Morgan Murray's novel Dirty Birds is about the misadventures of a 'dull' everyman named Milton Ontario
Morgan Murray is a writer from Alberta who now lives in Nova Scotia. Dirty Birds is his first novel, and it's getting plenty of attention lately, thanks to being included on the Canada Reads 2021 longlist. The panellists and the books they choose to champion will be revealed on Jan. 14, 2021.
Dirty Birds is a humorous coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the 2008 global recession. A young man named Milton Ontario (yes, it's also a place) leaves his small hometown in Saskatchewan to pursue fame and fortune in Montreal — and to find his idol, the iconic singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen.
Congratulations! What did you think when you first heard your debut novel was longlisted for Canada Reads?
I am still in shock. It hasn't really sunk in yet. It's hard to believe this little book I put out in the world a while ago is taking on a life of its own. And it's very exciting.
Can you take us inside the world of your main character, Milton Ontario? I know that you decided to write a book about a protagonist who is, and I'm quoting you here, "incredibly, spectacularly, remarkably average, plain boring, humdrum, bland, dull and beige, down to his very soul."
I wanted to write a book about the quote unquote, "everyman," I suppose. But I wanted to look at how anyone like Milton or like myself — a pretty normal humdrum "beige, down to our very soul" male in this day and age — tries to navigate becoming a normal human being and a decent person and the hijinks you can get up to when you're trying to figure out who you are in the world. And so Milton gets up to an awful lot of hijinks for being so very, very dull.
Right from the very opening paragraph of the book, you might describe him as dull. But the way that you bring him to life is anything but dull. You like him immediately, I find.
I purposely made him kind of vague. So you don't really get to know him, but hopefully you like him enough to stick with him. He goes through all these misadventures. His goal in life is to become a famous poet and ladies' man like his hero, Leonard Cohen.
He leaves his hometown of Bellybutton, Saskatchewan, a made-up town, and moves to Montreal to pursue his dream. His dreams all sort of come true, but not in the way he had ever thought that they would when he was dreaming them. He always ends up in trouble because he attaches himself to all these bad actors and nasty characters and ends up in a lot of different situations that he would rather not be in.
I want to take you back to that childhood in this fictional town, Bellybutton. Why did you set his childhood there?
I called it Bellybutton because it's based on Riverhurst, Sask., where my grandparents are from. It is on the shores of Lake Diefenbaker, in southwest Saskatchewan. I had family there and I had grown up going there to visit my great-grandmother. It was the smallest town in Saskatchewan I was familiar with. I based it on that location and tweaked things based on my experiences growing up in a small town in rural Alberta. I named it Bellybutton because it's located near Elbow and Eyebrow and Central Butte.
It's hard to believe this little book I put out in the world a while ago is taking on a life of its own.
I based a lot of Milton's experiences on my own growing up in a small rural community. I wanted to base it in Saskatchewan instead of Alberta; one of the things I wanted to get out early in the book is that Milton's going about life ignorant of the history of the place he is from, the long and often dark history, like a lot of us are in Canada. Saskatchewan is this interesting symbol of that, where somebody in an office, in Ottawa or London or somewhere, at some point just drew a square on the map and said, "That's Saskatchewan." And they clearly had never been there. They erased all of the geography, all of the history, all of the people that came before. It's this symbol for how Canada was made, in that it erased thousands of years of Indigenous history and created this really nasty colonial situation, which many of us are still ignorant to. Milton was definitely ignorant to it, and that plays out throughout his story.
Milton leaves small-town Prairie life behind. He sets out for Montreal. He's going there in pursuit of Leonard Cohen. What is it about Leonard Cohen that speaks to you as a person and that made you want him to bring him into your novel?
Leonard Cohen is a symbol of a certain kind of man, a certain kind of artist and a certain kind of caricature of this ladies' man poet, even though he became a wildly world-famous and rich pop star. He cultivated that persona of the struggling, tortured and poor artist who was always done wrong by women. A lot of his songs are about chasing women or being scorned by women. Some of them are downright offensive, and some of them are too vague to be really offensive, but are probably offensive. Leonard Cohen was this symbol of a type of masculinity that I wanted to explore and I wanted Milton to aspire to in the book. He meets Leonard Cohen. And I don't want to give the ending away, but Leonard Cohen turns out to be this toxic character, this bad guy in the book and not the hero that Milton had made out to be. This was one of the parts of the bigger themes of the book, of figuring out how to be a decent man in the world today and not go down the path of being a toxic ladies' man.
I've just been so honoured and thrilled with the longlist mention. Me and the publisher have been trying to make as much hay of this as we can. I can't imagine what it would be like to be on the actual contest. It would be amazing and my fingers are crossed. The list is a great list and there are a lot of great books on there. Just to be in that company is such an honour.
This conversation was edited for clarity and length.