Interview | Paul Murray: The Mark and the Void
When you think of novel fodder, financial collapse probably doesn’t come to mind. For Irish author Paul Murray, however, financial collapse is the creative and comical gold from which he crafted his third novel, The Mark and the Void. The satirical story follows a Frenchman, Claude, an analyst for the Bank of Torobundo in Dublin. Enter Paul, an iniquitous writer who wants to shadow Claude as research for his forthcoming novel…or so he says. Plot twists rife with greed and intrigue ensue.
Murray, whose 2010 novel Skippy Dies received substantial critical acclaim, spoke to Crave from a café in his hometown of Dublin.
Crave Online: How did you get into writing?
My dad is an academic and our house was full of books. That’s how I spent my childhood: reading. Writing seemed like a natural progression.
What sorts of books made an impression on you growing up?
Anything involving other worlds, like Irish mythology and folklore. The Chronicles of Narnia, The Phantom Tollbooth. Anything fantastical and funny.
Your previous novel, Skippy Dies, was so well-received. Was that a source of pressure when you began to write The Mark and the Void? Or did it give you confidence?
I’d already been through that cycle of self-interrogation the first time around. My first book, An Evening of Long Goodbyes, came out in 2003, and it didn’t sell very much but it got good critical responses. It’s kind of a double-edged sword. If a book does well, you get the confidence boost, but on the other hand, you say, “That was my high point. The next time I’m going to fuck up and everyone will be disappointed and I’ll have squandered my chance.”
After the first book came out, I felt like I had the wind behind me to write something long and difficult, which ended up being Skippy Dies, and that did well. A lot of people read that book and I didn’t want to disappoint them. It’s something you have to get past. You can’t worry too much about what people are going to make of your book for good or for ill because you’ll never write anything. You’ll be completely paralyzed. You try and take the good and forget about the sad faces of the people who are expecting Skippy Dies II.
How are writers perceived in Ireland? Is it different than in other parts of the world?
On the one hand, Ireland has this famous literary culture. We have four or five Nobel Prize-winning authors. Literature is one of the only things we’ve been really good at as a nation. We’ve drawn a lot of pride from it. The country still likes to perceive itself as a literary place. I feel like there’s a historical weight attached to literature. It’s a fairly conservative, right-wing place. If things aren’t making money, they’re of no matter. I think that’s liberating in a way; it’s good for writers to be marginal.
How do you define success if it’s not monetary? What do you measure it by?
Success is a weird concept. David Foster Wallace, in that film that’s come out about his interview with David Lipsky [The End of the Tour], talks about how he aligned himself with these underground artists, people who never made much money. That kind of success was never on the map for him, so it came as a shock when his book was this mainstream success and he had to reconfigure his ideas of how the world worked.
Similarly, for me, I didn’t have Infinite Jest levels of success, but I didn’t expect Skippy Dies to do what it did. It’s confusing; a part of you wants to hold onto that and repeat that. It’s really exciting to have people read your book; not many writers get to experience that. At the same time, I want to write the books that I want to write, so it’s a constant battle to prioritize and work at what’s important to you. It’s easy to say, “Money’s not important to me,” because thus far, I’ve been able to pay the rent. If I can keep writing and pay the rent, that’s fantastic.
What about banking was of interest to you as the focal point for The Mark and the Void?
Banking was of interest because Ireland was really demolished by the financial crisis. I think it was the biggest loss of wealth of any sovereign nation in peace time. The bottom dropped out and everybody was very afraid and very ashamed. It was a tremendously disorientating and upsetting time. I felt so angry about what the banks had done and angry about what we as people had colluded with. I felt like to write anything else would be to continue to ignore it. It really was like the elephant in the room. The more I read about it, the more interested I was. The façade of respectability and sobriety and boringness—it’s baffling. It’s a crazy world of nominally talented people taking massive risks with people’s money.
What kinds of research did you do to understand the industry?
I really just read books about Ireland banking. What happened in Ireland in the last 15 years is a compressed version of what happened in the West in the last 30 or 40 years. Ireland went from this agrarian backwater to, suddenly, an economic powerhouse, and then, just as traumatically, to a destitute state. America is kind of the model that Ireland adopted and that’s where the cues are still coming from. One of the key books for me was Debt by David Graeber. He’s sort of the brains of Occupy Wall Street. His book is really interesting. It’s a cultural history of debt.
What Ireland is faced with doing—just like Greece is doing as well—is ordinary people are paying off back debt. We’ve taken on this weight, not just of debt but of guilt, of responsibility, for the way the banks have acted.
Do you think novels can induce cultural change? Do they have that much power?
No, probably not. Not at a macro level. At the same time, we’re pushed towards thinking in a certain way without even knowing that we’re being pushed. I think that people have become much more money-oriented, individualistic, involved in themselves, and more lonely. I think the world is a harder place for everybody to be alive. It’s harder to make your way, to feed your kids, to put your kids through school, to be sick. We’re more isolated, locked in our little screens. That isolation hurts people. It makes it harder to get from one end of the day to the next.
I think what novels can do is remind people of other ways of seeing the world. The world doesn’t have to be this cold, ruthless, lonely place where you’re in this battle with everybody else to make it to the top. Novels are good at putting you in other people’s shoes. Like Iris Murdoch, the Irish writer says, “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” And that’s what novels help you to do: realize that everybody’s experience is as deep and profound as yours.
Yet writing is a solitary activity. How do you balance that with social needs?
There’s this great Camus quote that I can’t quite remember about how the monastic element of writing is contrary to the spirit. It’s strange spending the day not talking to anyone. That said, Dublin is quite a small city. You’re never too far away from your friends. If you’re having a bad day and you really need to talk to someone, you can do that quite easily.
On the one hand, it’s hard to be alone every day, but on the other hand it’s a privilege, and it’s also—I’ve got several hands in action there—it’s an amazing thing to be able to go into yourself and work out what you’re thinking about and what you like and don’t like about the world. We’re pushed through life at an increasingly rapid pace so it’s rewarding to have these flow experiences. Writing’s not like that all the time because you have bad days where you can’t get anything down and you’re bashing your head against the wall. That’s when you feel alone. But I think what you realize after a while is if you have a bad day, the next day will be better. You have to trust that you’ll get back into it.
In an interview for The Millions, you said, “The novelist is the one person you can trust to be lying.” Who do you think is more trustworthy: writers or bankers?
[Laughs] We live in this mathematical, calm world where every person—economist, scientist, politician, whatever—is saying to you, “I’ve got some kind of formula which shows x plus y equals blah and I’ve got the magic answer that shows you how to live your life.” And they’re always wrong. Everything has a flaw. Everything is incomplete. That’s human experience: living in uncertainty and with doubt. It seems like artists are the last ones standing, telling people that very important message that nobody knows what’s going to happen and anybody that tells you what’s going to happen is not telling you the truth.
On the one hand, novelists are famously bad with money. I wouldn’t necessarily go to a novelist for financial advice. But at the same time, I wouldn’t necessarily go to a banker, either.