Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Author Interview with C.B. Murphy

Today we're talking with C.B. Murphy, author of Cute Eats Cute

FQ: Were there other novels that inspired the idea for Cute Eats Cute and especially Sam's character?

People have said Sam made them think of Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye), but I don’t think that was intentional in any way. I do remember being impressed by Holden’s angst when I first read him. He was, as we used to say, “deep.” But he was older and a lot more existential than Sam. I think in many ways Sam was developed from interacting with my own kids and the “youth culture” which can be fun and a bit frightening to adults and parents. I think I was a bit like Sam when I was that age, picking up on every doomsday scenario that presented itself. I wanted to move to an island utopia in the Caribbean when I was in high school. The conviction that adults got it all wrong seems to go with the territory of youthful passion and arrogance.

I am impressed with books that take on complicated cultural issues without clearly making one side good and one side bad. Kem Nunn’s surfer-noir novels are like this (Dogs of Winter) and I’d even put Alice Munro in this category.T. C. Boyle does a nice job of it with the hippies in Alaska in Drop City. Unfortunately, most books that touch on ecological issues are harangues with characters along for the ride.

FQ: Was there a real-life political conflict that inspired you to write the novel?

There is a specific nonfiction book that inspired the story line though not so much the characters. The book is Jan Dizard’s Going Wild. I was fortunate to get Mr. Dizard, a sociology professor at Amherst College, to endorse my book. Going Wild is a cultural study of the controversy over a deer kill in the Quabbin reservoir in Massachusetts. Currently there is a nearly identical issue going on right now in Cayuga Heights, NY. I thought I should go there and do a “peace reading.” Once I tuned into this issue I see it everywhere, not only with deer but conflicts arising out of our paradoxical views of nature. We “love” animals, but we also love our gardens, cars, etc. I knew a PETA spokesperson who was so afraid of ticks she couldn’t walk in the forest. Conflict is inevitable.

FQ: You have a lot of insight and understanding about the lives of teenagers. Did you spend much time with teens before writing the book?

My own children were younger than Sam when I first started writing this book. I was in a writing group at the time, and I’d bring things in which were direct quotes my eight year old said. People said, “Kids don’t talk like that.” I realized it may be intimidating to write from a kid’s point of view, but you have to trust yourself, what you observe and remember then improvise on that. Sometimes advice from outside isn’t helpful. It’s a bit of a cliché to say “inner child” these days, but I like to think mine is pretty strong. I think being creative in other ways helps. I also paint and make mask sculptures. In many ways I’m even wilder there.

FQ: Just as Sam can see merit in both sides of the political scene, you never seem to take sides as the author. Is there one side of the animal-rights debate that you agree with over the other?

I do see merit in different positions, though it’s troubling how much both sides tend to demonize the other. I think that’s a bad habit we pick up from “The Media,” plus our primate love of drama. “If you don’t agree with me you must be morally deficient.” I am surrounded by conflicting opinions. On the dirt road where I live in Minnesota, we have traditional farmers, hobby farmers, ecologically minded artists, and hunters in orange wandering in the brush. It’s easy to “hate” the other side when you don’t know any. My own family is full of conflicting politics representing the whole range. My mother argued with her sister until the day she died.

Beyond the specifics of the deer kill, I like to pay attention to conflicts that arise from our paradoxical views of nature. Recently I blogged about the problem of the lionfish in Hawaii. Its a very beautiful fish that happens to be an invasive, ravenous predator. Cute, but not beloved. Feral pigs in California don’t have many friends but there are a few people rescuing orphaned piglets. I am attracted to these issues not so much politically but because they show how our thinking is so full of paradox, even our most passionate causes. Once you see this, it’s harder to be 100% righteous about your position. The truth tends to be in the grey areas. I think of this as a service fiction can do—help remind us how flawed we are.

FQ: You made all of your characters likable despite their quirkiness. Which of the adults in Sam's life do you like the most?

That’s a tough question. I actually do like a lot of the characters in the book. I think Rosen, the eco-therapist, was especially fun to write about. I am lucky in that when I am writing about a character it’s easy for me to “get inside of” their worldview. Once I’m inside of them, they speak clearly to me. I’ve put my time in with various therapies and cults, and I have a soft spot for wacky theories that will make us better people.

I think the fact that I approach so much of it with humor tempered with compassion makes it easier to write eccentric characters. I can write them and still appreciate their humanity. We are all pretty darn funny.

FQ: How do you think that life is different for teenagers today from the experience of their parents' generation? Do they face different kinds of challenges?

I have to say yes. I have two boys, one in college and one finishing high school. I was recently at a parent’s meeting at the school where they were talking about Facebook, Twitter and texting. The kids are so connected through the Internet. My sister recently reminded me of a prank I used to play on her when we were in high school. I’d answer the phone and it would be a boy suitor asking for her. Failing to cover the receiver on purpose, I’d yell out: “Oh, my god! a boy’s calling you! Hurry!” with a tone like this never happened and she was desperate. She reminded me of that recently. Now as a parent I hardly know who my kids are talking to. It reminds me of that Arthur C. Clarke story Childhood's End where aliens (i.e. the Internet) alter the psychic makeup of children so much that they in effect become a different, more advanced species. My book club recently read The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains and it isn’t pretty. We agreed unanimously that it was happening and there was nothing we could do to stop it. On the other hand, if the whole world is chattering via Tweets and IMs maybe they won’t be demonizing each other quite so much as the deep thinkers from the past were so good at right before they declared war on each other.

FQ: In some ways we all share Sam's dilemma. We want to do what is right, but in a complicated world it is not always easy to tell which is the best choice of action. What insights have you arrived at for addressing this challenge?

First of all, I assume each side is passionate, feels righteous about their cause and is fully prepared to demonize the other. I also assume everyone is a little bit right. But you have to put aside all that and listen to people. People have a right to disagree, even a right to be “crazy” if you will. So I think freedom of thought and expression is very important. We have been gifted by the gods with this thing called humor and we should use it more. Granted we tend to use it to justify our own positions (ala The Daily Show, etc.). We’re all guessing, so we should walk gently into controversy. We’re basically smart monkeys and monkeys are funny.

When I see those bumper stickers that tell you the driver is against war, I think, well, duh. I mean there are dedicated warmongers in every government and liberation movement but it’s not particularly helpful to pretend you’ve risen above it all but placing a bumper sticker on your car. Bumper-sticker people are statistically more likely to be involved in road rage incidents. I made that up. My best advice is what I said to a friend starting the online dating process: Expect little, laugh a lot.

FQ: You use humor to make the book fun to read and to help get your point across to others. Are there writers whose sense of humor particularly inspired your own writing?

I was told in my writing classes that you should never describe your novel as funny, that funny doesn’t sell. I think there’s some truth in that when I read novels who’s main goal is to be funny. I think sharp observers of human nature, even in the context of more serious plots can be funny. I recently laughed out loud more than once reading Denis Johnson’s Already Dead, which many would say was a dark book. I found Carl Haaisen’s work Sick Puppy very funny. I should also mention that in some ways I think filmmakers do a better job than many novelists in mixing humor with drama. The Coen Brothers come to mind, with films like Fargo and The Big Lebowski. They’re dark but hilarious. Even Guy Ritchie’s films like Rocknrolla are hysterical. He has Gerard Butler slow dancing with a fellow hitman as a favor to the guy because he thinks he’s going to prison for life. I mean, that’s funny.

FQ: What are you working on now?

My next novel is about adults, sort of The Banger Sisters meets The Magus. It’s a classic tale about friends who go different ways, one wild, one straight, then meet up again and all end up on an island in the Midterranean. It revolves around the “outsider art” scene and “art films,” both of which are passions of mine. In college I thought I would become what they called an “underground filmmaker”—people who let go of narrative altogether and accost the audience with dreamlike images. Didn’t go very far with that. I like outsider art, the art of the untrained (and the insane). It’s much more fun than what “high art” has become today, an exercise in polemics for the overeducated. I teach art in a high security prison once a week. That’s got to be another book! I also have a draft of a book about people who believe they’ve been abducted by UFOs. Another wacky cultural romp with a touch of historical fiction.

To learn more about Cute Eats Cute please visit our website and read the review at: Feathered Quill Book Reviews.

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