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[GUEST INTERVIEW] Multiple Award-Winning Author Pat Murphy on Defying Genres and Exploring the Human Condition

[Photo by David Wright. Used with permission.]

[Photo by David Wright. Used with permission.]

Pat Murphy‘s 30 year career as a speculative fiction writer is littered with nominations and wins for major book awards. At least 10 of her stories have won or been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Dick, Tiptree, Clark, Mythopoeic, or Locus awards, or various other awards, lists, and polls.

Pat Murphy’s fiction defies subgenres. So in this interview, she explains what she was trying to accomplish with her award-winning and award-nominated stories.

CARL SLAUGHTER: In “Rachel in Love”, a dead girl’s memories are transferred to a chimp’s brain. Then the scientist who performs the operation dies and nobody knows her identity. How does she deal with these 2 situations?

PAT MURPHY: To understand Rachel, the story’s protagonist, you need to know a bit more about the circumstances of her life. The man who raised her was a neurologist who had discovered how to capture the electrical pattern of a living brain’s thoughts and memories. When his wife and daughter died unexpectedly, he imposed the electrical pattern of the girl’s brain on a young chimp, creating Rachel. She has the body of a chimp and the memories and experiences of a teenage girl. The scientist raised Raquel as his daughter, keeping his research — and Rachel’s existence — a secret from the world.

After his death, Rachel is captured and taken to an animal research facility. She is treated like a animal — tranquilized, shut in a cage, surrounded by animals who are part of studies that seem, from Rachel’s point of view, terrible and cruel. She reacts as a young girl would react — she’s terrified and confused, baffled by how she is treated, how the animals around her are treated.

As for how she deals with the situation, I find that difficult to say because this story contains so many stories, one within the other like those Russian nesting dolls. You could think of this as a coming of age story: Rachel comes to understand herself. You can think of it as a love story gone wrong: Rachel (like many a teenager) has to discover that her love is misplaced. It has elements of an adventure story: Rachel is a hero, searching for the way home.

I can’t tell you much more…because that would be telling too much. You’ll just have to read the story.

CS: This story won more major awards than any of your other stories. Almost every major award. What about the story struck such a chord with so many readers?

PM: I think readers identify with with Rachel. (I know I do.) I think we’ve all felt misunderstood at one time or the other. I think all of us have had, at one time or another, a sense that we don’t belong, that no one can understand us

Rachel is misunderstood in the extreme. The people around her see an animal — just a chimp to be used in experimental studies. But Rachel knows that she is a girl.

Figuring out how you fit into the world is part of growing up. For Rachel, that task is tougher than for any of us. And yet, in the end, she succeeds.

CS: In “An American Childhood” and Nadya: The Wolf Chronicles, a werewolf family migrates from Europe to America to escape persecution. But then American western expansion catches up with them and the daughter develops a relationship with a human boy. Do the werewolves represent a real group of people? Does the scenario represent a real scenario?

PM: Great question! Basically, you’re asking: “Are you really just writing about werewolves? What else is going on here?”

I’m writing about werewolves and of course I’m writing about a lot more than that. As I’m sure your readers know, science fiction and fantasy have a long history of flying under the radar — dealing with serious issues in a genre that many don’t take seriously.

The family of werewolves is a family of immigrants. Though we think of America as a “melting pot,” many immigrants were initially treated with suspicion and hate. This werewolf family has a Polish father, a French mother, and Nadya, a wild girl child who does not follow the rules. Like Rachel of “Rachel in Love”, Nadya’s family doesn’t fit in.

In fact, that’s a recurring theme in my work — people who are out of place, people who don’t belong. Nadya’s family is different — and therefore are viewed with suspicion. It happened to the Irish, to the Chinese, to many, many groups who came to America. It still happens today.

CS: Is this a coming of age story?

PM: That’s one element in the story, but I don’t think it’s the most important element.

CS: Is it a Romeo and Juliet story?

PM: Nope. In fact, for a large part of the narrative, it’s a Juliet and Juliet story.

CS: Why the American west setting?

PM: I’m intrigued by historic American attitudes toward the wilderness. In 19th century American, many felt that it was the destiny of settlers to conquer the Western wilderness, to bring civilization to these “uncivilized” lands. Nadya’s family of werewolves does not long for civilization — they prefer the wilderness. And yet civilization is coming.

This conflict simmers underneath the action throughout the book.

CS: Nadya was on the honor list of the James Tiptree Award. How does Nadya explore gender?

PM: The werewolf can be interpreted as symbolic of the animal nature of man. Uncontrolled passions. Animal lust. Of course, women aren’t supposed to have any of that.

When you look at the history of the westward expansion, generally women supposed to be the taming and civilizing influence. Men are all rough and dirty and rowdy; women are proper and civilized and nice–or else they are dance hall girls with hearts of gold.

I don’t agree with that particular set of expectations. Nadya is no one’s civilizing influence.

On the California Trail, she has adventures: there are fist fights, Indian magic, daring rescues, and great sex. She does not shrink from sexuality. Nadya is a woman who is in touch with her wildness, and she is in a world where that is not OK. But despite all that, the story has a happy ending.

In Nadya, I’m writing about werewolves–but I’m writing about the truth–my version of the truth. That’s something I try to do in everything I write. In Nadya, the subtext says that being a wild woman is a fine thing. You don’t have to follow the rules that society had laid down for you. A woman who steps outside the role that prescribed for her can win, can be happy, can be heroic.

As a writer, I make up new stories for people to live by. That means shaking up the world — changing who is the hero, who is privileged and has power, and who wins in the end. It means imagining a new world in which different social rules apply.

CS: In The Falling Woman, the main character is dealing with life on 3 fronts: occupation, paranormal gift, and relationship. Later, she deals with pagan ritual. What’s the order of importance for these 3 elements? Or are they inseparable?

PM: Elizabeth Butler is an archaeologist who sees ghosts of the past. As you might expect, this skill can come in handy on an archeological dig. It’s useful to see ghosts when you are trying to figure out what happened long ago. Elizabeth’s occupation and her paranormal ability are completely intertwined — and both occupation and ability have affected all her relationships.
Elizabeth lives on the border between past and present, always seeing both sides. Sometimes she sees the shadows of the past more clearly than she sees any living person. The phantoms of the past distract her from the people who inhabit the present. She has succeeded in keeping her distance from both the living and the dead for many years. But now both demand her attention.

The Falling Woman, like much of my work, has elements of both science and fantasy. As for ritual, our modern society treats ritual as something extraneous — superstitious, unnecessary. I don’t think of it that way. As a writer, I’m fascinated by science and rationality, but I believe there must be room in the world for the irrational and fantastic. Ritual helps us understand those aspects of ourselves.

CS: The main character faces a crisis. Actually 2 crises, her relationship with her estranged daughter and the consequences of making a deal with the fantasy character. How prepared is she to deal with these crises and what journey does she go through?

PM: In The Falling Woman, Elizabeth’s own past becomes tangled with the long distant past of the Mayan ghost who haunts her. She must make her peace with her own past — and the distant past.

You ask how prepared she is. As an archeologist, she has many rational tools to help her understand the past. But the time of change has come, and rationality is not enough.

CS: What was the inspiration for the Mayan setting? What was the inspiration for the fantasy premise?

PM: The initial inspiration was a visit to Dz’ibilchaltun, a Mayan ruin about ten miles from the city of Merida in the Mexican state of Yucatan. While in the Yucatan on vacation, I visited that site. I went swimming in the sacred cenote, walked along the ancient road that once connected Dz’ibilchaltun to distant sites that are now tourist attractions, like Chichen Itza and Uxmal.

Later, I was a student at an archeological dig. When I first arrived at the dig, I went for a walk with one of the archeologists. The archeologist kept glancing down at the path, then reaching down to pick up a piece of broken pot or worked stone. All I saw was dirt; these artifacts were invisible. But for her, they were easy to spot.

By the time I left that dig, I had learned to interpret a line of tumbled stones as a wall, now almost hidden by grass. I knew that certain plants, now growing wild, were a sure sign that people had once lived in a spot. I could find the potsherds that had once looked like nothing but dirt.

The “lost” cities of the Maya were never really lost. Rather, they became invisible. Abandoned by their builders, the great pyramids and temples became overgrown; tree roots tumbled their stones, disguised their outlines. An ancient temple became a tree-covered hill; a plaza was covered by low growth, a clearing in the jungle. To find these ancient cities, archeologists had to learn how to see them for what they are.

The past is always here, if you know how to look for it. The fantastic element in The Falling Woman — Elizabeth’s ability to see the past — is just an extension of what all archeologists do all the time.

CS: In “Love and Sex Among the Invertebrates”, the main character compares her life to the life of a much less evolved species. Humans have schools and hospitals and courtrooms and libraries and museums. We have philosophy and art and literature and music. We have technology. We wear clothes. How do we compare ourselves with invertebrates?

PM: Hmm. Your talk of schools and technology reminds me of the time when scientists thought that humans were the only animals that made and used tools. Jane Goodall put an end to that way of thinking when she saw chimps using sticks to fish termites out of their mounds — and modifying those sticks to make better tools. And it’s not just chimps. Sea otters use rocks to smash the hard shells of sea urchins, sometimes keeping a favorite rock tucked under an arm for future use. Crows make hooked twigs to beetle larvae from rotting logs. But that’s not all. In Japan, some urban crows drop nuts onto crosswalks. Passing cars smash the nuts — and when the traffic light changes, the crows stroll into the street to retrieve their snack.

People and animals have a lot more in common that we people would like to admit, I think.

The main character in “Love and Sex Among the Invertebrates” is a scientist dying of radiation poisoning. She’s a biologist, an engineer, and a robot builder. She seeks to understand her past and construct a future so that the world will not end with her death. She builds robots that will carry on when she is gone.

She seeks to understand love and sex, stripped to their essence. And she finds that understanding in the dance of the pseudoscorpion, the courtship of the bowerbird, the mating of spiders.

CS: Is this scientist building cyborgs or are they completely machines? How is this new species, or “species,” best suited to inherit the earth?

PM: This story, like much of my work, exists on the border of the rational and the fantastic. Readers who are looking for a hard-science approach to robotics has best search elsewhere. As the main character states at the beginning of this story: “I will put the robots together and make them work. But I will not try to understand them. I will not take them apart and consider their inner workings and poke and pry and analyze. The time for science is over.”

CS: “Bones” is about a conflict between a man of science and a man of magic. How does that conflict play out and what does the reader learn in the process?

PM: This story was inspired by history. John Hunter, a Scottish surgeon born in 1728, was one of the most distinguished scientists of his time. He studied natural history and collected animals from all over the world.

Hunter was fascinated by Charles Bryne, a man known as the Irish Giant. In 1783, Bryne exhibited himself in London as the World’s Tallest Man. Hunter wanted to study the giant’s bones, sure that this would help him understand what made this man grow so large.

Bryne had a terror of be anatomized — the flesh stripped from his bones and his skeleton studied by scientists. To escape the clutches of Hunter and his ilk, the giant had arranged to be buried at sea. But Hunter bribed the undertaker and claimed the giant’s bones.

As a scientist, my sympathies are with Hunter, who sought to understand the human body. But as a person, my sympathy is with the Irish Giant, who understands the world in his own way. Writing this story forced me to come to terms with those dueling sympathies.

CS: There and Back Again is a parody of The Hobbit. Was this just for fun or is ther a message?

PM: There and Back Again is one book in a three-book project that was both an enormous joke and a serious meta-fictional experiment. In other words: yes, it’s for fun and yes, there’s a message.

As you mentioned, There and Back Again is a parody of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, retold as a space opera. The central character is a norbit, who lives in the asteroid belt of our solar system, a quiet backwater in a busy galaxy. The norbit lives in a hollowed-out asteroid and flies about the asteroid belt in a steam-powered rocket. One day, he finds a message pod, adrift in the asteroid belt. Soon, he is swept up on an adventure across the galaxy in the company of a notorious woman space pirate and a group of clone sisters, members of the galaxy’s richest and most powerful clone family.

Lots of fun, but the project was much more than a joke. Why parody The Hobbit? Because this book is a fantasy classic that I remember vividly from my childhood. I remember it well, in part, because there was no space for me in it.

When I was growing up I read constantly. I read a great deal of science fiction and fantasy in which the starring roles were filled by boys and men. Tarzan was the adventurer and Jane was just a sidekick. Hobbit men were swept up in adventures and the hobbit women chided them when they came home.

As a child, I would think about stories I had read whenever I was bored. And I would reimagine them so there was a place for me in the story. To do so, I had to mentally rewrite the text or imagine myself as a boy. I became quite adept at both. In the version of Tarzan that I told myself, a scrawny fourth-grade girl accompanied the Lord of the Jungle on every adventure.

As an adult, I understand why this reimagining is important. I read Carolyn Heilbrun’s book Writing a Woman’s Life and realized the importance of stories in shaping how we think about the world and about ourselves. Heilbrun wrote “…it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts. They may be read, or chanted, or experienced electronically, or come to us, like the murmurings of our mothers, telling us what conventions demand. Whenever their force or medium, these stories have formed us all….”

Gently parodying The Hobbit let me create a new work that adjusted what I saw as a troubling flaw in the originals. In There and Back Again, women are the heroes and the adventurers, the movers and shakers – not the ones who stay home or wait to be rescued.

I mentioned that this project began as a joke, and I’m sorry to say that not everyone shared the joke. The Estate of J.R.R. Tolkien contends this novel is an infringement of J.R.R Tolkien’s classic work The Hobbit. I contend that my novel does not infringe but is rather a transformative feminist commentary. Nonetheless my publisher and I have agreed to discontinue the publication of the novel to avoid further dispute.

CS: What do you say about, or ask about, reality in Adventures in Time and Space?

PM: Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell is part of the three-book series that included There and Back Again and Wild Angel.

In Adventures, the tangled threads of all three threads come together. This book addresses the transformative nature of stories themselves — the fundamental reason for writing all three books.

“You are the stories you tell yourself,” Mary Maxwell explains to Susan, the main character in Adventures in Time and Space. You invent your world; you invent yourself. But you need the right stories to help you on the way.

CS: Correct me if I’m wrong, but Wild Girls is your first novel that’s not speculative and your first novel with a non-adult target audience. What age group is the story for? Why venture into literary and why target younger readers?

PM: I wanted to write a book that would have made a difference to me when I was twelve, the age of Joan and Fox, the girls in The Wild Girls. I was writing for a younger version of myself — a girl trapped in the well-manicured world of the suburbs, struggling with family issues and dreaming of fantastic worlds that were beyond my reach.

It’s funny — there is no speculative element in The Wild Girls, but I think of it as a book that is shaped by the sensibilities of science fiction and fantasy. Joan and Fox invent magical worlds to help make sense of this one. The characters they meet are larger than life: Verla Volante, a writer who teaches her students to ask strange questions and tell the truth; and Azalea, stilt-walker with the Circus of Chaos. This book is about courage and adventure and the power of imagination and about how stories can change the world. For me, these are all topics at the heart of fantastic literature — in a meta sort of way.

You ask, essentially, why I decided to write this book. This may sound odd, but some books are not decisions. They come along like recurring dreams and you just can’t shake them. The Wild Girls came to me as an image: two girls — their faces decorated with lipstick warpaint — reading in front of an auditorium full of people. “We are the wild girls who live in the woods,” they say. “You are afraid of us. You are afraid because you don’t know what we might do.”

CS: What do we learn from 2 girls who take a writing course?

PM: If you pay attention, you learn to ask strange questions and tell the truth. You learn to trust your imagination and take that first step.

CS: Is Wild Angel more like Tarzan or more like Jungle Book? Or neither

PM: It’s more like Tarzan, without a doubt.

Sarah, the protagonist, is raised by wolves. She grows up to become an amazing young wild woman, as comfortable in the wilderness of Gold Rush California, as Tarzan was in his jungle. She can lasso a grizzly or mountain lion. That’s Tarzan all the way.

I read Tarzan (and many of its sequels) when I was twelve, naive enough to remain oblivious to the text’s racism, sexism, and purple prose. I was caught by the adventure and managed to ignore the rest.

Writing Wild Angel gave me a chance to recapture that sense of adventure, without the rest of it.

CS: Why quote Mark Twain?

PM: Earlier on, I mentioned my three book series: There and Back Again, Wild Angel, and Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell. To answer this question, I need to tell you a bit more about these books.

It all started with Max Merriwell.

In some universe that is separate but parallel to ours, Max Merriwell is a prolific novelist. Each year he writes three books: a science fiction novel under his own name, a fantasy novel under the pen name Mary Maxwell, and a mystery under the pen name Weldon Merrimax.

In the universe in which we live, Max Merriwell is a pseudonym of mine.

So here’s what happened in our universe. Max Merriwell wrote There and Back Again, a parody of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, retold as a space opera. Oh, all right — sticklers among your readers may say that Pat Murphy wrote that book. But I know that those sticklers are wrong. It’s Max’s book, not mine.

Max’s pseudonym, Mary Maxwell wrote Wild Angel — and I’m very aware that it’s a book that’s written by a man who is writing as a woman. (Yes, yes — I realize that some might say it’s written by a woman who is writing as a man who is writing as a woman. But let’s not go there.)

I too wrote a novel — Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell. Max, the prolific writer described above, is hired to teach a writing workshop on a cruise ship. The ship enters the Bermuda Triangle, events of novels that Max has written begin to bleed through into the reality of the cruise ship, and Max’s pseudonyms show up and make trouble.

Oh yes, somewhere in the course of the writing, I realized that Pat Murphy is a character in all of these novels. In There and Back Again, she is a curator of alien artifacts. In Wild Angel, Patrick Murphy is a Pinkerton investigating a stagecoach robbery. And in Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell, Pat Murphy is a graduate student in physics who explains impossible events using quantum mechanics.

Now, back to your original question: Why quote Mark Twain at the beginning of each chapter in Wild Angel?

Take a look at There and Back Again and you notice that each chapter begins with a quote from Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark. And look at Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell and you’ll find that each chapter begins with a quote from Mary Maxwell, Max Merriwell, or Weldon Merrimax.

Take a look at that list: Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, Mary Maxwell, Max Merriwell, and Weldon Merrimax. What do they all have in common?

CS: Any advice to aspiring writers?

PM: There are three things that help me continue as a writer: courage, discipline, and joy. In more or less equal parts.

Award-Winning/Award-Nominated Fiction by Pat Murphy

“Rachel in Love” – novelette published in Asimov’s magazine, Apr 1987

  • Winner of the Nebula Award
  • Winner of the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award
  • Winner of the Locus Awards
  • Winner of the Asimov’s Reader Poll
  • Nominated for the Hugo Award

The Falling Woman – (novel, Tor, 1987)

  • Winner of the Nebula Award
  • Nominated for the Mythopoeic Award

“Dead Men on TV” – story in Full Spectrum, edited by Lou Aronica and Shawna McCarthy, Bantam Books, 1988

  • Nominated for Nebula Award

“Bones” – novella published in Asimov’s magazine, May 1990

  • Winner of the World Fantasy Award
  • Nominated for Hugo Award and Nebula Award

“Love and Sex Among the Invertebrates” – story in Alien Sex, edited by Ellen Datlow, Dutton, 1990

  • Nominated for the Nebula Award

The City, Not Long After – novel, Doubleday Foundation, 1990

  • Short-listed for Arthur C. Clarke Award
  • Nominated for Mythopoeic Award

Points of Departure – short story collection, Bantam Spectra, 1990

  • Winner of the Philip K. Dick Award for best paperback original

“An American Childhood” – novella published in Asimov’s magazine, Apr 1993

  • Nominated for the Hugo Award
  • 7th in Locus Awards and Asimov’s magazine reader poll

Nadya: The Wolf Chronicles – novel, Tor, 1996

  • Honor list for the James Tiptree Jr Memorial Award

There and Back Again, by Max Merriwell – novel, Tor, 1999

  • Winner of the Seiun Award for Japanese translation

The Wild Girls – novel, Viking, 2007

  • Winner of the Christopher Award in the category of “Books for Young People”
  • Winner of the Book of the Year Award in Children’s Literature
  • Selected as one of thirty 2008 Notable Children’s Book in the Language Arts
  • Recommended by the Amelia Bloomer Project
  • Finalist for the Cybils Awards for Middle Grade novel

Carl Slaughter wrote many reviews for Tangent before moving to Diabolical Plots as a reviewer and later an interviewer. He conducted 50 plus interviews for Diabolical Plots. For the past 14 years, he has traveled the globe teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) in 6 counties on 3 continents. Carl has traveled to 18 countries and counting. (He’s tired.) In college, Carl studied journalism, broadcasting, advertising, English, speech, and history. For several years, he was a stringer for the Associated Press. His essay on Chinese culture was published in Beijing Review. His essay on Korean culture was published in The Korea Times, as was his expose on the Korean ESL industry. His travel/education reports about Thailand occasionally appear on the Ajarn website. Carl subscribes to the Mike Resnick philosophy of fiction: It’s all about the characters. Check out Carl’s Diabolical Plots interviews, his Facebook photos with his students of all ages from around the world, and a short Youtube video of Carl with some VERY excited Thai kindergarteners.

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