Peter Murphy: Writing about Family


Just as the next (last) book is about to go out and meet the world, I got a nice message from my publisher informing me that the number of requests to review were encouraging. It was tempting, but I am too hoary to be getting excited about chickens and eggs. Not cynical, just experienced enough to take it all—success and success deferred—for what it really is.

Like most writers, I had hoped that my first book would change the world and set all to rights. It did for a few, but most people remain blissfully unaware of it and I learned to be okay with that. I just went on and wrote some more.

That is why I use the term “next (last).” Because right after I send a manuscript off to the publisher, I start on the next one. And so, it is now. THE LAST WEEKEND OF THE SUMMERcomes out in August and I am halfway through the next, next one.

I do it because it is only from this safe distance that I can look back at what I have done. THE LAST WEEKEND OF THE SUMMERwas a bit of a departure for me in that Ireland, and things Irish, gets no mention throughout. I am still Irish, I suppose, but I am . . . in recovery.

THE LAST WEEKEND OF THE SUMMERcame about after a conversation with my editor and publisher, the great human being that is Lou Aronica at The Story Plant. Having finished the LIFE & TIMES trilogy, I asked for his advice as to what I should do about growing my audience—a question, he told me, he is often asked.

“Write to your strengths,” he told me. “You write convincingly about interpersonal conflicts.” (Or words to that effect.)

So I did, and while I have had varied experiences with interpersonal conflicts, both my own and others, in all the areas of life that I have wandered through, the most obvious one, to my mind, was the ultimate testing ground of human interaction; family.

Family is the whole world in a microcosm. It is where we begin to understand that we are not alone in the universe and that we are not the center of it all, either. Although, through personal experience and observations of all that was going on around me, it seems to me that some of those understandings can elude certain people—or be contorted into something else, entirely. You know the ones I mean . . . we all have a few of them hanging from the family tree.

Now I had delved into family in the LIFE & TIMES story, but it was just one of the motifs in a long, arcing chronicle of the world that I had lived in—and no, I am not the protagonist even though he and I shared many experiences. With THE LAST WEEKEND OF THE SUMMER, I wanted to show a family in a much smaller environment. I wanted them to be the front and center of the story. And because I have lived so much of my life in Canada, I set it in the most Canadian setting I could think of; the cottage.

Going to the cottage with family, and extended family, should, in my opinion, be a rite of passage for any who would dare put pen to paper and write about humanity. From the multi-hour drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic in a car overloaded with all the comforts of home from home, in the swelter, with the kids getting antsy, to that moment when you arrive and unpack everything that you could not possibly need even if you were holing up for the winter, you are nothing more than a prisoner of ritual.

Of course, when it is all unpacked and put away you do get to start relaxing by the lake, but then the others arrive and before long bedlam reigns again with more unpacking, loaded commentaries about who brought what and why, fighting over fridge space, and all the other things that are like matches around touch paper.

However, usually the peace and tranquility of the great outdoors can calm the nerves and allow a fragile truce that can last through the first night of fires and marshmallows and everyone slowly drifting off to sleep. But the next morning . . . that’s when it starts to get interesting.

There are never enough tire swings or paddle boats, and some of the kids can only go out in the canoe if an older kid goes with them. The older kids—the teenagers—are far too busy being bored and hostile and, when separated from their electronic gadgetry, are only too happy to set off any and all rivalries that still exist between their parents and their aunts and uncles—and better yet, their parents’ parents.

Then it is like the approach of a thunder storm that could bang and clatter for hours, with the ominous risk of a lightning strike that could start a roaring inferno in dry undergrowth.

By the second night, alliances have been established, and the tribe is divided. Everyone hopes that the uneasy peace can dampen the smoldering coals of old umbrage so easily fanned to flame by any slight, new or old, real or imagined. All around the fire, strategies are contrived to include, or exclude, by the well-meaning peace-keepers and the score-settlers alike. Ah, a weekend at the cottage; a rich and fertile setting for any story to be set.

But for the sake of the story that is THE LAST WEEKEND OF THE SUMMER, there had to be more. Family skeletons had to rise from their shallow graves and haunt them all; ghosts of past misdeeds pleading for forgiveness and understanding from those who had been shaped or warped by all that had gone on before.

Now in fairytales they would have all been moved to serene resolutions and lived happily ever after, but this isn’t one of those stories. Confronted by family secrets that some had been oblivious to, and some in denial of, each has to find their own way through it all—with the help, or hindrance, of the bindings that are family ties. How do they all fare? Well, as the author, I am more than happy to have the reader decide that for themselves.

Peter Murphy is the author of five novels, including Lagan Love, The Life & Times Trilogy, and The Last Weekend of the Summer, all published by The Story Plant.

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