How I Came Into E-Publishing: Part I - Brick Barns

Over the last couple of months, I've been blogging about my writing life on the Authors Electric blogsite, 'Do Authors Dream of Electric Books'.  As some of you won't know, or have come across, that site, I thought I'd repeat those posts here, in the place where I'm most likely to be found writing about my life as an author.  So, this is the first post, which tells the story of how my career as a writer began...

My first book was published in 1972.  I’m not going to recommend it to you because it wasn’t very good.  However it was published, and from that day to this I’ve called myself a writer.  Now I even call myself an e-writer.  And this is how it all began:

Dave and I had been saving like crazy to take a few months off work and devote ourselves to painting on his count, and writing on mine.  We’d found a ruined cottage on a hillside overlooking the Teme Valley and persuaded the farmer who owned it to give us a summer let.  Here, with our own damson orchard and a view across half of Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire [but no running water, electricity or loo] we hoped to create those works of art and literature that would launch our careers.

The cottage was called Brick Barns.  It was one of those treasures of English vernacular architecture that you were still able to find unlived in and abandoned back at the tail end of the ‘60s - a tiny, two-up-two-down, quarry-tiled cottage with a massive ingle-nook fireplace housing a huge old range which was still intact, which meant we were able to cook on it.  I remember a scraping old front door with a heavy wooden latch, a tiny winding staircase, a stone sink, and three windows, one up, two down, one of which was broken and leaves kept blowing through.

The cottage was empty and we had to furnish it ourselves.  What we had was basic, but turned out to be perfectly adequate for our requirements.  We came from cluttered lives in London, and suddenly everything was reduced to a table, two wooden chairs, some pots and pans, some candles and oil lamps, a bed, a ‘beanbag’ made of old curtains and straw, a chest of drawers and a rug.  Actually I’m not quite sure about the rug.

We went to bed with the sun, carrying up our candles and lamps, and rose with it too.  There would be many a morning when I’d awake to find the valley beneath us white with mist, but the Brick Barns meadow golden with sunlit dew. Not having running water meant we learnt to make the most of what we’d got.  I’d head out into the dew with my bar of soap.  One memorable morning I took my portable radio with me.  I’ll never forget lathering up to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy [never much cared for it before, nor since, but it was perfect for the occasion]. I’ve never felt so clean, inside and out, as I did then.

I remember there was a wild wood down the meadow from us, through which carriages drove in the days of the big house on the next hill.  Once there would have been a proper road through the wood for those carriages to drive along, but nothing remained of it now but a ruined bridge, trees growing out of it, stones falling one by one into the stream beneath.  

We spent whole days down in that wood. We found a waterfall and a way across it courtesy of a slippery, moss-covered fallen tree.  We watched spiders weaving perfect webs that would never be disturbed because nobody would ever come to sweep them away.  We took photographs of all the different types of ferns that grew along the side of the stream. I sat staring at it all, drinking it in. Dave sketched.  He’d sit so still, for hours at a time, that not even the birds singing all around him seemed to know that he was there.  We were young. We were discovering things. There was nothing like it.

And I wrote.  I was twenty-one years old and I’d been writing for twelve years with the serious intention of making it my career, and now here I was - I hoped - with my chance to do just that.  Over the years I’d mostly written poetry. What I really wanted, though, was to write fiction.  I’d never really had the courage though – not at any rate to see it through – and I’d never had the time. A poem, it seemed to me, could be picked up and put down again, but writing fiction required the tenacity of a blackbird with a worm, determined and set, pulling and pecking, digging and prepared to get dirty, its livelihood depending on not letting go.   

And now here I was, ready to give it my all. But would the fiction come?  It would not. All this effort had been made to get me to this perfect place where I’d be creative, but the one thing I hadn’t calculated for was inspiration. I’d assumed, I supposed, that no sooner would the hire van have been disposed of and darkness closed in around us, than some amazing story would just be there. 

I’ve not a clue, looking back, what I actually wrote at Brick Barns.  I must have written something because I sat down at my typewriter every day.  But certainly it wasn’t published, and I haven’t kept it.  What I did write, however, was my life.  Beyond the need for any words at all, I wrote myself into being, escaping my old life like a crysalis, emerging bright-eyed into a new one - and the story I started then is still running today.

There are things about Brick Barns that I’ll never forget.  Even someone as forgetful as me can still conjour up the smell of waking in that cottage and everything being sappy and earthy, wild flowers bursting through the floors and bits of trees through the walls. I’d get up. The door would scrape the quarry tiles as I’d drag it open and step outside.  The grass would be wet beneath my feet.  Bare-footed, I’d trail through the orchard and the birdsong would be unlike anything I’d ever hear in the long years ahead of me. My days in Brick Barns were as thick with birdsong as my nights were with stars.

Close my eyes, right here, right now and I can the bark of a fox in the dark.  Then there’s the rattle of pheasants down in the tangled wild wood, and the cooing of wood pigeons. Open my eyes, and here are bees in the clover, and something very small scampering through the long grass - I can’t see what it is, but I can see blades parting to let it through. And I know that apart from all of this around me, and Dave off somewhere with his easel, and the badgers snoozing in their burrow down the field, and the rooks on the fence post and the swallows nesting in the eaves, I am all alone.  And that’s the way I like it.  

It took some doing, picking up Brick Barn’s rhythm and learning to live its way. The logistics of life in that cottage involved a precarious, pothole-ridden mile-long track, then a journey across a hilltop where there were no tracks at all, then a steep descent down a series of fields for a further quarter of a mile.  Once a family with six children had lived in Brick Barns, wearing a path back and forth to the nearest farm, where the father worked as a labourer. The postman would have walked that path every day, but it has long-since disappeared. Even the path we beat that summer is now long-since gone.

We arrived in July and left at the end of September when we could no longer ignore autumn creeping through the brickwork and blowing down the chimney. Some of our days were grey. I’d sit upstairs and write between drips and saucepans and leaking roof tiles, and Dave would sit downstairs, painting foxgloves and tending the fire. But some of our days were not just sunny but dazzlingly so. Dave would sit outside with his canvasses, painting the cottage in all its different lights, and I’d sit out at my fold-up child’s school desk, violently stabbing the keys of my heavy Olivetti typewriter.  I’d be at it for hours. God alone knows what I thought I was doing, but I’d been waiting for this from the age of nine and I didn’t want to waste a minute.

There were days at a time when the valley would fill with mist and nothing seemed to exist beyond the boundary of the orchard. Then there’d be town days when we’d make the long trek by foot to the road, catch the market bus and sit with the old ladies and their fancy hats and baskets of speckled eggs, returning laden with a week’s worth of provisions which we’d haul as far as we could, then hang in trees for sake-keeping, and come back later to collect.

There was always something to collect.  Water from the tap by the cattle trough two fields away.  Letters from the farm. Logs from the wild wood for the fire.  If we ran out of dry wood, there’d be no supper and no way of keeping warm.  We quickly learned to take care of ourselves.

I’ll never forget our last few glorious days up the damson trees filling baskets with fruit. For two months we’d watched it ripening, now it was ours. Then on one of those last days, the farmer brought his parents and an old aunt down the fields to see us. They’d farmed this land before him, and remembered Brick Barns being lived in when they were children.  Now they wanted to see smoke coming out of its chimney again, fire in the grate and a table set for tea. Their son hitched up a wagon on the back of his tractor and down they bumped and lurched, side by side on bales of hay.

The writing – the real writing, that is – started the moment I left Brick Barns and arrived back in London, penniless and in need of a job.  Isn’t that always the way?  As soon as I no longer had time to write, there was my first book pleading to be written - a collection of short stories with a linking theme, based on the places I’d left behind. A friend working as an editor at a newly established publishing house asked to see what I was writing.  I wouldn’t have submitted it anywhere if she hadn’t asked. In fact even when she asked I wasn’t initially that keen. I’d been trying to get my poetry published for years, but with no success, and my confidence was pretty low.  But I showed her what I’d got  – and I was in. 

We were children of the sixties, Dave and I.  He never became a painter but returned to his architectural studies, his love of buildings - especially English vernacular architecture - fired by Bricks Barns.  There was a moment after Brick Barns where we almost went our separate ways, but we saw sense, pulled it round or whatever you might want to call the process of recognizing love, and now we’ve been married for over forty years and have a huge family of delightful grown-up children and a scattering of delightful grandchildren too.

And I’ve been writing almost ever since [the ‘almost’ speaking here for the baby years].  I’ve learnt that life is hard sometimes and can be cruel.  By no means is it always damson orchards, wild woods or world-class views. But the fear I used to have of writing fiction – that’s gone.  The courage to dig deep and dirty and never let go I’ve somehow found.  The world is full of stories.  Some of them get labeled ‘fiction’. Some of them are simply life.

A couple of years ago, Dave and I returned to Brick Barns.  The old farmer and his family had long-since moved on. Their farmhouse had been renovated – and so had Brick Barns.  We’d always thought it would quietly crumble into the landscape, but we reckoned without the boom in the property market.

There was even a road down to it.

We didn’t drive down to take a look.  Its restoration could have turned Brick Barns into the most beautiful cottage in England, but what it was before felt good enough to us. When we’d moved into Brick Barns we’d no idea how much it would shape our lives. Now even writing about it feels like walking bare-foot across hallowed ground. 





Poetry by Heart - Ondaatje Threatre, National Portrait Gallery 

A few weeks ago I shared with you my angst about being asked to judge the semi-finals of Poetry by Heart 2013, and all the agonizing I went through about whether or not my choices would be informed and fair.  Come the night, however, I was sure we judges chose the right winner, and certainly Alex made her mark in the Finals.   Here's a lovely account of those Finals, at the National Portrait Gallery.   Thank you Sue Turford of Concorde College, Shropshire, for allowing me to share your account of the day.  I only wish all the semi-final judges had been invited too - all expenses paid, of course! Plainly you all had a terrific time:  

'This was a most prestigious event – the first of its kind to be held nationally.  It took place in the Ondaatje Theatre of the National Portrait Gallery on Friday 19th and Saturday 20th April in London.

'The idea was promoted by Sir Andrew Motion, the former poet laureate, who obtained funding for this year from the Department of Education.  He was assisted by Julie Blake who worked tirelessly with her team of young people to ensure the smooth running of the event.  They hope to repeat this every year but will require sponsors in the future.

'Eight hundred schools registered and thirty-eight regional heats were held.  Students were required to learn two poems from an extensive anthology, together with copious notes about the poems and poets, compiled by Poetry by Heart.  One poem had to be pre 1914 and one post 1914.  Heats were held during March and a winner from each region was selected to go, all expenses paid, together with a teacher or parent to the London event.  Alex was the winner of the Shropshire/Staffordshire heat.

'We all travelled to London on Thursday 18th April to stay for two nights in the Premier Inn in Old Street.  On the first night we met others taking part and were welcomed by Sir Andrew Motion whose message was very much on taking a poem to heart and then sharing it for the enjoyment of others.  The regional heats were held over the two days with one winner from each region going through to the finals on the Saturday afternoon.

'The standard was incredible and a joy to behold.  The students came from inner city schools in Leicester and Teesside to pupils from Wycombe Abbey and The Perse.  Poems ranged from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Paradise Lost, Ulysses, You Are Old, Father William, for the pre-1914, to The Applicant by Sylvia Plath, The Cleaner by U.A. Fanthorpe, Mr. Bleaney by Philip Larkin, for the post-1914.  They were spoken with confidence and understanding at every level.

'Alex’s poems were A Receipt to Cure the Vapours by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and The Applicant by Sylvia Plath.  She performed beautifully and received many complimentary remarks afterwards and individually by Andrew Motion.  However, our heat was won by a girl reciting Sir Gawain in the most fluent middle English and also The Fish by Elisabeth Bishop.  She was outstanding, very gentle, serene almost.  She went on to win the Final.  She had chosen this very difficult work herself and taught herself how to speak the language.  There was no doubt that she should be the winner – although she had some extremely stiff competition.

'The event was a huge success and Sir Andrew Motion was so overwhelmed that he was moved to tears in his closing speech.  The judges also included the poets Patience Agbabi, Alice Oswald and Jean Sprackland.  The audience of parents and teachers gave the organisers and participants a standing ovation.  The event was covered by a producer from BBC Radio 4 and also the Sunday Times.

'There was a video recording and also a professional photographer on hand so I do hope the College will be able to obtain a copy – not only to witness the event itself and the high standard achieved – but also as a very useful teaching aid for the future.

'Not content with just listening to the poems we were treated as honoured guests, with a trip on the London Eye and a morning spent exploring the British Library which Alex found totally absorbing.

'We were so well looked after, accommodation, too much food!, and the general friendly atmosphere of the whole experience.

'This has been without doubt a highlight of my career and an experience that I know Alex will treasure forever. She has been so inspired by the quality and commitment of the other students and all that London has to offer, she is now even more determined to work hard to achieve her goals.

'Thank you so much for all who made this trip possible and for giving us both this wonderful opportunity.'

Sue Turford, Concorde College, Shropshire. 






Working Magic - An afternoon in Shrewsbury Library with author Peter Murphy

Thanks for having me, and thanks for turning up.  It’s an extraordinary library you have here. I’ve never been into such a beautiful library.’ 

Peter Murphy stood before us, book in hand. He was a slight man, dark-haired and pointy with a whiff-beard, silver rings in his ears and something steely about his eyes which belied his tousled appearance. Over the next hour, he promised, he’d endeavour, whether on books, libraries, rivers or mythologies, to speak coherently and with interest. 

The venue was Shrewsbury’s Castle Gates Library, the event organised by Shropshire Library Service, always working hard to bring books, authors and the pleasure of reading to as wide an audience as possible.  Shall We Gather At The River was the book we’d come to hear about this time - Peter Murphy’s second novel, which had garnered some stunning reviews. He kicked off by reading us its Prologue. If we hadn’t known before why his publishers had sent him to Shrewsbury, we quickly found out:

On the first day of November in the year of ’84, that enduring river turned on the town of Murn….  The current picked up speed and the river swelled to the lip of its banks…Local radio issued flood damage updates on the hour…. Everywhere was besieged and soaked as that bloated old river conquered the valley slopes and threatened the town’s worried heart…

This was a book of rivers, floods and death. And we in Shrewsbury understand rivers.  We get what they’re about.  We also understand about floods. In their dreams the townsfolk do not speak.  Because they do not wish to rouse the river, read Murphy.  And beyond Castle Gates, carving its path around our town was a force of nature that we, too, don’t wish to rouse.    

In 2002, there had been a series of incidents in Enniscorthy, Peter Murphy’s home town, a succession of young men entering the swollen River Slaney over a period of days and drowning themselves.  Why, everyone had asked - and it was to answer that question [or at least find ways of asking it afresh] that Murphy set out to write Shall We Gather At The River. 

Enniscorthy is the second largest town in Ireland’s County Wexford. It has a long history, going back to 465 AD, and is one of the longest continuously-occupied sites in Ireland. Growing up in Enniscorthy, Peter Murphy remembered Marconi living up the road.  ‘You know, the man who invented the radio,’ he said.  ‘And our local church was a great, hulking Pugin cathedral.  The sort of place you’d expect to see the Hunchback of Notre Dame swinging from the belfry.’

Certainly Murphy had plenty to draw upon. At one point, he’d amassed so much material, about so many characters, that he wondered if he was writing two books. He read to us again, introducing the book’s central and most  commanding character, the schizophrenic radio evangelist and Elvis acolyte, Enoch O’Reilly, tuner-in to the airwaves of God. 

Enoch dons his tinted glasses and draws himself up to his full six foot one and breathes deeply and gives himself a bit of a wet-dog shake. Down the hall he goes, his heartbeat tolling every step. He mounts the stairs and prowls the wings like a caged animal until ‘O Fortuna [Carl Orff] has crested its climactic final movement, and then he strides on stage…

There was a moment’s stunned silence, as befit those who’d just witnessed  Enoch O’Reilly in full flood. A pause. Then applause.  ‘Thank you,’ Peter Murphy said. 'Any questions, comments anyone?' Then the comments started coming. Somebody wanted to talk about the sense of harrowing in the book, that drove men to the river. Someone else wanted to talk about vertigo - that drawing to the edge of things, with its destructive urge that they described as a vertical force. Murphy said he wished they’d been around five years ago. ‘I could have written what you just said.  You could have saved me a lot of time,’ he said.

People talked about the powerful sense in the book of shadow forces at work, that did not exist for anybody’s benefit.  Self-sabotage was what Murphy called it. The stuff of all great gothic novels.  ‘Give me an audience,’ he said with a puckish flash of a grin, ‘and I want to have fun.  But what do I do instead? I bang on about suicides, death and things like that.’

‘Aaah,’ growled an old man in the audience.  ‘I always says when sumoon falls in the Severn there’s a lot a reeds in there.  There’s not much hope for ‘em.’

‘Robert Mitchum,’ Peter Murphy quipped.  ‘Night of the Hunter. One of my favourite films.   There’s a scene where he’s murdered the mother and she’s lying in the bottom of the river, her hair entwined amongst the weeds.’

So, who is this Peter Murphy, writer of books, recipient of rave reviews, creator of Enoch O’Reilly and answerer of questions on the subject of floods? What makes him tick?  And, more importantly, how did he come to be a writer?  Later, when the talk was over and the room had emptied, I had the chance to interview him. Here he was, I said, everybody calling him the latest this and best that, and an Irish writer of substance, and the most exciting new talent to watch.  But what were his beginnings?  How had he got to where he was today?  

Peter Murphy lives today in Dublin.  His dad was a post office clerk, his mother a some-time model and a telephonist in between raising five children.   Peter was the youngest of the five.  ‘The one who got ignored,’ he said,  adding, ‘in a good way, though.  I’m not complaining. I was fond of my own company. I liked reading. I liked playing on my own.’

Educated by the Christian Brothers, young Peter Murphy made it through primary school and two years into secondary education before being thrown out for refusing to wear a uniform.  Back in those days, it was music and comics that grabbed his attention.  And books, he said - his family were readers; it was a constant in their lives. 

‘Going to the library was a ritual,’ he said.  ‘It was something we as a family always did.  It was just a bare room too – not a library like this. It had a strip light and shelves full of books.  I used to pick out the action adventures.  Alistair McLean. Stephen King. James Herbert.  Typical boys’ stuff.  Horror and fantasy. Then I came across John Steinbeck – my first truly literary writer, I suppose, and that lead to the Beats, and Hunter S. Thompson, Raymond Carver and James Kelman.’

There are moments in Shall We Go To the River that seem to me pure Raymond Carver, the story literally hanging between the lines of words.  Some writers are just storytellers, but Peter Murphy is a craftsman.  Where did he learn to write, I wanted to know. 

At the age of 17, entered by his school, Murphy won a national essay-writing competition and was sent off round Europe sponsored by the European Union.  This was the first time he ever went abroad or saw the world outside his small-town Irish life.  Interestingly, the subject of that winning essay hadn’t particularly engaged him.  It had simply been a job of work.  More engaging was drumming, and rock ‘n roll.

‘For nine years I was a drummer in a rock band,’ Murphy said.  ‘I learned to be a performer. It was a full-time commitment. I enjoyed playing - but it didn’t provide a living and I had two small children to support.’ 

Murphy remembers working as a kitchen porter and deciding enough was enough. That’s when he turned to writing. Submitting to magazines features about Stephen King or Motorhead certainly beat kitchen portering. And it paid more than drumming.

It didn’t take long for Murphy to discover that one magazine in particular, Hot Press, would take all the work he sent its way.  It didn’t pay much but if he worked hard he was able to keep his head above water. It was a self-betterment exercise, too. ‘One thing led to another,’ Murphy said.  Soon he was doing major interviews and working on radio and TV, a regular guest on RTE’s arts review show, The Works. For six or seven years he worked this way, and he might have carried on.  However, both on the same week, two things happened that changed his life.

‘In 2001 my father died,’ Murphy said.  ‘Then, within a few days, my youngest daughter, Grace, was born. A month after that, I started writing fiction. Within a year I’d started my first novel.’  

John the Revelator was the novel in question.  In 2003, Peter Murphy was signed up by the agent  Marianne Gunn O’Connor.  She had a six-year wait for his first book [in this modern publishing world of deals and dates and deadlines, good to see a writer taking his time] but when it came out, John the Revelator was published to great acclaim.  

 ‘There was an emphasis on collaboration in writing John the Revelator,’ Murphy said.  ‘I worked together with a group of writer friends work-shopping each other’s stuff.  We’d email work to each other by a certain date, then meet up and spend three or four hours at a time going through it.’ 

Again, in Shall We Gather At The River, Murphy said that openness and collaboration was important, sharing work with authors he felt close to, in particular the writer Sean McNulty.  ‘I trusted him,’ he said.

Shall We Gather At The River is a far more complicated novel than John the Revelator.  As well as drawing on local Wexford life and times, it draws on legends about suicide cycles, flood mythology from Christian and pre-Christian eras, the strange nature of obsession and the Gaia theory of nature as a living entity that, as well as giving life, can devour. It inhabits familiar territory to anyone who’s seen Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter, or who’s read the novels of Flannery O’Conner, that most uncompromising of authors, writing about Bible belt evangelists and holy roller prophets in the Deep South of the US. 

Indeed, it was from O’Conner’s Wise Blood that Murphy took the name Enoch [along with a bit of Enoch Powell and his ‘rivers of blood’ speech, and Enoch in the Gnostic gospels - the only mortal taken without dying to heaven]. It was a form of homage, he said.

Was Murphy a religious man, I wanted to know. It was the spiritual, Murphy said, that interested him, not the overtly religious, especially the how, when and why of the ways the spiritual manifested itself in philosophy and ideas.  We talked about the power of religious language, words used as a means of locating members of one’s own tribe.  ‘Certain words have incredible power,’ Murphy said.  ‘They speak a sort of code.’  Writing was all about weeding out the mamby pamby words, and getting to the juicy, high protein stuff.  ‘Like the pots of stuff my dad used to cook up for our dog,’ Murphy said.   ‘Writing’s a bit like getting a gumbo going, reducing it down to a pure stock.’ 

Within a couple of weeks of handing in the final manuscript of John the Revelator, Murphy began work on the Prologue to Shall We Gather At The River.  At this stage he'd no idea where he was heading.  All he had was a few pages of words. The spark that set him off, however, came from a Hot Press interview he did with the Manic Street Preachers, published in May 2007. In it Murphy mentioned the winter of 2002 in Enniscorthy and the two-week period when more than half a dozen young men walked into the River Slaney.  'Fucking hell,' said Nicky Wire.  'That's a novel waiting to get written.  Jesus Christ.'

He was right as well.  It was. But it was a long hard process before that novel saw the light of day. 'Four years of divorce, moving house, bereavement and turning forty’ is the way Peter Murphy described it. But encouragement came from his writer friends, and from the Manics, especially James Dean Bradfield.  ‘He’s been a powerful ally ever since. There’s something between the Irish and the Welsh.  A connection or something,’ Murphy said.

Currently Peter Murphy's not writing but travelling instead, doing book readings or performing with the Revelator Orchestra. This is an experience worth getting up on YouTube.  ‘Imagine, if you can, music that sounds like Tom Waits on drums and 
Lightnin’ Hopkins on a battered hollowbody thumping away down in the 
cellar while Murphy reads. The Sounds of John the Revelator is a neat
 piece of work that somehow combines the weirdness of Poe with the 
coolness of the Beats over a soundtrack that might’ve been created by
 the Velvet Underground.' That’s what one reviewer said. 

What about the next book? There had to be one, surely. Murphy didn’t know, he said. He’d have to write it to find out. I loved that for answer.  I never know, myself, what I’m up to when I start a new book.  This was my sort of writer.

It was getting late.  There was a girlfriend at the door, and a dog, and a car outside, and a ferry waiting at Holyhead to take them home. I packed away my notebook, thinking we were done, glasses in pocket, pen in bag.  ‘Thank you,’ I said.  ‘You put stories together, characters, words on a page, and magic happens,’ Peter Murphy said. 

Peter Murphy website

Watch The Revelator Orchestra

BUY Shall We Gather At The River

BUY: John the Revelator