Friday, September 23, 2011

Get to know Fingers Murphy

This week's interview is with Fingers Murphy. No, that's not his real name, as you'll find out. He's another someone who I met through Twitter. You seeing  a pattern yet? If not, give it time. You'll see it. Fingers has two books out right now, Follow the Money and The Flaming Motel. As you'll be able to tell from the questions, I really liked Follow the Money. The story is great, but I really loved how L.A. became so much a part of the story. I'm in the middle of The Flaming Motel now and it's just as good. Once you get done reading the interview go and buy the books if you don't already have them. You'll love them.

So where did FOLLOW THE MONEY come from? Give us the story behind the story in 150 words.

The murder at the center of the story was adapted from a real case that occurred in the Seattle area in the late-80s. The defendant in the real case was tried three times and lost every time. I thought that would make a great jumping off point for a much more sinister plot. The legal machination at the center of the story takes an obscure legal doctrine -- obscure to non-lawyers anyway -- and turns it on it's head.

I decided to try writing a legal thriller about ten years ago. I wanted something very accurate. That really captured the world I was in, which was one very much like the firm in the book. What I found interesting was that these white shoe law firms are not at all bad places like you see in movies. But there are compromises people make to work at these places and the result of those compromises is that people often end up very different than they intended to. That fascinates me. Very smart, ambitious, hard working people who sometimes contort themselves to justify who they are and what they've become.

Was it always a plan for Ollie's story to evolve into a series?

No. I had no intention to write a sequel to Follow the Money. That idea came from my agent. I was going to write a stand alone crime novel and she said that was crazy. Publishers wanted a series and she believed that if this was a series she could get me a very big deal with a major house. So, I sat down a came up with a second Ollie book, which became The Flaming Motel.

You're in the legal world. How much of you is in Ollie?

There are obvious parallels. We both come from blue collar backgrounds and knew nothing about being a lawyer.  I always tell people that the only lawyers anyone in my family ever knew were court-appointed.  And that's true. Ollie and I both went to work at major law firms, probably seduced by the same basic things, status, money, and the sense of surprise that someone from where we came from could ever even get access to this world.

But beyond that the parallels end. I'm still in that world and was probably never as naive about it as Ollie is.  Ollie's life in The Flaming Motel, which is the sequel, is much more the fantasy life I think about when I imagine how things would have gone if I'd chucked it all and walked early on.

What drew you to the law as a profession, and is it the same thing that draws you to it as a writer? Or is it more of a case of writing what you know?

I came to the law the way many people do: because I didn't know what else to do.  I'd gotten a psychology degree.  Your choices at that point are basically to become a teacher, go to grad school, or enter the job market and be one of a million others entering the market with no marketable skills.  I had no interest in teaching, so I went to grad school.  I settled on law because I thought I had some idea of what lawyers do and the subject seemed interesting.  Turned out that, like most people, I had no idea what being a lawyer is really like. But the subject is inherently interesting.

As for writing about legal settings, it probably is a case of writing what you know.  Although I do think there is a reason legal thrillers are so popular, along with movies and TV shows about law: the subject touches our lives in so many ways.  So, in that sense, the legal thriller is really just a framework to talk about anything else you might want to talk about because there are legal issues to just about everything.  So you can tell endless stories within stories in the legal genre.
That said, $200 and a Cadillac is not a legal thriller at all.  So I'm trying to get outside my comfort zone.

What's the story behind the name Fingers Murphy? Why the need for anonymity and how did you decide on Fingers Murphy?

It's actually a joke between my wife and me. When she was pregnant with our son and we were going through the inevitable hand wringing over names, we kept trying to come up with good Irish names. We never settled on one that we liked, but during the process I kept agitating for what sound to me like old school gangster names. "Knuckles" Murphy was my favorite, but I liked "Fingers" too.  Needless to say, the name was still available when I needed a pseudonym, and it was thematically appropriate for what I was doing.

As for anonymity, I work in a world that is extremely sensitive about how even the smallest thing is perceived.  To the extent I say anything negative about the practice of law, or large firms, or even have the characters say negative or aggressive things about the law -- which they definitely do in The  Flaming Motel -- the pseudonym provides a buffer.  I've also published a legal book under my real name and the thinking was that it's better to separate the two identities.  One is the professional lawyer/legal scholar identity, the other is the fiction writer.

That legal book was published by a major publisher, so I actually did go through the process once.  It was a good experience, but when it was all done I thought: Is that it? Is that really all you guys do?  I can do this myself.

Any chance we ever find out who you really are?

Honestly, if some enterprising person who knows the legal world really wanted to figure it out, it wouldn't take too long to come up with a short list of possibilities. I challenge someone to do that, and make a big public spectacle of it too! Might sell some books that way.  New York Times? Are you listening?  I think we have next week's magazine piece all ready for you.

Without getting too specific and revealing your secret identity, give us your writing history.

Like a lot of writers, I knew early on that this was something I wanted to do. I wrote my first novel when I was 15 or 16.  Truly awful stuff. And I kept at into my early twenties. Then I realized I needed to have a day job, so I put the writing on hold, went to law school, became a lawyer and started practicing. Then, in my late-twenties, I started feeling this real urgency, like if I didn't get serious right away I never would.

I always imagined I'd write serious novels, whatever those are. The kind of crap people thinks is great when they're in college. But then I realized that, not only is that not what most people actually read, it wasn't even what I was reading. I used to look down on genre writing and then I realized that that's often where the most interesting stuff really is. So I challenged myself to write a legal thriller and I sat down and pounded out Follow the Money. 

I sent it off to some agents and, after a few months, I got one. Amazingly, this was an agency that specialized in mysteries and had a very good track record and I thought, what are people talking about when they say this is hard? This is easy! Little did I know.

Well, the agent was very excited. I had just turned thirty, she loved the book, started sending it around, and she told me I had to get working on a second in the series immediately. She was pretty convinced that we were going to land a major deal. This was 2003.  I was the perfect age to break out as a hot young writer. She thought the book was one of the best debuts she'd read in a long time. The certainty she had was infectious.

So the book goes out, editors at some major houses start asking to read the whole thing, they're asking if this is a series, if I have another book underway. It was pretty heady.  We got to that stage with three houses and my agent was talking about how to do an auction.  All of that.  And then it all just died.  It was stunning. 

The editor at St. Martins actually wrote us a letter (after she called my agent to tell her the bad news) where she said that she thought the second half of the book was one of the most addictive page-turners she'd ever read. And yet, they were declining because their marketing department didn't think the market would support another major legal thriller writer. It was just too crowded. Basically, because they weren't certain that they could sell a million copies, they weren't going to take the book at all.

I thought, what kind of insane business model is this?

So, freed up from having to write the series, I went ahead and wrote the stand alone crime novel I'd wanted to write, which is called $200 and a Cadillac.  At that point I was just having fun, writing for me alone. I sent it to my agent and she declined it!  She thought I'd lost my mind!  Then I sent it to another agent who had liked Follow the Money and he loved it, but he declined it too. He wrote me a letter, this was probably in 2006, and basically said, I love your book, it's exactly the kind of thing I personally love to read, but there's no way I can sell it.  No major house is going to buy it.  I appreciated the honesty.

So I sat down and wrote another. This one is a very dark novella. I kind of laughed when I was doing it, because I thought, a 25,000 word novella? Talk about something no publisher is going to buy!  But I didn't care anymore. I decided the guiding principle had to be to write something I would find interesting. I had to trust that there would be other people out there with similar taste.

What's your relationship like with the city of Los Angeles?

I'm not from LA. I often think that nobody really is. That's not true, of course, but I always find it curious when I hear someone refer to LA as their hometown. The city is a lot of things, but it's hard to think of it as a "hometown." The word just doesn't fit.

I first came to Southern California when I joined the Marines at 19. And I found it so iconic. I mean everyone in America has an idea about LA because it's so pervasive in our culture. It's weird to drive around as an outsider because the whole place is eerily familiar to you.  After all, you've seen it in moves and on TV since your childhood.

And yet, it's like seeing a famous person. You know who they are, but you don't know them at all.  And like any complicated person, LA takes time to get to know, and once you do, you discover that it's nothing like you thought. It's a complex, contradictory, interesting, and infuriating town. And it either works for you or it doesn't, but you won't know that until you've been there for a few years.

In FOLLOW THE MONEY I got a real sense of LA. I think I mentioned to you on Twitter that the way you described it made we want to move there, a place I've never even visited. Was it a conscious choice on your part to make LA as much a part of the story as it seemed to be to me? Or was I just reading way too much into it?

It wasn't conscious. But I do think that locations are important. The two books I have coming up, the crime novel $200 and a Cadillac and the novella called Everything I  Tell you is a Lie, take place elsewhere. The first in the Mojave desert and the second in rural eastern Washington state, and I hope the locations in each are equally evocative.

I am a believer that place defines us in more ways than we realize. We carry the place where we come from with us our entire lives, and that affects our relationship with whatever place we're in. How we react to it, what we see in it. Ollie comes from a poor, working class neighborhood. So he sees money in everything. From the opening page of the book where he's obsessing about the cost of the lunch and Jim Carver's shirt to the end, much of what Ollie observes about the world is economic. The place he comes from is economically deprived and the place he's in is one of the richest places in the world.

Time for another story-behind-the-story moment.  How did THE FLAMING MOTEL come together? This time take as many words as you need.

As I said before, I had no plan for a series, so when my agent demanded that I write a second book, I found myself scrambling to come up with an idea. The basic event that starts the book, the shooting of Don Vargas at a Halloween party, actually happened in LA. In the real case it was an actor who was shot. It was one of those terrible stories about police overreaction that are unfortunately too common.  I took that incident and built a plot around it.

I wanted to write a story about redemption and whether some things are just unforgivable.  I also wanted to explore the idea of ambiguity in relationships and the corrosive effect of secrets between two people. 

And I wanted all of it to get rolled into something that, for me, had the feel of an old school 50s or 60s detective novel.  Like a legal thriller written by Ross MacDonald.

God comes to you and says I need all of your books but three. Which three do you keep and why?

Wow. That's a good spin on the favorite book question.  I guess I'd start with The Old Man and the Sea.  I really think that's one of the greatest books ever written.  I love it when a master who's been working at it for his whole life finally strips his work down to its barest elements. That book is Hemingway giving it his all, but at the same time employing total self-restraint.  I could say the same thing about Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

I would take McMurtry's Lonesome Dove.  To me, that book does everything a huge, sprawling epic should do.  How do you write something a thousand pages long and leave the reader begging for more?  I wish I knew.  I'd love to write a crime novel that long and engrossing some day.

Lastly, I'd take Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.  I love him for that bold language.  I've been trying to teach my son to find his barbaric yawp since he first started to talk.  I think he's getting in touch with it. 

And hey, Whitman was self-published too, so we're all in good company.

Give us a recommended reading list. What are some little-known books that more people should be reading?

I tell everyone who likes crime and detective novels that they need to read Ross MacDonald.  He's not "little known" among fans of crime fiction, but the wider public has forgotten him.  I think The Chill is one of the greatest books of all time.  But you could say that about a lot of his books: The Underground Man, The Far Side of the Dollar, The Blue Hammer.  He's awesome.

James Crumley's The Last Good Kiss and One to Count Cadence are two books that should be in every bookstore in America.  I feel the same way about Jim Harrison's Letters to Yesenin.  I actually carry a copy of the recent Copper Canyon Press reissue of that book in my briefcase with me.  It goes everywhere I go.  It's been all over the world.  There may be no better book for a struggling writer to read.  How can you argue with a guy who writes: "Years ago I was ambitious/But now it is clear that nothing will happen"?  Especially when that guy goes on to become one of the best writers of his generation?  There's hope for us all.  I'd probably hide that one from God too.

What's up next for you? What can we look for in the future?

The next book, $200 and a Cadillac will be out as soon as I can get it out.  The novella Everything I tell you is a Lie comes after that.  Then I've got four different novels that are in various states. 
One is another Ollie book that, if it gets written, will be told in third person and will feature, Ollie, Liz, Detective Wilson, and Max Stanton from The Flaming Motel all in equal portions.  It's a risk because the book won't have that first person Ollie narration.

Another is an offshoot of the Ollie books.  Ollie could be a minor figure in it, but the central character would be Max Stanton, who is thrown out of his firm and ends up "retiring" in Montana, only to get drug into a bizarre case.  I've thought about writing that one as straight Ollie book too.  The plot is all worked out around the Stanton character.  But I could change that.

Then, I've got a stand-alone book about a man who abducts his son and takes him on a road trip from LA to Seattle, all the while being pursued by the FBI.  I love the story and have a bunch of great scenes written for it, but it hasn't gelled for me yet into a complete narrative.  I'm missing a couple key pieces.  Who knows if I'll ever find them.

Finally, the book I might actually complete first is a real departure for me.  It's a comedic picaresque novel about a mysterious guy who shows up in a small mountain town and tries to return to nature as a modern day Thoreau.  Of course, he ends up running for mayor, backed by a group of ultra-libertarian secessionists.  Given the political climate in our country, I actually think that one's pretty timely. 

1 comment:

  1. Cool interview! I went to add the book to my ebook wish list and discovered it was already there. I'd added it a month back and forgotten about it.

    Enough wishing. Time to buy and read this book.