AFRESH | We interview R.M. Murray, whose debut Bleak won the First Book of the Year Award at the Scottish National Book Awards 2021 to learn more about the process, and releasing a book in the post-lockdown flurry.
Could you give readers an introduction to Bleak?
It’s an idiosyncratic, candid memoir. A chronicle of minor personal fables. A round on life’s miniature golf course. An antidote to the extraordinary. Loch Woebegone. The ‘star’ content will appeal to some, the Hebridean and Gaelic aspect to others, and it has some depth for those that choose to look.
What drew you to collect your stories? Was it something you’d always done throughout life, or chose to do in one swoop?
They’re not so much collected as stored involuntarily. You don’t choose what is memorable. A trivial incident can be vivid, haunting, recurrent while other more obviously important things, forgotten. There’s a line I like in Austerlitz by W G Sebald: ‘We take almost all the decisive steps in our lives as a result of slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious.’
“A trivial incident can be vivid, haunting, recurrent while other more obviously important things, forgotten.”
How did you find the process of both going back through your life for these vignettes, but also whittling them down?
Like opening an old suitcase that’s been under the bed for decades. Interesting but also mortifying. In the end it was therapeutic to air these things. It was also useful in the sense of ‘I write to find out what I think’ about it. The organising principle – the life-in-a-minor-key idea – made it easier to determine the content.
You note that those writing memoir are usually celebrities, or writing about heroic triumph, and the stories are then often unrelatable through their extremes – do you think there’s scope for more people to see value in their, and others’, more ‘normal’ stories?
There’s a strong element of the everyman about it. The subtitle the mundane comedy is an ironic reference to Dante’s Divine Comedy: A trudge through this earthly realm as against an epic journey through the afterlife. It’s also a nod to one of my favourite writers, John Updike, whose declared mission was ‘to give the mundane its beautiful due’. About elevating ‘normal’ life to art through prose.
“Bleak came out in a post lockdown avalanche of books: about the worst time ever for publishing. I was resigned to it being compost.”
What were some stand-out stories for you that you particularly enjoyed, or were surprised by how it was to write about, when revisiting for the book?
Strangely, some of the early stories seemed as fresh in my mind as recent ones. ‘Leathered’, for example, although it was an experience I would wish to forget. I also wanted to give a true impression of what it was like growing up in an island community. And to counterweight some of the sentimentalising and stereotyping there is about the Islands.
How have you found the process of releasing your own stories into the world? Have there been any stand-out moments since publication?
The most difficult aspect was maintaining the truth of the experience without implicating and signposting people, alive or dead. In a small community that amounts to more than just changing names. Stand-out was, obviously, winning at the National Book Awards! The cash paid for Christmas. Bleak came out in a post lockdown avalanche of books: about the worst time ever for publishing. It took six months to even get a review. I was resigned to it being compost, but still happy I had a book on my shelf at home.
What do you hope readers take from your debut?
That humour should be taken seriously. I continue to have ideas below my station.