Devin Murphy on Adventure, Empathy, and Learning to Open Up
Based in Chicago, Illinois, Devin Murphy is an assistant professor of creative writing at Bradley University. He has two published novels — The Boat Runner (2017) and Tiny Americans (2019) — and is currently at work on a third. His story “Waiting for the Coywolf” appears in our January 2020 issue.
Murphy says he has submitted stories to The Sun for about a decade, but this is the first we’ve published. When he was in graduate school, he got a note from our manuscript editor, Colleen Donfield, who encouraged him to send us work. “You guys gave me the push I needed,” he laughed over the phone recently, as we caught up to discuss his new story, his maritime exploits, and the most valuable lessons he learned from a mentor.
— Finn Cohen, Associate Editor
I’ve read some of your other short stories, and I felt, at least with “Waiting for the Coywolf,” there’s some overlap. You seem to have an affinity for dogs and being alone at night.
The first one is 100% true, and the second one I guess you really nailed me on. I never thought of that! I’m forty-one years old and in the middle of the domestic trenches with little kids. My wife gets up early and exercises, so she gets to sleep earlier, and I’m alone at night, reading and writing. I had all kinds of weird jobs when I was younger, working night shifts or just late into the night, so I’m a natural night owl. That does lead to a touch of solitude, I guess.
As a kid, I always loved Jack London — wild animals and domestic dogs. My second novel started as a short-story collection called Neighborhood Dogs, but it morphed over time into a different thing. I was really influenced by Rick Bass and writing about the natural world and maybe trying to find a touch of that in my own spirit.
You’ve worked in some national parks, right?
The only place that would hire me when I was sixteen was the local nursing home. I worked there all through high school, in the Alzheimer’s ward. I didn’t have the emotional IQ to deal with that, but I thought, “Well, if I'm going to end up like this, if this is a potential place where people end their lives, I want to live one hell of a life first.” I decided I was going to travel all over the world and experience as much as possible.
I wanted to write but didn’t know how. I thought being adventurous would help, so I worked in the tourism industry all through college, and that led me to national parks. I served hot dogs in Rocky Mountain National Park. I was a tour guide at Glacier National Park in Montana. The summer I turned twenty-one, I was a deckhand on a fifty-passenger tour ship in Alaska, and I realized that these ships go all over the planet. For three years, I would go to sea for a couple months, then have a month off, and then go out on a different ship for a few months.
From about seventeen to twenty-seven I was nomadic. The ships were a way for me to travel and educate myself and have adventures, being young and single and fed by the fear that life is short. That nursing home experience made storytelling valuable to me.
The narrator of “Waiting for the Coywolf” is basically at the end of his life. I felt some kinship between him and the narrator of your story “How We Disappear” — even though that narrator is younger — because they both have a similar sort of resignation: there is a ceiling to life.
I think both stories came from that idea of loneliness and self-reckoning. The idea of disappearing very much goes back to that Alzheimer’s ward with these people whose stories are blotted out.
I’m working on my third novel now, writing about the nursing home and those years at sea. I’ve been away from it long enough, and I’m trying to deal with it in fiction in a way that I probably couldn’t earlier. It’s strange — I’ve written about characters who were older than me, then I grew up and lived through similar experiences, thinking, “Oh, am I a prophet?” No, I just was really empathetic to what that experience would have been.
That level of experience and empathy is a tool, right? If you’re writing fiction, you’re drawing on your experiences, but if you can also empathize, that becomes part of the process.
I think of stories as being like a bird’s nest. It’s kind of messy but, hopefully, it’s functional. One piece could be a straw from your experience, and another is something from your imagination, and another is something you heard. And then there’s this shiny piece of ribbon that goes in, which you stole from a poem. Every bit eventually gets in there, and you trim it until it’s final.
If I’m having a conversation and my radar goes off, I think, “Oh, this is interesting, I’m going to ask some follow-up questions.” Normally I’m reserved, but I’ll want to know those things because maybe they will bubble up when I’m writing my fifth novel and become a strand to that bird’s nest.
How do you convince your students to cut something from a story when they really want it in there?
The Sun cut a big part from the end of “Waiting for the Coywolf” that, when I wrote it, was sort of the foundation, but the story is actually well-served without it. The process of workshopping is getting a tougher skin for criticism and realizing you can only work within the vacuum of your own experience, which is limited. To have people give you feedback with the purpose of making your work better — that’s a gift, and it’s hard to come by. I tell them that, as a younger writer, I had a hard time with this. I didn’t want pushback from anyone.
As an older writer who’s done this a lot, I’m starved for feedback. When the Sun editor writes back and says, “Hey, we’re going to cut this whole thread,” I think, “Oh, that’s interesting.” And then I read the story without that thread and think it’s a cleaner, more concise story. I guess I didn’t need it.
Brian Doyle could write these Faulknerian sentences that were like four pages long, and he’d write “STET,” you know, “Don’t edit!” And if anyone would call him on it, he’d go “STET, FUCKING STET! I know what I’m talking about — leave the comma there!” If you’re a master, you can fight a little harder, but right now I’m totally amenable to criticism, and I try to get my students to that place as well.
Did you know we're publishing Brian Doyle’s “Joyas Voladoras” in the same issue as “Waiting for the Coywolf”?
Oh, I'm going to cry — you're kidding me! The man is amazing. I found him late. I was invited to submit to an online journal’s second issue, so I read their first one. I found a piece by Brian Doyle, and that led me to his novels. This was a couple years ago, as he was dying. I'm a fan for life.
As you were developing as a writer, who were your mentors and what were the most important lessons that you got from them?
After two years of MFA classes at Colorado State University, you pick a mentor, and I asked Steven Schwartz to work with me. He’s a phenomenal short-story writer and novelist. I met with him — I was probably twenty-eight, maybe even closer to thirty — and said I wanted to write a book about my interest in wildlife. And he said, “I don’t think you’re writing about anything personal.” None of my writing was really working yet. He said something was keeping me from writing about myself and my own life and any sort of emotion I was dealing with. He just completely pinned me to the truth that I was a closed-off person.
I wasn’t very emotionally open, and I was single for a long time. When he said that, I realized I had to think of myself as a person before I looked at myself as a writer. Why was I closed off? Why was I evasive? I had to have courage to write about my own feelings. As a young guy, I didn’t share that, I didn’t talk about what was important. Once I felt permission to do that, my writing changed entirely.
What have you read recently that has really moved you?
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, and There There by Tommy Orange are amazing novels, catching cultural moments through the perspective of a certain group. Orange’s book is about Native Americans in contemporary Oakland, California, and The Great Believers is about the 80s AIDS epidemic in Chicago. I was stunned by those. I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately, research-based stuff for my writing. And I’ve been bingeing on Brian Doyle’s novels Mink River and The Plover.
My reading depends on what my writing is asking me to do. Do I need to do research and figure out some facts? Do I need to figure out how the structure of a novel works? Do I need to work on sentence-level prose? When I get close to finishing a novel, I read a lot of poetry because that helps me focus on lines and images in my own editing. I’m trying to get to a lushness of language: “Oh, here’s a feeling I haven’t thought about.”