When I met Charley Murphy a few years ago, I was instantly struck by his passion for various art forms. It was immediately obvious that his creativity with film, painting, graphic arts, and writing were all coming from the same deep and meaningful place. After reading his novels End of Men and Cute Eats Cute, I realized that he could successfully weave his talent for various art forms into his writing. He is a visionary with a wicked sense of humor. It was my pleasure to interview him for Red Room.
1) You have an interesting and unusual bio that is reflected in your creative pursuits. At what point did you realize that you were called to be a writer?
I was writing, doing art, and making movies when I was in college. At some point I became disillusioned because it seemed that to make a living as a creative, one had to enter academia and teach. Somewhat lightheartedly I veered off into a business career.
When I was forty and wanted to re-evaluate what I was doing, I went to a career counselor. The first thing he said was, “I’m dying of cancer, are you okay working with me?”
Of course, I said yes. I think the man’s proximity to his own end changed how he counseled people. I had expected him to say I needed to go back to school and get my MBA if I was going to be “serious” about my business career. Instead he said, “What did you want to do when you first went to college?” I told him I wanted to make films.
When he told me I should go to film school, I said, “I’m too old. I’m already a father. What—am I going to go to school with Steven Spielberg’s spoiled grandchildren?” Apologies to Spielberg, but I was making a point. I wasn’t going to school!
My counselor told me to go investigate the film business.
There was a little filmmaking going on in the Twin Cities, so I asked around and most people said, “Well, unless you want to be a cameraman, the creativity is all in the writing.”
So I went to The Loft Literary Center, a massive local writer’s organization, with all kinds of writing classes. I took a class in creative writing and wrote a story called “Greenman.” That story became the seed for my first novel, Cute Eats Cute.
2) What specifically prompted you to write End of Men?
Actually, I had a draft of End of Men before Cute Eats Cute was even published. Since Cute Eats Cute has a fifteen-year-old narrator, people asked me if it was meant to be a young adult novel. I fought that (until just recently), reacting to some bad advice that a novelist can get “pigeon-holed” as a young adult writer, and that was somehow bad.
But for my second novel, there were several themes that I wanted to explore—many of them vaguely autobiographical. A writing coach once gave me this gem of advice: a writer finds doorways in his or her life that they’ve never gone through and sends a fictional character through those very doors. That way the book has an engine of self-discovery built in, and it gives you enough “fuel” to keep going even if you have no idea if anyone will ever read it.
3) Give us a brief snapshot of the plot.
The themes of End of Men are very much themes from my life. How does a person who was “wild and creative” as a younger person deal with the banalities of a mundane job? And what happens when people from your past, people who did not “give up” on the wild creative life come back and tempt you away from your staid routines? It’s the trope “friend from the past” but it’s fleshed out with worlds I know something about, from business to occultism to art films. A wide range.
The story follows three points of view. First there is Ben, who has lived most of his adult life as a businessman in Chicago working for a tyrannical father. His father has just died and it triggers a crisis for him. He takes a grief sabbatical and gardens like a madman in his suburban backyard.
The second point of view is Kay, his younger wife. She works at an “outsider art” museum in Chicago. She would like to a mother but also feels she has missed out on the wild life of the 1970s that her husband experienced but stubbornly “hides” from her. Some co-workers treat her with disdain, calling her a suburban “Beige”—a woman who works in the arts for fun while her businessman husband supports her.
The third point of view is Gordon. He was Ben’s wild friend in college at the University of Michigan where they experimented with drugs, sex, and shared the affections of an Iranian student named Shiraz. Gordon lives on an Italian island with Shiraz and they co-create arty films that have earned them a modest reputation as enfants terribles in the fine art world. They augment their income by running a filmmaking school on the island, mainly for wealthy European kids.
At the beginning of the story, Kay invites Gordon and Shiraz as a “surprise” for Ben to her museum to show their latest work as part of the show Kay is curating. The show features cutting-edge feminist artists and is entitled “The End of Men.”
A clash of characters ensues, exacerbated when Ben and Kay take up Gordon’s invitation to visit his island. Life on the island is a siren’s song for Ben challenging him to decide what he really wants from his life. The island gives Kay a chance to experience “the wild life” up close and very personal.
4) You also say that you were inspired by The Magus in formulating the narrative and plot of End of Men. Describe that inspiration and how it is reflected in the story.
I always thought John Fowles’ The Magus was an amazing work. Fowles’ book is about a young Brit named Nicholas who goes to a Greek island to teach English. There he encounters a strange and powerful man named Conchis, who lives on an isolated estate full of mysteries. But Conchis (aka “conscious”) also has a local reputation for collusion with the Nazis and is a local outcast. The older man offers mentoring to Nicholas but the young man finds his methods frightening, unorthodox, and possibly immoral. The end of the book moves into an almost hallucinogenic altered reality where it is not totally clear to the reader what is happening, let alone who Conchis really is. Unfortunately the movie version was horrible.
I had a mentor in college who introduced me to many things including the Black Mountain School poets (Olson, Duncan), “underground” filmmakers like Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage, and “occult” thinkers like Aleister Crowley. At the time I felt there was a possibility of joining an underground artistic society that I could toil in for the rest of my life. Life had other plans for me and somewhat like Ben in my book, I went into a business career.
Earlier in the interview I mentioned the idea of a “doorway” you can send a fictional character through and here was one of mine. Could Ben (as a stand-in for me) give up the business world he found himself in and dive back into the chaotic world of making art? What would that do to his sense of self? His relationships? And, most importantly, would it help him discover what he really wanted?
End of Men is an effort to go through this doorway and discover answers to these questions.
5) Did you have a specific readership or audience in mind as you were writing the book?
There was no way End if Men was going to be confused with a young adult novel like my first novel Cute Eats Cute was. It was an adult story. I struggled with the degree it dances with “sex and violence” and in some earlier drafts it was wilder. My writing coach at the time helped me understand that although many of the characters in this story generated from my biography, once they were on paper they took on lives, personalities, and story arcs of their own. So I can honestly say the characters told me what was going to happen and I had to go with that.
I like the idea that I write for a popular (or mainstream) audience, but the worlds I explore tend to be obscure. In End of Men you encounter the vitriolic machinations of a family-owned business, the politics of “outsider art,” the world of “art filmmaking” (like Matthew Barney), the “sexual magick” of Aleister Crowley, and the weird blend of feminism and Islam you find in the Iranian artist Shirin Neshat.
6) You are also a published short story writer, essayist, cartoonist, and painter. How does each genre influence/impact your artistic body of work as a whole?
In high school I wanted to be both a writer and a painter, but since my best friend was a “better” painter than I was, somehow I thought the gods were directing me toward writing. But we also made movies and I thought that would be the world I would live in. I went to college with that in mind and continued to make movies and do some writing. Somewhere along the line I saw the kind of dedication one needed to become even an independent “underground filmmaker” and veered away from a life of hermetic focus.
Despite giving up painting in high school, I continued to draw, publish cartoons (in the Chicago Reader) and combine these skills in making some animated films. When my first son was young I wanted to “hire” someone (an artist friend) to paint a stool for his bathroom full of delightful animals. I realized that I had some ancient acrylic paints and painted the stool myself. It was like Alice falling into the rabbit hole. I had totally forgotten how wonderful painting was.
It took me a while to find my “footing” in art exploration; once I moved to a house where I could take over a garage for my art studio it became, and remains, a daily passion. My area of painting now falls under the heading “pop surrealism,” which is using familiar images in unfamiliar ways. In other words, unlike abstract painting, in pop surrealism things are presented with dream logic. Last year one of my pieces (“Mr X”) was in an influential show called Surreal Salon V in Baton Rouge, LA.
Painting fed my writing. I learned things as a painter—how to be bold, how to follow a line of illogic, how to walk a path of “study” where no one may follow—that helped me loosen up as a writer. My newest novel project, Bardo Zsa Zsa is a looser wilder book than anything I’ve written.
7) I understand you are currently finishing Bardo Zsa Zsa, your third novel. First of all, what keeps your creative juices flowing, and secondly, can you give us a glimpse of Bardo Zsa Zsa?
Bardo Zsa Zsa has an interesting history. Even before I wrote Cute Eats Cute I had this idea to write about the families with a member who has been abducted by a UFO. It wasn’t going to be science fiction. There wasn’t going to be any “real” aliens in the book. This was partly because much of the writing world (as in writing groups, writing organizations) have a kind of snobby attitude toward “the genres” like mysteries, romances, and science fiction. God forbid you should “go” there.
But when I took my idea to my first writing group, my teacher sort of frightened me away from the topic. “UFOs? Really, Charley? Do you want to spend years writing about UFOs?” Today I would have been able to say yes, but at the time it was, “Oh, no, I’m not that kind of writer!” Instead, I researched a situation that would create the kinds of family tensions I wanted and I found the “deer controversy” which became Cute Eats Cute. The “deer controversy” does interest me not only as a template from which to discuss how adults attempt to influence young people, but also how intolerant most of us are with people who disagree with us. This was plenty to write about.
But the UFO idea persisted and I went back to it and wrote an entire novel called Land Somewhere Else from the point of view of a wife whose husband believed he had been abducted and ends up in the infamous UFO cult called Heaven’s Gate. This group became world famous when thirty-nine members ritually killed themselves. It was a decent book and a decent idea but when I was in the middle of one of what would have to be many rewrites, I had a revelation that I was writing more for an “unknown” audience and less for myself.
Perhaps this was where the “selfishness” I had learned in painting, combined with my admiration for the irreverent writers like Eggers and Palahniuk, all came together. Then one day I was explaining the story to my chiropractor about Heaven’s Gate and how these people killed themselves (sadly) because they thought their spirits were being taken up to a UFO. He asked, simply, “How do you know they didn’t get there?”
That kicked me into a world I can only describe as Vonnegutian. Kurt Vonnegut wrote “science fiction” but no one ever thought to pigeon hole him in a genre because he was writing exactly what he wanted and people responded to it. Plus, at its core it was a philosophical quest for meaning using humor and shock to knock us off our feet. This became the world of Bardo Zsa Zsa.
The book begins where Land Somewhere Else ends, at the mass cult suicide, but instead of being bleak and sad, we end up in a “science fiction” world where the real focus is: what does it mean that our species has two (or more) genders?
8) Gender is a theme that carries throughout your work. End of Men has a strong theme about male/female relationships. It creates an interesting tension but with an underlying sense of humor. Can you talk about that exploration and how it interests you as a writer?
Much if not all of my writing has a lot to do with gender. Does a boy see the same world as a girl? The answer is, of course yes, and no. When a child realizes they are being identified as one gender or the other, they realize that everyone sees the world out of their own eyes, from their own experience.
No matter how good a person is at talking and explaining, one may never really be able to see how someone else sees.
Gender is also a metaphor for this difference between every individual and guides nearly everything we think and do. One’s sense of self maybe starts with gender (though it’s not clear for everyone) but layers on top of that all the demographics of geography, race, class, ethnicity and if you want to go there, the individual mystery of spirit. So when I think of the differences between the genders it’s an easy way to start with the premise that we all see the world differently, often radically differently, and isn’t that interesting (and upsetting)?
The gender theme in Cute Eats Cute has to do with various approaches to ecology. Is “hunting/conservation” a masculine approach? Is pantheistic Gaia-worship feminine? How much is this a “religious” difference, how much political, and how much based on gender (or one might say gender conditioning)?
The theme continues in End of Men. Ben and Kay have adopted a largely classical male/female paradigm of the male toiling in the “fields” of the office world and the woman (relieved somewhat of financial burdens) pursues her interests only to be resented (largely by other women) who don’t have the benefit of a wealthy husband.
The other couple in the book, Gordon and Shiraz, the “wild” filmmakers, also struggle with the cards their genders dealt them but in a more bohemian “let’s make up the rules” sort of way. Still, being co-creators of their films has developed a rift of visions, plus their “open relationship” lifestyle has also created unexpected tensions.
In many ways my new book Bardo Zsa Zsa takes this all further. I don’t want to give too much away, but let’s say at one point the protagonist finds himself inside of a woman’s body.
This interview is one in an exclusive series of original author interviews arranged by Red Room editors as part of our Author Matchmakers series. Learn more about the series here, and arrange to be an interviewer or interviewee by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.