Yannick Murphy is a playful writer

Saturday, March 17, 2012 
By Ben Beagle bbeagle@batavianews.com

After nine years the “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project has amassed a bookshelf full of titles. Scan the list of Tale selections along with the authors’ other works and some common threads emerge.

Howard Frank Mosher likes to explore Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Mark Spragg writes of the West. Julia Spencer-Fleming is a best-selling mystery author with a series of books set in the Adirondacks. P.L. Gaus also pens mysteries, setting his among the Amish of Ohio. Jennifer Donnelly and Thomas Mullen focus on historical fiction in various forms.

Then, there’s Yannick Murphy.

This year’s Tale author will visit Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties next week for a series of talks and booksignings featuring her fouth novel, “The Call.”

Murphy has the most diverse oeuvre of any of the Tale authors. She’s published two collections of short stories, charming children’s books with beautiful illustrations — “picture books for children” is how she refers to them — historical fiction, and gritty contemporary fiction that deals with difficult issues in a dysfunctional family.

And then, there’s “The Call.”

The slim, spare novel is quite different from previous Tale selections.

An inventive writer

“The Call” is described by NoveList, a books database used by libraries, as “domestic fiction,” a genre that can be told in many formats, including narratives, letters or, as Murphy does, a journal.

Murphy’s fourth novel explores a family’s struggle to maintain stability after its eldest son is seriously injured in a hunting accident. The story is told from the perspective of the boy’s father, David Appleton, a stoic — some might say eccentric — large-animal veterinarian in rural New England. David is seeking the man who shot his son. The search will test David’s patience, humor and resolve. And, when an unexpected visitor arrives with a request that will have profound consequences, David and his wife must come to terms with what family means.

But instead of a traditional narrative, Murphy presents the story in the form of a daily log.

“Whatever keeps me on my toes makes it interesting to me. Writing linear or straight to me would be the death. If I’m not engaging my playful writer side, the work would lose any kind of glimmer,” Murphy said in a telephone interview from her home in Reading, Vt., where she lives with her veterinarian husband and their three children.

The format — which Murphy said is “almost like another character” — provides a unique rhythm for the novel.

“The idea for the story came with the log format,” Murphy said. “It’s such an integral part of the way the story is told. … I needed to maintain it, but I also needed to play with it. I didn’t want the same static rhythm. I needed to switch around, show different angles. It’s more a playful format in itself.”

The log details the calls David responds to each day, and other — sometimes pithy — thoughts on the mundane, emotional and intense events he encounters.

The surprising amount of humor helps to balance darker elements of the story. David may begin his day with a call about a cow with her dead calf half-born, sick sheep or a colicking horse. But he also reveals “thoughts on the drive home” and “what the wife made for dinner” (“nut loaf”) or “what I ate for dinner” (“not nut loaf”).

Oh, and there’s a spaceship.

“She is always surprising me with her inventiveness and facility with different formats,” said Murphy’s agent Judy Heiblum.

The spaceman cometh

“The Call” began as a short story for Dave Eggers’s McSweeney’s Quarterly. The publication had planned a science-fiction themed issue and invited Murphy — who had never before written science fiction — to contribute.

“I laughed as I read that. That was not me,” said Murphy, who writes from a small Cape Code-style home with an office that looks out on a countryside where she has seen a black bear feasting on small apples from a nearby tree and often sees deer. At night, she can hear owls calling to each other or coyotes yipping and howling.

“But then I started to think,” she said, noting that she had wanted to write a story from the point of view of her husband, a large-animal veterinarian who is “rich with stories,” and then for the science-fiction she could incorporate the unusual lights she and her family had seen around their rural home for months and joked were space visitors. (They eventually decided it was some kind of drone, but never found out for sure.)

“Then it clicked. One moment’s puzzle pieces came together,” she said.

Except that when she was finished the story wasn’t really science fiction, though it did include the largely symbolic spaceship. Apparently, Murphy was not alone as the issue never came to fruition and her story was published in the next regular issue of McSweeney’s.

‘Really good meat’

But Murphy wasn’t done.

Her husband kept coming home with more stories about the animals and people he was helping. Each story, Murphy said, was more interesting than the next.

“I wasn’t satisfied leaving ‘The Call’ as a short story,” Murphy said. “I wanted to explore the characters more, but in a short story you can only touch on the way the people in the town interacted. I had a bigger landscape with the novel.”

The novel allowed Murphy to introduce more characters, including the unexpected son, and expand on issues facing the family.

“I said let me show how close I can get to the characters. This thing they experience is pretty heavy duty,” she said. “I imagined if it was my family. It was almost a test. What if it was my family, how would we respond?”

Her husband’s work stories inspired many of David’s encounters. Some of things he would say found their way directly into the book.

“In Vermont, there are so many great stories. As a large-animal vet I encounter all kinds of stories,” her husband, Jeff Oney, said in a separate telephone interview. “Someone has got to describe these stories.

“I think she’s mining really good meat,” said Oney, an Ohio native who met Murphy while he was a racetrack veterinarian in California and she was researching a story. “Often at dinner with three children we’d try to regale each other with stories of our days. So often they were humorous stories about things we observed. I think the ideas were there for someone who is a good storyteller.”

Murphy has proven herself to be a good storyteller. “The Call,” published in August 2011, made several year-end best lists in 2011 and last week was named winner of The Laurence L. & Thomas Winship/PEN New England Award for fiction. The award celebrates the best works of fiction, poetry and non-fiction by New England authors. Murphy is also the recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Award and a Chesterfield Screenwriting Award. He work has appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading and The O. Henry Prize Stories.

“Anyone who has read more than one of Yannick’s works knows that her voice is always distinctive and wholly her own,” said Heiblum, the agent.

An ear for rhythm

Murphy began writing as a kid, though she “thought maybe I’d become a brain surgeon.”

Growing up in New York City her family didn’t have a lot of money and there wasn’t a lot of after-school entertainment, she said.

But they did have a wall filled with books. “Father was an English major at Harvard. His collection was good,” she said.

When bored on hot summer day, she’d pull down a book. Those early selections — classics and anthologies among them — helped Murphy develop an ear for rhythm and story. She liked that books could “transport you into someone else’s life.”

One of Murphy’s first mentors was her high school English teacher, Frank McCourt, who years later would gain fame for his memoir “Angela’s Ashes.” McCourt, she said, “inspired me to tell a story from the heart.”

“It’s seems a simple thing to say, but he obviously loved discussing different writers. Seeing him light up was enough to inspire me,” Murphy said.

‘I’m Yannick Murphy … I’m not supposed to be here.’

After earning a liberal arts degree from Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., Murphy followed her writing interest to graduate school at New York University.

“I knew I could push myself further,” she said. “I had a sense there was more I could learn.”

In New York, Murphy set her sights on a workshop with professor Gordon Lish, who had a reputation as a tough teacher. Murphy had read an Esquire magazine article from a former student who said Lisk opened her eyes to writing like never before.”

But there was a problem. The class was open only to second-year students. Murphy was a first-year. She was told she couldn’t register for the class.

“I remember getting emotional and saying that was unfair. I really wanted to take it,” she said.

Undaunted, Murphy sought out Lish before his class met and introduced herself: “I’m Yannick Murphy, and I’m not supposed to be here.”

That plucky display of rebellion got her into the class, even if years later she’s still not sure if she received actual credit.

The class included private reading sessions that Murphy called “intense.”

“We’d bring a story we were writing and start reading. If after three lines that wasn’t enough you’d be told to try again next week. There were tears; it was hard,” Murphy said. “But is was so inspiring that he would have faith in all of us to be great writers.”

So much faith, in fact, that Lish would edit Murphy’s first collection of short stories, “Stories in Another Language.”

Starting small

Like many writers, Murphy started with short stories; “my first love,” she said.

The nature of the stories require a smaller set of issues for an author to address. She likened the stories to “capturing moments.”

The novel form expands the story, allowing a writer to say more and explore more ideas. It’s also more challenging.

“There’s more time to flesh out elements. That attracted me in jumping from short story to novel,” said Murphy, who has taught creative writing at the University of Southern California, University of California-Los Angeles, NYU and Oberline College in Ohio. She has also worked a variety of other jobs, ranging from personal assistant to famed journalist Carl Bernstein to the Hair Club for Men. These days she also works as a part-time library and technology teacher for her local elementary school, which has a total population of about 40 students.

While novels are, Murphy said, a natural progression from short stories, she doesn’t plan on giving up either format.

“I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing (short stories) because I’m always trying to hone the skill involved that it takes to distill that moment down so that is as crystalline and effective as possible,” she said.

Her most recent short story collection, “In a Bear’s Eye” was published in 2008. Her children’s books include “Ahwoooooooo!” (2006), “Baby Polar” (2009) and “The Cold Water Witch” (2010).

Murphy was first published nearly 25 years ago, with her short story collection “Stories in Another Language.” A decade later came an acclaimed debut novel, “The Sea of Trees,” a complex story that begins after World War II in a Japanese prison camp in Indochina. The story is narrated by the daughter of a Frenchwoman and a Chinese military officer.

Writing is a need

Her other novels include “Here They Come” (2006), a gritty 1970s-set novel about an unnamed 13-year-old girl who lives with a hard-drinking mother, suicidal brother and two sisters in a Manhattan apartment; and “Signed, Mata Hari” (2007) a fictional account of Mata Hari’s life. The latter novel has brought Murphy to the attention of producers from the History Channel.

Last month, Murphy talked to the producers about her book. The real Mata Hari, an exotic dancer convicted of espionage in World War I, is expected to be included in a 10-part series about historical figures and Murphy has been asked to be appear on-camera to discuss Mata Hari’s life.

For her next writing project, Murphy has returned to Japan for an historical fiction novel set in the 1700s. The as-yet untitled novel is based on the life of a Japanese doctor who first invented anesthetic. The story will be told from the wife’s point of view.

“I know I wouldn’t be happy unless I was doing what I’m doing,” Murphy said. “It’s as basic as waking up and you need breakfast, you need to get dressed and you need to write. It’s as close to the body as that.”

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

 

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