Interview with Mike Murphey
Author of “Section Roads”
Acorn Publishing (2019)
Reviewed by Carol Hoyer for Reader Views (7/19)
Interview with Sheri Hoyte for Reader Views (8/19)
Mike Murphey is a native of eastern New Mexico and spent almost thirty years as an award-winning newspaper journalist in the Southwest and Pacific Northwest. Following his retirement from the newspaper business, he and his wife Nancy entered in a seventeen-year partnership with the late Dave Henderson, all-star centerfielder for the Oakland Athletics, Boston Red Sox and Seattle Mariners. Their company produced the A’s and Mariners adult baseball Fantasy Camps. They also have a partnership with the Roy Hobbs adult baseball organization in Fort Myers, Florida. Mike loves fiction, cats, baseball and sailing. He splits his time between Spokane, Washington, and Phoenix, Arizona, where he enjoys life as a writer and old-man baseball player.
Hi Mike, thank you for joining us today at Reader Views. Tell us a bit about your book, Section Roads.
Section Roads is essentially a coming-of-age story, but it spans forty-five years.
When attorney Cullen Molloy attends his fortieth high school reunion, he doesn’t expect to be defending childhood friends against charges of murder…
In a small town on the high plains of Eastern New Mexico, life and culture are shaped by the farm roads defining the 640-acre sections of land homesteaders claimed at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Cullen and Shelby Blaine explore first love along these section roads during the 1960’s, forging a life-long emotional bond.
As junior high school band nerds, Cullen and Shelby fall under the protection of football player and loner, Buddy Boyd. During their sophomore year of high school, Buddy is charged with killing a classmate and is confined to a youth correctional facility. When he returns to town facing the prospect of imprisonment as an adult, Cullen becomes Buddy’s protector.
The unsolved case haunts the three friends into adulthood, and it isn’t until their fortieth reunion, that they’re forced to revisit that horrible night. When a new killing takes place, Cullen, Shelby and Buddy find themselves reliving the nightmare.
What was the inspiration behind this story?
I grew up in the town I write about in Section Roads. During the summer of 1969 I read a book called Red Sky at Morning written by a New Mexico author named Richard Bradford. I had graduated from high school a few weeks before and was attending the summer session at New Mexico State University. My girlfriend and I were separated by about three hundred miles and I labored under the belief that we could hold this long-distance relationship together because destiny had chosen us for each other. We weren’t. We didn’t. And we are probably both better off for it. Given the circumstances, I was captivated by Bradford’s coming-of-age story about a boy and a girl and its relationship to New Mexico. A couple of high school teachers had encouraged me to think that I might become a writer. When I finished Red Sky at Morning, I thought to myself if I ever did write, I wanted to write something like this.
What motivates your main characters, Cullen Molloy, Shelby Blaine and Buddy Boyd? Tell us about their personalities and what makes them tick.
Based on their childhood romance, Cullen and Shelby share a life-long emotional bond, but their timing is never right. As adults, circumstances keep bringing them together, then forcing them apart. They care deeply for each other, though, and are determined to maintain their friendship. Cullen and Shelby are both band nerds. As a child, Shelby suffers an impairment that forces her to wear thick glasses magnifying her eyes beyond all proportion to her face. The ridicule she suffers makes her very tough. Cullen takes the time to know her and see her for who she really is, cementing the bond between them. When surgery frees Shelby of her glasses a few years later, everyone becomes aware of how beautiful she is, complicating their relationship.
Buddy is a talented athlete who doesn’t quite fit into the jock culture because he is an introspective intellectual. He protects Cullen and Shelby from bullies in junior high school. A practical joke gone wrong during their sophomore years results in Buddy being charged with murder and sent away. When he returns to finish high school two years later, Cullen becomes Buddy’s protector. As an adult, Buddy is driven by guilt to become successful. Shelby is driven by independence and self-reliance. Cullen is driven by his love for his friends, and a determination to protect them.
Section Roads is your debut novel, but you’ve been writing for many years, including a career as a journalist. What called you to dive into the world of fiction?
Section Roads is actually the fourth novel I’ve written, but the first to be published. I suspect every newspaper reporter aspires to write a novel and I was certainly no different. While I was working, though, I found all sorts of excuses not to sit down and write on my own time. I made fits and starts but couldn’t seem to sustain anything beyond short stories. As one more excuse, I convinced myself I did not have the novelist gene. When I turned sixty, I decided to find out once and for all. I vowed I would write 500 words a day—good, bad or indifferent—no matter what. Eventually, that became a novel—although not a very good one. But I’d developed the discipline to do the work. From there, I dedicated myself to learning the craft of fiction.
How involved was the research process for Section Roads?
Because I grew up in the time and place I write about, I know the geography and culture of Eastern New Mexico well. Because I was a newspaper reporter and spent a lot of time covering the courts, I drew on that background to write the legal and judicial aspects of the book. I have several friends in law enforcement. I consulted them on realistic ways to kill people within the confines of my plot.
How did you develop your plot - how did you plant clues, red herrings, etc? Are you a plotter or a panster – in other words, do you outline or write by the seat of your pants?
I am a total panster. And I’ve been to enough writers’ conferences to know that’s not the best way to do it. For me, though, it was the only way. One of the barriers I’d always faced in sustaining anything beyond the scope of a short story was the belief that I had to know how it was going to end before I started. I finally was able to write when I set that aside. Before I can really get down the specifics of a plot, my characters have to reveal themselves to me. For Section Roads, I recalled a half-dozen events from my teenage years and used those events as the bones on which to hang the novel’s structure.
What part of the plot was most challenging for you to write?
All of it. Writing is hard.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your book?
I learned that every novel that wants to be funny needs a Slartybartfarst. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the works of Douglas Adams, Slartybartfarst is an off-the-wall character in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series. My Slartybartfarst is Weard Ward, who came out of nowhere. One day I was writing, and he just showed up. At first, he was just this guy at the side of a road, but he worked his way into being a central plot element. A number of reviewers have said Weard is their favorite character.
How long did it take you to write Section Roads, from the time you started your first draft to your final published novel?
Almost three years. But I set it aside and wrote a different book along the way.
How did you feel when you first held a copy of the finished book in your hands?
Amazed and a little apprehensive. Until a book is in print, it’s never really finished. You’re always tinkering, always fine tuning. You always have the chance to incorporate that thought you woke up with some random morning. With the finished book in your hand, though, you realize all that’s over. Since then, I’ve come up with a significant plot twist that I think would make the book better. But it’s too late.
What has the response been so far from readers?
Good. Readers seem to like it a lot. A lot of their comments show me they get what I was trying to do. I find it gratifying so many readers talk about feeling a strong emotional attachment to the characters. And I love it when readers say they found it funny. I can’t say how much I appreciate those who bother to write reviews. Reviews are so critical to today’s marketing realities.
Being an author is a full-time job these days. How do you balance your writing, marketing and other aspects of your life?
Marketing is a plague, but one which a writer in the current reality must embrace. I find it difficult to take myself away from writing to jump through the marketing hoops. I’m not very good at it. But I know I have to do it, so I’m determined to learn that process as well.
Many writers, it seems, are introverted by nature. Coming from the news world, I wouldn’t imagine that to be an issue with you. How has your background helped with your marketing and promotion efforts?
Many print reporters are introverts. They might not appear to be so because they approach people with a set of questions on specific subjects, sometimes having to be aggressive other times empathetic, but they are legitimized by their role in society. In a social setting, though, without that crutch, they can be as awkward as anyone else. I find, though, that I enjoy being before a group of people and talking about my book. Once again, you have a basic structure of what the conversation is about.
What do you like to do in your free time? If you have any, that is!
I play baseball. I have a woodshop and I enjoy building furniture, although that aspect of my life has suffered since I returned to writing. We have a 112-year-old house which we love, and it requires a lot of attention.
So, what’s next? Will Section Roads be a standalone novel or part of a series? Do you have another project in the works?
I don’t know if I’ll take the Section Roads characters somewhere else or not. I’ve thought about casting one of the secondary characters in a lead and call the book The Blue Nipple Detective Agency. (You have to have read Section Roads to understand that title). I have a second novel, called The Conman, which will be published in November. It’s based on the life of a friend, Keith Comstock, who spent sixteen years as an itinerate pitcher in professional baseball. He became a 31-year-old rookie in the major leagues and has an extraordinary story. I’ve just completed the first draft of a non-fiction book called The Trio. It’s about The Chad Mitchell Trio and the sixties folk music era.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, about writing, or about life in general?
A quote from Jackie Robinson: “When others don’t believe in you, you just have to believe in yourself that much more.”
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
First, write. Second, invest in yourself. Writers conferences are excellent forums for joining a community and for learning craft. Two have been incredibly valuable to me. The Writers Hotel, in New York City, organized by Shanna McNair and Scott Wolven; and The Southern California Writers Conference. Revealing your work and your ambitions to others is scary, but wonderfully cathartic.
Mike, thank you so much for joining us today on Reader Views – it’s been a pleasure getting to know more about you and your book, Section Roads!