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Paul Murray

Award-winning writer & fomer diplomat

The Wise Owl talks to Paul Murray an Irish writer and a former diplomat. His first biography, A Fantastic Journey: The Life and Literature of Lafcadio Hearn (1993) won the 1995 Koizumi Yakumo Literary Prize in Japan and was awarded the Lord Mayor of Dublin’s Prize in the same year. The biography was also published in the USA by the University of Michigan Press (1997) and in Japanese translation by Kobunsha (2000). In recent decades it has been kept in print by Routledge. His second major biography, From the Shadow of Dracula: A Life of Bram Stoker, was published by Jonathan Cape (London) in 2004 and in 2005. 

The Interview : Paul Murray

The Wise Owl talks to Paul Murray an Irish writer and a former diplomat. His first biography, A Fantastic Journey: The Life and Literature of Lafcadio Hearn (1993) won the 1995 Koizumi Yakumo Literary Prize in Japan and was awarded the Lord Mayor of Dublin’s Prize in the same year. The biography was also published in the USA by the University of Michigan Press (1997) and in Japanese translation by Kobunsha (2000). In recent decades it has been kept in print by Routledge. His second major biography, From the Shadow of Dracula: A Life of Bram Stoker, was published by Jonathan Cape (London) in 2004 and in paperback by Pimlico (London) in 2005. It was republished by FitzPress (Dublin) in 2016.


His most recent book, Lafcadio Hearn: Japanese Ghost Stories (2019), edited for Penguin Classics, followed two earlier Hearn horror selections, Nightmare-Touch (2010) and Kwaidan, Ghost Stories of Lafcadio Hearn (2015) to coincide with a Hearn exhibition at the Little Museum in Dublin. He is the author, under the pseudonym, Aidan McNamara, of A Simple Guide to Ireland: Customs and Etiquette, (1996), revised and expanded as The Simple Guide to Customs and Etiquette in Ireland (1996).


Mr Murray lectures widely and continues to publish on both Lafcadio Hearn and Bram Stoker as well as on the Gothic genre more generally. His appearances on radio and television include participation in a number of documentaries. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, he is married to the graphic designer, Elizabeth Fitz-Simon. They have two sons.


Thank you so much Paul for taking time out to speak to The Wise Owl. We are happy that you could make time for us.


I’m delighted to have been invited to contribute and thank you for your thought-provoking questions.


RS: You have received accolades for your two seminal biographies. Let us talk about the first one which won you literary awards, A Fantastic Journey: The Life and Literature of Lafcadio Hearn. Please tell us what inspired you to write about Lafcadio Hearn, a Victorian writer, unfairly neglected by his peers.


PM: Hearn was not just neglected: he was dismissed. Professor Sukehiro Hirakawa of Tokyo University, dean of Hearn scholars, said in 1978 that Hearn was so discredited among American Japanologists that, if a student were to quote him sympathetically, he would be regarded as unfit for serious scholarship. Professor Hirakara would later write the introduction to my Hearn biography.


1978 was also the year that I discovered Hearn. As a newly-arrived young Irish diplomat in Tokyo, I was browsing in a Tokyo bookshop on a rainy Saturday afternoon when I spotted a shelf with a set of Hearn’s twelve Japanese books, kept in print by Tuttle. I pulled out one at random, Out of the East, and began reading an essay, “Jiujutsu”. I was so impressed that I bought the complete set on the spot. Having read all its volumes, I became convinced that Hearn was an outstanding interpreter of Japan at a time when he was regarded as, at best, a minor Victorian colour writer. I became consumed with the need to present Hearn as a great analyst of the soul of Japan who had enduring wisdom to impart to both East and West.


I looked around for someone to write Hearn’s story from a fresh perspective until my wife told me that if I wanted it written I would have to do it myself. Which I did.


As Hearn’s first Anglophone biographer to have lived in Japan, his relationship with it was at the heart of my biography. I was fortunate that subsequent diplomatic postings in New York and London enabled me to live in other countries where Hearn had spent significant periods of his life.


A chance conversation with Paul Norbury, publisher of The Japan Library, at a book launch led to his publishing the Hearn book in 1993. He also arranged for it to be published in the United States and Japan. Paul became a close friend as well as my publisher. My then-Ambassador, Joe Small, gave the book a magnificent launch at the Irish Embassy, which was attended by a grandson and great-granddaughter of Hearn, who just happened to be in London at that time.


I was surprised and gratified by the reviews in the UK media, ranging from mass-market newspapers such as the Daily Mail to more cerebral journals such as the Financial Times, which reviewed it as a business book, of possible use to Western businessmen operating in Japan!


RS: Your second biography, on Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula, titled From the Shadow of Dracula: A Life of Bram Stoker was well-received. Please tell us a little about the genesis of your book.


PM: After the Hearn book was published, I was contacted by Frank Delaney, an Irish writer then based in London (as I was myself). Delaney liked the Hearn biography so much that he suggested I write one of Bram Stoker who, up to that point, had not been well served by biography. He also saw that Hearn, in addition to being a great interpreter of Japan, was, like Stoker, a superb horror writer.


Delaney arranged for me to be taken on by a London literary agency (Curtis Brown) and I was commissioned (1995) by Jonathan Cape (Random House) to write a Stoker biography.


A fortuitous meeting between a colleague at the Irish Embassy in London, Philip McDonagh, and Stoker’s great-grandson, Noel Dobbs, led to an introduction to Ann Stoker, Bram’s granddaughter, then keeper of the Stoker family papers, whose generosity in granting me unfettered access to them was absolutely crucial to writing the biography.


RS: Your biographies are about writers of the late 19th century/early 20th Century. These would have required a lot of research, especially as both Hearn and Stokes moved far afield from Dublin and research on them would entail access to libraries across the globe. Not an easy task I’m sure. How did you manage it?


PM: I was very lucky with my diplomatic postings while working on Hearn. In the early 1980s, I was posted to New York as part of the Irish delegation to the UN for a few months every year. I began researching Hearn primary material at the New York Public Library with the assistance of my wife. We were both engaged with the thrill of the chase, finding new, hitherto unused primary material in the NYPL and other New York institutions. The biggest compliment that I received when the book was published was from a London-based Irish academic who said that it read like a giant detective story. Biography is essentially a process of detection, which can be very exciting.


Whenever opportunity presented itself, we would race to the NYPL together where I would identify the material I wanted copied. She would go down the following day and laboriously copy it out in pencil on large yellow legal pads, which I still have. At the NYPL, I found addresses for all the collections of Hearn material in the United States and I followed up with them in writing. The American institutions were extraordinarily generous in providing me with copies of the Hearn primary material. This formed the backbone of the Hearn biography. Postings back to Dublin (1985-89) and London (1989-97) enabled me to research Irish and British material.


One of the arguments deployed by Frank Delaney in persuading me to take on the Stoker biography was that as Hearn and Stoker were close contemporaries (born in 1847 and 1850 respectively) who had both grown up in middle-class Dublin in the mid nineteenth century, I had already done some of the background research for Stoker in my Hearn work. He was right and I had become increasingly fascinated by an historical culture so close to us yet profoundly different in so many ways from modern perception. And, of course, both being great horror writers, they interfaced me with the Gothic tradition in literature, especially its Irish dimension.


I was fortunate that I was based in London for a further two years after I received the Stoker commission and could use the wonderful collections of primary source material, not just in London but elsewhere in England, including Leeds and Stratford-on-Avon (where the archives of the Lyceum Theatre, for which Bram worked, were held), Whitby, the port city at which Dracula landed in England and where Stoker discovered material on the historical Dracula, as well as further afield, in Scotland, where he took holidays and wrote much of his later work.


In the 1990s, most of Stoker’s output was out of print but I was able to source copies at the London Library, a private institution. In recent years, it has been revealed that Stoker researched Dracula at the London Library, not the Reading Room of the British Museum, as hitherto thought. I was therefore researching my Stoker biography in the same room where Bram has researched Dracula exactly a century previously! We may even have consulted some of the very same books on the shelves.


RS: You are a former diplomat, an assignment that would have required a lot of your time and dedication. How did you balance your job and your love for writing?


PM: Apart from my wife’s critical - and continuing - assistance I developed a habit of getting up at 6am to quarry an extra two hours out of the day. It began with helping my wife cope with a baby that seemingly did not need much sleep. I got used to getting up at dawn to relieve her and then found I had a habit of early rising that I could not break. This morphed into my writing time.


I became very focused on time management which I found benefitted my day job as a diplomat as well. Hearn once commented on how even small amounts of time devoted to literature on a daily basis add up; this even more true of two hours, which is quite a lot of concentrated work, at the best time of the day.

I have to admit though that completing the Stoker biography was quite challenging after I was appointed Irish Ambassador to the Republic of Korea in 1999, a stimulating but all-consuming posting.


I was very lucky in the assistance I received from others. Just when the Hearn biography was going to press, Roy Foster, Carroll Professor of Irish History at Oxford and a good friend (he wrote the Foreword to the Hearn book) and John Kelly, also an academic at Oxford, made me aware of newly-discovered correspondence between Hearn and the Irish poet, W.B. Yeats, which substantially altered our understanding of Hearn’s relationship with Ireland. I was able to insert this knowledge just as the book was going to press.


Similarly, Noel Dobbs, Stoker’s great-grandson, told me of the discovery of a journal that Bram had kept during his days in the Irish civil service, just as that biography was going to press. As I was then in Korea, I could not return to England to examine it but my good friend and fellow writer, Dr Ruth Dudley Edwards, volunteered to do so on my behalf. This was a major commitment on her part but it enabled me to incorporate knowledge of this vital primary source at the last minute.


RS: Both your books are biographies. What made you gravitate towards this genre?


PM: I wanted to tell Hearn’s story in the first instance and I evolved into a biographer as my work progressed.


In my youth I had ambitions to be a writer and English was my main focus at school. However, when it came time to go to university I did not want to get tangled up in academic approaches to writing, which would, I felt, kill my enjoyment of it and so I studied history instead. Also, I had higher marks in history in my final secondary school exam and so had a better chance of getting into the honours School of History than that of English at Trinity College Dublin (alma mater of Bram Stoker and successive generations of the Hearn family). Literary biography, which aims to illuminate a writer’s output through interfacing life and literature, is an amalgam of historical and literary disciplines. An undergraduate thesis on the social policy of the first government of independent Ireland (1922-32) that I completed at Trinity introduced me to the techniques of serious historical research.


Also, I edited a journal, Ireland today, for the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs from 1975 to 1978 and this gave me a taste for writing, editing and being published. I met my wife, who was responsible for the design of Ireland today, at that time and so these were years of both literary and personal growth.


RS: You are the author of critically acclaimed biographies. What advice would you give to upcoming biographers about honing their craft as biographers?


PM: Firstly, just research and write your text. Then revise, revise and revise. Don’t discuss it with anyone outside your intimate circle until you have completed a first draft at least.


Exhausting the primary material is key to originality and provides a good basis on which to evaluate the secondary sources.


You should respect other people’s advice but do not allow it to blow you off course. A worthwhile biography must be animated by an original vision and you may need considerable strength of character to articulate that. The forces of reaction and inertia are strong. Writers, like all artists, are individualists who cannot hunt in packs and be hemmed in by groupthink. Like diplomats, they are often sociable solitaries.


Do not seek to impose preconceived ideas on your text: you will find that the meanings grow out of the material and take you on a magical mystery tour that you had never envisaged starting out. Hearn once said, just move the pen and the ghosts will do the writing. They do.


Don’t be disappointed if subsequent commentators ignore your originality and continue perpetrating myths that you have exploded! Over time, your work will grow in authority.


Most of all, enjoy it! I like nothing better than sitting in a research library, exploring documents that may be many years or even centuries old, that may have been lying there unnoticed from the time they were written until you open them. Later, when your books are published, you will find yourself drawn into endless evolving worlds of scholarship and engagement with the public. It can be great fun.


RS: Of your biography on Lafcadio Hearn, it has been said that it moves ‘beyond fact to metaphor.’ That is a tough ask. How did you make your factual biography metaphorical?


PM: By reflecting the metaphorical nature of Hearn’s writing. He employs metaphor from his earliest writings in Cincinnati to his later output in Japan with the continuing purpose of undermining the Victorian West’s assumptions of cultural and political superiority.


His upper middle class upbringing in Dublin gave him the cultural confidence to be different. His parting company with Christianity during his school days in England (1863-67) and his espousal of classical Greece as a morally superior culture to that of contemporaneous urbanised and industrialised Western culture gave him a benchmark to deflate the assumptions of that culture. Later, in Meiji Japan, he came to believe that he had found a modern equivalent to ancient Greece.


In Cincinnati it was an internal metaphor, highlighting the horror that lay beneath American society’s respectable surface; his illumination of Japan was a mirror reflecting back to his Western readership the moral inadequacy of their own culture. He was fortunate that his largely American publishers and audience rewarded him for articulating such a vision.


RS: Are you working on a book, as we speak? Would you like to share particulars of your forthcoming title with our readers or is it too early in the day to ask such a question?


PM: I’m putting the finishing touches to a novel that is set in the various locations of my life - Dublin, London, New York, Tokyo and Seoul - and has a colonial/post-colonial theme.


I’ve been approached by a senior academic in Dublin with a suggestion that I might write another biography related to the Gothic: I’m mulling over that at the moment. I’m not yet sure that I have a third biography in me!


I continue to publish articles: one that I am calling “Dracula’s Transylvania: Real and Imagined” should appear towards the end of 2023 in an academic journal and I’m currently writing a chapter on Bram Stoker for a book on Irish Writers and State Bureaucracy which is scheduled for publication by a UK academic press in 2025.


RS: I am curious to know if the protagonists of your biographies influenced your personal life in any way. If so, how?


PM: In some respects they reflected my life more than influencing it. Like me, both of them worked at day jobs and wrote on the side. Both of them were travellers, as I was. Like me, Stoker too was employed in the Irish civil service, for about a third of his working life. All three of us grew up in Ireland.


But you must keep a distance from your subjects and avoid the cardinal sin (in my view) of biography, that of identifying with your subject. It is only by keeping your distance that you can preserve objectivity and properly illuminate your subject.


While I am eternally grateful to both the Hearn and Stoker families for the wonderful cooperation I have received from them, you must also follow the facts, even if these are not what the families might want. For example, I assured Ann Stoker, Bram’s granddaughter, that my biography would disprove the theory that he was suffering from syphilis when he died. I really believed that I could.


However, when I presented the evidence to a variety of medical experts, they were unanimous in their views that his doctor (GP) did believe that Stoker was afflicted by the disease at the time of his death. In my biography I presented the evidence and allowed the reader to make her or his own mind. This did not prevent me from being categorised as a proponent of the syphilis theory by some critics. While Ann Stoker was dead by the time my biography was published, I felt bad that I had been unable to fulfill my promise to her but my commitment to the truth came first.


Has your research thrown up anything of particular personal interest to you?


Yes. When I was researching the Stoker biography I found that Edward Dowden (1843-1913), a Professor at Trinity College Dublin and arguably the greatest single intellectual influence on the young Bram Stoker, lived in my house when he and Stoker were corresponding with Walt Whitman in the early 1870s. It was such a thrill to find my address coming up in the research process!


GIven Dowden’s position in Dublin society at that time, it means that most of the outstanding literary figures of the era would have visited this house, including, for example, the Wilde family. In my mind’s eye I see the tall, red-bearded figure of Bram Stoker standing with his back to the fireplace in the sitting room, pouring out his hopes and dreams for future literary projects to Dowden who was, incidentally, greatly respected as a critic by Lafcadio Hearn.


Isaac Yeats, uncle of W.B. Yeats, the poet, and Jack B. Yeats, the painter, also lived in our house around 1890, so we can assume that they would have been visitors also.


RS: If I was to ask you to define yourself as a writer in three adjectives, what would those be?


PM: Thorough, compassionate, original.


Thank you so much Paul for taking time out to speak to us. We wish you the very best in your creative and literary pursuits and hope you write more critically acclaimed biographies of writers who have been overlooked by their contemporaries and by history.


PM: Thank you for giving me this opportunity to explore myself as a writer. Up to now I just got on with writing without thinking too much about what I was doing. It’s been very rewarding for me. I should add that both Hearn and Stoker have been very good to time, transforming my life in a most positive way.

Books by Paul Murray

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