Behind the Pen: Meet Book of the Year Award Winner Devin Murphy

Interview by Meryl D'Sa

Winner of the Award for Traditional Fiction

Devin Murphy, the 9th Annual CWA Book of the Year winner for Traditional Fiction, shares his experience and journey writing the award-winning book, Tiny Americans. He discusses how structuring a novel can really impact the way the story is received.

Q: Describe your writing space. Do you have any favorite writing spots?
A: My wife had a desk built into our bedroom wall for me to work at. I love it. We have three small children, so writing at home can be hard. That means, I’m always looking for places to write. I love my local libraries. Big tables, lots of books, and internet access. In a pinch, I’ll use a coffee house, train station, or even the horse track. Time to write is more of a focus than place. 

Q: What literary workshops or opportunities have made you a stronger writer?
A: I’ve had the good fortune to go to graduate school for writing, which changed my life. Now, my day to day life of raising kids takes center stage but it is energizing to sneak out and connect with the writing community. Over the last few years, I’ve taken classes with CWA and Story Studio Chicago from world class writers. Those make me a stronger writer by getting me excited to keep going. They are amazing local resources.  

Q: What accomplishment in your writing life has had the most impact on you as a writer? What was the major lesson have you learned from it?
A: Publishing my first novel, The Boat Runner, has opened doors for me to keep writing, which is all I ever wanted as a writer. What I learned from it? That I have very little control over the business end of writing and how books do out in the world. What I can do is love what I’m doing and try to put out the best work possible. In a way, it is liberating. 

Q: As a writer, what inspires you daily to continue writing?
A: Stories get under my skin in pieces. Something I read or hear gnaws at me until I feel compelled to give it context on the page. Over the years, I’ve become better at honing in on the bits that are most likely to make a good story. Now I have so many of these story elements stacked up, it has switched from a need to look for inspiration to a matter of what seems to want my attention at the time. 

Q: Have your inspirations changed over the years, or are they the same?
A: Reading has been and still is my inspiration. I’ll come across an image that will burrow into my head, or a book that will emotionally floor me, and those raise the bar for what I want to accomplish so I feel challenged to create something as good, and then I’m off.  

Q: What is Tiny Americans about and why did you choose to write such a narrative focused on this family?
A: Tiny Americans follows a family from Western New York across the span of twenty-nine years, from 1978 to present-day, as family members scatter across the country and the world, each set in motion by a promise that a better life waits for them elsewhere. My goal was to show a gritty look at how families can overcome secrets, troubles, and inability to communicate and still find a way back to each other. I wanted to write a story of domestic redemption. 

Q: What did you learn about the writing process when you were working on this book?
A: Structure was a big challenge for this book. For a long time I felt compelled to chronologically connect all the narratives. Then when I decided having gaps in-between each section would create a different type of tension, I had to rework the links between characters, events, and scenes. The experience has left me very keen on figuring out the structure of my next book before I get too far into it that I have to blow it up and start over. 

Bio: Devin Murphy is a national bestselling author of the novels The Boat Runner and Tiny Americans published by Harper Perennial. The Boat Runner is an Illinois Reads 2020 selection. His recent short stories appear or are forthcoming in The Chicago Tribune, Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, The Sun, and New Stories from the Midwest as well as many others. His nonfiction can also be found in Outside Magazine, LitHub, The Millions, and New Ohio Review. He is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Bradley University.
You can find Devin on his website or on Twitter @_devinmurphy.

Join Chicago Writers Association in celebrating the best of 2019 literature at the 9th Annual CWA Book of the Year Awards ceremony. Hosted by the Book Cellar in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood, enjoy book browsing, cocktails and fellowship, as well as readings from this year’s winners and a presentation of our Spirit Award. This event is free and open to the public.

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