Paul Murray: Filling in the School Novel’s Margins

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If only the café down the street from Paul Murray’s hotel had donuts—our interview could have had that extra little touch of Skippy Dies resonance. No such luck, but once I’ve brought a latte and a tea back to our table, we’re able to plunge into a wonderful conversation. I began by observing that if you read his first novel, An Evening of Long Goodbyes, as an answer to the question “How do you pull off Wodehouse comedy in the 21st century?”, Skippy Dies could be seen as an answer to, “OK, then, how do you do the boarding school novel in the 21st century?” But of course Murray isn’t systematically working his way through the sub-genres of the 20th-century British novel. “I just found the environment of the school very enjoyable to write about,” he explained. “However many characters you want… the setting brings everything together.”

The novel had its origins in a short story about a biology teacher and one of his students, who had turned in a paper about “sea enemies;” when that story passed the 60-page mark, however, he tried to figure out how to scale it back. Then his brother suggested that maybe the answer was to build it out even further, into a novel, and Murray remembered a fragment of a story he’d written years earlier, about two schoolboys sitting in a diner having a donut-eating contest when one of them dies, and not from the expected causes…

“But the conventions of [the school novel] are so strong that you have an architecture given to you,” he reflected. “Most readers are so familiar with the scenario that you can experiment with the edges and take the story to different places. And if you have the grounding and a foundation that’s familiar to you, it’s easier to know what to leave out and get to the core of the story quicker.” So the novel’s Seabrook College is, he admitted, “pretty identical” to his own school (“although I wasn’t boarding, thank God”), enough that former classmates would be able to recognize the layout and the buildings. “But the teachers I invented… I never feel right about using characters from real life; they never quite fit the bill.”

That said, it was important to Murray—and crucial to the novel’s success with readers—that the characters come across as absolutely authentic, which is part of the reason he’s uncomfortable with having the label “satire” attached to Skippy Dies. “As I understand satire, the characters are used for the author’s ends, for mocking, parodying, or criticizing,” he said. “But I wanted this to be, first of all, a believable story, with real characters.” And though many of the adolescent characters are, in Murray’s words, “cynical, sarcastic, and lost in their own delusions” (which of course leads to some of the most hilarious moments), his own favorite among the students, is “probably the sweetest of the bunch… All the way through, he’s trying to keep everyone tamped down.” (Thankfully, at least from the reader’s perspective, he only occasionally succeeds.)

So a character whose early scenes might suggest that he’ll be a stock buffoon, or maybe a villain, for example, is gradually revealed as a flawed personality still capable of grace, while a teenage girl readers might dismiss as an airhead becomes the focus of some of the final act’s most heartbreaking scenes. OK, Seabrook’s principal, nicknamed “The Automator,” is a fairly cartoonish character, but as Murray and I discuss how maybe one caricature in an otherwise realistic setting works dramatically, he points out that the Automator’s choices about how to run the school are, fundamentally, the ones that would be made in a similar real-life situation.

Earlier this year, Skippy Dies was on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize. “It felt great,” he laughed when I couldn’t put the question off any longer. “It was very strange… Books don’t get a huge amount of cultural attention, but the media does go ballistic for the Booker, so even just getting on the longlist was a huge event. All the people who had ignored the book when it first came out were now interested.” The experience wound up being quite stressful for Murray, in part because he attempted to stick to his usual writing schedule while dealing with all this attention from the press. “Still, not to sound facetious, but if you want to get your name out there, get yourself on that list.” (He was accepting about Skippy Dies not making the final shortlist, but genuinely surprised that his literary compatriot, David Mitchell, also failed to make the cut.)

Finally, we talked about some of the books Murray had enjoyed in recent months, including another high school novel, Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal, as well as Elif Batuman’s The Possessed and, “finally,” Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. “Friends had told me they were sure I would like it, that it was funny and sounded very postmodern, but it sounded really arch and annoying,” he said of that last selection. “But it’s a book that proves you can do anything you want in a novel—it doesn’t matter what the plot is, what the shape is—as long as you stick to it and write it with enough care.” Which is, I think, almost exactly how many Skippy Dies fans would put it, too.

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10 December 2010 | interviews |