This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with people who are closely involved with Quebec literature on a daily basis as we continue to talk to more publishers, readers, bookstore owners, and translators to get a feel for today’s publishing scene in Quebec.
Matthew Murphy was born and raised in Sudbury, Ontario. He now lives and works in Montreal. He is the author of A Beckoning War, his first novel, published this spring by Baraka Books. You can read our review here and an excerpt here. And listen to the author reading a short extract below.
A Beckoning War is your first book. Is it the first book you set out to write or do you have a pile of unfinished manuscripts in a drawer somewhere?
It’s my first book. The idea for it grew out of a short story I had written for the CBC short story contest when I was about twenty-one. The story sank without a trace, but provided an early version of the main character of A Beckoning War in a supporting role. Afterward, I kept imagining scenes and situations involving that character, and I would write disconnected vignettes to sort of test the water. Then, one night a few months later, I started writing the novel, using one of those scenes as a springboard. I wrote about 21 pages in a couple weeks. Most of those pages are still in the final manuscript, and are relatively unchanged. I realized right away that my subconscious was telling me, “This is it, this is your first novel, whether you are prepared right now to follow through with this or not.” I picked at it here and there after the first burst, often thinking about it and developing its world in notebooks, etc. But I didn’t really get around to writing the bulk of it till years later, when I felt I’d grown into it and had done enough research to really feel I’d inhabited it. Once this happened, and I felt ready, I wrote much of it relatively quickly.
And are you working on something else at the moment?
I’m always working on something. I am well into another novel, early scenes of which I had written not long after starting A Beckoning War. I am also very slowly compiling novellas to form an eventual collection. I have one done, and am on the second. Other ideas seem to be forming as well.
How would you classify A Beckoning War? What’s it all about and what did you set out to do when you began writing it?
I think it’s a sort of an interior epic, an intense and slightly surreal journey into the porous borderlands of the political and the personal. A descent into hell, a kind of dark night of the mind, body, and soul of one person as lit by the hellfire of combat. It’s a story of love and war, and an exploration of the role of choice in the happenings of the world, even in large, inevitable-seeming events. When I started it, it seemed to be the natural outcome of an interest in the Second World War—I had been reading and thinking about it a lot, along with the First World War, and the role of these wars in creating the world we live in now. About the fact that not long ago, everything was up for grabs in a crazy, tremendous, all-out struggle.
These wars were gigantic disasters, and they changed society, remade the maps, exploded technological development, and, like all major world events, they brought in all kinds of change: good and bad and ambiguous.
I think it is also about fear—fear of action, fear of inaction—and of action and agency, and defining one’s role in life, for good or bad. The main character, Jim, goes through hell, but he is responsible for that. In a way, he gets exactly what he wants, and in doing so, plays a small part in a huge drama, a huge conflagration involving millions, who are there for all sorts of reasons, depending on who they are, where they’re from, whether forced to act from circumstance or throwing their chips in as volunteers.
Which other books would you put it next to on your shelf at home?
This is a good question. I would like to say The Iliad, but that is awfully lofty company. Maybe I would put it with Joseph Conrad, Colum McCann, Cormac McCarthy… writers with dense styles whose stories and characters range far and wide in different times, different locales.
I understand you grew up in Sudbury, Ontario, and now you’re living in Montreal. In your mind, does A Beckoning War come under Quebec fiction, is it Canlit, or is it first and foremost a war novel—or an anti-war novel?
It’s a novel, first and foremost, open to anyone anywhere who might be interested. Then, I think it’s a war novel, then a Canadian novel. I don’t really think of it as a Quebec novel, because I had finished writing it before coming to Quebec. I edited it in Quebec, though. I would like to hope that at its best it transcends its origins and genre(s)—that it becomes interesting on its own terms, with its own reasons to make you want to read it and finish it, that it is ordered by its own logic. But, of course, there are obvious patterns within. It is most certainly centred around war, and war is, as they say, hell. I think there is a fair amount of that attitude seen in the book. But there are things worth fighting for, I think—I don’t think the main character is utterly deluded to do what he does, or want to do what he does—but is he the right man for the job? His wife would say no. The very existence of war seems sort of unavoidable, at least as a possibility. It is a worldly condition formed of worldly conditions, unfortunately. It is scary and destructive and best avoided—but it isn’t always possible to avoid.
We have an ambiguous relationship with war—we find it repulsive and glorious, we decry the decision to go to war but support the troops. We know its costs and engage in it anyway. We desire peace, but one of its conditions seems to be preparedness for war. We say ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill,’ but seem to waive that in wartime.
Most cultures have a sort of ceremonial military aspect that guides how war is fought. It seems that most cultures recognize its possibility or eventual inevitability and try to channel it in some way, whether through warrior traditions, Geneva Conventions, whatever. I have always found the idea or prospect of war frightening, yet fascinating. I think it is wasteful, and yet, in a weird sort of way, on some level, I have wished I could experience a taste of it. Why? Who knows.
Here at Québec Reads, we’re obviously interested in new Quebec fiction and we’re excited by new voices, such as your own, being published in Quebec at the moment. Are there other local writers you’re particularly influenced or excited by at the moment?
I don’t feel influenced by anyone here (yet) but I can recommend some excellent local writers I’ve read recently: Barry Webster, Mark Lavorato, Su J. Sokol, Laurence Miall, Sean Michaels, and Cora Sire. All very different, all very good. I hope to check out more books by local authors.
Is there anything (a reference, an inside joke, a fact) we probably missed as readers?
That it reads surprisingly well backwards. When I was editing it, by about the eighth time going over it, I couldn’t read it front to back. It became too tedious, and too hard to spot errors. So I read it from the last chapter backward, and found it worked in a weird sort of way. It sort of made the narrative structure, simple as it is, seem more durable to me.
Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Be persistent. Read, write, imagine, and experience. When you get rejected, after you lick your wounds, submit again. Prove ’em wrong.