Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Time of New Weather

The best part about doing the author interviews are all the great writers I've discovered and learned from and Sean Murphy is definitely one of them. Today, I'm really glad to have Sean, who talks about his new book, "The Time of New Weather." Sean won a Hemingway Award for his first novel, holds a MFA in writing and once taught with Natalie Goldberg. He talks about all of this with us today.
The Great Summer Book Giveaway continues. Ask Sean a writing related question by 5 p.m. today and you will be entered into a random drawing. If I draw your question, Sean will answer it and you'll receive his book.


Please tell us about yourself.

Sean: I'm a long-time practitioner of Zen meditation and the author of a book on Zen in America (One Bird, One Stone, Renaissance/St. Martins 2002) as well as three novels for Bantam Dell - including The Time of New Weather, released in mass market paperback April 29, 2008.
My first novel, The Hope Valley Hubcap King, took me 12 years to finish. When you announce that you're writing a novel, for the first few years friends and family ask eagerly every time they see you, "How's it going?" After several years they stop asking, but will still discuss it if you bring up the subject. A few more years and they will talk about it only under duress, or when they've been drinking. After a decade, if even the slightest mention of your novel enters the conversation they roll their eyes and slowly back away to the nearest exit. No one believes you'll ever actually do it. I hope to be an encouragement to readers who have long-term writing projects, because I not only finished The Hope Valley Hubcap King after 12 years, but won the Hemingway Award for a First Novel, a manuscript prize administered by Hilary Hemingway of the Sanibel Island Hemingway Festival. Fortunately an agent, Peter Rubie, came with that award, and since then I've had three other books published as well.

Tell us about your book, "The Time of New Weather."
When I first had the idea for this book, some years ago, certain concepts -- that the weather might spin entirely out of control and that America might be purchased in a corporate buyout -- seemed a little extravagant. Now people ask, "I thought you were writing fiction?" This was my third novel for Bantam Dell, and the writing coincided with the war in Iraq and concern over civil liberties here at home, so a lot of that seeped into the pages. The book is in part an homage to dystopian classics like 1984 and Brave New World, but it's set in near-contemporary America, has an optimistic outcome, and is leavened with its own peculiar brand of absurdist humor. It's a romance and adventure story as well as a satire -- imagine Kurt Vonnegut meets Terry Gilliam and you might land in the right territory.

You've had such an interesting education background and career, it's hard to know where to start. How did you end up in an MFA program at the Naropa Institute?
I'd been involved in Zen meditation practice for some years and I was fascinated when I heard about Naropa's renegade contemplative writing program, founded by a Tibetan Buddhist Lama, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. How could I resist? Actually my first introduction to Zen was through reading Jack Kerouac's novel 'Dharma Bums', so this felt like coming full circle.

Taos is such a mystical, spiritual place. Do your surroundings there help your creative energy?
I caretake a 42 acre nature preserve with a hot spring. The environment is hugely inspiring, and here in the wilderness I've produced four books – although the writing sometimes competes with broken fence lines, marauding elk, rattlesnakes, and drunken trespassers for my attention! But then there are tremendous gifts such as visits from the leaders of two sovereign nations -- Taos and Picuris Pueblos, both of whom regard this property as sacred ancestral land. It's not your everyday writer's life but I wouldn't trade it.

You won a Hemingway Award for your first novel, that's pretty impressive. Was it difficult then to live up to an award winning book for your second one?
Everyone at my publisher, Bantam Dell, knew that my first novel took me 12 years to write. I had to laugh because after the success of The Hope Valley Hubcap King, they said they wanted my next book in six months! But once you've written one novel you have an important factor in your favor: you know you can do it. The idea for my second novel came to me in a dream while I was writing 'Hubcap King' – I leapt out of bed and wrote 12 pages of notes before I was fully awake so I wouldn't forget anything. So I had basic ideas and characters, but no scenes or chapters written. But I cancelled everything, buckled down, and produced a first draft of The Finished Man by the deadline. Then came the rewrite process with my editor, allowing several more months to revise and edit. I ended up being very satisfied with the result, as was my editor, and Bantam Dell nominated the book for a Pulitzer Prize. It was a great relief to find that I could write quickly under deadline -- I'd already calculated that if the average book took as long to write as 'Hubcap King' I'd be lucky to get 3 more finished in my lifetime!
The thought never entered my mind to compare The Finished Man with Hubcap King – the two novels are very different. It's a bit like deciding which of your children you like more. You do the best you can with each one on its own terms. Winning an award is something of a set-up because you can't expect that to happen for every book. I just gave it my best effort without holding on to the outcome.

Many writers question if an MFA will help their career. How do you feel it has contributed to yours?
The most important thing – and I always tell my writing students this though they rarely believe me -- was the opportunity the MFA workshop environment gave me to revise the work of OTHER writers. Writers usually want feedback on their own work, but the real learning comes in spotting the problems in other writers' work and attempting to solve them. This develops a revision 'muscle' and an objective viewpoint that eventually transfers to your own writing. This skill has been invaluable for me. Of course an MFA won't help you get published -- it's important to realize this. But for better or worse teaching is the bread and butter of most contemporary novelists, and an MFA allows you to teach all college levels (unlike an MA which only serves for community college). This is important because in the career of even a successful author the income stream is rarely predictable!

You and your wife are both writers. How does working together everyday work for you? Do you have separate offices?
The house that comes with my caretaking position is comfortable but small. There's a little upstairs loft where my wife works, but I wrote my last two books on my laptop on an overturned milk crate while sitting cross-legged on our living room floor. I've got a corner 'rat's nest' in the living room that passes for my office space. In the summer I run an electric line outdoors to a cabin-sized tent I bought for less than $100. It all works just fine. There are never the perfect conditions to 'create' – but whatever your circumstances there's always something better to wish for, so my advice to other writers is just get on with it! As for being married to another writer all I can say is, "Thank God". No one else could ever possibly understand! We have different strengths and weaknesses, so we balance each other out, but we give each other plenty of space. Fortunately my wife is the single best reader of my work and her feedback is invaluable (and she's right, 99% of the time!)

You taught with Natalie Goldberg for a time, I loved "Writing Down the Bones," which was one of the first writing books I devoured at the beginning of my freelance career and is a book that stays handy on my shelf. Tell us about working with her.
Natalie and I met at a Zen retreat shortly after I moved to Taos, and I think we both quickly saw that we'd arrived at similar notions of how meditation practice can free the creative spirit, though we'd come to this in different ways. Working with Natalie is a genuine privilege. She's a deeply intuitive writer and a truly inspirational teacher. We still work together sometimes, and we'll lead a writing and meditation retreat together in June at Rose Mountain center in Las Vegas, New Mexico. The most direct answer to what it's like to work with Natalie is that she's simply the best at what she does. If you want to learn writing practice as described in 'Writing Down the Bones', or have been inspired by her books, don't pass up a chance to work with Natalie herself!

You told me you developed the idea for your current book (back when) the "notion that America might be acquired in a corporate buyout and the weather might spin entirely out of control seemed a bit farfetched." Now it seems almost prophetic, like that work of fiction that nearly foretold of the Titanic's demise years before it happened, or some parts of 1984. How do you think that works, is it just being in tune with what's happening and taking it further?
It's odd, since as I mention above, some of what appears in the book was imagined well in advance of current events. But then, in 'The Hope Valley Hubcap King' I invented two rival churches, 'The Church of God the Miniscule' and 'The Church of God the Humongous', which are forever at war because one thinks the reason for God's apparent absence on the earthly plane is that he's too infinitely small to perceive -- while the other believes he's too infinitely large. When my hero, Bibi Brown, tries to make peace by explaining that infinity extends infinitely in all directions, he's thrown into an insane asylum. I had the idea for that part of the book in the last years of the cold war in the 80's, long before the current world standoff between fundamentalist leaders and religions had come to the fore -- but then, religious wars are an eternal theme. So it now seems perfectly contemporary.
As for The Time of New Weather, I'd always wanted to write a narrative of a group of people who actually DO change the world, ever since I walked across the country with 600 other walkers on The Great Peace March for Nuclear Disarmament in 1986. The walk took nine months and gave me a deep sense for the landscape and culture of our country as well as a sense of what a group of determined people can do if they set their minds to it. Of course it's ordinary people who create change, and that's the only way these things usually happen (the abolition of slavery, votes for women, ending the war in Vietnam, etc. etc.) So in my fiction it's taking what's going on here and now and using the imagination to extend the picture a bit further. Of course, you never know if you're getting it right – remember all those 1960's projections of what the year 2000 would be like? Personal jetpacks to fly us to work and so on? Anyway, you do your best, dig deeply into your personal sense of what's going on in the world, elaborate on that, and hope it 'flies'. Only time will tell.



And now Sean is eagerly awaiting a question from you....

3 Comments:

Blogger kerry dexter said...

Sean,
this may seem a bit off the wall, but after reading your interview the question that comes first to my mind is what part does music play in your creative process?

Kerry
who spent several winters in Taos back around 1990 it is an inspiring place, no doubt about it

7:06 AM CDT  
Anonymous Najua Ismail said...

Hi Sean,

Can you please tell me how the practice of Zen meditation has helped you as a writer and perhaps elaborate with examples from your own writing experience? Thank you.

Najua

6:05 PM CDT  
Anonymous Sean Murphy said...

Hi Najua -- you asked about how my Zen practice has influenced my writing... it's a big question as its influenced it in many ways, from subject matter (The Hope Valley Hubcap King and One Bird, One Stone) to my approach. But one of the biggest is in terms of discipline, learning to stay with the writing process even when it gets uncomfortable, as it often does when facing blocks in a project. I hadn't entirely learned this yet while writing The Hope Valley Hubcap King, which is part of why it took me 12 years to finish -- every time it became uncomfortable or I didn't know how to proceed I'd figure 'well, real writers probably don't ever feel this way', and I'd put the manuscript away for months, or even a year or more at times. Once I'd learned this lesson thoroughly my writing process speeded up considerably! The second very important lesson I brought from Zen practice into my writing is that it taught me how to let go of negative voices -- you know, all that scolding stuff we all have in our heads left over from our elementary school teachers or someone else back in childhood: 'you'll never finish it', 'you don't have anything new to say', 'it'll never sell anyway', 'there are too many books in the world already', etc etc. In the process of meditation you let go of your thoughts and return to an object of meditation in the present moment (often the breath) over and over again. As a result we become less reactive to our thoughts and they cease to exert the same control over us -- our lives become freer. It takes time but it's worth it -- at this point the kinds of negative voices and fears that get in the way of creative work don't arise much for me anymore, and when they do they don't have much power. A bumper sticker I saw not long ago said 'Don't believe everything you think'. Great advice, and pure Zen!

11:46 PM CDT  

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