December 21, 2015

The Fundamentals: an interview with Ken Murray, author of "Eulogy"

EULOGY: a novel by Ken Murray: The controlled and calm life of William Oaks is shattered when his parents die suddenly in a car crash. A reclusive paper conservator at a renowned Toronto museum, William must face the obsessions and denials that have formed him: delusional family history, religious fundamentalism, living with unhappy parents who are constantly bickering, forced starvation, secrets and get-rich-quick schemes. Memory and facts collide, threatening to derail his life and career as William feverishly prepares for an important exhibition on the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Ken Murray’s powerfully written debut novel, EULOGY (Tightrope Books) explores an unusual, Rapture-obsessed fundamentalist Christian family that places all of its hopes on catastrophic destruction. The only offspring of a sad marriage, William practices self-flagellation, since being disappointed with salvation was a damnable sin, and experiences tremendous self-doubt because of his upbringing. Murray writes, “When the timbers of your house are cemented with bullshit, you ignore the smell and hope for the bullshit to hold.” He hides in his lonely, quiet world away from other humans, but is it enough to survive his traumatic upbringing?


What inspired you to write “Eulogy?”

Eulogy started quite innocuously, more than ten years ago. On a Sunday afternoon, walking home from enjoying time at a cafe with friends, I became obsessed with the mental image of a boy and his father going to an amusement park, but the trip is neither fun or amusing, something is not right about it.

I started writing that scene – if only to purge it from my mind – but it wouldn’t go away. I needed to know who these two were. Who was this kid? Who was this man? What was their story? What happens to them?

I wrote their story so that I could know it. Their image no longer obsesses me, and I’m glad for that.

Is this book in any way biographical?

The events are not biographical, nor are the people in it. The central struggle about religion has resonance to my life, however. I grew up in a house where we attended churches that preached the bible as a literal document and that were always looking for the end of the world. On the television we had a constant stream of televangelists, and they had all the answers, until I realized the answers didn’t work for me.

So one of William’s central struggles matters to me personally: How do you relate to the world when you come to realize that the beliefs in which you were raised are not acceptable to you? Rejection alone is not enough. You need to find your own way.

You write a serious story, yet there are many instances of humor in the book. Why is that?
I never try to be funny, and I don’t like making fun of anyone, but people are sometimes amusing just as they are. Take an intriguing character — like William’s mother, Janet Oaks — and give her the keys to an old beat up car and a conviction that she can get rich and be happy as long as she sells more Slender Nation, and just write what happens. The scenes are serious, but what the people do along the way is funny. The humor makes the sadness of the story all the more poignant.

Why is the main character so isolated and why does he try to harm himself?

I think William’s self-harm is best understood as him acting out on himself the emotional violence of his parents’ marriage. They are constantly at each other, and they place him in the middle of their battles, and their tug of war becomes something that he takes on as his own. As he moves away from them – at first figuratively in adolescence, then literally as he goes to the city – he retains that violence within him and the need for pain is the result.

As for his isolation, I think it is linked to the isolation of the home in which he grew up. He doesn’t necessarily like being alone, but it’s what he knows. Like many people, he takes comfort in something familiar which is not necessarily something he wants. If you look at the scene in the book when William first finds religion, in that moment he is genuinely happy to be among people who want to be his friend. It’s a fleeting moment, his euphoria doesn’t last.

Do you think the parents in this book are a fair representation of parents from fundamentalist households?

It would be too simplistic to call them representations of parents from fundamentalist households. They are simply people who are struggling in life and in their marriage, and with limited skills or willingness at their disposal to deal with their challenges.

They like the answers the church gives them; they like the certainties it professes.

What are your thoughts about fundamentalists around the world? How is fundamentalism affecting the world we live in?  What traits do they all have in common?

I think it’s important to acknowledge the obvious and that is, first and foremost, each unique fundamentalism believes that it is uniquely right, and that all other paths are wrong. This is cause for concern when different fundamentalisms encounter each other or non-fundamentalists. It’s a serious issue on a planet with 7 billion people, of many backgrounds and beliefs.

The other thing that all fundamentalisms have in common, and this may seem controversial to many people, is that the fundamentalisms are all populated by real people. We cannot dismiss billions of people because of their beliefs, much as we should not be forced to build societies or countries that reflect their beliefs. It’s a tricky balance when dealing with groups who believe they are authoritatively right, but life is difficult, so that’s nothing new.

They are humans, and have the human trait of being hard to understand. I do myself a disservice, along with my community and my world, if I dismiss someone I cannot understand as a mere whackjob. And when fundamentalists turn to violence, it is all the more important to see these as the acts of a human (whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or any other belief). Their humanity makes the violence all the more tragic. People want to dehumanize criminals, it makes them easier to hate, but that doesn’t help anyone.

How does fundamentalism affect children?

Children are likely affected more by the dynamics of their home than the religion in which they were raised. People who are raised in loving considerate homes find easier adjustment to life than those who grow up in acrimony. In my book, William is dealing with his own problems and the tensions between his parents and through this he is also dealing with the religion. But the greatest influences on his behavior are his parents, and their abuse of each other, and not the religion he left behind.
Every child grows up believing for a while that the world they know – the picture on the wall, their room, their home (or homes), their friends and their community is all that there is to know in the world. But the child who grows up in the fundamentalist home is to a certain extent asked to believe that much of this illusion really IS the entire world, to believe that the fairy tale is true. The teaching is along the lines of “What our religion tells you is all you need to know; don’t be deceived by those who tell you otherwise.” This is in high contrast to, for example, the home where a child is encouraged to be open and loving to the possibilities of life and the many cultures and beliefs that exist, as opposed to being fearful and mistrusting.

This self-segregation of a fundamentalist home will need to be faced by everyone who is raised there as they encounter more of the world. At some point, each person needs to choose whether they believe in what they were raised in, or if they are going to find another way to relate to the world. That’s universal no matter how you are raised, but there’s an added rub for the fundamentalist, because the fundamentalist child is usually raised cut off from the rest of the world.

I imagine that for some children, growing up like this works out just fine, but it didn’t work for me, and it doesn’t work for the fictional William Oaks. Of course, William’s case is a little different. He is not raised in the religion, but finds it as an 11 year old as a way to fix his problems as well as those of his parents. It works for them but, in the end, not for him. You can see the novel as a story of his heartbreak that this religion that promised him so much magic did not deliver.

KEN MURRAY is a writer and teacher of creative writing. His work has also appeared in Prairie Fire, Globe and Mail, Mendacity Review, Brooklyn Rail, Ottawa Citizen, Canadian Business Magazine, Maclean’s, and has also been published by the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies (through the Random House of Canada Student Award in Writing). While earning his MFA at The New School, he also trained as a teaching artist with the Community Word Project and taught with Poets House. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the inaugural Marina Nemat Award and the Random House Award, and received an Emerging Artist’s Grant from the Toronto Arts Council. Originally from Vancouver, Murray grew up in Ottawa and has lived across Canada and in New York City. He now divides his time between Prince Edward County and Haliburton Ontario, and teaches at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and Haliburton School of the Arts.

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