John Murray Interview
Posted on 12 May 2006. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
WriteWords talks to novelist and publisher John Murray
Tell us something about your background.
I'm just about to publish my eighth novel, A Gentleman's Relish with Flambard(June 2006). It's a comic extravaganza about a man who speaks 55 languages and has 55 mistresses, and how all that embarrasses his son who is a famous satirical cartoonist. My first three novels were all pretty serious and it took me quite some time to have the confidence to declare myself a comic writer. My fourth book Radio Activity(Sunk Island 1993, reissued Flambard 2004) was in part a satire about nuclear energy, and it was highly praised by Jonathan Coe and DJ Taylor, and that gave me the confidence to keep on with comedy.
I was founder-editor of Panurge fiction magazine which David Almond and I worked on from 1984-1996. It got a huge reputation for printing exclusively very talented new and unknown writers. For example Patrick McCabe and the late Julia Darling appeared there before anyone had heard of them.
I've also been regularly tutoring fiction at Arvon since 1989 and I've led fiction workshops at Madingley Hall, Cambridge every summer since 1995. (The next one is in July).
My latest venture is a one man fiction consultancy, basically providing very detailed manuscript assessment with optional one to one tutorials. Clare Sambrook(Canongate 2005)and Gareth Thompson(Random House 2006) have gone on record as saying I helped them enormously with their works in progress. But I help all levels, including absolute beginners.
How did you start writing?
I started by writing poetry when I went up to Oxford in 1969. It was terrible pretentious stuff and it was all about showing off by being as obscure as possible. Before that aged 16 I was very much influenced by a famous photo of George Orwell with a fag smouldering in his mouth. I wanted there and then to be a writer so that I could type in a garret and have a fag always dangling coolly from my lips!(But I don't smoke any longer, and haven't for over 30 years).
Who are your favourite writers and why?
My favourite writers are a large and disparate bunch. I've been compared to Flann O'Brien which is very flattering, though I think he's a genius and I sincerely don't think I am. I like vigour and energy and honesty in writing as long as it isn't all for showing off purposes. So I like the great Russians and their emphasis on character and morality. Turgenev, Gorky, Tolstoy, Gogol etc. For the same reason I also love the Virago writer GB Stern who was a friend and contemporary of Noel Coward and Rebecca West. Her novels about Hungarian Jews settled in London are both brilliant and funny. Of my British contemporaries(I was born in 1950)the only one I'm really enthusiastic about is Lisa St Aubin de Teran. Oh and I admire a lot of out of print Irish writers such as Liam 'O Flaherty, Peadar O'Donnell and Michael McLaverty(no relation of Bernard).
How did you get your first agent/ commission?
I wrote solidly for 5 years(1977-1982)before I had a story taken by the London Review of Books. That was my first proper publication. It was so long(12,000 words) they had to print it across two issues! In the meantime I was trying to get my first novel (Samarkand)taken, but to no avail. In the end it was accepted unagented by Aidan Ellis after 25 rejections. Aidan Ellis then got me an agent who I stayed with for 4 years.. Samarkand was published in 1985 and was immediately taken by Radio 3 for the old interval readings slot.
What's the worst thing about writing?
The worst thing about writing in my case has been the ups and downs of getting published. Aidan Ellis did two more of my books; Kin(1986) and Pleasure(1987).The latter was a book of stories that won the Dylan Thomas Award in 1988. But he turned down Radio Activity(subtitled 'A Cumbrian Tale in Five Emissions') and my agent also ditched me once they saw it. It went round 35 publishers unagented before a tiny outfit called Sunk Island published it in 1993. It was immediately chosen as a Book of the Year in the Spectator and Independent and got rave reviews from Jonathan Coe and DJ Taylor. The lesson there is I suppose never give up and don't always believe what the publishers and agents tell you! They're not infallible, though they like to pretend that they are.
Since then I've been with Flambard who have really looked after me. They're only a small press and there are no great financial rewards, but they've done four of my novels in five years and a reissue of Radio Activity to boot. John Dory(2001) a spiritual thriller about a man and a fish, got some great reviews in the Mail on Sunday, the Sunday Times etc. Jazz Etc(2003)was longlisted for the Booker and that really affected its sales. Murphy's Favourite Channels(2004)was a Novel of the Week in the Daily Telegraph.
The other tough thing about writing is when you've managed to get a book published and the reviews aren't happening. I have a couple of friends who've struggled for decades (literally) to get in print and once it's happened they haven't had a single review. That is to say the least very demoralising. I've been lucky myself. Murphy's Favourite Channels got 10 reviews in the national papers and only 2 of them were bad ones!
And the best?
The best thing about writing is the personal responses from people who like your work. I get regular letters and emails from people enthusing about my books, occasionally saying they've had a major impact on them. About ten years ago I had an extraordinary one. Radio Activity happens to be full of Cumbrian dialect used for comic punning purposes, and I received a long fan letter from a Polish American who had read it in the States and he wrote his letter in his own version of Cumbrian dialect. It was surprisingly authentic!
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