The narrator of Yannick Murphy’s second novel, Here They Come, is a nameless, frightfully observant 13-year-old girl who lives with her hard-drinking mother, two sisters and suicidal brother in a tenement apartment in Manhattan in the 1970s. Their filmmaker father has left them to live with a woman referred to only as “the slut,” and their mother alone can’t make ends meet. Sacks of garbage pile up in the apartment (no money for the trash man), the toilet water freezes, cats “barnacle” themselves to humans for warmth and, in exchange for Hershey bars, the narrator regularly lets a hot dog vendor fondle her. Murphy, whose first novel was the critically acclaimed The Sea of Trees, navigates such calamity with virtuosic language and bone-dry humor so that the result is a wholly unsentimental but peculiarly hopeful portrait of family love and growing up scarred but sturdy. Consider the first two sentences:
Here come the hot dog men. Fuck, if they aren’t all foreign, all coming from lands with camels and beaches with black volcanic ash for sand or lands with wives with scarves up to the eyes, lands where love is through a hole in the bedsheet, lands where marriages are on hilltops, and goats, bell-necked, graze nearby.
The Weekly spoke to Murphy at her home in Pasadena, where she lives with her husband, Jeff Oney, and their three children — Hank, 9, Louisa, 7, and Kit, 3 — and their 150-pound Newfoundland dog, Tom.
L.A. WEEKLY: Where did Here They Come come from?
YANNICK MURPHY: It started out as a sleepless night. I was in bed, and the urge came to me to start where I began, and then I had a rush of all these things that I just had to tell. I just stayed awake thinking, I want to talk about this and I want to tell about that, and I kept having one scene after another come to me, and I thought, I have to get this down on paper! But my husband was sleeping next to me, and he’d have a fit if I woke him up by going to work on the computer, which was in our bedroom right then. So I had to wait, and the more I waited, the more scenes came to me.
Weren’t you afraid you were going to lose it before you got to the computer?
I was! I jumped out of bed the next morning. I was typing, and the ideas were coming faster than I could type, and that was nerve-racking. And that same urgency was there every time I sat down. It was so much fun — you don’t always get that with every book.
Why do you think it happened with this particular book?
Probably because I based it on my youth and that particular period of my life. [Laughs.] So it was all me!
So the novel is largely autobiographical?
A lot of the things that happen in the book were true, and a lot of other things became part of the book as I was writing it. The novel grew out of itself and took on its own shape. There are events that didn’t happen to me, and events that were taken from different periods of my life. The book takes place in a year, but things that happened when I was 16 or 10 could show up in it.
Considering all the hoopla about fiction and memoirs recently, I have to ask — were you ever tempted to publish this as a memoir?
Never. It wanted to be a novel. It really had its own mind — it was a willful son of a bitch. It just wanted to go off in directions — like to Spain. And I’d use a certain thing that one sister did, but I would use it for the other sister. It couldn’t have been a memoir when I was having so much fun playing with it that way.
Any repercussions within the family?
I was afraid that my family would resent that I revealed so much about the way we grew up. But they really loved the book.
It’s not an unsympathetic portrait. Though if I was a mother, I suppose I would feel that I didn’t look so good because my daughter was so neglected . . .
Right. [Laughs.] But I don’t think my mother sees the character as being neglected . . . maybe that’s the ultimate interesting part.
So why didn’t you give the 13-year-old narrator a name?
I felt I was the character, and I felt if I named myself, then maybe the writing wouldn’t have the urgency that I wanted it to have. Also, if everything is taking place all around me, then my name isn’t something that needs to be uttered, because you-the-reader are with me-the-narrator, and we’re really tight, and in this together.
What is it like to be published by McSweeney’s?
McSweeney’s just cares about the writing, which is the most beautiful thing. They’re not trying to impress anybody with a blockbuster, they’re trying to impress them with a good-looking, well-written book. I wish that every writer would have the experience that I had of having a book published there — of having it done the way you wanted it to be, of working with an editor and having just a great time learning how to make your book better.
You studied writing with the famous iconoclast Gordon Lish — how did that happen?
I was studying writing at NYU, and I wasn’t having a very good experience. Then I read this article Amy Hempel wrote for Vanity Fair about him, and I got all excited, because he was teaching at NYU, and I thought, here was somebody who was willing to be really hard on my writing. It sounds masochistic, I know, but that’s what I wanted, somebody to be hard on me. The director of the program told me I couldn’t study with Gordon until my second year, but I went to his class. He was standing outside waiting for the classroom to empty out, and I said, “I’m Yannick Murphy, and I’m not supposed to be here,” and he must have liked that — that rebelliousness. He said, “You’re in.”
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Lily Tuck — another Gordon Lish student — calls your writing “fearless.” Isn’t that something Lish demands of his students, to be fearless, to be brave?
I never really knew what he meant by that. I knew what he meant when he was talking about other people. You could see in their writing that they were being too formal, or they weren’t really using their own voice. But when he would say it to me, I was never sure what it was I had to do to be brave. It’s the hardest thing for me to conceptualize. Maybe I translate it into, “Make a better sentence, Murphy,” rather than be braver in terms of what I’m revealing to the reader. I don’t think I hold that much from the reader. You have my whole sordid emotions in this book — or lack of emotions. At times I don’t know how to be braver, and that’s a good thing and maybe why I keep writing books, so I can know what it is.
For information on hosting a reading group for Here They Come, and getting a free pizza in the process, see www.mcsweeneys.net/books/readinggroups.html.
HERE THEY COME | By YANNICK MURPHY | McSweeney’s Books | 250 pages | $22 hardcover