Rejoice, young ward! Author and NYU alum Yannick Murphy has graciously agreed to a brief interview via email with W10th. She is the author of the novels The Sea of Trees, Here They Come, and most recently, Signed, Mata Hari. She has also written several children’s books and story collections. I can safely say that Here They Come is the novel that inspired me to start seriously writing on my own. Yannick’s writing style borders on prose poetry, and she evokes beautiful images and haunting emotions, even while plumbing the darker depths of the human experience. So, without further ado- the interview:
W10th: Which is harder– writing children’s books or “adult” fiction?
Yannick: It depends on what you mean by harder. Is it hard to come up with a good idea for a children’s book? Yes, it is. Is it hard to come up with a good idea for a novel, yes, for me it is. Is it hard to sit down and do the physical writing once that idea is in place? No, that’s when the fun starts. Maybe they are both hard and both fun, but since children’s books are shorter, the fun doesn’t last as long, whereas the novel lasts longer, but it also challenges you to sustain the fun in a longer piece. What’s really fun is when, in a longer piece, you have the control and at the same time you are open to where the writing is going and not where you want it to go. What’s really not fun is when you have a lot of words strung out with no meaning in sight and no way to get back to the meaning you thought the first sentence had before you even wrote it.
W10th: Has having children affected your writing?
Yannick: I like reading them my stories, and they are honest critics. When you have children you are exposed to lots of children’s books because you’re reading them to your children all the time, so you get familiar with the style and form of children’s books and it ends up inspiring you to write children’s books, or it ends up making you angry. Being angry helps you write the books too– you just can’t believe someone wrote such a bad book for kids, so you try and do it better.
W10th: Since this is for an NYU blog, of course I can’t ignore the fact that you attended NYU and studied under Gordon Lish. How was your experience at NYU? Do you ever keep a Lishian mentality while writing?
Yannick: A Gordon Lish mentality is the best kind to have when writing. Hemingway said every good writer should have a built-in, shock-proof shit detector, and having a Lishian mentality is like having that detector on at all times. A Lishian mentality includes never forgetting that you’re trying to write your best sentences possible and that those sentences answer back to your very first line. If you forget, then you’re just typing, not writing. When I catch myself merely typing, and not creating, I know my Lish detector’s on.
W10th: Can you tell us a bit about your early writing career when you were fresh out of college?
Yannick: I don’t think I really ever had much of a writing career. I went straight to NYU graduate school after college. Gordon Lish published my first collection of short stories at Knopf (Stories in Another Language). Most of those stories were written while I was in Gordon’s workshop at NYU and while I was working day jobs at the same time. I had an “I’m working trying to make money at jobs and writing when I get home and on the weekends career.” So that’s what it was like, and what it’s still like, always trying to find the time to write. Isn’t that what all writing careers seem to be?
W10th: What is your writing process? Do you have a specific time or location? Have your habits changed over the years?
Yannick: Before I married I would write at night. When I got married, my husband would wake up early in the morning to go to work, and so to be on the same schedule, I changed mine. I started writing early in the mornings, and when I started having children I would get up before they were awake and try to write as much as I could. At times, it was humorous, because when my husband woke up I wouldn’t want him to wake the children, so I would have a fit if he closed the door to the bathroom too hard, or if he made too much of a racket getting his cereal bowl out from the cupboard. I turned him into a nimble tip-toeing six-foot tall, 190 pound, bleary-eyed man.
W10th: What are your thoughts on MFA programs? Do they produce higher quality prose or generic, predictable writers?
Yannick: It all depends on the teacher you have. That’s the bottom line. If a student is seeking out a good MFA program, I wouldn’t suggest looking at anything except the quality of the teachers, and by this I don’t mean the success of the writers on the faculty either. Some successful writers may not be the best teachers, they may also not be the best writers just because they’re successful. I was lucky that I had Gordon Lish as a teacher. But I had to make that luck happen. When I first heard Lish was going to teach at NYU, I was determined to take his class. I had read Amy Hempel’s article about him in Esquire where she described what a great teacher he was. What I understood from that article was that he would test me and make me question my writing like no other teacher had, and I craved that kind of discipline and the benefits I knew my writing would achieve from looking at myself that hard. For too long I had had writing teachers who said of my work, “That’s nice. Very nice.” I knew that I could be more of a writer than I was. When I went to register for Lish’s class, the head of the NYU program told me I couldn’t because it was only open to second year students and I was a first year student. Tearful, I told him I really wanted to take Lish’s class, but he still wouldn’t let me. I found out in what room Lish was teaching his class and I went before the class started that evening. I approached Lish in the hall (he was unmistakable in a canvas cloth coat cinched with a leather belt, and a sort of outbackish style hat worn at a rakish angle) and I said to him “I’m Yannick Murphy, and I’m not supposed to be here.” Lish let me in after that. Everything valuable I learned about writing at NYU I learned in Gordon Lish’s class. I don’t think it would have mattered if I had gone to Kalamazoo University; so long as I had Gordon Lish as a teacher, I was well on my way to engaging myself in my writing more and seeing the possibilities of prose in a way that I had never imagined before.
Yannick Murphy is releasing a new novel, The Call, forthcoming in 2011- keep your eyes peeled! And seriously, read Here They Come- it’s gorgeous.