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An Interview with Derryl Murphy

by Chadwick Ginther - Monday, Mar 21, 2011 at 7:27pm

What if, in a world where mathematics could be magic, the thing you desired most was also trying to kill you?

Saskatoon author Derryl Murphy, a three-time Prix Aurora Award nominee, was kind enough to answer some questions about writing and his novel Napier's Bones.

CG: How did you get your start as a writer?

DM: I had been writing since high school, without success or any real reason to be successful. As a professional photographer in Edmonton I was doing covers and some interior shots for the late, lamented Edmonton Bullet, and arts rag, and the editor, Nora Abercrombie, took a flyer on me and let me write a couple of articles. Some time after that, I was working in a bookstore and the SF author Candas Jane Dorsey came into the store one day and told me she was running a science fiction writing course and she needed another warm body. Would I be interested? I was, and the course was a great help in understanding where my flaws were. Shortly after, I began writing SF and F reviews for the Edmonton Journal's Book section, which did a great deal for helping me understand where others' flaws were.

Nothing was so easy as to come overnight for me, though, and it still took some time and refining of my craft until that wonderful day came when I finally sold a short story. The story, incidentally, was "Father Time," and it appeared in Tesseracts 4 in 1992.

CG: What is the best piece of writing advice you've received?

DM: Plenty of writers will talk about always writing, making sure you get down X number of words per day, no matter what. And this is indeed good advice, and advice I too often pay little heed to. But instead I think I would focus on what wasn't advice, per se, but rather the way several writers whom I know lead their lives, which could probably be summed up roughly as: "Don't get yourself in a fuss over awards and reviews. Whatever happens, happens, and you shouldn't ever write with these at the front of your mind."

CG: How did you hook up with ChiZine Publications?

DM: I'll spare you the long and tragic story of Napier's Bones circuitous path to publication, and instead let slip that Sandra Kasturi, my editor, and I are old friends, and that this all started with her emailing me birthday greetings (because she's vicious that way, always wanting me to remember that I'm getting older) and then asking what I was working on.

CG: Napier's Bones has one of the most unique and interesting systems of magic I've encountered. What drew you to the idea of mathematics as magic?

DM: Many authors talk about making sure your magic has a system. Frankly, what could be more systematic than mathematics? When my friend Wayne Malkin first showed me a picture of Napier's Bones from a book about a collection of artifacts at a museum in the UK and spoke the magic words - magic words that I shouldn't share, because they are a part of the central conceit and surprise of the book - I knew that math and magic were going to intertwine in the world I was creating, and my goodness did it ever open up a wide vista.

CG: What was your biggest challenge in writing Napier's Bones?

DM: Too much information! I was lucky enough to get a Canada Council grant, which took me to London and Scotland for research, both in locations and in libraries and museums, and so many wonderful facts and ideas presented themselves that in the end had to be weeded out. This book could have been four times its size.

CG: From the titular bones of mathematician John Napier, to Mark McGwire's 61st homerun ball to wires from Apollo 13, you've empowered a broad range of objects. What were you looking for in artifacts that possessed "Mojo"?

DM: Any sort of coincidence, something that seemed out of sync with the randomness of the rest of the universe. Of course, a friend once told me that the only real coincidence would be if there were no coincidences, but then that wouldn't make for much of a story.

And let me add, related to the too much info comment I made earlier, that this sort of thing became almost too easy to find, and so it was a matter of weeding out those items that just wouldn't quite fit.

CG: I particularly liked the sports references seeded throughout Napier's Bones, as statistics and number obsession go hand in hand with the armchair athlete. Do you have a defining sports moment, either as a viewer or a participant?

DM: A few in both, I think. As a viewer, watching Bill Buckner boot the ball to set the stage for the Red Sox to continue their losing ways (I'm a Sox fan); watching Liverpool battle back from 3-0 at the half to win the Champions League in PKs; and in real life, being a 12-year-old ball boy and handing that ball to Pele when the New York Cosmos came to Edmonton to play Canada in a friendly. As a participant, I had a decent if unheralded career as a youth soccer player, partly proscribed by the nature of the game in Canada at the time. So now I live vicariously through my boys, one of whom recently played at U14 club nationals and other who has been on the city champions (they don't play provincials or nationals in his age group) twice in a row.

CG: In addition to being a coach and a soccer dad, do you have a particular math interest?

DM: I like math, and appreciate the beauty of a great proof, but the complexities of the real thing go way beyond me, and even high school math seems to have left me in the dust these days. Too many years letting things go to rust, I suppose. But I have managed to teach the boys a few shorthand tricks for the most basic of math.

CG: Do you have any further plans to explore the numerate mythology you've created?

DM: I have plans for a sequel, yes. And let me just say that things will be very different.

CG: Can you give our readers some lucky numbers?

DM: We make our own luck. But my jersey number was always 11, so how about that?

Derryl will be doing a reading and signing at McNally Robinson Saskatoon Monday, April 4th.

Check out Derryl's Blog.

Categories: Interview, SciFi & Fantasy, Saskatoon, New Releases

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