DAB: Was there a point in your life that prompted your desire to write or have you always wanted to be an author?
CLM: I remember as a little kid always wanting to be a writer. That or a lawyer, as somewhere I had decided that lawyers were the best dressed of any professional. I don’t even know where I heard the word “writer,” but I did and it stuck. Perhaps because I have been such an avid reader all my life, and my parents likely explained to me that the name on the cover of the book was the name of the writer. Once I made the connection between telling stories in my head and putting them to paper, that was that.
DAB: Where do you come up with ideas for your novels?
CLM: My novels walk into my life, fully formed. The characters are as real to me as any living being, and I am frequently surprised by them. They behave differently than I thought they would. They reject choices I make for them. Sometimes they tell me their stories in advance, and arrive in my mind like an old friend, someone whom I have known all my life. Other times, they string me along, only revealing portions of themselves to me as they see fit.
Much of the plot details are told to me by the characters as they describe their lives, but the details, observations, and descriptions are often products of my own imagination and lived experiences.
DAB: I can really relate to that. What was the catalyst for this novel’s premise?
CLM: I wanted to investigate the question of suffering- why do we suffer? Why do we suffer more or less than others even when we share similar circumstances? How does suffering manifest across different personalities and in different cultures? I wanted to look at the similarities and discrepancies between internal and external, mental and material suffering, as this is a question that I have asked myself all my life.
The characters introduced themselves to me, fully formed and sentient. The locations were chosen from my own experiences and interests. I was living in a small village in Japan at the time of writing The First Noble Truth, and I knew that the story would take place there. Krista, my second protagonist, unveiled herself to me slowly, and only told me stories of her past as I wrote them, whereas Machiko was an open book from the start.
DAB: Interesting – I like what you’re saying here about the exploration of suffering. I think we as humans expend so much energy trying to avoid the unavoidable when so much can be learned from it. Do you have a character(s) in your novel with whom you closely identify?
CLM: Many of my friends and people who know me have made assumptions about my own identity based on the characters I have written. Whilst I would say I understand and empathize with both Machiko and Krista, I do not see them as reflections of myself. There is a derivative identity inherent to them, as they are the products of my mind, but I would compare this to the correlation between parents and children- an outsider may see similar mannerisms, facial features, or personality traits, but is often surprised at the extraordinary differences and how very far, no matter how similar they look, an apple can fall from the tree.
DAB: Were there any characters you found difficult to write?
CLM: As I said, my characters introduce themselves to me and I know them entirely, even if they don’t show themselves completely, I know that they are full and real and I only have to stay present, pay attention, and listen and I will have a fully fledged character on paper.
I find background characters can be more difficult. It is tempting to use them as plot devices, which gives them an artificial and inappropriate feel. Usually all the characters in my books are as real to me as any person on the street, more so, in fact, but occasionally there will be a shadowy, more linear sub-character who agrees to partake in the story but doesn’t want much attention.
DAB: I agree. It’s important for an author to develop three-dimensional, organic characters instead of cardboard cutout puppets. Speaking of which, do you ever have difficulty writing from the point-of-view of a member of the opposite sex?
CLM: Both of these characters are female, as am I, so this was not an issue for this book. There are scenes from the perspective of Kyoto Sensei, or my wonderful Vermont farmer, but they were as human and immediate as the women were.
Interestingly, I usually meet more female characters than male, but I have observed a male protagonist who entered my mind a year ago and has since taken up residence. He will be the sole narrator of his novel, and I am interested to see how we communicate with each other. We have very little in common, so I’m curious why he chose me to write his story, but I will do my best with him as I would with any other character.
DAB: I’ll be interested in hearing how that goes. Who is your favorite character in your novel, and why?
CLM: How could I chose this? I love Machiko for her sensitivity, her kindness, and nervous desire to please, which stems only from goodness. I love Krista for her strength and resilience. Both women are brave as hell, and I didn’t expect them to be. They outwitted me and impressed me with their strength at every turn. My heart aches for their difficulties, but I have complete faith in their abilities.
Sumi chan is a source of great love for me, as is Kyoto Sensei. I wrote both of those characters thinking of dear friends of mine, and I think my love for them extends towards my love for their literary avatars.
DAB: How long did it take for you to craft this novel?
CLM: I had the idea in Japan, I toyed with it whilst backpacking for a year across the Africa continent. I wrote a few chapters in Oxford, but finally settled down to pound it out in a year during my time in Dharamsala, India. The writing, comprised of several drafts with weeks of space in between, took a little over seven months. The thinking and planning of the novel, waiting for characters to show themselves and for scenarios to unfold, took several years.
DAB: Tell us about the moment you received your first real fan correspondence.
CLM: I received an email from a woman who knew me during my Master’s degree. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t remember her. She was very gracious in her praise, and said that she was so happy to see someone who she knew, at least peripherally, to have completed a novel, as it made her feel that the same achievement was within her own grasp.
I absolutely understand what she meant. I am a farmer’s daughter and, despite my prolific travels, I have never met a novelist. I have met many people who wanted to write, who said they were working on something, but no one who had ever finished anything. I felt like an alien, with this desire in me, and I was terrified that I would be lost in a sea of “one day, when I have time…”
That email made me realize that we have so many different impacts on one another. I can never guarantee someone will like my book, but I can guarantee that I have worked as hard as possible on it, and written the best book that I could. Similarly, no one can guarantee success or monumental impact from one’s work, and hoping for it strikes me as volatile and dangerous, as if one’s sense of self worth depends on the opinions of others. Instead, I can only hope to have a positive impact, no matter how big or small. Her email told me that my book did have a positive impact, at least on her, although perhaps not in the way one would expect.
DAB: There's the eternal debate whether to outline or not. What is your preference?
CLM: I like outlining because it appeals to my academic nature, but I’ve found that my outlines never end up approximating the story itself. Rather, I think they are effective tools for managing myself and my time, as opposed to organizing the story. I find outlining, much like making lists, is very soothing. It gives me a direction to go in, a plan, something on paper to soothe the blank-page blues. However, ultimately the story tells itself to me.
I have a mystery series that I will be starting this summer, after a few other projects. I wonder if I will find an outline to be a more necessary tool for this different genre. In order to keep track of plot details, where I’ve dropped little hints, etc., perhaps I will find myself using outlines more frequently. Then again, the characters of the mystery series have already introduced themselves to me, so perhaps the storyline will unfold much in the same way as that of my literary fiction. I’m curious to see how it goes.
DAB: I love the ‘blank-page blues’ moniker. So very true. Good luck on that new mystery series too. Do you belong to a critique group? If so, tell us a bit about it.
CLM: I do not. I have tried critique groups once or twice and never felt I got much out of them. I have a large group of beta readers, and I find their feedback to be very helpful. Perhaps this is because I am not an auditory learner, and reading criticism is easier for me to understand than listening to it.
Also, I am a ravenous reader of every possible genre. I have strong opinions on what I read, and I engage in critical analysis to try and understand these reactions of mine. However, I do not consider myself a critic. I have never taken a writing class, and I hope I will never be in a position to teach a writing class, as I feel teaching art is much like critiquing it: God bless the people who can, but I have no idea how to do it myself. For this reason, I am not sure how beneficial I would be to a critique group.
DAB: How do you handle negative feedback about your novel(s)?
CLM: I think negative feedback about one’s work is the same as negative feedback about one’s self- it has little to do with the supposed object of the feedback, and more to do with the subject offering the feedback. This is not meant as a condescending or dismissive comment, but rather a statement of fact. A book is a book. Words on a page will not change when they are in my hands, or in yours. However, my life, my reading, my personality, my preferences are different from yours, and thus I will not read the book as you read the book, I will not interpret the book as you interpret the book. I may hate it and you may love it, but the book is the book.
Once the book is published, it is finished in my eyes. After publication, I am curious as to the opinions of others, and of course hopeful they will be positive, but they are not constructive opinions for the book in question. However, when I submit it to my beta readers, I am looking for trends in the responses. If 18 out of 20 readers feel the first chapter lags, or one character is dull, then I will reread and reconsider this material. I listen carefully to all feedback from them, but I do not second-guess myself. It is only when the majority seem to agree on an aspect of the book that I have overlooked or disagree with, that I will seriously consider weighing outside opinion over my own.
When I was younger, I was desperate to be liked and molded myself, my appearance, my personality, my behavior, all of me, to fit the interests of those around me. It has been a great life lesson to develop self-worth independent of external reassurance, and to nurture the ability to give fewer f----. For this reason, I am grateful I did not begin publishing earlier.
DAB: You’ve developed a healthy attitude toward criticism/reviews. Do you have any writing pointers for the authors in our audience?
CLM: I liked Stephen King’s On Writing, and would recommend anyone interested in writing to read that.
I feel giving advice falls under critiquing, and I don’t know how to go about it. I have often thought that art and sex are very similar- they are both inescapably private and public practices. You can’t turn on a shampoo advert without seeing allusions to intercourse, just as you can’t flip through a magazine without reading some advice about creative or personal work. And yet, regardless of the media or the opinions of those around you, how you make art, like how you make love, is dependent on you, who you are, what you like, what you dislike. The world has its opinions, assumptions, expectations, and prejudices, but your body, your work, your art, are your own. Write it, love it, share it as you wish, knowing it will be interpreted according to the experiences of others, it will be incorporated into these experiences, but regardless of what happens when it reaches the public sphere, it begins and ends as your own.
DAB: Care to tell us what is next on your writing horizon?
CLM: September and October will be devoted to a contributed book chapter and an academic book review, both related to my research. In winter, I will begin my second book. During the first year of my PhD, I experienced America’s rape culture firsthand. Having mostly recovered from that incident, I now see what an extraordinary opportunity this is. Violence, particularly sexual violence, is something more people experience than do not, and yet we shy from it, we hide from it, we avoid discussing it, addressing it, or even looking at it openly and honestly. Having experienced this myself, I am now free of the fear of its occurrence. Therefore, my next book will be a guidebook for communication on how to discuss the question of gendered violence. Hopefully, it will encourage dialogue and be of benefit. I have arranged to send this to my editor by March, and so will likely be published in the spring.
After that, I have two novels on the horizon. The first is the beginning of a mystery series, about which I am very excited. This will be published in time for Halloween, 2015, to correspond with the plot of the book itself. The second is a work of literary fiction, taking place in Mongolia. I hope this will be ready for spring, 2016.
DAB: It take tremendous courage to approach what is such a difficult experience for far too many. Thank you for doing so! So now’s your chance – give us the final plug for THE FIRST NOBLE TRUTH.
CLM: "...gripping, dramatic, page-turning, emotional..." - Gut Reaction Reviews
"Beautifully written, engaging, and highly recommended." - Vesna Wallace, Professor of Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara
Machiko Yamamoto pulls out her hair, picks at her skin, and triple checks the locks to the house behind the school where she works. When a foreigner moves next door, Machiko quickly falls in love with the quiet woman with the mangled hand.
Krista Black does not mind the weekly visits from the local English teacher. The scarred woman seems harmless, but she always wants to talk about travel and language and why Krista has come to the remote, Japanese village. Krista avoids her questions. She has seen much of the world, and she knows what it does to fragile people. As their friendship develops, both begin to wonder how to protect the other from themselves.
Set in Kyoto, New England, Africa, and Kathmandu, THE FIRST NOBLE TRUTH is a story of trial and redemption, interwoven between two protagonists, across two cultures. In the style of SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS and THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS, it investigates the dualities of suffering and joy, religion and sex, cruelty and kindness, and the unifying power of love.
It's been a pleasure hosting you, Ms. Murphy, and thanks for sharing your insight into the writing process and characterization. When I finish my current novel, I simply must read THE FIRST NOBLE TRUTH. If you are intrigued as well, dear readers, pick up a copy at Amazon.
C Lynn Murphy was born in New Hampshire, but has since lived in Scotland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan,
She is a doctoral candidate in Buddhist Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, as well as a graduate of St Andrews University (M.A.) and Oxford University (MPhil).
Whilst a resident at a Tibetan Buddhist nunnery in the Himalayas, she wrote her first book, 'The First Noble Truth.'
She currently lives between Mongolia and the UK, where she is conducting fieldwork on post-Soviet economies of the funeral industry and their impact on contemporary Mongolian cultural and religious identity.
She writes, she knits, she east mutton.