Dwyer Murphy is a man of letters.
Before becoming the editor of CrimeReads, Murphy was a lawyer, a litigator, and an Emerging Writing Fellow at the Center for Fiction in New York City.
He also plays a mean game of pickup basketball, or so I hear.
What I do know for certain is that Dwyer has written one hell of a debut. An Honest Living sings like a classic from the first page. Every line is packed in tight but still manages to dance all the way up until the novel’s brilliant conclusion. Murphy isn’t just a writer to watch, he’s a writer we’ll all be talking about for a long time to come.
Which is just my way of saying, I was more than excited to get to sit down and talk Dutch, free refills, and of course Chinatown with such a well-versed litterateur.
Eli Cranor: I was blown away by your book, man. It’s not your typical “crime” novel. It has a much more literary vibe. I want to know how you did it. How did you get to a point where you can write sentences like the one in this book?
Dwyer Murphy:For years, I was aiming to write books that were in the John Updike mold, or something. I don’t know why, exactly, but it took me a while to shake it. In that time, I discovered crime fiction in a new way. I was writing for a while in this place called The Center For Fiction. It’s this amazing institution in New York City that’s been around for hundreds of years. I had a fellowship there where they give you some money and support. As a result, I had this space to go to every day and write, but I didn’t really like the stuff I was writing. So I just started wandering through the stacks. They have tens of thousands of books, probably the biggest crime fiction library there is. I found Devil In A Blue Dress by Walter Mosley. I knew enough to know Mosley was great, so I opened it up. Six hours later it was the end of my day and I was still glued to my chair, reading that book. I was working for Lit Hub around the same time, and we decided to launch a crime section. Since I’d been giving myself a crash course in crime fiction, I raised my hand and volunteered for that. I really didn’t know if I was going to ever become a writer. I was starting to think about going back to the law, which I’d retired from years before.
EC: Oh, no . . .
DM: Yeah, but then my wife got pregnant. I wasn’t sleeping at all. I was just staying up late and watching these old movies, and the main one was Chinatown. My wife would hang around and watch it with me too. We started having these strange conversations about lawsuits people could bring against one another. There were—and still are—these jilted lover type suits you can bring against your former partner when love fades. So my wife and I would watch Chinatown and have these long conversations about what lawsuits the characters might bring against one another. But that was when I finally started having some clarity regarding what I wanted to write about.
EC: Did you start writing An Honest Living straight away?
DM: Yeah, man. I just started writing like fucking crazy. I felt like I had seven months to write a novel that was worth publishing, or else I was going to go back to being a lawyer.
EC: Can you break that down a bit for me? What does it look like to write like “fucking crazy?” Were you in full-on starving artist mode, writing from sunup to sundown?
DM: I still had my day job at Lit Hub / CrimeReads. So I was getting up before five in the morning and trying to get around four hours of writing done before I went into the office.
EC: Were you writing at home?
DM: Mostly just coffee shops. I’ve always liked to change up where I’m writing. This was pre-pandemic. But I’d get on the subway, take it into Manhattan, and find a coffee shop. The shop had to have free refills on the coffee. I needed that. I told myself I had to do five-hundred words. I read somewhere that Graham Greene told himself that too but would end up hitting more like a thousand. You know, just knock it out in the morning then go have adventures of international intrigue every afternoon and drink himself wild at night. That was supposedly Graham Greene’s formula, and I don’t know, I just picked it almost arbitrarily. I also tried to get a muffin to go with my free refills. I think I was trying to be dignified about it.
EC: Did you do any pre-planning or make an outline for this book?
DM: Not at all. I still don’t, really. I do keep these notebooks. Rhodia spiral notebooks with the graph paper. I’m constantly making notes in them about the scenes I’m going to write. I try to keep it on a scene-by-scene level.
EC: So you’re typing straight into the laptop but planning ahead a little in your notebook as you go along?
DM: I have it all laid out in front of me when I start. My laptop. The notebook. Some pens. I try to keep different pens for different projects I’m working on. Nothing is on a sentence level when I’m writing longhand. It’s just notes about what the scene should be doing. I’ll listen to music while I’m taking those notes, but at a certain point I just feel the momentum taking hold. That’s when I put the pen down, turn the music off, and start writing.
EC: Authors who write in public intrigue the hell out of me. How do you block it all out?
DM: I usually listen to white noise when I’m drafting. Or, occasionally, non-vocal music. For this book, I had the Chinatown soundtrack, which is really interesting. So, yeah, I used that to block out the coffee shop noise, but mostly I was using a white noise playlist that was sounds of waves in Acadia National Park in Maine. I’d play that for hours and kind of just zone out.
EC: That’s good. Really good. You made a joke earlier about Graham Greene “drinking himself wild every night.” What sort of role does alcohol play in your writing process, if any?
DM: I have a lot of thoughts about drinking and how it fits into the workday, actually. Because of my job, I used to attend a lot of after-work literary events where drinks are served. I didn’t like that. I still don’t. It feels like it takes away from that moment when you get home and get to have your first quiet glass of wine with your wife. More than that, though, I couldn’t have a couple drinks and still get up at five and write.
EC: Do you do anything physical that helps with your process?
DM: I’ve gotten pretty religious about my exercise routine. After work, I try to get home as quickly as possible so I can work out, eat a little dinner, then go to bed and start the whole process again the next morning.
EC: That’s it, man. It all works together. You mind sharing your workout regimen?
DM: Honestly, I got superstitious about it while I was drafting this novel. Everything about my writing routine smacks of superstition, probably because that’s what happens when you’re raised a Red Sox fan. So, yeah, when I was working on this book, I’d get home and lift for an hour then do cardio afterwards. Some days I was playing basketball. I played a lot of pickup basketball in New York. I tried squeezing that in as much as I could. Pickup ball had this process of clearing out my brain and allowing me to improvise and focus on this random thing you come together and make with four other people. You feel passionately about these guys you’re on a run with up at the Y that day. You get to create something with them, and then it’s just over. You walk away from it.
EC: Is there anything else you use to get yourself in the right mental space to write? You already mentioned working out and coffee with free refills. Anything else?
DM: I drink a lot of coffee. That’s why I couldn’t sleep. Cutting back on that, which was like the most obvious fucking thing, never occurred to me. So I switched from drinking coffee all day to getting this espresso machine. Now I drink my espresso from a cup with a saucer. It makes me feel like I’m in 1920’s Paris. It sets the right atmosphere. I make myself four of those and drink them at specific times. I like the ritual. I enjoy all rituals, actually. Think that’s why I enjoy these “Shop Talks” so much. I used to read the Paris Review interviews for the same sort of stuff. I feel like you’re really tapping into that.
EC: Thanks, man. Let’s move from drafting to revision. When you finish a first draft, do you take any time off before you give the manuscript its first read?
DM: I’m going back and reading throughout the whole process. I try not to tinker too much as I go along, but inevitably end up doing so. I’m just trying to capture tones and moods, most of the time. There are certain scenes I’ve written that I know capture that. They’re not connected chronologically, or even plot-wise, but they have the tone I’m looking for. So I go back and read those pieces when I want to find the same tone or feel. When I get to the end of a draft, it’s pretty well polished at a line level, but the plot needs a lot of work. So I try to take some time off before I tackle that part. I don’t have beta readers or anything like that. I have a real fear of boring anyone. This fear probably drives everything I write. I’ve heard you talk about it when you talk about Elmore Leonard. You go back and read Dutch and he reminds you that this is supposed to be fun. Every line has some sort of electricity. If you don’t have that, the book is a little boring. My job, I feel like, is to make sure every sentence has a certain energy. It’s like you’re sitting in a bar and someone’s telling a story. It’s not so much what happens, but how they’re telling it that keeps your attention. The turns of thought that lead from one to another, the unexpected conjunction of ideas. That’s what gets my attention. I try to keep some of that attitude when I write, but I’m sure some people will be bored by my stuff, and I’ll die a little bit knowing it.
EC: My wife would be bored by your book. She can’t make it through six pages of an Elmore Leonard novel. I don’t get it.
DM: My wife is the exact opposite. She feels things more passionately than anyone I know. She connects deeper with characters than I ever could. When I’m reading to her and I’ve got the mood and the style right, she’ll find the most intense slices of emotions in that scene. It’s so satisfying, exactly what you want from a reader. If I can spark some of that in her, it’s thrilling.
EC: Damn. Every time you sit down to write, you have that to aspire to. What else do you need?
DM: Not much, man.
EC: Okay, so, you’ve read a bunch of Shop Talks. You’ve read all the Shop Talks, actually. Is there anything I haven’t covered that you want to hit on?
DM: I like reading who other writers turn to for craft. I’m very careful with who I read while I’m working on something. I still read for pleasure, but it has to be specific stuff. I’ll read a lot of nonfiction for fun while I’m working on a draft. Spy fiction also works well, for whatever reason. I think I’ve read every book by Alan Furst. A lot of John Le Carré. Spy fiction sparks a particular part of my imagination without clouding the voice. On a pure craft level—I look to Patricia Highsmith a lot. Those books are so immaculate and bizarre. Megan Abbott is a master of balancing tones and atmospheres. Mosley, too. And I know we’ve already talked about him—but I always turn back to Elmore Leonard. Often, I’ll only read the beginnings, or just a random chapter, but something about his work gets me going. I suddenly read him and realize I’ve included a lot of things in my language that I don’t need.
EC: Do you have any actual craft books you turn to?
DM: I’ve never read a craft book.
DM: Yeah, somebody is going to read this and be like, No shit, motherfucker. You don’t know what you’re talking about. But seriously, I’ve never read a craft book, never taken a class on writing. I don’t think of it that way. I enjoy more conversational stuff. Reading other writers, and talking about them, or reading interviews like this.
EC: As you well know, I like to end these things with a shift from how to why. Why do you write? And you can make this personal, or take it wider. Like why is writing important, if it is at all?
DM: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Before I knew what that even was, the lifestyle—the idea of being a writer—appealed to me. I read sports books obsessively as a little kid. My dad started adding adult books to that pile. Books about boxing, baseball, basketball. A lot of that sports writing was about literature and art too. I used to tell people I wanted to be George Plimpton one day. Besides being a good writer, he was a man of letters, just totally enmeshed in the literary life. The idea of being out in the world and being seen as a writer was intoxicating early on. So much so, when it came to choosing the law firm where I wanted to work, I just chose George Plimpton’s father’s firm. I shaped myself on the idea of literature being a part of my life, and being a writer seemed like the best way to do that. I don’t necessarily like what that says about me. I don’t feel an overwhelming burn to be a writer. The world doesn’t need to know what I think about things. But I really enjoy long conversations. That’s what writing is. I’m just trying to hold up my end of the conversation.