.

NO:     The Boy is a very violent book and very dark in tone and The Genius of Sea, while there’s greater hope for love in that book, is also a dark book set in poverty and violence.  Yet, within the books, there are all sorts of moments, as I think was particularly clear in the reading you gave, of humor.  Particularly in sections of dialogue.  Do you write dialogue intending it to be humorous?

NM:     That comes out of character.  That’s all a function of character.  I’m learning humor.  There isn’t anywhere near the humor in The Boy as in Genius and in the new book.  I think it’s very important, in order to develop as a writer, to learn how to write in different tones and registers, to bring every element of life into your books.  Humor is a part of my personality, but it rarely got into my work, which was often quite passionately humorless.  I want to create something that’s more orchestral.  With each book I try to stretch myself as a writer, to create something that has greater tonal variation.  It’s odd to produce work that is not at all like me.  Certainly I have my dank and dark patches, no doubt about it. 
          The other side of this, is that I rarely think of my books as dark.  Many readers and critics saw The Boy, as being about a beautiful sociopath.  I always thought of him as a child, surrounded by adults, all of whom have a chance, but fail, to see this boy as something other than what they want him to be.  The book isn’t simply about an Iago-like malevolence triumphing, it is about our responsibility to allow the people around us to “become,” develop, without being hampered or damaged by our preconceptions and selfish needs.  If such a thing has a coherent form, and is written well (it is here that people can disagree - say it isn’t coherent or is over-written), but if it is coherent and well-written, then how can such a work be perceived as dark?

NO:     The balance between form and character in your work is interesting, because while character seems to be the center of your work, your novels are also intricately and delicately balanced and in some ways formally similar to the novels of Nabokov.  How do you keep the form from dominating the characters?

NM:     As with poetry, you work with and against the form you create.  Form is also a way to convey the weight, the information, of a novel as elegantly, effortlessly, and harmoniously as possible.  It is architecture, and one can have as many theories in this regard as an architect.  Nabakov, I know, liked to play with form.  For me, a clear sense of form is not only a necessity for longer work, it is also a way to keep the writing of a long piece interesting, the more abstract apportioning and proportioning gives as much, as I say, to work against as with.  In The Perfect Man, one of the things that interested me was writing a novel in which I entered the perspectives of many characters, but only entered the head of the person who is arguably the main character once - in the last chapter.  It came to me and then compelled me as a problem.  For 95% of the book, he exists only as someone observed by other characters.
          But I have become a zealot for character, at least during this time of my life.  Odd that you mention Nabokov, because I’ve never been a fan.  While Lolita  is beautifully written, a stylistic tour-de-force, the book doesn’t strike me as having any substance - and certainly no independent characters.  They are puppets (he even compares his characters to puppets - punch and Judy, I believe - in Laughter in the Dark).  His narrators are all more or less the same, and are less a character than a “literary voice.”  When he wants to get rid of the mother in Lolita (as I recall) he has her hit by a truck (are we meant to chuckle at this - chortle, perhaps).  Certainly I was impressed by and I love some of his images.  I still remember in Pale Fire he talks about a man with a bald head being like a gland.  But Pale Fire itself is an elaborate joke that gets old very, very quickly.
          I guess one has to have faith in certain things at certain times in one’s writing life.  Right now, I believe, as many even of the most “experimental” writers did (have a look at Virginia Woolf’s essay, “Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown.”) in character first, as the basis for great fiction.  And I believe in fiction itself, which is under siege right now by the monobrows in search of “literal” truth.