The Woman With No Name: A Conversation with John P. Murphy
John P. Murphy attended Viable Paradise in 2010 and started selling fiction shortly after. His first publications came out in 2011: several pieces in The Drabblecast and “The Body and the Bomb” in Crossed Genres. “Tumbleweeds and Indelicate Questions” was his first pro sale, published in Nature. After a few novella and short story sales, Murphy made a larger splash in 2016, with Nebula Award nominated “The Liar,” about a nice but sort of bemused guy whose lies can affect reality.
Originally from Morgantown, West Virginia, John P. Murphy has a background in machine learning and network security; he has a BS in electrical and computer engineering from West Virginia University and earned a PhD in robotics at Dartmouth. In a spur-of-the-moment decision during his freshman year he took a Japanese language course and, in 1999, ended up as an exchange student at Kansai Gaidai, near Osaka, where he took a class in Japanese cinema. His forthcoming debut novel, Red Noise, comes out of an essay he wrote on certain core themes and the varying approaches of directors.
He’s learned to take advantage of unexpected opportunities.
He drinks a lot of coffee and lives in New Hampshire with his partner and two fluffy cats. He is chair of the short fiction committee for SFWA (as well as a former director-at-large), and a member of the Codex Writers’ Group and the New Hampshire Writers’ Project.
Red Noise is about an asteroid miner who gets swept up in a standoff with gangs and crooked cops. Influenced by such authors as Aliette de Bodard, Raymond Chandler, Warren Ellis, Dashiell Hammett, Akira Kurosawa, and Shinichirō Watanabe, the novel is due out from Angry Robot in June 2020. To quote Murphy’s website, “There’s blood, and the language isn’t polite.”
You attended writers’ workshop Viable Paradise in 2010. What were the most important things you got out of it and what was the most challenging aspect of the program for you?
I got a lot out of it, including some friendships that have endured for now a decade, and a lot of insight into story and plotting. But probably the most important thing I got out of it was permission to think of myself as a writer. I had written as a hobby all through high school and much of college, but grad school left no time for it and really didn’t encourage any kind of creative outlet. Six years of that really put it out of my head. It’s funny: as an engineer, I’ve been surrounded by genre fans for years, but creating that work is seen as something other people do. But the whole process of Viable Paradise helped me get on track: I had to think about my work critically in order to decide what piece to apply with, I had to spend a day making the trek to Martha’s Vineyard, and I had a week with nothing to do except talk and think about writing.
The most challenging aspect came afterward, trying to merge my two lives back together again. I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve gone through workshops like that, and I keep hearing variants on “I got home and couldn’t write.” There’s the shock of going back to one’s old life (transformed?), but there’s also this sense of having gained insight into writing but not yet having much practice making use of that insight. I sat down afterward and wrote something, and it seemed terrible—not because it was worse than what I’d been writing before, but because through all the critiquing I’d gotten better at recognizing flaws and not yet better at fixing them. That passed, but it was tough.
How did you get into reading science fiction and fantasy, and how did you get into writing it?
I’m not sure how I started; it was kind of a “it’s what I’ve always done” sort of thing. My parents have never been into genre, really, but we always seemed to have something around. Like, I remember a children’s book with illustrations taken from Rankin/Bass’ The Hobbit that was kicking around the house long before I ever even realized The Hobbit was its own thing. Probably my first foray into genre for real was with John Bellairs’ books, and then Isaac Asimov after that. I remember staying up all night to read The Earthsea Cycle at a fairly young age.
I do know there must have been some epic fantasy in there somewhere, because at some point I started using my dad’s giant “portable” computer (this was the late eighties/early nineties—as long as it was a single unit and theoretically liftable by one person, it was “portable”) to type out long rambling stories with swords and characters who had names that sounded cool. Editing was a foreign concept—if I got stuck or bored, I started a new one instead. There were a lot of filled-then-thrown away legal pads in there, too, especially as I got older and started to want some privacy. I tried my hand at plays, even, but my idea of fun in those days was to sit in my room, scribbling way past midnight.
What were a few of the most important genre stories or books for you when you were younger, and why?
When I was younger, Star Trek: The Next Generation probably had the biggest effect on me. That was science fiction to me, that and Asimov’s robot books. I think I first read The Lord of the Rings in fifth or sixth grade, and that was huge. Honestly, none of it was terribly adventurous; nobody really knew what to get for me, and while our local library in West Virginia probably had wider variety, I didn’t know for a while yet to go looking for it beyond what they called the kids section.
Getting on toward high school, I had friends who loaned me stuff outside my comfort zone (I remember handing Dune back to a friend because the glossary was in the beginning and I said “to hell with that” until he practically forced me to), but most of what I got was through video games. I’m of a generation of writers who grew up thinking airships were the coolest things ever, and I’m pretty sure all of us played Final Fantasy. Airships figured HEAVILY in the stories I wrote in high school as a result, and I wrote like a hundred thousand words of what was probably basically Final Fantasy VI with the serial numbers filed off.
Your first publications came out in 2011. What was the journey to selling fiction like for you?
There was a long gap in my writing starting around 1999 or so. But the itch never really went away, and around 2009 I thought it might be fun to give it a try again. In a way, it was a bit of a coin toss—I had really gotten into reading mysteries in grad school, more so than science fiction and fantasy. So I thought about just writing a straight-up mystery story, but the idea that came to mind was in a science fiction setting. I finished it, and then thought . . . now what?
So I went online to see what help was available. That led me to the Critters online workshop, and to Viable Paradise. The level of community support for genre writers was really tremendous, and in retrospect strongly influenced my continuing to write science fiction rather than mystery.
It took some time to get published. I got into Viable Paradise. I think my first sale came six or seven months after that, for something like ten bucks. My first pro sale was a couple years later, then a couple novellas. “Claudius Rex” came out from PaperGolem, and then was reprinted a handful of times. Then “The Liar,” in F&SF. I wrote a handful of novels that got trunked, but I sold Red Noise probably around the ten-year mark of getting back into writing.
What are a few of the most important things you learned about writing or the industry through that initial process of getting published?
Probably the most important thing is the relationship between a writer and editor. From the outside, and when you’re new, it seems to have this huge power imbalance, and it’s easy to think of the editor as grading you, as a gatekeeper. That’s a really common misconception, and terribly harmful. Sad to say, some markets take advantage of that attitude and get writers to accept terms or treatments that they really shouldn’t. Going to conventions and talking to editors like actual people, learning to see things from their point of view, was very important. It helped me put less of my self-esteem in every envelope, and to enjoy my interactions with them more. OK, I still get nervous sending things out, but it feels a lot more like sharing stories with friends now than submitting things for a grade.
You have a PhD in robotics and a background in machine learning and network security. How important is scientific rigor in your science fiction? And how important is it to you in stories you enjoy reading?
It’s not too important in my own fiction. I pretty much have to just satisfy myself that I’m not writing bullshit, and the definition for that varies from story to story. If a problem feels like it ought to be solvable, then I’m happy to accept the assumption that someone will probably eventually solve it, think through some of the implications, and move on.
As a reader, I roll my eyes a lot, but I can generally still enjoy a story that’s not rigorous. Most of the time it’s not central to the plot, and I can just ignore it. If I want science, there are journals I can read; fiction for me is about deeper truths about human beings. People get robots wrong all the time, for example, but the point of robot stories is in our relationships with them or with technology, and you don’t really need to get the details right to say something interesting or profound.
Sometimes bad science bugs me enough to ruin a story, though. There was a well-liked story a few years back that got the basic principles of computer vision so completely wrong, as part of its main plot, that I just noped out. Doesn’t make the story bad, I just couldn’t appreciate it. Sometimes those telling details don’t tell what you think.
What are some of your favorite scientifically rigorous concepts in either your own fiction or something you’ve read? Or your favorite deeply researched bits, those things that readers probably won’t know just how much work went into them?
I love a good hack, those weird little lateral thinking moves that remind you the world doesn’t operate by the rules you think it does. Computers in particular just don’t work the way people think they do. There was one in the news not long ago about using ultrasonic speakers to talk to your gadgets—they could give commands to Alexa or Siri right in front of you, without you hearing it. I don’t recall the details exactly, and anyway it’s been fifteen years since I had the relevant math, but the idea was in using a shared table as a conducting medium (even with a cubicle wall in between) and putting the voice commands into the harmonics. So cool.
My favorite deeply researched bit has nothing to do with science, though, but with food. I’m a big fan of okonomiyaki, and I wanted my character to cook it, but I’d already established some serious constraints on the food supply. Long story short, I bought a pound of cricket flour, experimented with aquafaba (using the liquid from a can of chickpeas as egg substitute), and made a lot of more-or-less tasty okonomiyaki at home, all for a couple paragraphs in one chapter. Worth it.
You write at different lengths, from drabble and flash to your Nebula Award nominated novella “The Liar” in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and of course to your forthcoming novel. Are there important differences in the way you write at different lengths? Are some lengths more comfortable, others more challenging?
I really like novellas. They feel like a sweet spot for me in terms of giving me time to develop a character and voice and tell an involved story that you could still read in one sitting. I like to have space to tell a story, and I like to get to know how characters tick, but I don’t want to wear out my welcome. I run a novella contest every year for the Codex Writers’ Group, and I learn something every year about how to tell a tight, engaging story.
For me, the biggest challenge in writing a novel was in needing to handle a broader scope, especially in terms of point of view. I enjoy the act of writing in multiple points of view, especially when I get to describe how two different characters experience the same action, or to see a main character from the outside. But I tend to like to keep everything in my head and keeping all those strands of story organized was a stretch for me.
In this case, I actually first wrote Red Noise as a novella (around 25,000 words, or about a quarter its current length), which let me work out the intricacies of the main plot while keeping everything straight in my head. The broad strokes of that novella are still there, and you can probably still make out the original five act structure in the final piece.
Looking at your body of work to date, do you feel like most of your fiction pieces have particular commonalities (voice, character, style, etc.), or do you feel like each piece is very different from the next?
It’s funny, because thinking about this very question led to some of the decisions I made with Red Noise. My comfort zone is in first person narration. Maybe it’s because I got into drama in high school (even wrote plays) and thoroughly enjoyed acting, but I’m pretty good at inhabiting a character and turning on the charm. In “The Liar,” and in “Claudius Rex” before it, the number one comment I got was that readers enjoyed just sitting and spending time with the narrator’s voice.
So, what I wanted for Red Noise was to push that boundary. I wanted an antihero, someone a little prickly. I went with third person narration, and I let myself play loose with point of view. At the same time, that same voice creeps in sometimes. There aren’t a lot of commonalities between Greg Kellogg and the Miner—not least their respective attitudes toward homicide—but they do both share a sly sense of humor.
Some call “The Liar” horror—in fact F&SF editor C.C. Finlay introduced it as “ . . . if Garrison Keillor wrote a Stephen King story.” What, for you, are the defining characteristics of horror? Or, for that matter, specifically a genre writer? And are these useful distinctions, or are they mainly marketing tools?
I don’t think of myself as a real horror writer. Horror, to me, is tourism of dread. It’s such a visceral emotion—not even an emotion, something beneath. That feeling that something just isn’t right here and that I need to get out of here NOW. When horror is done perfectly, I get that same feeling as when a roller coaster just crests that first hill and gravity changes direction and how well do they really maintain these things anyway. I don’t read a lot of it. T. Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones did a number on me. I can’t wait for the sequel.
I’ve written several ghost stories, or spooky stories, as opposed to horror. I can’t entirely articulate the difference. Dread, you enjoy when it’s over. Spooky, you enjoy when it’s happening. That’s my theory, anyway.
I’m not sure what I consider myself. I love writing mysteries, and I love the wide palette that genre offers me. Genre distinctions are useful, I think (though I should protest that marketing tools are themselves useful), in that they grow over time into constraints, and constraints feed creativity. Speculative fiction in particular is a fun family of genres because while there are boundaries and expected forms, readers can be so tolerant of playing with them. Genre readers are always up for going on an adventure.
In your 2018 mini interview on The Boskone Blog you described Red Noise as “kind of a cross between a space opera and a samurai flick.” The Angry Robot site calls it “Cowboy Bebop meets A Fistful of Dollars.” What is important or special about this book to you?
I’ve been thinking about this story, in one form or another, for a long time. Feuds fascinate me. You don’t grow up in West Virginia without hearing about the Hatfields and McCoys, but there were so many more than just those, some of which went on for a hundred years. What causes that? Why do some people just hate each other so much, and why is it that people who on paper have the most in common grow to hate each other so viscerally? I’ve heard explanations about “honor culture” and how it’s important for cultures that grew up around herding, where you couldn’t be seen as backing down or someone would steal your goats or something, but that all never felt satisfying to me as an answer.
The basic plot in A Fistful of Dollars, or Yojimbo before it, or Red Harvest before that, revolves around exploiting that kind of feud. It’s about pitting righteous anger against bitter anger, and while that feels awfully satisfying, is it really a good thing? I guess that’s what this book is about.
In that same interview you mentioned that you don’t write much action. Did you do anything in particular to make sure the action worked well?
I studied! I went through books both in genre and outside and looked at how they did their action scenes and what worked for me as a reader. I also watched samurai films and Westerns, and I realized that the action style there worked for me—most of the fights don’t have drawn out action. I think it’s a mistake to revel too much in a fight scene; the failure mode is boredom or confusion. Competent fighters tend to work fast, and I found that both more satisfying to write and easier to keep up the pace with.
The Publishers Weekly review of Red Noise describes the Miner character as “The reclusive, unnamed heroine . . . a resourceful, intriguing protagonist . . . ” What are your favorite things about this character? Are there any specific ways in which you personally relate to her? And why is she unnamed in the book?
She’s got a wicked sense of humor, and I so enjoyed writing her dialogue and the effect she has on other people. I spend a lot of time trying to keep the peace—I’ve done a lot of tech support in my day, and she’s very much the opposite. I relate to her protective streak, though. Hers is a mile wide, and not always healthy. I identify with her struggles to decide just how much to open up to people, especially new friends.
It’s hard to explain why she’s unnamed in the book. Some of that is a desire to stick to the conventions—that genre question again. Movie viewers are happy to watch the exploits of The Man With No Name, by the way, but why are there so few women with no names? There’s an intimacy that readers have with main characters, but this is a character who rejects that intimacy. She’s set her boundaries, between herself and the world, between herself and her past. I felt that to let the reader know her by name would undermine her. But at the same time, I don’t think her name matters. You can know a person very well without ever knowing their name, I think.
I’ve seen you talk here and there about optimism in fiction. Are there any recent/new optimistic genre stories or books you’ve read that you’d like to recommend?
I usually bring up Terry Pratchett as my go-to example of optimism. I particularly enjoy that crusty hermit crab style that wants to be mistaken for cynicism. Tyler Hayes’ The Imaginary Corpse springs to mind; it’s about a plush triceratops private detective dealing with a series of murders of imaginary friends who’ve been left behind by their people. The whole idea behind it is sort of sad, and yet the basic assumption is that most people are well-meaning at heart, and well-meaning people can make things better. Not perfect, and not perfectly, but better.
I’ll also put in a plug here for the recent game Outer Wilds, which I enjoyed tremendously. It could have been incredibly bleak but kept an enthusiastic attitude and struck a hopeful note that I really appreciated.