Student Spotlight: Kathryn Murphy
In Capital Letters: What authors/poets/books/poems/stories/writingdo you return to again and again?
Kathryn Murphy: After Yitzl by Albert Goldbarth and the collected stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez—I love layered pieces like these with intoxicating, lyrical language that you can unpack and repack in a different way every time you approach them. I am amazed by Karen Russell, Aimee Bender, and Kelly Link, and how fresh some of their strange little short stories feel. I also have a shelf full of what I was raised to call "candy bar books" thatI know cover to cover and always read before bed, books that would probably get me tossed from the program but that help to keep me from getting too high-minded about writing. Writing is a multi-purpose tool, and sometimes its purpose can just be "entertainment."
ICL: What is your favorite and least favorite part of the writing process? The most surprising? The most challenging?
KM: I love the moment when I come to the end of a writing burst, resurface into the real world, and realize that I've been effectively deaf and blind to everything but the words on the screen in front of me for the past few hours. It feels like waking up. But the annoyance of having to force words out when I'm not in the mood keeps me from writing as much as I should. The most surprising moments I've encountered have come from revisiting earlier pieces of mine, realizing I have no memory of writing them, and saying, "These are actuallypretty okay." As for what challenges me most—figuring out what apiece is about. Richard McCann's voice always rings in my ears, telling meto fill in the sentence, "The thing about blank is blank," and I have to remind myself that stringing a bunch of scenes together does not a story make.
ICL: What was the first piece of writing you ever wrote, and when?
KM: "The Duck That Had No Mom." I was four.
ICL: Are certain techniques central to your writing?
KM: Listing and self-editing. I draft mostly in my head, and I'll think through a piece for days and weeks before I actually write anything. Then I make a list, so I don't leave anything out when I do start writing. As I write I constantly correct myself, which is why I so rarely write long-hand. I use backspace more than any other key on my keyboard.
ICL: Are certain themes central to your work?
KM: Family is quite important to me, in my work and in my life. Place also plays a big role—these past few years in DC are the longest I've ever lived outside New England, and I think my nostalgia for Vermont (home) and Boston (home 2.0) is manifesting on the page.
ICL: How have those themes changed over the years?
KM:I'm still a young writer—in age and experience—andso I'm still settling and gaining perspective. I think as I've gotten oldersome of the naiveté has dropped away from my writing, and my sense of self in relation to family and place has grown sharper.
ICL: How do your stories come to you? For example, is it byan image, character, line, phrase, idea?
KM: When writing nonfiction, I usually start with a theme or key scene in mind,and let the rest of the piece expand out of that. My fiction starts with aline of dialogue that gets stuck in my head, or a situation that I can't stopwondering about.
ICL: Do you have a set writing schedule/any writing rituals?
KM: I prefer to write after midnight, when I'm tired and bordering delirium. I always have the TV on in the background and music too—usually the samesong on repeat—and I often find myself writing to the beat.
ICL: If your life had a theme song right now, what would it be?
KM:“Murder in the City” by The Avett Brothers, which is much mellower than its title suggests.
ICL: Tell us something about yourself that most people don't know.
KM: My mom's family was in Life magazine in 1966 for a four-issue arc called “TheTraditional Family of Levi Smith.”
ICL: What projects are you working on right now?
KM: I'm finishing my thesis, a short memoir about illness, identity, and myfather. I'm also working on a series of nonfiction pieces about bread, anda collection of short fiction set in present-day rural/agricultural Vermont.
ICL: If you weren't focused on writing, what would you be doing?
KM: In the future, I hope to split my focus between writing and editing, butif I hadn't ended up in words I would have been an interior designer or architect. There are floor plans in the margins of all my notebooks.
From The Farm
“Two things you gotta know about New Hampshire and Vermont, Paul,” Haroldsaid, holding up his right hand’s index and pinky fingers to make hispoint. In the other hand he held a Mountain Dew bottle, half-filled with tobaccoand spit. His tin of Skoal was crammed into the breast pocket of his t-shirt.I waited for him to continue, brushing a fat fly away from my forehead andtrying to clench my nostrils against the sweetish rot of manure.
“First off, back in the seventies, New Hampshire folks’ daddies sold off their farms to developers, and all the country’s hippy-dippy types started moving here. Second,” Harold cocked the green and white trucker’s hat back on his head as he continued, “We ain’t got billboards.”
I waited for some kind of elaboration, but it didn’t seem to be forthcoming. Harold nodded to himself and shifted the wad of tobacco in his mouth.
“That’sit?” I couldn’t help but ask.
“That’sit. Well, except that those bastards are upside down. Bottom heavy, you know?”Hishands traced a wide-hipped woman, the shape of New Hampshire, in the air, and he cackled. “But back when I was a kid,” (I tried to imagine howmany decades ago that had been—six? More?) “Wasn’t much totell the difference but which way you faced when you pissed in the river. This was all farms up here.”
I followed his jutting chin to the view spread out before us. The hills of the Green Mountain State were gentle compared to those I’d crossed on my way east, and each row was a different hue, fading to a soft blue at the horizon. There were trees here and there, offering shade to a few black and white cows—Holsteins, I reminded myself. The sun was lazy in the afternoon air, and there were ten times more streams threading through the fields than roads. It was, in short, the epitome of pastoral. I could see why Harold begrudged the New Hampshire families who’d given over their land and left their kids with strip malls and parking lots.