Interviewed by Sharon Wildwind
Dennis Richard Murphy is best known for his crime fiction short stories, having been nominated four times in four years for the Canadian Crime Writer’s Arthur Ellis Award. This year—fifth time lucky—he won the prize for “Fuzzy Wuzzy”, a short story that appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in August 2006.
He is an award-winning filmmaker, primarily of documentaries and including a stint as Head of Documentaries for the prestigious National Film Board of Canada. His own films have ranged in subject matter from peacekeeping in Bosnia (the Gemini-nominated “Balkan Blues”) to “Manhunt”, a thirteen-part factual chase series on History Television and National Geographic.
This summer, living and working on a Georgian Steel Housecruiser named Meta IV in a Toronto marina, he has completed several short stories and (finally) his first novel, the latter titled “Darkness at the Break of Noon” until his agent changes it to something that she feels will actually sell books.
PDD: How does writing a novel benefit from an expertise in writing short stories?
It doesn’t, other than the fact that writing anything is good practice for writing anything else. The short story is like a 100-yard dash (or is that metres now?). All the training, regimen, focus and preparation is devoted to that finite nine seconds or so in a world where success is measured in tens of thousandths of a second. Similarly, the short story is a study in concision, in compressed illustration, a storytelling in which character and place, history and motivation are refined to fit into a finite form.
PDD: And what’s that form?
Well it’s often as simple as a length defined by the publisher or editor as in “I need five to six thousand words” or “Not a damned comma over three thousand because we’ve already sold the surrounding advertisements for local businesses”.
My first published short story, “The Grafton Girls” appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine at 12,000 words thanks to the kindness of editor Janet Hutchings. Other than suggest to me that such lengths were the purview of firmly established crime writers whose name on the cover would sell magazine copies, she helped me shape the story in terms of its impact rather than its length. The final version, in fact, wasn’t much shorter than my submission but I learned how short “short” stories should be. (And I learned what a great editor does and what a help it is to a story-obsessed writer).
Now it seems that five or six thousand words is what it takes for me to tell a story without crossing over into that loping pace allowed in novel writing, yet still offering enough literary real estate to develop people and themes and attitudes. That said, I wrote a story for the Osprey newspaper chain this summer (which claims up to half a million readers). My first legible draft was about 4,000 words and I cut it to the requisite three thousand. It reads well but I feel that I pared it too much, like someone emery-boarding their fingernails until the blood begins to flow. Ouch. Too much, although no one has commented on it.
PDD: And writing a novel?
The marathon rather than the dash. The need to pace, the demand to vary sentence lengths and moods and characters and places. The opportunity to lope, to be more extreme about the dynamic range of actions, interactions, tensions, emotions, and plain old description. I like stories with a great sense of place: Dave Robicheaux’ New Iberia (James Lee Burke), The Honorary Consul’s Argentina (Graham Greene), Arthur Simpson’s Turkish jail (Eric Ambler), John Cardinal’s Algonquin Bay (Giles Blunt), and many others who use Boston (Lehane) or Detroit (Block) or Paris (Simenon) or Italian towns (Dibden) and Swedish villages (Mankell) as the canvas for their crimes or solutions. A taste of place takes time and a hundred-thousand word novel simply offers more opportunity than a three-thousand word story.
PDD: So how does writing of one help or hinder the writing of the other?
The short story demands attention to every word, every comma, every redundancy. (I know one writer who does an “ly” search to exorcize adverbs). In a short story here is little room for searching, only for finding, no room for repetition, only room for moving forward. I’ve heard it said that removing a single word from a short story should change the story. That’s extreme but it’s representative of the intense glare one shines on a such a piece of writing. The first draft is processed through a series of readings and edits that threaten to destroy it. To use that skill, that density of expression, that number of abstract brushstrokes to write a novel would overwhelm any reader. Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” is an example, as is Michael Chabon’s new book “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union”, both (adverb alert) immensely enjoyable, both extremely well researched and craftily written, but dense as chocolate-peanut butter fudge and (for me) only palatable in small doses.
I find writing short stories therapy for writing a novel and vice versa. After a week or so buried in the multi-dimensional plot and character complications of a novel it’s refreshing to suffer the supposed limitations of a short story with its minimal cast of characters and necessarily more linear plot. Likewise, after a session of shining an intense light on every damned syllable of a short story it’s pure oxygen to sit back and write a descriptive package without concern for acreage, even if you hack it down to size later.
PDD: Do your short stories have a theme? Something that links them together?
I didn’t think so, until I spoke one night at an Authors’ gathering. I was billed as the crime writer and I suspect, from the questions asked after some readings, that the crowd expected me to be some Stephen King harbinger of the deadly dark side. I read a few excepts from my short stories—it’s a lot easier than trying to read a short passage and contextualize it as part of a large novel—and opened things up for questions. One woman seemed especially disappointed. “You’re not an evil person,” she said. “All your killers have good reason to do their murders or whatever. I wouldn’t blame any of them for what they do. In fact the world’s a better place without the people they killed.”
She was correct. In “Dead in the Water” one man local to Algonquin Park kills a man he calls “the painter” who he feels usurps his attachment to his lifelong home, who only sees the wind-bent trees and broken beaver dams and steals them—along with his killer’s lady friend and his wartime experiences.
In another (“Death of a Drystone Wall”) a senile man on the Quebec-New Brunswick border lives in his Acadian cultural past. He remembers too a man he killed—an abusive husband who murdered the woman our hero loved. He buried both of them under a dry stone wall about to be exposed by construction of a condo development.
In a third, (“The Sound of Silence”) a man positions himself with a high-powered rifle in a neighbouring child’s tree fort to kill the political VIP who dismissed him in his University days, who stole his girlfriend, who turned down a business contract for window replacement that would have made a fortune and who became a politician legislating against his interests.
There are other examples. I didn’t realize that many of my killers were highly moral human beings who had been wronged or who had committed a crime that reader’s might condone or even approve of.
PDD: Do you think that’s a Canadian thing? An apologetic stance for a crime committed?
Good question. Aren’t we always saying “Sorry”? I don’t think the rationalized murder is a Canadian thing, more some psychosis of my own, some frustration with justice undone or unresolved lives. But I do think there’s a Canadian aspect to writing—including crime writing—for those of us born in Canada at least. Thirty-five yeas ago (1972) Margaret Atwood wrote a treatise called Survival in which she explored themes and links in what became known as Canadian literature or Can-Lit. Her work shows common themes of loss, nature, weather, metaphors as the child of French and English cultures, with sisters from England and brothers from America…
She wrote a follow-up too, in 1995. “Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature”, an attempt to find the holy (to us Canadians) grail of “Canadian identity”. She writes: “Canadians are fond of a good disaster, especially if it has ice, water, or snow in it.” She suggests the Canadian flag is not simply a red maple leaf on a white background: “Look harder. It’s where someone got axed in the snow.” (Worth noting that Atwood is no stranger to crime fiction—she was nominated by Crime Writers of Canada for an Arthur Ellis for “Alias Grace” as Best Crime Novel in 1997 and lost out to Peter Robinson).
That said, I’m not sure that setting a novel or a story in cold weather or treeless plains is Canadian, just as I’m not sure that Jim Carrey, John Candy, Martin Short, Dan Aykroyd, Gene Levy and others comprise some thesis on Canadian comedic skills. Certainly we wish to be rid of the stereotypes regarding weather and geography, especially in America from whence people arriving at the border with skis on racks in midsummer are apocryphal. (Note: Toronto is 900 miles SOUTH of Duluth Minnesota and on the same latitude as the northern border of California. Another note: Buffalo gets a lot more snow than Toronto even though they say it all comes from here which it doesn’t).
In my own, unresearched opinion, however, Canadian editors are the filter for what they consider Canadian-ness. Case in point: In 2004 I won the Storyteller Magazine Best Canadian Short Story Award for “Dead in the Water”, the already mentioned deathbed confession of the man who killed a “painter” who became famous for his pictures of what this man felt was his land. Good Canadian story eh? Mysterious death of Canadian artistic icon explained at last, albeit fictionally.
The next year I won the same award for a story about the Acadian man about to be exposed as a murderer when a wall in an otherwise vacant lot is about to be excavated for time share properties. Acadians in New Brunswick, the locally well-remembered diaspora that had them ending up in Louisiana as “Cajuns”, the threat of progress exposing a piece of good old Canadian history… another great Canuck story, right? And another award. I’m on a roll.
I wanted the hat-trick. Who wouldn’t. Three for three. The next year I wrote “Fuzzy Wuzzy”, a story about a mentally deficient homeless man in Toronto who becomes involved in a tug of war between a homeless woman who is not really homeless and an elderly military man who is homeless but with a terrible secret. (No one is who they seem, hence “Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy was he?”). It was a good story, a bit complicated like I like them. I worked hard at it and sent it in. Not a nomination, not even tenth place, not even a wink. I was curious and asked why. “Not up to your normal standards”, I was told. (I hadn’t written enough yet to have standards.) “Not very Canadian,” said the editor, whatever that meant.
I ate the crow and sent the story to Ellery Queen where Janet Hutchings published it last year as quickly as she could and it received the Arthur Ellis nomination and won this past June.
I’m convinced that the Algonquin Park story and the New Brunswick story were acceptable in Canada because they dealt with the relatively issue-less historical aspects of out country. It wasn’t that Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t Canadian—it was an editorial insistence, or at the very least a preference, that we don’t have any homeless here. Or perhaps we don’t have any homeless in Ottawa where the magazine is published.
My standards or skills hadn’t slipped as it turned out. It was just that my societal focus was unacceptable to the publication’s concept of my country. Perhaps that means Canadian writing in Canada has to be about nothing deemed socially important. Or am I bitter, still pining for that hat-trick that can never come?
PDD: Are all your stories issue-oriented?
I guess so. I don’t set out to make a bald-headed statement, just to write a story with a crime at its centre that has something to do with the world we live in. But I’ve been making documentary films for a long time and I suppose my feelings about issues are always there and ready (and more than willing) to be tapped. So yes, the issue of undeserved iconic respect, of cultural trespass, of historical metaphor, of people who successfully tread upon the weak, of righteous retribution… all this stuff is fodder for story telling, and maybe for committing fictional murder.
PDD: Who’s the market?
Well I’m not sure there is a market for social issue crime writing. But there is for short stories, if market means where do they appear. It’s not about money—I’ve been paid nothing to thirty-five dollars to five hundred dollars for stories without respect to length or the time taken to craft them. It is, I feel, a good way to get my name in front of people as a good writer, and when that writer has a novel published there may be a few more readers conscious of his writing than if he hadn’t produced short stories.
Like any submission to any body that makes decisions on your work, you have to know and understand the market of the people to whom you are submitting. Storyteller Magazine (despite my irrelevant personal disappointment) is a fine publication and probably publishes more first-time Canadian short story writers than anyone else. And not just crime—they are not a crime or mystery publication. They’ll want stories that are Canadian (or what they feel is Canadian) although a friend of mine sold them a story based on surviving a Florida hurricane. Editor Melanie Fogel is extremely helpful and professional, a talented woman with a credible short story writing record of her own.
Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchock Mystery Magazine are sister publications and their editors (respectively Janet Hutchings and Linda Landrigan) are wonderful women and helpful editors. Janet attended the Arthur Ellis Awards in Toronto this year, for which I was grateful—now that’s support for a writer. Buy copies and read their magazines and others. Understand what they want from writers before you submit anything. They sell a lot of magazines to older people so, even if eighty is the new sixty, don’t use unnecessarily abusive language or dip too deeply in the pool of unmitigated gore.
After getting my first story in EQMM I submitted another with dreasm of serialization. After all, if they liked that one, what about another with the same protagonist in the same town. Wrong. I was told their readership was primarily urban. A rural story was refreshing once in a while, but not twice. Of course why would they publish it if their readers don’t want to read it? Do your homework. Editors and publishers are happy to tell you what they want, either by letter or on their websites.
Speaking of websites, follow their rules. If they want a manuscript submitted by snail mail, printed in Times New Roman, double spaced on eight and a half by eleven white unlined paper, do it. Don’t email them a submission in your favourite font, or don’t email them at all if they don’t ask you to. Don’t send them attachments that gum up their office computer memory. Do what they ask and they are more likely to do what you ask—publish your story.
It doesn’t matter who the publisher is. Do the same work: find out what they publish, who their readers are, what their submission rules are, and follow them. None of us are so special we can bend the rules to fit us. They make the rules for what they consider good reasons. Listen to them.
On the other hand do NOT ever sign over anything other than first publication rights. (The best of them like EQMM and AHMM will not even ask). The rights to your story should return to you without qualification. Maybe someone will want to include you in their anthology of crime stories with a certain theme or for a certain period.
PDD: What about anthologies? Is that a market?
More of an after-market perhaps. At least at first. My first anthologized short story was one that appeared in Ellery Queen (“Sound of Silence”) and was discovered by Editor Ed Gorman who was putting together an anthology of the best crime stories of 2004, I think it was. It’s gratifying, not only the recognition but I was paid again for a story I’d already been paid for. “Money for nothin’ and the chicks for free” to quote Dire Straits, even if it was positioned as the last story in the book.
My “Dead in the Water” was included in an anthology of the same name (which is why I received first position I bet). The stories were all crimes that had happened on or near bodies of water. Again, the cheque was in the mail and no alterations to the story required.
I suppose word about my stories was spreading. I was asked to submit an original story to a publication comprised of stories that had appeared in summer editions of a newspaper chain for some years past. Each tale took place in a small Ontario town, not surprisingly a town where an edition of the newspaper chain appeared. I went to the closest available town (Cobourg) and walked the streets around the old town and the harbour for a couple of days so I could place the story credibly. “Mystery Ink” was published earlier this summer by Ginger Press. The real prize was inclusion as one of the six writers included in the summer newspaper series this year. It paid more and I was able to write another story set in Cobourg (a town I have come to like enough to move there) with the same main characters. They weren’t concerned about its rural feel—that’s their market.
Anthologies arise from the book-selling plots of those who publish them. This fall Crime Writers of Canada members have submitted short stories for a Christmas publication, “Blood on the Holly.” I set out to write a rather light-hearted seasonal story, maybe including some poisoned Christmas cake. It didn’t come out that way. “Buon Natale Johnny Toronto” became a surprisingly (to me) dark story about Gina, an Italian grandmother who is resentfully hosting her dysfunctional family for a traditional Christmas dinner. In walks her tattooed and pierced granddaughter with her new boyfriend—the spitting image of the Canadian soldier who raped Gina and left her pregnant after the fierce battle of Ortona in 1943. It took a lot of research to get the setting and the factual aspects of the story correct and I believe it’s one of the best stories I’ve written.
PDD: So you’ve written your story. It has all the elements required. It is submitted the way they publication likes it. They publish it and pay you, maybe send you some copies…
Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock send you three to five copies and offer you a good deal on extra copies. Storyteller gives you two I think and a deal for others. Anthologies are less generous, perhaps because the books cost more to produce and there are more authors to service. But buy some before they become utterly unavailable.
PDD: Well that’s the question. Each issue of a magazine is only on the shelves for a short period of time. How do you deal with a short story’s short shelf life? What happens if someone comes to you a year after the story was published and wants to read it?
It’s the bane of the short story writer. Anthologies are at least in book form and possibly have a longer shelf life than, say, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. But those magazines pride themselves on their back issues, so they are available and the money goes to keeping the magazines alive which is a good thing, in my opinion, for all of us.
But I always feel a bit weird asking people to go buy a magazine back issue or even an anthology if it’s just my story they want to read. I mean why should I pay five bucks for one story, even if there are five or ten others in the book or magazine.
If they want to read it because they want to make some judgment as to whether or not my work deserves coverage or review or to be included in some scheme of theirs that will pay money, I usually email it to them. I make sure I include copyright information in my name and I often change something in the story—perhaps the name of a character which is so easy with Find and Replace—so that if anyone disrespects my authorship and uses the story without my permission I have some legal recourse. Don’t be paranoid, but be careful. It’s your blood on the page and you deserve respect for that.
If they want to read it because they’re an old friend who can’t quite bring themselves to believe that the guy in the bar who talks so much and so constantly about writing actually does it, I usually send it to them. I seldom hear back—I don’t think they read it, other than the title and the byline. It doesn’t come up in the bar, other than as tacit acceptance of your unimaginably dumb hobby.
That said, these little treasures might have some value some day, so I keep them stashed on jump drives and burnt onto discs in the fantasy that someday someone might want an anthology of stories in which the theme is me and my writing or that I will be asked to produce a series of stories that share characters and locations and through them develop a longer, grander arc in the storytelling tradition of a novel, when in fact, a collection of short stories and a novel become the same thing. I think that’s full circle, isn’t it?
PDD: Anything else you’d like to add?
I’d like to leave you with a poem. A crime poem, unfortunately a category for which there are no big prizes, nor, I imagine, any prizes at all. If a short story can be deemed a process of finite literary craft, then a poem is word sculpture. This one was published in Ellery Queen for the princely sum of twenty-five dollars (in American funds, which made it about thirty bucks Canadian at the time). It also elevated me instantly to the precious (to me) category of published poet, something that, as yet, has impressed no one who reads my CV. Except me.
One famous crime writer, my friend and Toronto neighbour Peter Robinson, was a published poet before his stellar Inspector Banks series was launched. And while I’m name dropping, I have an autographed book of Ian Rankin’s (he reads Ellery Queen regularly or at least when he has a story in it) dedicated to me as “The Crime Poet”. If Rankin is that willing to award that prestigious title to me it should prove no one out there is vying for the honour. So I accept.
Here’s “Final Escape”, firstly (and lastly, for adverb lovers) published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in November 2004. I hope you like it. Thank you very much for having me on Poe’s Dangerous Daughters. It’s been a pleasure.
By Dennis Richard Murphy
Muffled men in rubber boots are digging late at night.
They grunt with every pound of earth they shovel from the site.
In dark cloth coats and baseball caps, considerate of death,
Their flashlights cut the misty air and backlight puffs of breath.
The stillness of the early hour makes loud the sounds of men.
By shovelfuls the pile grows higher: “They buried deep back then”.
Now deeper dug and panting more, no one no longer talks
When flashlights freeze and breath is held as someone hits a box.
Renewed, they dig around the sides and bring the thing to view,
A fiberglass sarcophagus, the handles rusted through.
“A plastic job, the rage back then,” says one who seems to know.
“No dust leaks out, no worms get in; it makes the process slow.”
From far above a winch comes down to soiled sweating men
Who take the weight and slip the straps beneath the coffin’s ends.
Then out they climb, the webbing strains, the windlass motor hums.
A moment stopped: “It’s stuck,” says one, then up the long box comes.
Beside its pit the coffin sits, still stained from years below.
It seems, at misty thickened dawn, to cast a ghastly glow.
No one speaks but all move up, each elbowing for view.
A small man with a piece of steel busts out the rusted screws.
The flashlights pan the bones and dust, the tie clasp and the threads.
Unseen, unheard, a wraith escapes, and screams above their heads.
Dennis Richard Murphy, 2004