In the newly released second edition of his fictional family memoir, A Sea of White Impatiens, writer Chris Murphy chronicles the dysfunctional Gallagher clan's bizarrely comic lives. The Orlando, Fla.-based novelist recently took time off from an animal rights picketing of a puppy store to discuss his unique authorial exploits.
Windy City Times: A Sea of White Impatiens is billed as a fictional family memoir. How much is fact and how much is fiction?
Chris Murphy: I would say about 50/50. For example, in one chapter, William Jr. gets hit by the Rowaneck florist's van. That actually happened to me in ninth grade, but it just worked better in William's chapter. So I took the experience that I had and assigned it to him. Also, my parents had 11 children. There [are] only nine Gallaghers. And I modeled the character of Thomas on my gay brothers, Mark and Rick.
WCT: So there's a fusing together of real-life events and characters, and compressing them to create a fictional product?
CM: Uh-huh. And some of the stuff is exaggerated. Like, I was never as wicked of a child as Christian is. But when a friend of mine read "Impatiens" years ago, I said the same thing to her and she said, "Yeah, you might not have done all that stuff but you've thought about it." [Laughs]
WCT: How has your identity as a gay man influenced you as an author, and shaped the kinds of stories that you want to tell?
CM: First of all, it's real hard to get published and … there's not a great market, even today, for gay-themed literature. It's not on the best-seller list, with the exception of David Sedaris. He's had tremendous success, and I've been inspired by him because he is such a riot. I don't think my being gay necessarily inspired me to write, but it sure made it a bit more difficult to find a market.
WCT: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers out there?
CM: Write what you know and do it because you love it. And if you sit down and have writer's block, get up and do something else. I have to get excited about every single thing I write. So in order for me to be my bestif I find myself writing exposition and it's boring and I'm like, "Ugh, I can't wait to get this over with," then I should dismiss it. I should eliminate that chapter and focus on something else.
I've started books by writing the last chapter first, because I think, "Oh, this is going to make a great third act climax." So strike while the iron is hot and you'll do your best stuff. And then go back and do the other chapters when you're really moved to do the other chapters.
WCT: What initially sparked your interest and inspired you to write "Impatiens?"
CM: I took a creative writing class my senior year [at Boston University]and we were tasked to write about a family event. So I wrote about stealing my late brother-in-law's motorcycle back.
WCT: I loved that passage.
CM: Yeah, that's actually all true. I read it to the class and they all got a kick out of it. Then, just on my own, I started writing additional family anecdotes and I shared them with people at work and they enjoyed them. And then I wound up, at some point years later, just putting them all together.
WCT: Which wild "Impatiens" anecdote is your personal favorite?
CM: It's actually the one where Christian is in seventh grade art class, and Mrs. Hunt, his very tragic, sad art teacher winds up telling him that she's going to get a facelift. Then she puts up a paper landscape on one of the walls and invites students to decorate it with buildings and people and activities. And Christianand this really happened and what a mess I must have been at that timedraws an insane asylum and a witches' coven and some other awful things.
She [Mrs. Hunt] gets her facelift and is out for a couple of days and then she comes back and thinks it's an awful, awful thing that I've done to this landscape. She just tears it down, and I think that's a terrible thing to do, so I wind up telling the entire class that she's gotten a facelift. I laugh about it now but, you know, part of me feels very, very bad for this woman.
WCT: With so many bizarre and comic tales woven into this narrative, was it hard to nail down a title? How did you arrive at A Sea of White Impatiens?
CM: My mother had a garden, but it was all white impatiens. And she planted them every year and they were lovely. Then one year she found that there was a lilac impatiens. This is after having planted white impatiens for years and she thought, "Well, that's kind of pretty." Thereafter she bought a whole bunch of colors [of flowers]. One year the garden just became all colorfuland, for me, it was a metaphor for 11 children in a big Irish-Catholic family. I know she wanted everyone to get along and be nice, and be normal, good Catholics, and, to me, her white impatiens vision wound up being a little bit more colorful.
A Sea of White Impatiens is available online at www.robertsonpublishing.com, www.Amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com .
Its first sequel, Superior Bodies, is available at www.barnesandnoble.com .