Dwyer Murphy’s Debut Novel “An Honest Living” Is A Book About Books
Lily Meyer interviews Dwyer Murphy about overlaps between his fiction and his editorial philosophy, and his dislike of preordained structures.
Dwyer Murphy was my first real editor. He taught me the art of the literary interview, often by letting me experiment, take risks, and loosen my question-asking into conversations that veered toward the editorial. Long before I wrote criticism, he encouraged me to think like a critic.
His debut novel, “An Honest Living,” is a smartly updated literary noir set in pre-financial crisis Manhattan; it’s suffused not only with risk-taking and critical thinking, but with Murphy’s generosity of spirit. The novel is playful and welcoming, coaching the reader to think the best of its cast of oddballs and misfits — a lawyer who hates lawyers; a wealthy, successful novelist who can’t stand writing fiction; a suite of elderly book collectors — who the novel treats with empathy and humor.
I spoke to Murphy about the overlaps between his fiction and his editorial philosophy, his tendency to satirize what he loves, and his dislike of preordained structures, which is as apparent in “An Honest Living” as it is in the work he edits at CrimeReads, which he helped launch in 2017 and has steered ever since.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Study Hall: Can you walk me through your literary career?
Dwyer Murphy: For quite a while, I was a lawyer in New York who had aspirations of not being a lawyer any more. I had always been so excited by fiction and literature, and I knew I wanted to be involved in the literary community. My friend Jonathan Lee, who had once been a disenchanted lawyer with me at a human-rights organization in England, moved to New York and become a writer and editor, and he laid out a path for me for how that transition might be done.
I started at Guernica, writing profiles and interviews with writers I admired. I profiled Jesmyn Ward, Daniel Woodrell — somehow, magically, so many writers I admired were willing to talk to me. I did these long interviews with them, and began editing similar pieces there and at A Public Space. Really, I was just trying to be involved. At some point I started editing the interviews section at Electric Literature, which opened a whole new set of doors. I got to bring on lots of other types of writers to do interviews and profiles.
I first went to Literary Hub to edit sports. We were going to commission literary fiction writers to go on these George Plimpton-esque junkets to sports events all over the country. It turned out, though, that there wasn’t so much of an audience for five-thousand-word literary sports pieces — or, if there was, we never found it. At the same time, Lit Hub was launching a crime-fiction arm that became CrimeReads, and I was the most passionate crime reader on staff.
I had been writing for a long time at the Center for Fiction because I had a fellowship there, and I began getting lost in their amazing crime-fiction library. What really turned me into a crime-fiction devotee was reading Walter Mosley’s “Devil in a Blue Dress”, which was a perfect exemplar of the noir attitude that appealed to me in so many books. Reading Mosley made me realize I wanted to write noirs. It also made me put myself up for the CrimeReads job, which is still such a gift — getting to read crime fiction professionally.
SH: Do you think you would have written a book at all like “An Honest Living” if you hadn’t had the Center for Fiction fellowship and the CrimeReads job?
DM: No. One hundred percent no. I read and cared about crime fiction before the Center for Fiction, but I didn’t fully understand how much I loved it till I started going to that library every day. I learned so much wandering around that library, picking books off the shelves and discovering my own interests. I could never have gotten that education in crime fiction anywhere else. Getting to make a living out of it was complete serendipity.
SH: Can you describe the noir attitude that you like?
DM: Good noirs usually have the faintest, flickering glimmer of youthful hope and optimism, but their narrators have seen too much of the world to be purely hopeful or optimistic, even if they still fight good fights. Usually, that produces an attitude of a broad, liberal mind that’s open towards all kinds of people and proclivities, mixed with a tragic sort of world-weariness and an ability to crack jokes. Noir isn’t bleak or desperate. It’s about people who have made their peace with the worst aspects of the world and are finding a way to live notwithstanding.
SH: Do you have a world-weary noir attitude toward any aspect of the literary community?
DM: So much of my book pokes fun at the literary world, or at the modes of writing that influenced me. My novel is a noir, but also, it plays with autofiction, and the New York novel, and the book about books. I have affection for all those modes of writing, but I also have a critical impulse toward them that, for me, manifests as an urge to satirize or make fun.
Also, I wanted to make fun of myself. My protagonist is technically anonymous, but he shares my name and a lot of my background. He can be a little ridiculous, which was intentional. It matches my sense that, when I was a lawyer in my late 20s, I was moving around the edges of the literary world in a somewhat ridiculous manner. I look at that period of my life with both affection and embarrassment now. It’s hard to take yourself too seriously in retrospect.
SH: I found the novel’s sense of retroactive embarrassment so easy to connect to. “An Honest Living” is so rooted in bookish New York, and New York just prior to the 2008 financial crisis, but you make it universal by capturing the end of adolescent spirit and the beginning of world-weariness.
DM: I wanted to write about precisely that transition. Noir, to me, is a perfect reflection of the era of a person’s life in which youthful enthusiasms flicker out, doubt creeps in, and you begin questioning yourself: What’s next? What’s worthwhile? What have I been doing with my time?
I also wanted to write about New York in that pre-crash era. I was a lawyer then, which meant I saw the extravagance that saturated the city before the crash. All the parties and dinners were so over the top that it seemed apparent that disaster was coming. You just can’t have that kind of luxury without eventually paying for it. After 2008, I worked for years on cases that dealt with the aftermath of the crisis, and of that extravagance.
I was exposed to the worst of that culture. Luxury was not part of my background, but I went to schools that gave me a certain pedigree, and then worked at the “right” law firm, which vouched for me. As a result, I found myself witnessing this secret world of extreme wealth, privilege, and power. A lot of it was disgusting, and some was just silly and ridiculous. I wanted to create, in my novel, a sleuth-type narrator who gets brought into a similar world of privilege and starts poking and prodding at it, asking questions, searching for sin.
SH: One of the novel’s central ideas is that asking questions is a form of honesty. How did that idea inform your writing process?
DM: As a litigator, you get trained to guide conversations in court, or to nudge people into a narrative you’ve already created. But sometimes you just need to ask questions and let people talk. If you can be quiet, people will tell you so much more than you could ever get them to by asking pointed questions. I have found the same to be true in writing.
Also, my favorite books care less about discovering answers than about asking questions, interrogating possibilities, and learning to live with ambiguity. All the characters in “An Honest Living” are on a journey toward comfort with ambiguity. Some are further along than the others, but I wanted the book to suggest that questions don’t bring you closer to truth, but rather spiral out into more and more questions, and more and more curiosity about the world.
SH: As an editor, do you steer writers away from straight lines of attack?
DM: I hope so. I mean, a good essay shouldn’t need to reach an exact end point. I would rather have essays keep asking new and interesting questions. I try to guide writers in that direction. Also, I still edit interviews and profiles, which is just a matter of giving writers freedom and space to have a conversation. My goal is always to find writers whose minds work in unusual ways, so that no matter what they write — a Q&A, a profile, an essay — I can count on the piece taking turns I would never foresee, but am captivated by.
SH: I learned how to do interviews while you were my editor, and I know that you guided me towards doing stranger interviews — and interviews that, like this one, go all over the place. Is strangeness another goal of yours?
DM: My general rule, in editing and writing alike, is the weirder the better. Raymond Chandler said, if you’re at a loss, have somebody walk into a room with a gun. In my novel, if I was at an impasse, I made something strange happen. For CrimeReads, I had the writer Eli Cranor interview Megan Abbott, who said she always tries to let herself be weird when she writes. My personal iteration of that is when I got stuck on a scene or interaction, I just had somebody start dancing — which meant I wound up with a book full of people just spontaneously bursting into dance.
SH: Was it hard to be confident in your own strangeness?
DM: Yes. My first drafts more closely resembled traditional private-eye novels. I needed somebody — it was my editor, Ibrahim, who is terrific, and really understood what I wanted to do — to tell me it was okay to be stranger, even though I already knew intellectually how pointless it is to write toward the market. Readers have such various tastes that it isn’t helpful to write what you expect them to want. If you do that, you undervalue readers’ intelligence and desires.
SH: Do you think that’s truer or less true when writing for the internet?
DM: It has to be even truer for the internet. In my years of running CrimeReads, one lesson I’ve learned is that pieces that elicit passionate responses on the internet are the pieces writers are passionate about. We push writers to follow their obsessions, no matter how long or meandering a journey that takes. Our job is to reach the community of readers who want to follow our writers’ obsessions with them.
SH: Do you have an imaginary reader or community of readers for “An Honest Living”?
DM: I only imagine readers in the context of my natural, overwhelming fear of boring people when I talk. When I write, I imagine that every single sentence is being addressed to another person who’s in the room, and who has to be entertained and considered and engaged in the conversation. I’d die if I thought I was boring, or if my book was boring. If you aren’t entertaining on the page, you’re doing a disservice to whoever has decided to spend money or time engaging with the words that you wrote.
SH: I totally agree. In fact, I agree so much I want to end on that note.
DM: Endings are such a hard part of interviews. How do you know when to end?
SH: Oh, I never know until the interviewee delivers the ending. You made an especially great craft point, I heard it, and—
DM: We close up shop. Interview done.
SH: Maybe I should keep this discussion in, as an example of our writer-editor relationship.
DM: I like it. Wrapping up interviews is an art form, and you wrapped this one up well.
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