The main character in journalist Peter Murphy’s new novel, Shall We Gather at the River, is Enoch O’Reilly, a charismatic Irish preacher who believes he was told to spread the word by a ghostly voice on his father’s CB radio. The one catch: he doesn’t believe in God. In one scene, O’Reilly is told by the head of his seminary that he cannot be a priest if he doesn’t believe in God. O’Reilly replies that he will give the people what they want, “and what they want is bread and circuses.” This could easily be a comment on our consumerist times as much as it is on religion. Indeed, while the novel is set in the 1980s, many of its themes – and specifically, the issue of suicide – are as relevant today as ever.
Shall We Gather at the River is Murphy’s second novel. His first – John the Revelator (shortlisted for both the Costa First Novel Award and the Kerry Group Prize for Fiction) – took him five years to write. I begin by asking him if it was five years of concerted writing or if he approached it in short bursts. “I lied,” he says. “It was actually a lifetime. (Laughs) The actual span of writing for John the Revelator I’d say was about four years, and then I’d another previous, maybe, two to three years of lost drafts and experiments and wrong turnings, and attempts at a first book. It was different variations. What happened was John the Revelator grew out of a fragment of an earlier manuscript and it was kind of the best thing of an earlier manuscript and I grew a new yarn from it. I find it very hard to see lineage in the earlier days – exactly what point I started writing that particular novel and what point I stopped. It’s easier to tell once you’ve published something because you can go, ‘Well, I signed off on that and that’s when it was accepted for publication, so that’s when it ended. Therefore, that must be when I started the next one.’ But, then again, I could have said I was writing for about six months on Shall We Gather at the River before I actually started to get clued in as to what I was doing.”
And during the five years, was he reading books on how to write, or was it purely just writing? “That came earlier on. For some reason, around ’99, 2000, I just started to read prose in a different way and I discovered some novels by people like Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son, and JT LeRoy stuff. I just discovered these books that weren’t part of the Canon, you know? And I found them much more exciting than what was being touted as mainstream or Booker-nominated literature. And that was just stuff that inspired me to write fiction.”
Then I ask Murphy the question that is probably on every writer’s mind: how do you get an agent to wait five years for a book? “Well, it has to be Marianne Gunn O’ Connor. She’s a patient woman. She’s very sensitive to whatever client she has. She has clients who are great at writing commercial fiction that can turn around a book in a year, two years. And then, there are some of us on her roster who just work at a different speed, who just write a different kind of story, and she understands that you’re dealing with a different beast every time. I start off with the best of intentions, going ‘This time I’m gonna draft one in a year, it’s gonna have a linear plot, it’s gonna be this, that and the other’ … A year into it, you’re going, ‘Yeah, I did that but it’s not really happening, it’s not really interesting, it’s not exciting. Now what do I have to do to change it? What do I have to do to transform it?’ You know, you can make all the plans you want but … if you’re lucky … and if the thing starts to cook, you’ll find that the book kind of takes on a life of its own and starts dictating the terms. Sometimes it goes, ‘Whoa there, buster, slow down, I need a bit more attention than that. You’re not getting away that easily.’”
I say – jokingly – that having spent that amount of time writing his first book must have made writing the second much easier. “God, no! That’s the great fallacy that you tell yourself: I’ve made all my mistakes and this time I know what I’m doing. Forget about it. There’s a whole new realm of mistakes to make and rules to learn. But that’s good, it’s healthy. Otherwise, you would just be repeating what you did the first time.”
Shall We Gather at the River – while being a rollicking good yarn – is also a rather experimental book. The plot is oftentimes surreal; it has a main protagonist, but a lot of the book focuses on other minor or incidental characters; the narrative is non-linear – it jumps back and forth through time and place and person. “I’m always wary of people talking about writing experimental fiction,” Murphy says. “For me, the experiment should be left in the lab. What you give to people should be the finished product. But, it did make itself apparent that it wasn’t going to be what we’d call “traditional narrative” with one protagonist all the way through going in a sequential, chronological fashion. I’d love to write a book like that because there’s beauty and elegance in simplicity but it just became apparent to me that the only way that this was going to work was in that fashion. And, you know, the novel is an extremely wide universe … it can accommodate many, many different kind of books. And I do get a bit annoyed when I see schools of criticism that seem to be stuck in the 18th century that say the novel has to be written the way John McGahern did it or Henry James or the Bronte sisters did it. The methods are as disparate as the subject matter.”
I wonder is it difficult to sell that type of novel to a publisher. “It depends on how good the publisher is. I mean, I got an amazing response from Faber when I submitted the manuscript. And even at that, there was still another six weeks to two months work still to be done on it in terms of rewriting and revising. But they were pretty gung-ho, they were pretty evangelical from the start about it. Which I was relieved and surprised by. But, at the risk of sounding glib, to me you just write the best possible book you can and if it’s good, it sells itself.”
I then say that I’m going to ask him the question every author hates: Can you explain what the book is about? He replies: “I’ll give you the answer every journalist hates: it’s about 250 pages! It’s quite a Chinese box, it’s a lot of ideas. To me, it’s about the comedy and the tragedy of a will to power character. It’s about the danger of vile ideas, the danger of self-obsession. It’s about the influence of nature and the ecology and the environment on the human psyche. It’s about using the river as a metaphor for what happens to our minds when we endlessly circle and loop on the same obsessive ideas and become sicker and sicker. And it’s about the power of language … the incendiary power of language. And the individual’s ability to create themselves whilst simultaneously orchestrating their own doom. And it’s also just a yarn about the rise and fall of a very peculiar man against the backdrop of a very eerie town.”
The novel has a lot of biblical references, quotes or allusions and I wonder where his interest in the Bible came from. “It came from rock n’ roll. It came from Johnny Cash, Patti Smith and Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and gospel and blues music. The words of songs by people like Blind Willie Johnson, I always thought were extraordinary, I thought they had amazing power. A title like “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” by Blind Lemon Jefferson, the poetry and the meaning. And this is plain language … this is not the language of universities or business or management. It was over ten to fifteen years of just falling in love with that language until finally I got back to the Bible.” Murphy says he’s not a biblical scholar and that he’s never read it cover to cover. “I dipped in and out of most of the books and I have my own favourites. There’s some of them that are quite amazing but I hate them, like Deuteronomy and Leviticus. But they’re still absolutely fascinating, and the turn of phrase and the language. Genesis and Revelation I loved, even though they’re quite horrifying. The New Testament and some of the Gnostic Gospels, like the Gospel of Thomas, are almost Zen-like compared to the Old Testament. They’re much more compassionate, much more empathic about human beings. But the Old Testament is the brimstone God.”
Without giving too much away, the theme of suicide – and specifically drowning – is prevalent in the book. Indeed, the notion of the power and pull of the river is almost as mythological as the biblical references. “That idea just sort of haunted me and the more I looked into it, the more I uncovered … not just Christian myths … Middle Eastern flood mythology and Hindu and Native American, all have their own flood myths. And it just kept coming up. It was part of my childhood, you know, you hear such-and-such walks into the river. The reason I set it in the ‘80s is because it’s loosely based on something that happened in 2002, when there was six or seven young men walked into the Slaney over a period of about ten days. And I moved it to the 1980s because I didn’t want to write a non-fiction novel in the In Cold Blood sense. Quite honestly, I didn’t want to walk into people on the street and have to look them in the eye having used the details of their nearest and dearest in a piece of fiction. And while, obviously, this was the subject and it wasn’t going to leave me alone, the pact that I made with myself was that I would place it in the past and quarantine it by way of completely fictional characters, fictional names, a fictional town name and a fictional river name. And I think it’s only fair to make it universal because this stuff is happening in Bridgend in Wales, it’s happened in, I think, the Isle of Man, it’s happened in Nantucket, it’s happened in many locations around the globe.”
He says he would be horrified if writing about the subject of suicide upset anyone. “The main moral justification I have for using this is as the stuff of fiction is, it might help. There’s the Hippocratic Oath of “First, do no harm”. My worst nightmare was that I might do some harm with this book, and I tried at every juncture to address the subject matter delicately but truthfully. And to hone in on the real subject, which is not suicide … suicide is an abstraction … we’re talking about people in trouble, people sick, people needing help, people needing to talk. And what happens when you have no voice. And this is the stuff of newspaper reports which are far more blatant and forensic than fiction ever would be in reporting. And I think it needs to be part of a national conversation. Everybody on this earth has a huge chance of suffering depression at some point in their lives. The frightening thing is that any of us might actually be suffering from depression and not realise that that’s what it is. We might be thinking “I’m in bad form” or “The girlfriend left me” or it’s the weather. Very often it really helps to put a name on the thing, whatever it is, you know, even to wake up and go ‘I’ve got Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’. Well, at least it’s not a mystery, at least there’s a name to put on it. And there’s other people who have suffered it to; ergo, there might be a cure, there might be some kind of counselling or therapy I can get.”
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Peter Murphy was a drummer in a number of rock bands, and he has returned to music with the formation of the Revelator Orchestra and the release of their album, “The Sounds of John the Revelator”. “The album is a series of readings from the book, set to music, scored like you would a film, except most albums of this type, whether it be William Burroughs’ Dead City Radio or a lot of the stuff Hal Willner has done, those album which I adored, they do take long readings … seven, eleven, twelve minutes … what we did was take short passages and score them like you would a short piece of classical music or a rock song or an avant garde piece of music. And we performed them live almost like a rock band.
‘I became fascinated at one point with how readings can be really musical. Kerouac was a genius at this. Kerouac’s readings were gorgeous, they were so melodic and you found his voice would just stick in your head. A friend of mine approached me after a reading and we decided to do some recordings and we got really excited with just doing these recordings, setting my voice to music, and lo and behold an album came out of it. Then we put it out on Jerry Fish’s label and we’ve been gigging ever since. We’re almost finished with a musical adaptation of Shall We Gather at the River. We debuted a piece based on the prologue last week. The plan is to put together an hour-long show and do it at the literary festivals, do it in the arts centres, do it at gigs. One of my greatest pleasures is to come on in between two rock bands and do this stuff and watch people’s faces.”
Is this merging of music and literature something he sees as the way of the future, especially with eBooks? “Faber have been great, they’re quite innovative as publishers go. But, even at that, it’s still quite an “out there” idea for the mainstream publishing industry. They don’t seem to get that we’re serious just yet but they will. It’s one of the ways to present books and stories in a way that’s gonna get in people’s faces and it completely removes it from that musty old library, university, study hall kind of feeling. It’s much closer to the world that I grew up with, which is rock n roll essentially.”
Murphy bemoans the loss of this time, when literature was “cool”. “One of the shocks of my initiation into the literary world was, I wasn’t reading to people of my own generation or class. I wasn’t reading to men and women in their 30s and 40s from a working class or a lower middle class background. And that bothered me. Because when I was growing up, to be a writer was cool. It was something you aspired to … it was as cool as Lou Reed or Iggy Pop or Springsteen or Dylan, or whoever. And, in my perception, something happened in the 90s where it just became musty old establishment. And I don’t like that. I remember peers of mine walking around with a Kurt Vonnegut paperback in their back pocket, and even when we were younger, it was Tolkien.”
And, to some extent, is that what he’s trying to get back to with his own novels? “Well, it’s the thing that inspired me and it’s the thing that continues to inspire me. It feels like if I have one foot square of turf that I’ve carved out, that feels like what it is.”