An Interview with Murray Farish, by Celia Johnson

Murray Farish’s characters are familiar at first. One could be your neighbor, that person you pass on the street, maybe a relative. A few might even seem pretty close to you. Then each story grows darker. Some of his tales dip suddenly. Others sink gradually, so that you are unaware of the depths you’ve reached until the very end. Farish’s debut collection, Inappropriate Behavior, was recently released by Milkweed Editions and, as T.M. McNally observes, “These stories are the gift of a serious and electric talent.” I spoke with Farish about his dark and twisted subject matter, his creative process, and his literary heroes, who all became famous later in life. Inappropriate Behavior

Harper Lee once said of investigating a mass murder with Truman Capote: “It was deep calling to deep.” And you seem to share a similar fascination with people who cross certain lines to the terror of those around them. Does your fascination spring from a particular experience or time?

I think—at least I think it’s true for me—that writers are stuck with their subjects, and transgression seems to be one of mine. I don’t know whether that comes from a particular experience or time, or whether it just fits with my notion of what makes a good story. One of the things about crossing lines is it forces you to abandon the rules you’ve lived by on the other side of the line, and you have to make up new ones on the fly. When people cross lines, things happen. They can be bad things or good things, of course, but the bad things usually make more interesting stories.

Some of your characters are based on notorious people. What challenges did you face recreating them in a fictional landscape?

Aside from getting a couple of basic factual things right—the name of Lee Harvey Oswald’s boat to France, for example—I didn’t worry that much about it. You take a shot at the president of the United States, I figure that puts you pretty squarely in the public domain, and I can do whatever I want to with you. Just to take Oswald again, there are so many people’s different versions of Oswald—the patsy, the victim, the cold-blooded killer, the government agent, the dupe, the lone nut—that trying to get him “right” for everyone would have been a fool’s errand. I tried to get him right for what I wanted that story to do.

In the title story, “Inappropriate Behavior,” reality is written and rewritten through different perspectives and, to an extent, within those perspectives, as the characters try to grapple with their own anxieties. What was your creative process for this story? And was it similar to the process for others in the collection?

“Inappropriate Behavior” was the last story I wrote for the book, and it took about a year and a half to write, and about another year to find a way to end it. A lot of the finished product of that story came from my problems in finding an ending, because once I finally did, I had to go back and revise the story to build toward that. Also, by that point the story had gotten so long that I figured no one would publish it as a free-standing story, and that kind of freed me up to make the story as big and weird as I could. That turned out not to be true, since David Daley published it at the wonderful Five Chapters, but that impulse helped to make the story what it became.

Do you have any creative quirks?  

I have two sons who are both, in their own very different ways, Forces of Awe and Terror, so I don’t have time for quirks. A quirky day is when I get a whole paragraph written without interruption.

How did you go about assembling the stories for this collection? Of the stories published first in literary journals, did you always aim to eventually put them side-by-side in a book? 

I’m a slow writer, so I don’t have time to write stories that I don’t think will eventually pull their weight in a book. The stories I chose for this book all carried that common thread of transgression, all seemed to fit with that “inappropriate behavior” that I think is such a typical American euphemism. But again, this is one of my subjects or obsessions, so there were other stories that could have been included, and they’ll probably find their way into the next book, or the next, or the next, all of which will be about the same things—transgression, weirdness, the sense of extremity in American life. Unless I learn some new stuff.

Which authors, past or present, inspire you?

This isn’t necessarily going to be an answer about other authors’ writing, but other authors’ lives; I’m not a hip, young thing, so I’m inspired, or maybe consoled, or encouraged, or anyway not discouraged, by the people who came late to the party. Walker Percy, Sherwood Anderson, Raymond Chandler, Toni Morrison, Stephen Dixon. The list goes on. It took me a long time to figure out what I wanted to do, and then this book took a long time to write. I hope it goes faster for the next one, etc.

What are you working on now?

The next one.

Author photo by Karen Lynn Miller Murray Farish‘s short stories have appeared in The Missouri Review, Epoch, Roanoke Review, and Black Warrior Review, among other publications. His work has been awarded the William Peden Prize, the Phoebe Fiction Prize, and the Donald Barthelme Memorial Fellowship Prize. Farish lives with his wife and two sons in St. Louis, Missouri, where he teaches writing and literature at Webster University. Inappropriate Behavior is his debut collection. Celia Johnson is the Creative Director of Slice. She is also the author of two nonfiction books, Odd Type Writers and Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway.