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In Discussion with...

Interview for Crime Time with Louise Welsh

Antihero as hero – is this something you set out to do in The Cutting Room?

Rilke was influenced by a long line of literary antiheros from Caleb Williams to Philip Marlowe. I think it’s often the central character’s flaws that help the reader relate to him/her. On the whole though I consider Rilke to be a fine man and was quite surprised when some reviewers said they liked him in spite of themselves. What’s not to like? He’s hard working, brave, amusing, loyal, compassionate and wants to find love. Okay he drinks too much and resorts to violence a little too readily, but he’s under a lot of stress. I couldn’t help wondering if some reader’s reservations were due to his sexuality.

There are references to Keats, Verlaine, Blake, Poe, Rimbaud (the poet, not the testosterone inflated film character) – even the hero’s name is that of a poet. What’s the deal?

What can I say? I’m a poetry junky.

The Cutting Room has garnered a lot of literary praise – as well as a hatful of literary awards. Were you prepared for all this?

When I started writing TCR I had no confidence that it would get published. Even after I’d received an advance from Canongate based on the first 30 thousand words I thought they might ask for the money back once they saw the completed draft. So no, I wasn’t prepared for it, but the literary praise and prizes have been a wonderful surprise. In fact the whole thing has been a life changing experience.

Life changing how?

I live in the same tiny flat and have the same friends as I did before TCR was released, but I can now write full time, something I used to dream of!

Did you set out to write a crime novel?

I’m definitely influenced by crime writers – especially Chandler. I didn’t set out to write a crime novel though and it has been brilliant bonus to be welcomed so wholeheartedly by the crime writing fraternity. I did self-consciously reference gothic convention, however. For example the large house where Rilke begins his quest is a constant in the gothic - think Bates Motel or the House of Usher. My aim was to try and create that delicious feeling of hesitation between the real and the unreal. I want to mess with folk’s heads.

Do you think about the audience you’re writing for?

Readers are such a diverse bunch it would be impossible to imagine a general audience. But writers are attempting to create a credible world around a story, so I guess I do consider the reader because I want them to understand and enjoy the book. I don’t visualise them though. They’re just a hazy grey person, like someone in a sexual fantasy . . .

The aspect of The Cutting Room that has proved most controversial is the sex . . . Readers' responses have been vehement – both in criticism and in praise of its honesty and relevance to the development of Rilke’s character. What’s your reaction?

At the core of the book is a selection of horrifying photographs, which may depict the sexual murder of a young girl. The close description of these photographs is at least as detailed as Rilke’s sexual encounters. No one has expressed shock or disgust over them. I think sex is important in novels as in life. Rilke is an out and about gay man who has consensual safe sex with men over the age of twenty-one. It’s hard for me to see any great controversy there. If people don’t like it they can skip a paragraph or two.

Is there anything you won’t write about?

Writers have an obligation to the characters in their books, especially their victims. I disapprove of including images of sexual violence just to give the reader a quick thrill or liven the plot. I’m very impressed by Alice Seabold’s Lovely Bones, where the victim of a sexual murder narrates the novel from her vantage point in heaven.
I’d also have a problem with using a recent actual crime as the basis of a plot.

Give us a breakdown of your working day.

I like to get to my desk by 9am at the latest and spend at least five hours working on fiction whether it’s going well or not. I’m quite a slow worker. I use an old lap-top, edit as I go along, talk to myself and drink at least 550 cups of tea a day. I live alone so sometimes I go and work in Glasgow University library for a change of scene. If I’m still working in the evening I open a bottle of wine about six o’clock. Usually I only have a couple of glasses, but it really helps.

The vignettes in the auction room on sale day give a portrait of the antiques trade that is sharp and affectionate, and exposes both the tawdry and the heroic aspects of it. Was this research or do you have links with the trade?

I worked as a second hand book dealer for around ten years and visited several auctions a week. It was great fun and I suppose I was doing research without knowing it. There’s a great tolerance of individualism in the second hand trade and most people are extremely honourable. Indeed they depend on their honour, it’s a small world and anyone dodgy will soon be excluded.

What are you working on now?

I have a couple of projects on the go. A novelette working title AKA Xtopher, based around the murder of 16thc playwright Christopher Marlowe which will hopefully be published by Canongate in 2004. And two half hour programmes A Gothic Quest for Radio 4, which will be broadcast this November. In the Autumn I’m going to return to a full-length novel Torchlight set around an art deco cinema.

 


 
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