Michael Murphy, author of *Little Squirrels Can Climb Tall Trees*, on reviews and New York and many things

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Kyle Miller is a rare breed. Though born to conservative parents and raised in small-town Oklahoma, Kyle realized young that he had to escape rural America. Now he’s living in New York City, working as an ER doctor, and paying off his massive student loans. He’s never been on a plane and never seen a movie, but he is worldly enough to recognize attraction when it smacks him in the forehead. Not that he knows how he managed to crack heads with Joseph, who’s a good foot shorter than Kyle’s six and a half feet.

Joseph is Kyle’s polar opposite in other ways too, well-off where Kyle is poor, and self-assured while Kyle is insecure. He’s also determined to show Kyle what a great guy he is and bring the confidence Kyle shows in the ER out in his everyday life. But Kyle’s hectic work schedule and inexperience with relationships won’t make for an easy romance.

Michael Murphy is somewhere between eighteen and eighty-eight – the number varies from day to day depending on his mood and his energy level. He first thought about writing when he was very young, but put the idea aside in order to celebrate his fifth birthday and then forgot about it for a year or two. Periodically he toyed with the idea but each time rejected it as pure folly. It wasn’t until he was an old man of twelve that he wrote his first book. A long dry spell followed before he wrote his next book. Whenever he needs a laugh he looks at those early writings. He has written science fiction, romance, and has collaborated on one non-fiction history book. He and his partner have traveled extensively, trying to cover as much of the world as possible. When not traveling, they live in Washington, DC with their best friend, a throw-away dog they adopted many years ago. To pay the bills, Michael is Director of Information Technology for a national organization based in Washington, DC. All in all he’d rather be writing full-time but hasn’t yet figured out how to make that a viable option.

The Interview

Q: How important are character names, to you, and how do you go about naming them? What about titles?
A: When I was growing up long, long ago – in a place far, far away – everyone had basic names. We were Mark, Mike, Bill, Steve, Joe. Names have become more creative and to some degree more international today than they were when I was growing up. I give my characters names that are basic American male names – except in an upcoming story due out I early 2013 that features an extended Italian/American family. There we have a Fabrizio, Alfio, and Antonio, among others.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I try to envision my characters and give them a name that seems to fit how I see them. In a way I’m a bit like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple in that I think of people I’ve known over the years who have characteristics like the characters I’m creating and try out different names on those people to see if they work. If they do, I’ve got my character name.

I also have lists of the 100 most common American male names and female names that I keep updated and on hand in case I need names and am completely blank. I find myself referring to those lists quite frequently.

Q: In what locale is your most recent book set? How compelling was it to set a story there? Do you choose location the same way every time? How?
A: Since I grew up in New York State, a lot of my stories are based there. My young adult series starts out there and then in the next book moves west to California. Many of my stories (published and forthcoming) are set in New York City, a city that holds a special place in my heart. Surprisingly, I have not yet written a story based in Washington, DC. I say surprising because I’ve lived here for thirty years now so I’m fairly familiar with the area.

Q: How much power do you give your characters in steering the story line?
A: My characters (or my Muse, or some combination of the two) are in total control. When I write I don’t outline, I don’t start with any preconceived ideas. When I sit down to write I don’t even know what I’m going to work on that day. When I look at the computer monitor, my characters start telling me their story and I start typing, often not as fast as the are telling me their story. When I write I write quickly because I’m always anxious to see what is going to happen next.

I recently told another writer about how I write and she was appalled. She outlines everything from character names, characteristics, features, to full outlines for each chapter. I sort of vaguely tried that on my most recent book. Notes were made on everything – a total of 24 pages worth. It was sort of, maybe, kind of useful, but I don’t think I’ll do it again, at least not in the way I did it there. For me, personally, sitting at the blank screen and letting the characters just tell their own story is by far the easiest approach.

Q: What is the most satisfying element for you in writing gay relationships, and why?
A: For me, as a gay man, the most satisfying element in writing about gay relationships is depicting the intense intimacy that is possible between two men. Men have been acculturated to be masculine, in-charge creatures who never show emotion or vulnerability or anything like that. A gay relationship throws all of those cultural rules out the window so I love exploring the give-and-take necessary to make a relationship of two equals work.

Q: Are readers involved in making your fiction—do they suggest stories or say what they’d like to read?
A: Sigh. This one is a tough question for me as a new writer. The answer ties in with the question and answer immediately below. I don’t know that many readers – hardly any. I would dearly like to know some and to develop relationships with readers so that they can tell me honestly what works and what doesn’t. I want to write books that people will actually read and enjoy, so I crave feedback and a relationship with readers. I’m looking forward to attending GayRomLit for the first time this month and hope to develop some of those relationships there.

Q: Describe the ideal relationship between author and readers.
A: My first book did phenomenally well in terms of sales but it got mixed reviews. Some reviewers absolutely adored it and raved about it, while others attempted to verbally eviscerate me. The first negative reviews hurt – a lot. They felt like someone had just walked up to me and punched me in the gut with all of the strength that they had.

Slowly, since then I’ve come to realize that nothing will appeal to every reader. Some will like it, some will dislike it. It is impossible to please everyone. Still, I have read every negative review (many times) and have tried to learn from them. I’ve tried to see legitimate complaints and have tried to not repeat those mistakes in future writing. In a couple of cases I’ve tried to engage readers/reviewers in a discussion in an effort to better understand their concerns (absolutely not to argue). Unfortunately I’ve not had anyone follow through and give me substantive constructive criticism.

The most frustrating reviews of all has been people who wrote and left negative ratings – without ever reading the book! They gave a book a bad review and a one star rating based on what someone else had written in a review! I personally think that that is just wrong. If I rate a book I can guarantee that I have read the book. Also, I only rate books that I can give a 4 or 5 star rating to; if I don’t like a book, I don’t rate it because it could just be that my taste is different which is not a valid basis for giving someone a negative review.

So, in a very roundabout way to answer your question, I would like readers to be involved in my writing to some degree, but I have not yet found out how to make that work. I would like to find a beta reader who could be brutally honest with me and help me find holes, problems, and discrepancies, things that just don’t work. I got my spouse to help on my last book. He read it and gave me a long list of things to fix. He also hated the way I started the book, so I wrote a new beginning chapter – five times! I finally got one that he thought worked and I have to agree it makes the story stronger. That’s what I’d like to have for every book, but he is a busy professional with his own work and biomedical research writing so he doesn’t have the time to do this for every book.

Q: What do you find useful about reviews?
A: To date I’ve had something on the order of 50 reviews for my four books (I call a reader who left a written comment a reviewer, as opposed to someone who simply left a rating with no words). I’ve had about 150 people rate my books so far. Of the 50 who have written something, I found one to be absolutely incredible – detailed, thorough and helpful. I’ve found another that was negative but was detailed enough to show me what they objected to – and it was a fair point that I had not considered. One person wrote a very snide review/comment about how I used too many exclamation points. Fine. I can see her point, but I wish she had been a little less cranky in the way she handled the issue. There have been a couple of others that were helpful, but beyond that, by and large, the reviews I’ve had have not been very helpful to me so I’ve largely stopped reading them.

The reviews for my young adult fiction have largely been very positive (9 out of 10 reviewers give it 5 stars and glowing comments). My gay romance story has been quite different. At the risk of opening a can of worms, my observation has been that some women disliked the book, but gay men have raved about the book. I clearly used some buzz words or had an approach that did not easily straddle the line between the two genders. Some women did give it great reviews, so there is no universal. I don’t even know if that is a valid conclusion to draw from a very limited data sample. It is my understanding that the readership of m/m romance fiction is shifting. In the beginning the readership was 95% female, but over time the numbers have shifted and now closer to 50/50 male/female. My next book tries to find a middle ground that will work for both genders.

My first book moved from meeting to sex fairly quickly which some found objectionable. Numerous readers disliked the narrator (who was based on me, by the way – another reason why some of the reviews hurt). In the next couple of books that are in the editorial stage now, I’ve slowed things down so that sex doesn’t happen for a long, long time, after a lot of dancing around whether or not the interest was mutual and then what to do about it if it was.

This is all difficult for me. I grew up in the 1970’s when gay men had to be more furtive in their assignations. This meant that there just wasn’t much time to get to know someone before moving on to sex. You had sex with someone and then only later might get to know them. I know that this is completely foreign to a lot of people, but I’m a relic from a bygone era and without thinking I just wrote about what I know. I also believe that old dogs can learn new tricks, too.

Q: I’m well known for demanding to know an author’s opinion about which of their characters is the sexiest, and I’m making no exception for this group. Who, how, and why?
A: Another tough one to answer. I’m going to say that my sexiest character is Kyle, the young doctor from Little Squirrels. He wouldn’t define himself as sexy or even desirable when the story starts (part of the growth process of the story). He’s tall, has a nice body but not a hyper pumped overdone gym body – just a basic male body that’s been well maintained. He also has a cute butt, something I find very desirable in a man.

I’m going to cheat and pick a backup hottest character, a first runner up if you will. My first runner up would be Bill from my Most Popular Guy in the School trilogy. The first book in that trilogy is heavily autobiographical. There really was a Bill and he really was hot (he still is). He is the most delightful blend of jock and artist. Growing up he would play basketball and compete is all sorts of thing and then he would paint (beautifully). Today he still looks good and he is now a professional artist designing flatware.

Q: What are the fifty hottest words (approximate the word count) you’ve ever written, in your opinion. (Be sure to include citation).

I was a professor of penis, a connoisseur of cock, a devotee of dick, an epicure of erections. I had made it my life’s work to worship the male member. And what a member this one was.

The man’s dick screamed perfection. From the tip of the large circumcised head to the arcing length that ran several inches …

(Little Squirrels Can Climb Tall Trees, Dreamspinner Press, July 2012, page 5)

Q: What are you doing now, what do plan to write next?
A: Just this week I submitted my latest book to a publisher for consideration. It is a dramatic departure from what I have written previously so I have no idea if anyone will want to publish it as it is written. I took a real incident from 40 years ago and brought it into today. It follows a family as it self-destructs right before our eyes. But, since I always want a happy ending, I show that the demise of one family makes way for a new family to form, one that helps all participants in this story.

Beyond that, I’m proofing another story about the sudden and unexpected clash of two diametrically opposed cultures in the form of two young men who are trying to find their way in the world while also trying to figure out who they are and what they want.

What I write next is anyone’s guess. I have a list of something like 30 story ideas, so I guess its time to dig out the list and take a look.

Excerpt from Little Squirrels Can Climb Tall Trees

“OW!”

“Damn!”

I don’t know which of us was more surprised. From the look on his face, the other guy was just as unsure as I was.

It was a busy Sunday afternoon at the gym. Somehow—don’t ask me how—as I had started to get up from my weight bench, I hadn’t been paying attention and had banged my head into another guy’s just as he was doing the same thing from the bench right next to mine. Talk about timing!

We each rubbed our sore heads for a second, unsure who was at fault. And then the guy burst out laughing.

We’d never met before bumping into one another—literally—in the gym that afternoon. Some guys, when they get into the exercise zone, wouldn’t respond well in such a situation, but this guy laughed, and I guess it really was funny. His laugh was infectious and made me laugh as well, something I hadn’t done much of lately.

When he stood—this time without running into my head—and apologized, I noticed that the man was tall. Really tall. I mean really tall. Remarkably tall. Okay, so maybe he wasn’t Jolly Green Giant tall, but still he was so tall that to stand and look at his face, I had to lean my head back a little bit. And I’m not short. At five feet five inches tall, I’m basically average height. My guess is the guy was about six four or six five, maybe even six six. Still, that was a foot taller than I was, so I was looking up to talk to the guy, but it seemed to be worth the effort.

Our mutual apologies finished, we each continued on our way. I thought nothing more of it at the time since I was in my own version of the personal workout zone. I noticed the guy was very attractive but didn’t really give it much thought. I was no dog in terms of looks, but I was not in his league. Not even close.

So imagine my surprise when, after my workout, I was in the locker room changing, minding my own business (okay, okay, I know, but it really was true this time), and Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome walked in and opened the locker right next to mine. I don’t remember now who said what first, but we got into one of the most natural, comfortable discussions two strangers can have in the gym locker room. I think he said something about the odds of having lockers right next to each other and having bumped into one another on the floor of the gym. That topic could only go so far—in other words, not very—so he switched to another topic. TVs throughout the gym had all been tuned to CNN so everyone could watch the president address the nation on the latest economic crisis. Seemed like they happened every week or so lately. I had listened, as apparently had my tall locker-mate.

This tall guy standing next to me clearly knew his current events. He made some observations, asked me some questions, and dropped in some facts about the issue the president discussed that were so far beyond what any of the talking heads had said after the speech that it was obvious he really knew his stuff or was one damned good liar. I came down on the side of his being really smart and well informed.

And his smile. Oh, dear God! That smile.

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