What is your (writing) background?
I’ve been publishing fiction, reviews (music, book, movie, food), and essays on the technology industry for almost twenty years. I blog at bullmurph.com and write regularly for PopMatters. My work has also appeared in The Weeklings, Punchnel’s, The Village Voice, AlterNet, Web Del Sol, and Northern Virginia Magazine. My background in academia, culminating with my MA in Literature, prepared me to use a love of art to ask questions (of myself, about the world) that enhance our ability to understand existence, and each other. Inevitably, a love of experiences and things, including food, drink, sports, conversation, the outdoors and the solitude required to think and write, all influence and inform the things I write.
Who are your favorite writers, your favorite books, and who or what are your writing influences?
So many writers and books! I’ve been especially inspired by Hawthorne, Melville, Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison, Milan Kundera, Kurt Vonnegut, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Keats, Shelley and Bukowski. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is one of the important books in my life, and I regularly revisit Catch 22, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Great Gatsby, and anything by Orwell.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?
When I shifted from comic books to children’s books (Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain had a tremendous impact) and, eventually, to Stephen King, I fell in love with the idea of creating stories, as well as reading them. As early as grade school I began writing poems and short stories and, with the encouragement of some remarkable teachers, kept plugging along. I was on my high school newspaper staff and by the time I got to college, I was learning how to write both fiction and non-fiction, some of which got published. Along the way the act of writing was less a decision and more a simple reality: it was what I did, and I’ve continued to do it, always seeking to improve, learn and expand the ways I communicate.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
I do. It was a very short story entitled “Never Let a Black Cat Cross Your Path” which reflected my interest in scary stories—and likely was heavily influenced by some of the work I was reading at the time. Most of my early short stories were imitative of Poe, as was a great deal of my initial attempts at poetry. When I was in high school I wrote a longer (20pp) story and that may have been the first time I realized this was something I could aspire toward doing more of.
Tell us about your writing process. Do you have a writing routine?
I’ve always envied the discipline of writers who have a set routine: waking up before sunrise, cranking out a thousand words or so before breakfast. Or the lucky (and talented!) authors who are able to sustain themselves through writing and have time to set aside each day. For me, it’s always been a frenetic balance between work, life, sleep, reading and human interaction. But any writer understands early on that there are myriad distractions and excuses: in order to get writing done one has to write; often and badly. The moments one lives for are when you get obsessed by an idea and see it through to fruition. These are the times when sleep, socializing and even eating become secondary. For a longer project, like my memoir –which took several years to complete—it necessitates a different type of discipline; a more marathon than sprint mentality. That said, my response to people when they ask how often I write or how I’ve managed to write so much, is simple: I seldom watch TV.
Please, describe your desk/workplace.
I do have a desk, by a window, with a computer. But I’m old school: I write the way I always have, on a legal pad, in longhand, usually sitting on the floor on my old wooden coffee table that has absorbed spills of ink, beer, wine, candle wax and sweat. No blood, as of yet. I am obsessed with music, so I invariably am listening to music (typically without words) when I compose.
What do you find easiest about writing? What the hardest?
Easiest? I don’t trust any writer for whom writing comes easily. The hardest part, aside from the struggle to make time for it, is the ceaseless self-doubt and insecurity that accompanies almost any writing endeavor. Even when I write an 800 word music review –albeit one that will be published—I always have to gear myself up for the task: I need to ensure I know as much about the topic at hand as possible, have done my homework and do the subject justice. For personal writing, including essays and fiction (and, of late, memoirs), there is often the concern of being able to translate what you see in your mind onto the page. So often scribbled words, however eloquent, seem such a pale approximation of the vision or idea that occasionally inspires the story.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
For me writing is always an act of communication, an attempt to initiate a dialogue—even an internal one. Being able to share ideas or thoughts or emotions with people (friends, family, strangers) and hear from them that you’ve managed to describe something they can relate to, or a feeling they thought they alone held, is supremely gratifying. The act of seeing a longer project through from conception to execution is something any writer should be proud of. As someone who possesses an active imagination and a sensitivity that occasionally is too acute by half, it’s wonderful having an outlet that helps me interrogate the thoughts, fears and passions that fuel my life; to think anything I write can have a positive impact on anyone else is the best gift I could give or receive.
Sean, please tell us a little about your best-selling memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone.
Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone is the title of my best-selling memoir. It is also the presumptive title of any memoir. More, it’s the unwritten title of any work of art—a desire to have those thoughts and feelings articulated, read, understood, appreciated. More still, it’s the often unexpressed message of any individual life: we want to be discussed, loved, and celebrated after we’re no longer around. Mostly we do not want to be quickly or easily forgotten. The antagonist of this particular tale is cancer, but implicit in the narrative is an appreciation that a struggle with illness –and the ways it can unite or disintegrate families—is a true story for too many people. It can be a horror story or a ghost story, a love story and a real-life fairy tale, where memory and devotion are capable of outlasting death. The memoir unfolds in a range of voices –first person, second person, third person—from the points of view of a mother, a father, a son. The story of one woman’s life and death is interspersed with meditations on the causes and effects of alienation and empathy, faith and friendship, and the cultivation of an artistic sensibility. The whole is an examination –and interrogation—of sickness, grief, love and remembrance.
What inspired you to write the book?
When my mother died in 2002 at the age of fifty-nine, I found myself both shattered and honored to have been a witness. In order to live and to keep her memory alive, I needed to make sense of her death. I knew I would inevitably write about her, but I wasn’t certain what form the material would take. Eventually I realized it could be –it had to be—a memoir. As I plotted out the narrative, I knew I wanted to somehow convey a story that was deeply personal, but also universal: something that grappled with situations and feelings (and questions and fears) that most of us have to face at some point.
Who do you see as your target audience and where can we buy the book?
Certainly anyone who has dealt with the loss of a family member, most especially to cancer, might find familiarity and comfort in these pages. Of course, contemplating mortality, whether it’s that of our loved ones or ourselves, is the ultimate universal theme. As such, I believe this memoir will resonate with anybody who is unsatisfied with any one ideology or explanation for how we live and why we die. I think, despite the occasionally somber subject matter, there are large doses of humor, affirmative ruminations about art and existence, and ultimately a solidarity offered to anyone who understands how glorious and humbling it is to be a human being, which is pretty much all of us.
What makes your book special?
The readings I’ve held and generous reviews at Amazon have confirmed that this memoir has been many things to many people: I’ve had people tell me it’s helped them heal from their own losses, others tell me it’s helped them prepare for the future, and many tell me they have been inspired to live more meaningful lives –all of which is at once gratifying and deeply humbling.
The memoir uses very short chapters and shifts back and forth in time to give an accurate approximation of how memory works, particularly when dealing with grief. Although it’s a very personal story, I sought to write in a way that respectfully deals with serious themes in ways that any reader can, and will, understand and relate to.
While it could be described as an extended meditation on life and death, growing up, moving on, it is ultimately a tribute to loving and being alive. I feel a profound connection with the people, places and wonderful works of art that have moved and inspired me, and by celebrating these things, I hope even the most cynical reader could come away refreshed or encouraged.
How would you describe the success of your book so far?
As of this writing I have over 50 reviews at Amazon, all of which are 4 or 5 stars; certainly that is one metric toward assessing its impact. My mission, in addition to telling my mother’s story, is to raise awareness. As such, I’ve worked closely with several cancer-related organizations. I’ve held readings that doubled as fundraisers for Hospice of the Piedmont and the Lombardi Cancer Center. I was invited to speak at Lombardi’s annual cancer symposium at Georgetown University in December, and it was deeply moving to read to, and interact with, medical professionals as well as patients. In recent months I’ve officially aligned myself with the Chris4Life Colon Cancer Foundation: I’m donating copies of the memoir which they are selling via their website and at their events, with all profits going directly back to the organization.
How long did it take it to write the book?
From my initial attempts to conceive it as novel, to the false starts and eventual epiphany it had to be a memoir, to the day it was finished, about five years.
Can you give some advice for other Authors regarding the writing process?
First and foremost: read and write all the time. It’s the most basic and ostensibly simple advice, but it’s crucial. I meet aspiring writers all the time who talk about what they want to do (or will do) “eventually.” Writing material that aspires to connect in a meaningful way with a broader audience involves hours and years of hard, often unfulfilling work. Don’t quit your day job, but treat your writing like it’s your life. Seek to execute sentences and scenes you haven’t encountered, even in books you admire. Work toward cultivating a unique style and ways to convey familiar –and unfamiliar—themes with honesty and originality. Turn off the television, shut off your phone, and understand the real dirty work that results in quality writing involves lots of long, lonely hours. If you aren’t feeling it with all of your being, how can you hope to engage a potential reader? Above all, trust yourself and love yourself: writing is necessarily a solitary endeavor, but you are connecting yourself with a community of special human beings who have made our world demonstrably better. Celebrate the idea of contributing something of yourself to that tradition.
Are you working on another book project? Can you tell us a little about it?
I have two projects I’m working on: one is a novel I spent the middle part of the last decade agonizing over; it’s just about done so now begins the unromantic phase of working with an editor and making sure it is as perfect as it can be. I also have another memoir I started on last year, some of which uses material that didn’t make the final cut of this memoir. (That’s another bit of advice for any aspiring writer: sometimes the work you feel best about or actually does contain your best writing is not right for a particular project: you need to be willing, and able, to leave that out even though it can be excruciating.) In a sense, by ascertaining which sections I couldn’t use for this story, I realized I had an entirely different story to tell. I also look forward to assembling the best essays, reviews and blog posts I’ve published in the last decade; I’ve got about 300,000 words of material to cull through.
Where do you see the book market in 5 or 10 years? Will there be only eBooks and will book stores disappear like record stores disappeared?
This is a question I’ve thought, and written, quite a lot about in recent years. Short answer: I think books will always be around for two reasons. One, a paperback book is already the ideal delivery device for literature: small, portable, affordable, durable. Two, although we’re seeing a great deal of disruption to traditional markets, books have been around a lot longer than albums, and are a permanent part of culture. Records, on the other hand, have always been evolving, from wax to cassette to CD to digital files. With eBooks we have the best of both worlds: a new, interactive way to access and absorb content digitally, and good old fashioned books can (and should!) decorate walls, sit on tables, be in laps, given as gifts, and read during commutes. I do think eBooks have, on balance, been very positive for the publishing industry. Digital content has helped democratize both the creation and dissemination of literature. As such, traditional gatekeepers, including an ever-shrinking and less profitable book industry, no longer are a writer’s only option. More, no matter how much content is now easily available (a common complaint), work that matters tends to find a way to survive. Content, be it for a blog, a journal or a novel, that is written solely for profit or page views will almost necessarily be evanescent; material written from the heart is meant to last, and technology is helping ensure that more worthy voices are heard.
Do you write full-time or do you have a day job? When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?
I do have a day job, and thankfully it affords me an opportunity to write. As with most authors, I’d reckon, the dream is to make a living solely from writing my own work. Of course, an exceedingly small percentage of writers can do this, so it’s not only imperative to have a day job, it’s important to find one that is meaningful and amenable to one’s talents. I used to think I had to write all the time to be a writer; the reality for me is that the time not spent writing can help keep me hungry and insatiable: there is a certain itch that can only be scratched through writing, on one’s own time, in one’s own space. In some regards, it’s a significant blessing to pay the bills and cultivate a balance that is as productive and healthy as possible. When I’m not writing (or reading), I try to experience opposite sensations: being outdoors, working out, interacting with friends, talking, existing without self-consciousness. I also do some of my best thinking while I’m driving; I’ve been known to pull over or stop in a parking lot to scribble down a thought before it disappears. I’m a huge believer in balance, and each person needs to find what works for them, what inspires them, how much time they need with people or by themselves, and hopefully the life you choose is one that feeds and sustains the creative impulse.