Morgan Murray grew up on a farm near the same backwoods central Alberta village as figure-skating legend Kurt Browning. He now lives in the backwoods of Cape Breton with his wife, cartoonist Kate Beaton, Mary the baby, Agnes the dog, Reggie the cat, Peggy the ditch kitten, and six chickens without names because they all look alike. In between, he has been a farmer, a rancher, a roustabout, a secretary, a reporter, a designer, a Tweeter, a tour guide, a schemer, a variety show host, and a student in Caroline, Calgary, Paris, Prague, Montreal, Chicoutimi, and St. John’s. He has a BA in Canadian Studies from the University of Calgary, a Certificate in Central and Eastern European Studies from the University of Economics, Prague, a MPhil in Humanities from Memorial University of Newfoundland. His writing has appeared in The Scope, The Walrus, Newfoundland Quarterly, and Echolocation. His short story “KC Accidental” won the Broken Social Scene Story Contest in 2013, and was anthologized in Racket: New Writing from Newfoundland in 2015. His first novel, Dirty Birds is shortlisted for three Atlantic Book Awards: the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, the Atlantic Publishers Marketing Association Best Atlantic-Published Book, and the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award.
It’s incredible to find out that Dirty Birds is your first book. What was your idea for writing it? How long did it take? What was the process like?
Dirty Birds was mostly an exercise in not knowing any better. Had I known better, I probably would still be picking away at a very precious manuscript until I was just a skeleton with manuscript and a bad back on a dusty old uncomfortable office chair in my basement. The entire ordeal took 13-and-a-half years. In January 2007 I moved to Montreal to do “research” for the book (i.e. live like Milton Ontario), in the Fall of 2008 I moved to St. John’s to attend grad school at MUN, again, more “research” for the book. It took me nine years there to learn the language well enough to write in it. In St. John’s I got the chance to take a writing workshop with Lisa Moore, someone I admire greatly and whose genius intimidates me to all heck. Lisa encouraged us to write short stories weekly to share with the group *gulp*, but I found a loophole whereby if you said your piece was an excerpt of a “novel,” whether there was any novel or not, many shortcomings would be forgiven as you could plead “oh, there is no ending because this is an excerpt from a much larger piece! Obviously!” It was all lies, but it was a fiction workshop, so I figured lies were encouraged, the more creative the better. All my “excerpts” from this imaginary “novel” were just semi-autobiographical scenes from the time I spent living like a Milton (i.e. a flailing/failing wannabe poet) in Montreal.
Fast forward a couple of years, the one actual short story I did write for Lisa’s workshop was anthologized by Lisa for Breakwater Books and the editor, over the cheese plate at the launch, asked about what else I was writing, and I spoke vaguely about this failing wannabe poet “novel”. Unfortunately/fortunately the editor was himself a poet and thought the idea was wonderful and proceeded to keep calling me every few months until I finally relented and sat down in the Fall or 2018 and wrote Dirty Birds a few hours at a time after work and on weekends. In a few months we had a manuscript. Nothing to it!
How would you describe the experience of getting your book published?
Again, I didn’t know any better, so it’s certainly been an education and an exercise in expectation management. I said in the acknowledgements at the end of Dirty Birds that whoever said a novel is a work of a solitary genius was a bald faced liar. They are the works of neurotic introverts with vast and endlessly patient support networks. It’s a group project. And that group includes small, overworked publishing houses, editors who need to get to the three other books before yours, designers who are stuck working from home on a computer that was old 10 years ago, printers waiting on paper to get be made and delivered during a toilet paper shortage, babies who insist on regular feedings and diaper changes, life, etc. So my book that was slated for release in October 2019 was actually our book that finally saw daylight in August 2020.
What has it been like to have your book come out during a pandemic?
Per Ol’ Broken Record Murray: I didn’t know any better, really. It was kind of anticlimactic, after a bunch of last minute delays and things, when it did officially launch there was no fancy party, no cheese plates, not hoopla, just a tracking number in my email and a few days later a box of beautiful little brick-shaped books showed up on my porch.
A lot of publishers and writers with more means or sense put off releasing their books last year, so the field was thinned out a bit, I think, and the writing community took a lot of pity on us who did venture out so there seemed to be a bunch of programs and things to try and shine a light despite of all the dark. And then comes award season, which gives the book another life so you ride that flaming space rock as long as you can, I guess.
Your book is gathering acclaim, including getting on the longlist for Canada Reads and nominated for three Atlantic Book Awards, including the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award. What’s it like to send your baby out in the world and get this kind of response back?
I had an actual baby while editing this book baby, and they are similar in that one way. You spend all this energy and sleepless nights trying to get it and keep it alive and then one day it starts walking and climbs on the furniture and fishes all the knives out of the drawer. And then one day it starts making sounds and some of them sound kind of like dada and they start laughing and making jokes and leave you in a cloud of dust as they run into the daycare and you are up at night now, even when they sleep better, wondering who this person you made is, because they aren’t you, they aren’t an appendage of you, they are their own whole, complete person. And one day that fully formed tiny human who has your wife’s eyes and your nose grabs you by the ears and plants a gross, wet kiss on your nose and says “daddy” and I guess that is like what a book award is like, a big wet kiss on the nose and acknowledgement by this thing you made that you too exist and still matter, even though it doesn’t need help up the stairs anymore and really dislikes anything without cheese on it, that you’re doing/did an okay job of making it into what it is. Or something like that.
I notice on your website that you are open to taking part in book clubs. Has that happened? What was that like for you?
I did one in Sudbury, and have another lined up in Alberta later this month (my aunt’s bookclub, *gulp*), and a few book-club like events with different virtual festivals I’ve been a part of. And so far they have all been a lot of fun. When you talk to people who haven’t read the book, you sort of have to be coy about the spoilers and wild twists and turns, but when it’s a group that have read the book you can really let loose. So the conversation has always been great, and the questions and discussion you get is always so joyful and also profound in a way that makes you wonder if they read the same book that you wrote. “Are we still talking about the one full of dirty jokes that makes fun of everyone?” It might be my favourite part of this post-book business. That and cash prizes. 😀
How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, and fiction in particular?
Not many people know this, but this isn’t my first award winning novel. In grade 3 or 4 I wrote the smash hit “Chester, Dong, Jack and Harry Get the Bulldog Bullies.” It was a 40-page epic about a couple of cats (Chester and Dong) and their flea pals (Jack and Harry) and how they got them bulldog bullies. It landed me a spot at the prestigious Central Alberta Young Author’s Conference. I got the day off school and got chicken fingers for lunch. So from that point, with those sweet perks, I was hooked.
Your book is so unusual from other novels in that it is humorous. Is it hard to inject humor in a novel? Did you wonder if anyone else besides yourself would find it funny? Besides Dirty Birds, what are some other funny novels that you would recommend?
When I was in that Lisa Moore workshop, and fretting over the idea of having to submit something to be read by the genius I admired, and whether it would be any good, I was complaining to my mom—as you do—and she said, “just make it funny.” And dang it if mom wasn’t right, again. So I wanted Dirty Birds to be funny from the start. So the jokes were as important and taken as seriously as the larger themes and questions about masculinity and everything else serious in the book, and the characters and the plot and so on. So it was a choice from the start. And I know you are supposed to write with an audience in mind, according to so-called experts, but I just ended up writing the kind of book I’d like to read full of jokes that my dad would make, mostly.
If you want other funny books, I recommend: Kurt Vonnegut, Will Ferguson, my wife Kate Beaton (she’s so much funnier than I am, and has taught me so much about crafting funniness into humour that can be printed on a page), Gordon Korman, Terry Fallis. I started on Thomas King’s Indian’s on Vacation, and that’s been a hoot so far. That list is very manly, I apologize, but Kate has more power than all those dudes combined.
What makes you laugh?
Right now, mostly our almost-two-year-old Mary. She’s hilarious. When she isn’t rolling on the ground screaming baby obscenities at us for turning off Peppa Pig, etc. (even then, she does it with such theatricality it’s grade A slapstick tantruming), she exudes so much joy and personality. And the part that kills me is she knows. She knows about jokes and loves making them and loves an audience and laughs at her own jokes and she can’t really talk yet but she’s already much funnier than I’ll ever be. I’ve never been so proud.
Is Cape Breton a good place to be a writer?
Cape Breton is a great place to be a writer. I came from one of the best places to be a writer, St. John’s, where it seems like everyone is a writer and happy to help and talk shop or cheer you on, and Cape Breton, or this corner we’re in in Inverness County anyway, is a lot like that. Margaree is crawling with all kinds of wonderful writers (Rebecca Silver-Slayter, Joanna Skibskrud, Oisin Curran, Sara Faber, Susan Paddon, Tom Ryan, etc.), Lyndon MacIntyre has a place down the road, the Atlantic Book Awards this year are pretty much the Cape Breton Book Awards, so I’m getting to meet more far-flung writers like Lesley Crewe and Julie Curwin (tune in to our ABA Festival event on May 10th!).
The community itself has been so incredibly welcoming and supportive. I’ve been selling books locally exclusively through the local rural grocery/convenience story (shout out to the Brook Village Grocery!), and they’ve sold over 60 books alone, which is wild. And whenever I make the local paper or anything, everyone is quick to say nice things. It’s really great.
What’s your advice to other writers, those who may have a manuscript in a drawer?
Get it out of your drawers! Seriously. If I can do it, anyone can. I’m just a farm boy from Alberta who stumbled around this country until a girl from Mabou took pity on me and brought me home. But get writing, keep writing. There is no magic to it. It’s just work. But work that is fun. It’s basically writing something you’d like to read. So write your dream book, don’t worry about anything but getting it down on paper.
—Questions by Marilyn Smulders