I came across D. J. Murphy when his wife posted on LibraryThing, asking how best to publicise a book and get it into libraries and build a buzz about it. When I found out the subject matter (an Iraqi woman poet trying to escape persecution) I offered to take a copy, read, review and share it via BookCrossing.
My review of the book is here and it is available on a BookRing now – contact me in the usual way to sign up.
When I started my author interviews section, I offered to do one with D. J. Murphy. He agreed, and here is our interview!
LB: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
DJM: One of my earliest childhood memories is a birthday when my parents presented me with a rather large stack of children’s books they had ordered specially for me. And so, from a very early age, I’ve been an avid reader. And, as many such readers, for a very long time I harbored a hidden wish to write my own fiction. Thirty years ago I even began a novel, a kind of inchoate A Thousand Veils, with its central character Charles (the same name as the hero of my novel) and an international intrigue its focus. Because of the demands of my corporate law practice on Wall Street, though, I was obliged to put it aside after I had written two chapters. Then, many years later, after building up a very successful international corporate law practice with firms in New York and the Midwest, I had the occasion to handle a few pro bono publico cases for refugees seeking asylum in America– Jews from Ukraine, Croatians from war-torn Bosnia, Arabs from the Middle East. After the last such case, I recounted to my wife how moved I had been by the story of a refugee for whom I had succeed in obtaining political asylum. A financially astute economist, she offered me the possibility that I retire early (at 52 years of age) and write a novel inspired by the case. And so I did. It really was my first meaningful chance to throw my full energies into a writing project. It took me a good eight years to exorcise the devil, get the story down, polish and veneer the cabinetry (as Susan Sontag would have put it), and have the book edited.
LB: So… why write this book?
DJM: I assume you mean this particular book, with its particular focus and characters. Well, as a lawyer I had worked for a long time in the Middle East and with Arab clients, having made 22 trips to Saudi Arabia alone. I had also lived and practiced my profession on Wall Street, in Paris, and with clients from all over the world. And I had represented Arabs in my pro bono practice and otherwise. And so, as I began to write the novel in 1999, I had the idea to create the character of a Muslim writer, a poet, who is persecuted by the regime in her native country, much as was my refugee client to whom I alluded earlier. I was well along in the writing when 9/11 took place. By that time I had left New York, but my brother, a lawyer who worked in the World Trade Center, survived it, and suffered its after-effects. Then, of course, we had the War in Iraq in 2003. Soon afterwards, we began to see in America a surge of prejudice against Arabs and Muslims. I had known, and had grown to respect, their culture and religion during my time working with them.
With this experience in mind, I decided to create Muslim characters who are in every sense “ordinary”–real people endowed with all the human virtues, foibles, frailties, and attributes that Allah, God, Gilgamesh or whoever had bestowed upon them. And, judging from the enthusiastic response of my readers, I believe that I succeeded. When I delivered the first draft of the novel to my editor in New York, Danelle McCafferty, Danelle (who edits for Tom Robbins, Nora Roberts, and other writers esteemed for their character development) said, “Don’t change a hair on her beautiful head.” I had gotten it right.
LB: Which writers have inspired you? What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received from a fellow-writer?
DJM: Hemingway, first, because of his ability to create scenes and imbue his storylines with momentum and force. But also Thomas Mann, because of his ability to create character through serious dialogue, without making it seem tendentious or preachy. I wanted to say a lot about Muslims in my novel, but my editor forbade me to “teach or preach.” So, a novel like The Magic Mountain, which I’ve read a number of times through my life, worked a great influence on me. In fact, I very much was thinking of the exchanges between Settembrini and Hans Castorp when I sequestered Charles and Fatima in their mountain hideaway in the French Alps.
And enjoying dual Irish and American nationality, I’m happy to say that James Joyce is one of my literary heroes. Indeed, in writing the first scene in my novel, with the sand drifting down and down on Baghdad, I had in mind that marvelous scene in The Dead of the snow falling on Dublin. Like all Irishmen, I love Joyce’s acute ear, his sense of play, in using words. I believe that the reader should have the pleasure of the text itself, besides of course the narrative and the characters.
LB: What is your favourite book?
DJM: I have many, but if forced to choose, I’d pick The Great Gatsby. I love how Fitzgerald juxtaposes characters who exude a sort of benign amorality, even evil, with others who present themselves as essentially innocent, even a bit naïve. I’m fascinated by the problem of evil, especially as it transcends culture and religion. (Notice that there are “good” Muslims in the novel as there are “bad” And although you might say that A Thousand Veils, like The Great Gatsy, is in a real sense Manichaean, I believe that few motifs in a novel can be as compelling in the reader’s mind as the cataclysmic struggle between good and evil. What intrigues readers more than anything else is whether in the end evil will prevail and, related to this, whether the heroine or hero will ultimately fall in one moral category or the other. In A Thousand Veils, for a long time I leave the reader wondering whether Charles will have the capacity to evolve into a “good” character in order to thwart the evil Saddam and save Fatima. And whether evil prevails in the end I leave to my readers.
LB : If you could pick a character from literature and fiction in general to use in a book, who would it be?
DJM: Without hesitation, I’d pick Emma in Madame Bovary. Flaubert succeeded in creating a character who (much as the character of Fatima in A Thousand Veils) is almost unbelievably conflicted, torn between her own need for independence and self-realization, on one hand, and the constraints of her society, on the other. And because French society in her time and place was experiencing pervasive changes in its view of women and their role and status, the pressures on Emma were enormous, and ultimately explain and rationalize her tragedy. Throughout Madame Bovary, the reader is kept guessing how Emma will, or can, ever reconcile her personal and societal values, ensnared as she was among them. I like that ambivalence in a character, and I’d be intrigued to use Emma in a book of mine. As it turns out, and perhaps not too surprisingly, Fatima experiences the same sort of struggle, tries to break free of the constraints of her society, culture and religion, and internalizes the same guilt and remorse as Emma as she succeeds. And, pace Flaubert, tragedy again is the result. But this time, the story ends on an upbeat note.
LB: Looking back at A Thousand Veils, would you have done anything differently? Changed a detail, a plot point?
DJM: No. I did 21 drafts over eight years so I really had a good chance to work out the plot points, not to mention the details, well in advance. Recently I read that Hemingway produced 18 drafts of For Whom the Bell Tolls.
LB: Why self-publish?
DJM: I made the mistake of not quitting my law practice when I had written the first two chapters of my novel thirty years ago, instead of becoming a successful lawyer. I think I’ve might have led a happier, certainly less stressful, existence. Oh, and not to have been the butt of all those lawyer jokes! These days, when I’m asked to fill in the immigration papers in some foreign country, I proudly inscribe “Writer” in the profession category.
Well, as I was only a successful lawyer, no publisher would take up my book, as good as it is. So, I did the only honorable thing and exposed it to the public eye on my own nickel and with my own devices. (Actually, I’m on the waiting lists of a few publishers.) But in my mind I’ll never peddle my novel to every inhabitant of the planet anyway, so I’m content with my readership as it is. Many of my readers have observed that A Thousand Veils would make a good film. As I did write it with an eye toward its cinematic potential, I would strongly agree.
LB: What are your thoughts on book blogging in general? Some reviewers are very "sniffy", saying bloggers aren’t trained literature experts, or that they always post positive reviews. What do you think?
DJM: Bloggers are like the audience in a grand theatre. They cheer and boo and get restless and chortle and heckle as they will. They are as important to authors like me as the audience is to the performers at a majestic piece of grand opera. And, no, as observers on the human scene, they are sometimes critical, sometimes jubilant, sometimes utterly ridiculous, sometimes even profound, but always worth reading and heeding. I like them. And applaud them for what they do.
LB: Thank you for an interesting and insightful interview!