By Daniel Ford
As I wrote in November’s “Books That Should Be On Your Radar,” I was completely enthralled by Tim Murphy’s novel Christodora.
Murphy graciously answered some of my questions recently about his addiction to reading and writing, nonlinear storytelling, and what inspired Christodora.
Daniel Ford: Did you find writing or did writing find you?
Tim Murphy: Back in third grade I wrote a cheesy pastoral poem called "Nightfall" that made it into the local paper and when I saw my own words there set in type with my name on it, that was it. My bottomless need to be published began and it hasn't abated. But I would say the other addiction has been with reading. I was a bullied, lonely gay kid and gigantic social novels saved my life and I would like to think that I am one of the few people out there to read most of Edith Wharton before puberty.
DF: What’s your writing process like? Do you outline or listen to music?
TM: Neither. I guess I storyboard it in my head and start shaping it on the page. It's very filmic for me and I move a camera around in my head and I score it in my head while I'm writing, thinking about what the tone would feel like on film, where the camera would pull back, close in, cut, etc. And also when discursiveness breaks in and gives you something you can't necessarily get from film or television. I can't listen to music while writing, even without lyrics. Too distracting. You have to hear the story. I can't write in very long increments anymore. Sometimes I don't get past a paragraph.
DF: What’s the premise of Christodora and what inspired the tale?
TM: I guess the short version would be that Christodora is about 40 years in the life of three generations of one blended New York family as they get banged around by the AIDS epidemic, adoption, drugs, mental illness, and also the city as it changes dramatically from the 1980s to the 2020s. I've lived in New York City since 1991. My entire 25 years here informed Christodora, not just things that happened specifically to me, like bouts of mental illness and addiction, but also the bigger events of the city—the AIDS crisis, the literary and art scene, the insane increase in wealth after 9/11.
DF: Non-linear storytelling has been a literary trend of late, and can be tough to pull off. You made it look easy! When did you decide that you wanted to jump around from decade to decade while telling this family’s story?
TM: Isn't there something a bit flat about a story that just plods forward in time? Narrative isn't just a succession of events. It's also memory, hindsight, knowing more than the characters know, nostalgia, regret, dread, anticipation. It's hard to get those things when you're just moving forward in time. Someone told me that reading the book was like an elevator where you never know what floor you'll be left on next, and I like that metaphor. I like that it does add up linearly ultimately, but you sort of have to work for it and pick your way through puzzle pieces, and also through the shards and ghosts of the past.
DF: Christodora features deep, well thought out, damaged characters that were hard to let go once I finished the novel. In a lot of ways, they are still in my head, which speaks to great characterization. How do you go about building your characters, and how much of yourself ends up in them?
TM: I think you're building characters at their best when you are fluidly thinking of several people you know at once, including yourself, some of them not even that well or recently, and you can't fully account for where the characters' words or motivations are coming from. Just think about how much you and one other friend can talk about a third friend, how many facets of their character, how many contradictory traits and choices. I don't think it's that hard to create characters that feel real and contradictory if you actually stop to think about the complexity and texture of people you actually know, all the things that go into making someone who they are.
DF: Speaking of characters, the building that the Traum family inhabits is just as much a character as Milly or Jared, and really anchors the narrative while it sways in and out of each decade. Why the decision to focus on one building rather than have these characters bounce around the city?
TM: Originally the story was not set at the Christodora but at a somewhat similar building with a staff in the East Village that a good friend lives in. I guess just because in New York City a building like that is a microcosm of the city, where you may or may not get close to people you live in close proximity to for several years. And to me, the novel is all about fate determining whether or not a certain number of people get to know each other, or not. Our patterns around the city every day—where we eat, work, shop, live, etc.—are so fateful. They can determine who we marry or who becomes our chosen family or our next job, or conversely whom we barely know for decades even though we see them every day.
DF: In a feature with Interview, you said that, “Throughout my twenties I really felt that AIDS was the defining shadow hanging over the gay community.” You’ve also been writing about LGBT issues throughout your career. In Christodora, you tackle all of these issues in a way that felt so personal and so insightful. Considering all of your past experiences, was it difficult putting these ideas to paper or was it cathartic?
TM: It was cathartic and it also felt like a chance to write queer characters that feel like people I really know, or have known. I feel like on TV or what you have you we still see a kind of squeaky-clean corporate Banana Republic gay who is very consumerist, suburban, and unthreatening. A lot of gays I know, including myself, are quite political and wonky and angry and weird and have been a hot mess at one time or another, and those are the kind of gay lives I wanted to portray. I had faith that if I made them human, then straight readers would relate to them even if they weren't out of "Modern Family."
DF: I’m also thankful that you gave me a refresher in the early AIDS fight, as well as explaining issues that those with HIV and AIDS still battle with today. You put a real human face on the epidemic and, for me at least, kicked away some of the complacency I felt toward the medical breakthroughs and whatnot. Was that something you wanted to accomplish when you started the novel?
TM: I feel like, for the most part, with some exceptions, the story of AIDS is only ever told in media boilerplate, the same tropes and clichés over and over again. In the shorthand telling, it's all just victimhood and death until the breakthrough medications come along and then everything's fine. Not to minimize the devastation of the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, but there was so much fierce pushing back against death and victimhood up to that breakthrough, and so many complications and so much fallout after the breakthrough. That's what I wanted to show a little of, to get granular and get past the broad brushstrokes.
DF: Writing anything set in New York City runs the risk of devolving into cliché (which your novel avoids). Was that something you were conscious of during the writing process?
TM: Not really. I just wanted to convey New York as I've known it, like what the garbage smells like on a steamy summer day, or what it feels like to walk home late at night when the streets are quiet and it feels like the city is all yours. I didn't feel like I was writing clichés, but just how it feels to live here day in and day out.
DF: Christodora has garnered praise from critics, your fellow authors, and readers. Do those reactions give you more confidence as a writer?
TM: In some ways, less, actually. It is a luxury to write in a bubble with no expectations. Once a book is out there, reviewers etc. tell you what kind of a writer you are, what your weaknesses and strengths are, and that can make you self-conscious. And I am definitely not the type to say I don't read the reviews, because actually, after working on this book for so long, I am actually interested to hear what people have to say about it. Sometimes they have insights that never occurred to me. But I think that might come from being a journalist and thankfully being far more interested in hearing new things from other people than hearing myself say the same things over and over again. That gets a bit dull.
DF: What’s next for you?
TM: I am working on a new novel but it's way too early to talk about. I will say that essentially none of the themes that drive Christodora, except for family, are in it.
DF: What’s your advice for aspiring authors and screenwriters?
TM: The first thing would be to read everything, constantly. And think about why it works or not. About the choices the writer or writers made. And the other is to make yourself write, even a little bit, every day, and to try to actually enjoy it instead of thinking of it as a chore. Spending a year talking over the pros and cons of getting your MFA is not writing.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
TM: After having a strong coffee I often end up overly talking to strangers.