Letter From Virginia |
On Naeem Murr, novelist and short story writer
Naeem Murr's first novel The Boy was a New York Times Notable Book and won the Lambda Literary Award.
In The New York Times review of The Boy, Margot Livesey wrote, 'I intently turned the pages, carried along by Murr's dark energy, his sharply intelligent prose, his genius for the unexpected, his keen sense of atmosphere.'
Murr has written another novel (The Genius of the Sea), novellas called "The Writer" and "Nude," and stories and essays. He was a Stegner Fellow and a Scowcroft Fellow at Stanford University, and has been writer-in-residence at Northwestern University, Western Michigan University, and Lynchburg College. He will teaching at the University of Missouri in Columbia this coming semester.
He was the visiting writer-in-residence at the English Department at my college in Virginia this past semester, so I caught with him to ask him about his work, and his life as a writer.
Q: What does your name mean? Naeem and Murr are pretty uncommon names.
Murr (M): Naeem means blissful feeling, Murr means bitter, so my essence is "heavenly bitterness" [laughs]. My father was Lebanese and Naeem is a Lebanese name.
Q: How was your childhood in London?
M: I had a mixed childhood. I grew up in London but did not feel wonderfully in place there...the misery of the mornings, the gray sky, silly accent. Till 15 years of age, I was at a comprehensive school, then I went to a strict boarding school in Cambridge. That was an interesting, unusual experience. I saw the horrifying, hierarchical cruelties boys perpetrated on each other.
Q: What types of books did you read as a child and what made you decide to be a writer?
M: I read the regular children's books like Chronicles of Narnia, Roald Dahl, but there weren't a lot of books in my household. I spent my young life running about in the woods. I was better at math and science. I didn't write anything at all, maybe some lousy poems in English class. But the notion of being a writer wasn't available to me.
I came to study Aeronautic Engineering at Western Michigan University in 1987 and realized that I hated it. While at WMU, I attended a creative writing workshop and that's what I wanted to do. I know now I couldn't have done anything else, I am totally incompetent.
Q: Which genre of writing is your favorite?
M: I write fiction. I have written a few stories like "Benjamin," and "L'Harmonie des Anges," and essays, but I naturally tend to write longer things. I don't think I've ever written a true short story. I love reading them but they are so contained.
Q: How often do you go back to London? Do you want to spend your life in the US?
M: I went back to England for a while, and still go back between things. But I think America suits me pretty well and I feel far more American than English.
Q: Your two novels are set in your native country England. Do you have protagonists who are Americans?
M: I am working on a novel that is set in Missouri in the '50s. It is my first novel set in America. I don't feel any sense of restriction in understanding the consciousness of a character. I am half Lebanese and half English, but I don't feel particularly Lebanese or English. You enter whatever kind of characters you are writing about. I don't feel limited by sexes or races. I refuse to engage in that sort of argument. A character is an individual, not a cipher.
The New York Times reviewer said your work has a "dark energy." Q: Do you feel there is a quality of "darkness" in your work?
M: My notion is not like this is dark, this is tragic. I don't think anything is tragic or negative as long as you can make something of it. The act of creation is positive. At the time I was writing The Boy I had this lurid Gothic feeling. It's not a book I would write now.
Q: The reviewer was a bit skeptical about the immense abilities of the protagonist of The Boy. When you were writing the story, did you think some people might find the character unrealistic?
M: The Boy is about adolescence, about coming of age. I was taken by the character of the boy. He is a myth, like the Minotaur. He wanted legitimacy, but none of the adults in the story would see him as a child. He is a thing into which everyone projects their desires.
For me it has the logic of dreams. You have to create a whole world and enter it for the characters to be credible. Then you feel the way he speaks, who he is, his psychic and emotional conflicts. A story has a certain integrity and it's difficult for a writer...
Q: You have been a writer-in-residence at a number of universities and colleges. Does teaching help you as a writer in any way?
M: A writer spends a lot of time alone in a room. I think as a writer you don't think analytically. Teaching makes you think analytically. And I find it emotionally challenging, which is a good thing. I've been teaching for more than 10 years. Nowadays I try to balance teaching and writing.
Q: You said you were working on a new novel. What is it called and when is it coming out?
M: I don't have the title yet. I've been working on it for a year and half, and it should be done by March of next year, at least that is my fervent hope. **
Even though Murr's reading at my college was right before the 2004 presidential debates, it drew an unusually large crowd of students and professors. He read excerpts from his second novel The Genius of the Sea, and an essay titled "Don Nelson sings Elvis." The latter was about his 'aesthetic awakening.' When he was 13 years old, he wrote a poem called "Death De Profundis" for a schoolwide poetry competition.
'I worked on my poems...as if I was diffusing little bombs...Glide, glide the silver bullet/ Swiftly through the swirling mass,' he read. With a thirteen-year-old's conviction he believed he had already won the competition, even before the results were announced.
'And then, of course, I didn't win,' Murr continued. 'The winning poem was titled "The Black Lung." It was written by a new boy from somewhere up north, from the black stuff, the dark hills, those satanic mills....The boy's name was Devon Wilde. Even his name was better than my poem.'
Murr went on to say that when he read that winning poem he understood 'what it means to be good.'
After the reading Murr signed books for the audience. Mekhala Chaubal, a first year who is taking Creative Writing classes at the college, said, 'Even though the writing was intense, his tongue-in-cheek humor displaced that, so it was quite enjoyable.'
Munjulika Rahman is at Randolph-Macon Woman's College, Virginia.