Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Playwright Colleen Murphy on hiding secrets and finding sinister, shiny things

The Governor General's Literary Award winner answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Colleen Murphy is the playwright behind Pig Girl. (Heidi Hamilton)

Ever since her first play hit the stage 30 years ago, Colleen Murphy has been drawn like a moth to a flame to the stories that live in the shadows. That's never been more true than with Pig Girl, a harrowing portrayal of violence against Indigenous women that took home the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award for drama.

Below, Colleen Murphy answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.

1. Erin Bow asks, "Do you love your villains?" 

As a playwright I believe my job is to deliver the humanity of every character, even those characters who commit heinous acts. I read once that you have to be murdered before you can murder. The phrase is interesting because if you take a little child and beat them or murder their souls, unless that child has a person around who will listen to them and help them, or unless they have the luxury of years of therapy, then the child will likely act out later and hurt others. No matter what horrible things they do, I try to remind myself that a villain is a human being and was not born with a knife in their hand. 

2. Louise Penny asks, "What themes reoccur in your work that you need to explore?" 

Grief occurs a lot in my work. So many human actions erupt out of grief — anger, revenge, hurt, fear — and in drama, when you put characters under pressure, they act out because deep down they are profoundly bereft. It is not so much that grief is something "sad" but rather that it is a huge aspect of the human condition and it takes endless forms. 

3. Richard Van Camp asks, "What's the story you'll never write about that haunts you? It could be delicious. Yes, that's the one we want to know. What is your delicious that you'll never write about? What. is. it?"

Writing is often about secrets. Every person has a secret and writers are often propelled by secrets they will never tell — at least not in a way anyone might discover. The secret lingers somewhere between the words, or it's encapsulated in the emotions of the characters or even spelled out in coded dialogue, but no one knows the code except me. So the story I will never write that haunts me... is my secret story. 

4. Caroline Pignat asks, "What scares you most about writing?" 

What scares me is that what I conjure up as a piece of drama will be boring or that a character I create will be dead on the page. Writing drama is so immediate, so alive, that I am scared all I have learned about the craft of writing plays will leak out my ear one night while I'm sleeping, and I'll wake up with a dull head. 

5. Sharon Butala asks, "As a woman writer I am fascinated by the concept of the muse. But what is a woman artist to take as her muse?" 

Men are muses, too, and I do not mean for this to sound strange, but sometimes animals are muses. Sometimes the past is a muse and sometimes the dead are powerful muses. The muse has romantic connotations and sometimes its stickiness and persuasion is like your blood running through your body. This addiction, this constant reaching up to something that is both you and something way beyond you, also has a strong sexual pull. 

6. Shilpi Somaya Gowda asks, "What's your best 'fuel' for a good writing session: a great night's sleep, a long walk, a strong cup of coffee, a glass of wine (or scotch) or something else?" 

For me, it's watching a film or two, or even three. It could be a masterpiece like Rossellini's War Trilogy, or something like The Towering Inferno. I like to watch them alone and become entirely engrossed in the screen. Movies clean my eyes and brain — even really bad movies — and though it's often emotionally exhausting to watch two in a row, I end up feeling replenished and ready to write — to really want to write. 

7. Yann Martel asks, "What's your favourite sentence (or scene) that you've written?"

In my play Armstrong's War, a 14-year-old girl guide who uses a wheelchair has been going to a rehab centre for the past five weeks to read to a 21-year-old wounded veteran. She wants to get her volunteer badge, but they spend a lot of time arguing about their opposing views on mercy killing. In their last session, as they eat potato chips and drink Coke, he finally tells her what really happened to his friend and they start to squabble again — then he gets very emotional and says, "...I don't know anymore what mercy is or what courage is..." and she keeps chomping on chips and bugging him. That's life in a moment, that's drama: mercy killing, lies, truth and eating chips.

8. Ami McKay asks, "How do your dreams influence your writing?" 

Dreams are like treasure chests, full of sparkly shiny things that terrify and soothe. Some shiny things are useful; some cut fingers off.