Epiphany: William Trevor began his adult life as a sculptor and later described his writing as chipping away at a block of marble. Are you a chipper or a builder? In other words, do you chip away at a block of writing, or are you more methodical, building up the block brick by brick?
Mary Jean Murphy: I’m definitely methodical and imagine the metaphor as building paper mâché. I have these delicate sentences that layer atop each other until there’s something solid. I’ll write a paragraph, decide it doesn’t have that solid feel, then delete it and try again. When it’s working well, it’s a great feeling—when it’s not, it can be pretty frustrating and probably limiting. If I could choose, I'd be a chipper, but maybe that's a case of “grass is greener.”
What was your first publication?
When I was in the 10th grade, I had a poem published in Scholastic’s Best Teen Writing of 2006. It was an anthology of selected winners from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and it was the first “real” contest that my writing won.
Five books you are reading or thinking about now?
I feel as though I’m forever thinking about Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. And then I’m forever reading Infinite Jest. I just started The Arrangement, Ashley Warlick’s imagining of M.F.K. Fisher’s real-life love affair. I’ve got Berryman’s Dream Songs and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets next to my bed.
If you had to inhabit a fictional world, what would it be (i.e., the environment of which novel or short story or poem)?
You have me thinking about Dream Songs, which might be cheating but I’ll stand by it as my answer. Dream Songs is a fragmented reality, straddling somewhere between my deepest secrets and fiction, and that’s the world I chase in my writing. Thrilling is the word for it. I’m both delighted and frightened by the childlike simplicity, the haunting echoes, the humor. I want to be able to climb inside the poems and talk to Henry, but don’t ask me what I would say.
Most interesting day job you've had (from the perspective of a writer)?
I currently work at a martial arts school, after having basically grown up in the one my mom worked at. The martial arts world is fascinating. These schools are like havens for people who seek out a sense of family, so you get a lot of broken individuals, people seeking fulfillment by clinging to one another—it’s something I write about a lot.
Novels? Short stories? Which do you prefer to write?
I’m completely disrespectful to time in my writing. It makes structuring a novel very hard.
One sentence of advice regarding writing?
Write the things you would want to read.
Your story title: was it your first choice?
I’m awful at titles, and they’re probably my least favorite part of the writing process. This essay has gone through at least 4 different titles, and I can only hope it was an improvement each time.
In a nutshell, what are you working on now?
I'm writing a memoir about how my family’s substance abuse took the driver's seat in our lives, in many ways. It looks at what the abuse took away, what it left us with, and asks the question of whether there’s ever really a way back from that. I'm also working on a collection of short prose poems about a character named Jane.
What's an interview question you've never been asked that you wish had been?
So, how does it feel? Answer: pretty damn good.
Mary Jean Murphy is a South Carolinian pursuing her MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia University. Her writing has been published in Vinyl Poetry and Prose, the Washington Square Review, Word Riot, and in the 2008 summer exhibit at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. She is the recipient of a 2012 Jack Kent Cooke Graduate Arts Award and a nonfiction semi-finalist in the 2016 Dzanc Books disquiet International Literary Prize. Find more of her work at www.maryjeanmurphy.com.