Devin Murphy’s debut novel, The Boat Runner, is forthcoming with Harper Perennial/Harper Collins on September 5th, 2017. This month, we sat down to speak with him about the impending work, writing and real life inspiration.
S85: Do you write every day or only when inspired?
DM: I try to write every day, but with constantly shifting family and work obligations, it doesn’t always happen. On days I can’t write, I try to edit or read something that will fuel my writing and keep inspiration close at hand.
S85: Is your novel The Boat Runner one of those books that “wrote itself,” that is to say, did you find the need to continuously prompt yourself to progress the story or did it simply unfold before you?
DM: This novel started when a secondary character in a short story became way more interesting to me than the story. At that point I kept giving myself little prompts, or questions to try to find out who he was and what he wanted, and following those answers led me through the first draft.
S85: Do you keep and notebook or a journal, where and how do you compile your thoughts for writing?
DM: When I was younger it was spiral bound journals, but that has moved into Word documents that span hundreds of pages. These serve to catch all the random moments or ideas that could function as seeds or scenes in potential stories. I have been known to write on my hand in a pinch, which I’m now painfully aware of as my small children hold up their marker covered palms and say, “Daddy, I’m working.”
S85: Do you write in drafts? How much do you usually write before you begin to rewrite?
DM: I often use my journals to gather moments and character sketches together and try to draft out complete stories. I have to go back endlessly to dig deeper, ask harder questions, and hunt for the true subject matter and voice to emerge. I use the same process for novels, but it takes much more endurance and patience.
S85: How would you say The Boat Runner is working as an “allegory of our time” to use Nickolas Butler’s words?
DM: I wrote about the terrible swell of nationalism in late 1930’s Germany, and how the rhetoric of that movement prompted action and dire consequence that shifted the world and displaced people from their homes. Now it seems those tricks of rhetoric are screaming back into our mainstream and we have exiles and refugees adrift on a mass scale once more.
S85: Would you say your writing has an emphasis on character or story?
DM: Story. I need to see an image or an action and then ask who to populate that action with.
S85: Are your characters based on observation?
DM: In part. I observe those around me, draft composites of people I know, and then put them in different scenarios until some unique essence finally emerges. Then, I can go back through the text and figure out how to make it that particular character’s story.
S85: How about your political views? Have they made any difference to you artistically or professionally in terms of your writing?
DM: When I was young, my father, a philosophy professor, gave me books about St. Francis and the Buddha, both compassionate beings who explored the world before casting judgments on others. I liked that model, and try to use it in my writing: don’t judge, try to understand. For years I wanted to know all about the craft of writing, my own heart, and the hearts of those I wrote about. Now I want to know about the workings of the world, so history and politics have become pillars of my writing.
About the Author
Devin Murphy’s debut novel, The Boat Runner, is forthcoming with Harper Perennial/Harper Collins on September 5th, 2017. His recent fiction appears in The Chicago Tribune, Glimmer Train, and The Missouri Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, and New Stories from the Midwest as well as many others. He holds an MFA from Colorado State University, a PhD from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Bradley University. He lives in Chicago with his wife and children.
About the Interviewer
Mel Sherrer is a performance poet and teacher living in San Marcos, Texas. She is the Managing Poetry Editor for South 85 Journal.
Featured Image Photo Credit: Photo by Alejandro Escamilla on UnsplashRead More »
Interview by Katie Sherman
Not every agent has a tradition track to literature. Marcy Posner, for instance, gained an appreciation for the written word during her time as a librarian. From there, she went to work for Pinnacle books (“I was given a book to edit the third week of my employment!”). She’s worked for Rodale Press and Salem House. As Pantheon’s Associate Publisher, she had the honor of working with a number of cultural icons including Noam Chomsky, Studs Terkel, Matt Groening, and Art Spiegelman. After fifteen years on the editorial side of the business, she transitioned to agenting where she spent “twelve years at the William Morris Agency as an agent and as Vice President and Director of Foreign Rights; five years as president of my own agency; five years at Sterling Lord Literistic as an agent and Director of Foreign Rights; and I’m now at Folio – and very happy,” Posner says.
We sat down with Posner to pick her brain on the trends she’s loving (and hating!), her biggest literary influences, and how self-publishing can negatively effect your writing career.
S85: What advice would you give aspiring authors submitting work to agencies, editors, and publishing houses for the first time?
MP: Do your homework! Find the right agent for your work. Go to books that you think are similar to yours, look at the acknowledgments, and find the agent. Query them and reference that book you love. This is a job for the agent, and this is a job for you.
S85: Why do writers need (or do they need) an agent? An editor? What are the benefits and pitfalls?
MP: Writers need an agent because they are the foot in the door to the publishing industry. For my clients, I am able to bring to bear all the institutional memory I possess, knowing which editors and which publishing houses have a penchant for a certain subject, or a different voice, or a particular kind of author. You need an editor because no one can edit their own work. You need the eye of another person who is skilled at the craft. Also, once the book is published, you need a champion in house and your editor is that. I don’t think there are any pitfalls if you find the right agent for you. Never pay a reading fee.
S85: What advice do you have for writers regarding their cover letter? Their elevator pitch? Their manuscript?
MP: The elevator pitch is very important for a query letter. It should be the first paragraph. Don’t submit or talk about more than one manuscript in a query. I have found that the manuscripts of writers who submit several at a time are not good because they lack focus.
S85: What is one of the biggest mistakes you’ve seen a writer make after they were signed to an agency/publishing house?
MP: Not listening to their agent or editor. Thinking they know the process better than the experts do. Don’t go rogue.
S85: In the increasingly growing electronic world, self-publishing is becoming more and more prevalent. Is this hurting the mainstream publishing industry? Why or why not?
MP: Self-publishing can actually hurt the author. When I pitch a self-published author to a mainstream publishing house, the editor will look up the author and see the self-published material. If the book didn’t sell tens of thousands of copies, most likely the editor will not be interested in acquiring further work from this author. In fact, self-publishing numbers have gone down lately because “free” books that are bad do not help the author. You need those gate keepers – the agent and the editor.
S85: What characteristic do you look for first in a first-time author you’re going to work with? In an author who you want to work with throughout their career?
MP: A good sense of humor. You have to take everything with a grain of salt and be able to laugh things off. This business can at times be not fun and you have to get past that.
S85: What trends do you currently see in literature that you love? What trends do you currently see in literature that you hate?
MP: I like that even literary novels have plots these days so that you can get great writing and a great story at the same time.
I’m a social progressive, but I think that there are just too many books about the major social issues of today that are saturating the market and rendering the power of the author’s voice ineffective.
S85: What was the first poem, book, or short story collection that made you passionate about what you do?
MP: A Wrinkle in Time. I started out as a children’s librarian, and I was passionate about this book. It led me to want to work with writers to produce books of the same caliber.
S85: What recent book/collection made you laugh? Made you cry?
MP: Who Gives a Hoot? by Jacqueline Kelley, an early reader that I represent, made me laugh. A middle grade novel that I represent that will be published by Candlewick in Fall 2018, Speechless by Adam Schmitt, made me cry. (As you can see, I don’t get to read much past my clients.)
Thank you, Marcy!
At the moment Marcy Posner is looking for, “commercial women’s fiction, historical fiction, mystery, biography, history, health, and lifestyle – and, especially, thoughtfully written commercial novels, thrillers with international settings, and narrative non-fiction. In young adult, I’m looking for smart, contemporary novels and historical fiction.”
About the Agent
Marcy Posner’s editorial skill and a deep knowledge of the publishing industry sets her apart from many of her colleagues. When she work with authors, she focuses editorially on how to make the book as strong as it could be – whether that book be terrific women’s fiction or an extraordinary YA debut (or any of the other categories she represents). During that process, she is able to bring to bear all the institutional memory she possesses, knowing which editors and which publishing houses have a penchant for a certain subject, or a different voice, or a particular kind of author. Her clients include Newbery Honor winner and New York Times bestseller Jacqueline Kelly, New York Times bestseller Sheri Reynolds, autism advocate Christina Adams, Kristi Cook, Christopher Grant, Gretchen Kelley, Jerri Corgiat, former baseball pitcher Bob Tewksbury, and Marbles: The Brain Store among others.
About the Interviewer
Katie Sherman is a freelance journalist in Charlotte, NC. She is currently pursing an MFA degree at Converse College. She has an affinity for Southern Gothic literature, cider beer, Chicago, and morning snuggles with her girls — Ella and Addie.
Featured Image Credit: Photo by Henry Hustava on UnsplashRead More »
The Spring / Summer 2017 issue of South 85 Journal is now available online.
We are pleased to present work by the following contributors:
• Artwork – Roger Camp, William C. Crawford, Melinda Giordano, Leonard Kogan, Rachel Melton, Dian Parker, and Leigh Silvers
• Fiction – Alix Bullock, Ben Berman Ghan, Brian Phipps, and Caitlin Hamilton Summie
• Non-Fiction – Lindsey Clark, Renée K. Nicholson, Rudy Ravindra, and Katie Scarafiotti
• Poetry – Beaton Galafa, Mary Catherine Harper, Starr Herr, Robert Lee Kendrick, Paige Leland, George Perreault, Jessica (Tyner) Mehta, Jessica Ramer, Valerie Smith, Eve Taft, Amanda Rachelle Warren, and Maddie Woda
For some great summer reads, check out our Reviews section, featuring reviews of:
• Submergence by J.M. Ledgard (Fiction)
• A Matter of Honor: Pearl Harbor: Betrayal, Blame, and a Family’s Quest for Justice by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan (Non-Fiction)
• Whereas by Layli Long Soldier (Poetry)
Our staff will be taking a well-deserved break for the summer, but we plan to start reading again August 1. Look forward to our next call for submissions. In the meantime, keep reading our blog about writing! You can even submit an article for our blog. We’d love to hear from you.
We hope you enjoy reading this issue as much as we enjoyed putting it together!Read More »
Denise Duhamel, famed poet and core faculty member of Converse College’s Low Res MFA Program, gave a lecture during the January residency on using concrete imagery in poetry. As I sat in the uncomfortable Marriott chairs, my mind wandered to how abstract and heady I once thought poetry was. I am a tactile person. I sculpt and work with clay and other mediums in three-dimensional space and my inaccurate assumption had always been that poetry was a distant and abstract discussion of emotions. Duhamel dismantled my presumptions and showed me the most powerful poetry should be poked with a stick. Throughout the semester, I realized the message translated to all genres.
William Carlos Williams once famously said, “No idea but in things.” This premise was the heartbeat of Duhamel’s lecture as she discussed the poetry of Pablo Neruda (“Ode to To Things”), Etheridge Knight (“The Idea of Ancestry”), and Sharon Olds (“I Go Back to May 1937”) among others. During her craft lecture, Duhamel defined the objective correlative. This idea — that objects have an emotional attachment that defines other, often stronger emotions — is what separates amateur work from masterpieces. Regularly, students allow the concrete details to slip through the cracks. Duhamel encouraged attending students to go to the untouched pieces of our reality, even the painful moments, and allow the objects to reflect the emotions. It’s so much easier to write from a detached place because the scene doesn’t feel real to the writer. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel realistic to the reader either.
Within the same residency Leslie Pietrzyk, a faculty member who specializes in fiction, expanded on this idea as she discussed her knowledge of writing about personal experiences. Pietrzyk’s most recent short story collection, This Angel on My Chest, explored many truths within her own life as a young widow. In fact, each story in the collection contained one concrete truth from her own life. For Pietrzyk, capturing the feelings of the past meant grounding readers through their senses. She encouraged students to answer and explain things like: What was the weather like? Were there any smells that stood out? What did the car look like? What did the pie taste like? While all of the details were unlikely to make the final version of a manuscript, pertinent facets reveal themselves to the writer.
Pietrzyk concluded her lecture with a series of writing prompts (see below) that would force students to use concrete imagery as they created. These prompts instructed students to give physical or sensory details about the character’s surroundings. For me, these prompts helped me stay with a memory or image where an abstract concept — for instance, write about love — would’ve been too big picture and the details, once thought to be minute, would get lost.
These reminders to use concrete details came at an especially useful time for me. My creative project this semester focuses on a teenager with strong faith and a mental disorder who is forced into a new living situation he’s unhappy about. Much of the meat of the story happens in the protagonist’s head. The challenge is finding ways to ground my reader in reality and not just the main character’s subconscious. To do so, I’ve used concrete imagery of his living situation, and the manifestations of his faith and illness together to get out of his mind and into the world of the story. This came through food, setting, appearances, and actions.
In closing, abstraction is good and necessary, but, as with everything else, there is a time and a place for it. Nobody is saying your four hundred page waxing about your mistreatment in childhood isn’t worth reading. But if the story isn’t based in reality and instead is a thinly veiled bitter rant against your parents for not getting you that pony you wanted, you shouldn’t expect a wide audience. Being concrete is a gift for the reader, to give them a world to be planted in for the length of the work. Give readers something they can hold, they can look at, they can smell. Give them something realistic and relatable so they want to invest more time with characters they grow to love.
Writing Prompts to Develop Concrete Imagery
These writing prompts to help you develop concrete imagery in your writing are from the lectures of Denise Duhamel and Leslie Pietrzyk:
• Describe a scene using family photos as a prompt. An effective example of this is Sharon Olds poem — I Go Back to May 1937.
• Use a picture, headline, or line from a newspaper story of your choosing to create a flash fiction piece (2000 words or less).
• Use the word horse or write about your experience with a horse.
Josh Springs is a 3rd semester Converse College MFA student who writes YA, among other things. He tutors English in Taylors, SC.Read More »
As romantic as it may be to envision Emily Dickinson, Harper Lee and other notable hermits secluded away from the world as they wrote their masterpieces, the ease of the internet demands that modern writers — at least those who care to have a career in writing — are also avid patrons of their genre. In an age where a topic can “go viral” and gain mass popularity in a matter of hours, it is not hard to deduce that for many writers, success could depend on a certain amount of exposure.
It is true that readers should not be expected to attend book readings or craft lectures conducted by their favorite authors, and that readers are not indebted to writers for any more than simply reading the book. However, maintaining support for literary endeavors is perhaps something writers owe one another.
For art’s sake:
Reading merely means being exposed to writing apart from your own. It’s not unusual to encounter young writers who are not regular readers. One argument against wide-spread reading for young writers is the possibility that individual aesthetic can be impacted and too closely begin to resemble that of other’s writing. Of course not every author writes for an audience; many write as a means of expression, catharsis or for the pure joy of creation. But when writing for an audience, being well versed is a definite advantage.
If you come across an opportunity to promote a fellow writer, take it! A little positive press can go a long way. Imagine a world where artists celebrate each other! Make the most of having a network of friends who are subject to your recommendations, but be modest and gracious with any announcements for awards or publications of our own. Remember that networking is cyclic, which suggests that reading, responding to, and supporting the efforts of others is as important as promoting your own work. What progresses one, progresses us all.
Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram can be daunting for writers who prefer more traditional methods of self-promotion. Now more than ever social media sites like these can open up a world of networking possibilities. Never before has it been easier to share with millions of people in an instant. If you are new to the realm of social networking, try social sites specifically designed to connect writers such as Writers-Network. The key to capitalizing on social networking is exactly that, be social! While tastefully promoting your own work, be sure to share the literary achievements and milestones of others. Not much for the net? Old-fashioned readings are a great way to connect with other writers. That’s right, you can do a fair amount of networking at readings. Literary readings offer an environment crawling with like-minded patrons of the arts. At some point in your writing career you may have wondered who will buy your book. More than likely, the people you meet at readings are amongst the same audience of people who would be reading and potentially purchasing your book. In addition to networking, readings are the perfect places to witness new trends in writing and recitation. Workshops, conferences and other such venues can be great for obtaining constructive feedback and meeting other writers-in-progress. This is not to say that the workshop method is for every writer, but if you are searching for a sounding board audience for your creative work, besides tortured family and friends, a writer’s workshop can offer a mediated space to share and improve.
The moral of the story here is, engage! Resist the urge to turn long hours spent writing into long hours spent wondering who will read your work. Crawl out of that shell! If literary writing is to advance, then writers must come together, inspiring new ways to engage readers, publishes and each other.
Mel Sherrer is a performance poet and teacher living in San Marcos, Texas. She is the Managing Poetry Editor for South 85 Journal.Read More »