Paul Murray (Lee Pellegrini)
Like most any author, Paul Murray is grateful for the praise he’s received for his work. He only wishes it would come earlier in the process.
“As a writer, the time you really want affirmation is in the middle of things, when you’re trying to put the book together and you’re struggling and you’re on the point of losing faith. That’s when you could really use someone giving you a round of applause and a bottle of champagne,” quipped Murray, who is the Burns Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies at Boston College this semester, in an interview earlier this month at his Connolly House office.
A Dublin native, Murray has written three acclaimed novels: An Evening of Long Goodbyes, shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Irish Book Award; the bestseller Skippy Dies, shortlisted for various honors including the National Book Critics’ Circle Award and named one of Time magazine’s Best Books of 2010; and The Mark and the Void, which won the Bollinger Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction and made Time’s Best Books of 2015 list. Banshee Press has described his work as “urbane, dense, funny, brainy, [and] unpretentious.”
Murray will read from his forthcoming novel, The Bee Sting, and share his thoughts about the creative process when he presents “How to Write a Novel,” the fall Burns Scholar Lecture, on November 9 at 5:30 p.m. in the Burns Library Thompson Room. The event, preceded by a 4:30 p.m. reception, is free and open to the public.
A collaboration between the Center for Irish Programs and University Libraries, the Burns Scholar program brings outstanding academics, writers, journalists, librarians, and other notable figures to the University to teach courses, offer public lectures, and work with the resources of the Burns Library in their ongoing research, writing, and creative endeavors related to Irish history, art, and culture.
“It's easy to feel isolated when you’re working on a book. So to be among students who are excited about writing feels very energizing.”
Murray is teaching a writing workshop in fiction for BC undergraduates, covering character development, point of view, voice, setting, imagery, sentence design, plot, pacing, and the use of time in a narrative. Students in the class commit to intensive writing, both in class and out, and full participation in the workshop editing process.
“As a writer, it’s easy to feel isolated when you’re working on a book,” he said. “So to be among students who are excited about writing feels very energizing. I was concerned whether undergraduates might need more infrastructure, but broadly speaking, they’re quite sophisticated. Some have been writing a long time, some are just trying it out. I talk to them about their lives, I hear their stories, and some of these are crazy or agonizing. There’s so much going on behind ordinary facades. Writing can be a way for them to make sense of what they’ve experienced.”
Along those lines, The Mark and the Void can be viewed as Murray’s effort at processing the “Celtic Tiger,” Ireland’s boom-and-bust period from the mid-1990s to the late 2000s. As a self-confessed “contrarian,” Murray—then in his early 20s—observed the Celtic Tiger’s onset with skepticism and a certain distaste. The transition in Ireland was certainly profound, he recalled: Where in pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland, talented, educated young people typically pined for their green cards so they could seek better prospects abroad, now many of them found lucrative jobs with tech companies in Ireland, enabling them to accumulate property and other trappings of wealth.
“Something about it creeped me out,” said Murray. “There was an ambient negativity about it all: People got rich but also materialistic; no show-offery was too much. It all seemed so empty.”
It wasn’t all bad, he added. The Celtic Tiger seemed to spark a diversity in ideas and social mores in Ireland, and general optimism: “Even after the crash, there was a sense that ‘things could be done.’”
But the revelations of (at best) unethical behavior within the financial industry, with little or no repercussions for those exhibiting it, left a sour taste in many mouths. After owning more property overseas per capita than any other country, as Murray notes, suddenly Ireland owned less of its own property per capita than any other nation. He found himself compelled to learn more about the practices and policies that led to this reversal of fortune, and his self-education informs The Mark and the Void—full of peculiar characters and improbable events revolving around a Dublin investment bank that survived the 2008 global market crash.
“Being a writer is a good job for a contrarian: You can’t be fired from it,” said Murray, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy at Trinity College and a master’s degree in creative writing at the University of East Anglia. “I always wrote. As a kid, it was comics, later it was songs and film scripts. But writing fiction felt like the only thing I could do where I had complete control. I was lucky in that I met people on the way who pointed me in one direction or another.”
One such person was Joseph Nugent, a professor of the practice in English and member of the Irish Studies faculty, who attended Murray’s reading of Skippy Dies in an Irish bookstore, which led to a conversation between the two—and, a few years later, an invitation for Murray to speak at BC (he also has appeared on “The Irish Influence,” a webinar series launched by Nugent and Boston College Ireland Academic Director Michael Cronin).
And now, Murray is set to join the list of distinguished personalities—among them Mary McAleese, Maurice Harmon, Paul Bew, Margaret Kelleher, Diarmaid Ferriter, Kevin Barry, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, and Guy Beiner, now the Sullivan Professor and director of BC’s Center for Irish Programs—who have presented the Burns Lecture.
“No, I’m not really going to tell people how to write a novel,” laughed Murray. “What I want to talk about are the special twists of fate that can occur in our lives, and where they can take us. I’ve had more than a few of these myself, and I’d say on the whole it’s worked out pretty well.”
Sean Smith | University Communications | November 2022