Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Ken Murray

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Ken Murray

William Oaks has managed to create the facade of a normal, even dull, man. But when his parents die in a car accident, that facade is shattered, and William's complicated family history, filled with religious fundamentalism and get rich quick schemes, bubbles to the surface, threatening the stable life William has built for himself as a paper conservator at a Toronto museum.

It's at this crisis that we meet the fascinating character of William in Ken Murray's literary debut, Eulogy (Tightrope Books).

We're thrilled to announce that Ken will be our July 2015 writer-in-residence at Open Book: Toronto.

Today we speak with Ken as part of our Lucky Seven series, a seven-question Q&A that gives readers a chance to hear about the writing processes of talented Canadian authors and gives authors a space to speak in depth about the thematic concerns of their newest books.

Ken tells us about the short story that sparked Eulogy into life, the thematic questions that emerged as the book was written and re-written and how his past as an athlete has influenced his writing life.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book.

Ken Murray:

Eulogy is the story of William Oaks, who works in a lab at the Royal Ontario Museum as a paper conservator. He is thirty years old and reclusive. An accident claims his parents and this makes him face the life from which he has run: A world of Bible thumping and get rich quick schemes. The reckoning threatens to derail William, both personally and professionally.

For me the story started quite a few years ago. It was the summer of 2004. I sketched out a short story about a boy and his father going on a strange trip to an amusement park. The story, once written, was okay on the surface, but it seemed to burn with questions. Who was this kid? What’s with the dad? What’s their story? What happens to them?

Around the same time, I took a creative writing class with Kelli Deeth at U of T’s School of Continuing Studies. In an early assignment, she had me write a character in a setting. I wrote about a boy alone in a basement, amusing himself with models and science kits. He was like me in some ways at that age and yet the situation he was in felt entirely alien and unlike my life. I didn’t know anything about him.

The first breakthrough was realizing the kid in the basement and the boy with his father on the bumper cars were one and the same. From there, I was writing to discover the story, and this went on for some time. Once I’d written enough to know this character and his family, I then had to go back and find the narrative line to drive the story. It required doing something drastic to the lives of the characters, but that’s what we do to our creations.

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?

KM:

Can you ever come to honest terms with what you cannot know?

In Eulogy, William struggles with his own history and the legacy of his parents in the wake of their deaths. He is left with things he cannot know, but this does not diminish the struggle.

This question emerged as I wrote, and only became clear in the late drafts. The early questions were much more basic and simple — who/what/where/when.

OB:

Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?

KM:

Yes, the story changed radically. In early versions, the life of a boy was chronicled from age eleven to thirteen, and his struggles to make sense of his family’s newfound religion, and family delusions, and other mania. This story, a weighty 80,000 words, screamed two questions that it did not explore: What happened to this character and family after? and, From what vantage point in life is the story told?

So, I developed a sense of William Oaks in adulthood, and a job that would fit him. At this point a whole other narrative emerged, a place from which the story could be told fully. The story also needed a catalyzing event to get things started. That event happens to his parents when he’s thirty years old. Already a recluse, William is forced to examine the life from which he ran.

From the beginning of the first scribble to the near final draft was seven years, with many reworkings and experiments along the way. I like how it’s turned out. There was a final rewrite this past winter, which added a key new character in Terry. She’s on the page for only a short time but changes the dynamics of the story in a good way.

OB:

What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

KM:

Removing distractions is essential. That, and also getting out into the world and doing things. I know it sounds contradictory. But an ideal day starts with writing — either longhand, or on a computer (set to airplane mode, which adds an extra step to prevent me going online).

But when the writing day is done I’m a more social animal and I want to be out there, interacting with people and doing things, while the stories I have been working on perc away in the background.

You could summarize my needs this way. One: give me quiet. This completed, Two: Give me noise.

OB:

What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

KM:

The difficulty is inherent in the work. But if I am biased toward any platitudes, they are that the hardest things to do are often the most worthy of doing, and also that the things I care most about — like writing a novel — might, for a while at least, be things that only I care about, me and those close to me. The support of friends and family has made a huge difference.

My endurance on the page has roots in sports. I used to be a bit of a competitor, never really good at anything but good enough to race in rowing and cross country skiing, and I recall days when I felt weak and slow, and the knowledge gained was that the work done on those days helped pave the way for the days when everything felt easy and I was strong and fast. Anyone can keep going when things are going well. When things are going poorly, you’ve got to fool yourself into keeping at it.

OB:

What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.

KM:

A great book is one which, at a certain point, fills me with a sense of impending heartbreak that it will soon be over and that I will never again have the experience of reading it for the first time. Richard Flanagan’s Death of a River Guide did this to me, as did The Professor’s House by Willa Cather. There is a sense of wholeness to the people and places in those books, a sense that I am alive with them as I read, and it’s a moving experience. The pages turn, and the bulk of pages shifts to the left, and I know the end is coming and I somehow want to prolong the story, forestall its end, but I am also driven forward, scene by scene, page by page.

OB:

What are you working on now?

KM:

Shhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!

All I can say is that it feels set a little closer to home than anything I’ve done before.


Ken Murray lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario. He teaches creative writing at Haliburton School of the Arts and at the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto. He is a volunteer broadcaster in community radio and dabbles in several sports. Eulogy is his first novel. For more information visit http://www.kenmurray.ca.


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