By Scott Stevenson
Tim Murphy is the author of the novel, Christodora, longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal. It was also named a Best Book of the Year by The Guardian and an Amazon Editors’ Top 100 Books of the Year. As a journalist, he has reported on HIV/AIDS for twenty years.
Correspondents is his follow-up to Christodora and was an Amazon Best Book in May 2019.
This multi-generational novel follows the life of an American reporter of Lebanese-Irish descent, Rita Khoury, and her Iraqi interpreter, Nabil, who is gay and persecuted by his culture.
Tim described to me how he wanted to depict Rita and Nabil’s families so we could appreciate how a family in the Middle East is not so different than those in the West. They are just subjected to more extreme circumstances. This story takes us to Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Each location suggests a different stage of civil conflict. Iraq’s conflict is in progress and Lebanon is in a stage of aftermath. Correspondents stops before the Arab Spring begins, but the DNA of the future Syrian civil war can be detected.
The Coachella Review: How do you feel about the Iraq situation today?
Tim Murphy: I’m amazed at the extent they’ve been able to pull it back together. It is an extremely complicated place. It really reflects what Lebanon when through in the 70s and 80s. Lebanon is still an extremely fragile place. Unfortunately, Iraq has become a proxy for Iran.
TCR: Omnivoracious, the Amazon Book Review blog stated, “Correspondents is proof that the best novels are as important and insightful as nonfiction.” Since you’re a journalist, what made you decide to write fiction instead of nonfiction?
TM: My day job for 25 years has been as a freelance journalist covering HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ issues. I’ve written for The New York Times, New York Magazine, POZ and The Nation. I got into kind of a rhythm and the work kind of comes to me. Now I take assignments that allow me to make a living and give me some creative freedom. I always wanted to be a novelist. I started a neighborhood paper when I was nine, and a school paper when I was ten. I guess I always wanted to be a journalist too. I published two gay YA novels in my twenties and felt like I wasn’t done with fiction. I hadn’t written fiction in the decade before Christadora and wanted to give it another chance. No one had written a narrative version of AIDS, so that’s where Christadora came from. I kind of felt the same way about Correspondents. There hadn’t been a real-life, journalistically-informed novel. I really like researching for novels and wanted to examine the intersection between fiction and nonfiction.
TCR: Elliot Ackerman, author of Waiting for Eden stated, “Correspondents is the novel I’ve been hoping would emerge for a long time.” Your book really takes flight in the chapter where Rita and Nabil meet. Can you talk about that?
TM: I read endless, endless accounts of journalists covering Iraq and I wanted to show the dynamic of journalist and interpreter. The interpreter is the fixer and my reader needed to see both of them awkwardly establishing their dynamic. I had to show them jostling and developing their rapport. Also, I wanted their families to be mirror images of each other. That family could be my family. When you see the effects of the occupation (in Iraq), you feel it in a very real way.
TCR: It seems Rita and Nabil both struggle with loneliness and isolation. Can you talk about how those themes play into their stories?
TM: I never really thought of them as isolated. Nabil experiences more of that than Rita and is isolated in his sexuality. He is alone in that knowledge. I never thought of her as isolated. I don’t really see her that way. There is an event where she and her family became isolated in their grief.
TCR: Don’t you think she is isolated for being a single woman in the Lebanese culture?
TM: Not at all. Her father is very ambitious for her. The pursuit of education is a very big thing for that community. Her mother is more of a victim to that type of thinking, that a woman shouldn’t have a career.
TCR: Who is telling this story? From the very first page, I sensed a guiding voice. Why did you choose an omniscient point of view instead of writing in first person?
TM: It’s told in close third, a third that felt like a first. I really like that old-fashioned voice that can telescope into different characters’ heads. I haven’t written anything in first person since YA.
TCR: There is a chapter with a shooter and it has a very different tone than the rest of the book. Can you talk about that shift?
TM: I wanted the shooter chapter to be very strange for the reader. I wanted to capture his confusion and show him as addled and confused.
TCR: Correspondents is not set entirely in the Middle East. We do spend some time in Boston and Washington D.C., as well as El Cajon, which is Spanish for ‘drawer.’ I didn’t know about the Iraqi émigré population there. As a reporter, how do you feel about the lack of media coverage in the aftermath of the Iraq occupation? Have we put this conflict in a drawer?
TM: That’s interesting. I never thought of it that way. The Iraq debacle is a thing we walked away from, and I was aiming for the Karmic element in the book. The roots of that conflict are deeply embedded in our roots of high tech violence and the gun culture. The U.S. is so big. We’re a superpower. It’s almost like you live in the Death Star and you don’t realize it. We accept our militarism and don’t interrogate it. It’s so completely part of American life and has become this thing we accept.
TCR: Why did you need to tell this story?
TM: I’m a very political author. For a narrative to be compelling, you have to tell a good story. I wanted to write real characters.
Scott is pursuing his MFA in Nonfiction at UCR Palm Desert and spends the rest of his time steeped in the advertising world of Hollywood delivering the commercials and trailers you can’t skip on the internet or on your mobile device. He loves to explore Southern California. There is always an unchartered neighborhood with an interesting history waiting to be discovered in the City of Angels. It helps if there’s a bar or coffee shop or both located there. He was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Florida, a flyover city for helicopters smuggling cocaine from South America in the 1980s. He recommends watching “Cocaine Cowboys” to understand his native state. @scotterson on Instagram