The Writer’s Hot Seat: Devin Murphy

06 October 2017 on Blog, The Writer's Hot Seat   Tags:

Interview by Fiction Editor Kaely Horton

Devin Murphy's debut novel, The Boat Runner, is out now with Harper Perennial/Harper Collins. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Bradley University. His fiction has appeared in The Missouri Review, Glimmer Train, The Chicago Tribune, New Stories from the Midwest, and Confrontation, among others. He was also published in Barnstorm in 2013. You can read more of his work at

Did the story of The Boat Runner change significantly as you were working onDSC_3315 it? Did you know in advance what would happen to all the characters?

The best way I can tell you about the writing process for The Boat Runner is to compare it to mountain climbing, with one false peak after another. Every time I thought I figured it out, or finished it, some other insurmountable challenge arose. Then I’d have to regroup, reorganize, and start out all over again. At some point a switch happened in me where I stopped letting these false finishes frustrate me and accepted them as opportunities for the novel to become much stronger, more nuanced, and larger in scale than my original vision.

Memory seems to play such an important role in The Boat Runner. I noticed that right before key events take place, the present-day Jacob’s voice will often briefly appear in the story, giving hints of how he views and remembers these events years down the road. How did you balance the voice of the retrospective narrator with the voice of Jacob as a teenager?

This is a great question and also ties into your first. I stayed in the present tense of my main character, Jacob Koopman, for most of the writing of the novel. In a final revision my editor suggested Jacob’s depth and range would be greatly enhanced by pulling out of that immediacy and offering the older narrator’s consciousness. I’d learned long ago to at least explore the potential good writing advice can offer without bristling as I can always go back and undo the changes if they felt wrong. In this case, she was right on. The decision to break up the present tense with the shimmering funhouse of the older Jacob’s memory gives the book a far better look at how these events have rippled through a lifetime and still remain eerily relevant.

The Boat Runner is an epic story that is itself full of stories—dark, fantastic tales told by the narrator’s father and ultimately by the narrator himself. How did you decide which stories to include?

Deciding on which stories to include within the novel was one of the most fun parts of writing. For years I went searching for fairy tales, folklore, philosophy, music lyrics, or myths I found interesting enough to rewrite in an attempt to make them feel fresh and interesting. If they still felt alive and compelling when I rewrote them, I’d rewrite them again as if my main charter’s father was telling them. Looking back now I have always believed in the value of storytelling in a person’s life. What I was going to do with my own life felt very uncertain when I started this novel. I was afraid I’d end up doing something that didn’t afford me time to focus on storytelling, which would have made me very, very sad. So with each story within the novel, I was telling myself, this is important. THIS. IS. IMPORTANT. Keep doing this. In a way it was that belief that carried me though all those drafts.

You mention in your author’s note that you did a lot of research for this book. Can you tell us more about that research process?

Sure. I had to go out and learn everything about WWII I could find before even starting. I spent almost a year listening to WWII history courses on tape in my car so I would not waste commute time. I visited every library near me and pulled books from the shelves for years. Everything was held up for inspection and at first I added everything I found into the draft. V2 rockets. Check. D-day invasion fleet. Check. British Intelligence. Oh yeah. I read and wrote all about them too. One early draft looked like a Forrest Gump-like tour through WWII. But as the book grew, so too grew the steady chord of one character trying to survive and redeem himself, which is ultimately what my imagination glommed onto and led me through the story. Then I’d hold up each fact or event and ask if it would show the impossibly complex reality of one boy trying to survive the craziest time of the last century. Once I was onto that, well, everything became relevant. For example, I had my sister-in-law sneak me into the cadaver lab on her campus so I could write accurately about dead bodies. That was sort of gross and serendipitous, but I actively hunted for those opportunities to make my story more authentic, always looking for moments Jacob could come alive in.

The Boat Runner captures the experience of being in the middle of a war and being forced to make choices without truly understanding the big picture of that war. Was this idea always going to be a central part of the story? What influences helped you to understand and write from Jacob’s limited perspective?

When I first started teaching our country had been in Iraq and Afghanistan for most of my college age students' lives, and it shocked me that those students didn’t seem to pay much attention to those conflicts. There was too many other distractions, other channels to switch to and allow them to not pay attention. I was troubled by this willful dismissal of uncomfortable facts. This seemed to be part of a larger issue of dismissing other points of view in the world which I saw happening all over our country. I wanted a way to force people to look at how dangerous it is to dismiss a larger cultural understanding of conflicts, borders, and history. I figured if I could show a story that was so compelling, close to the bone, and filled with one person making difficult decisions, then anyone would be pulled in and see how awful world conflicts can be even if they are not happening to you. I wanted my readers to empathize with people much different then themselves so those differences would fall away.

No Comments Yet

Leave a Comment
error: Content is protected !!