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Yannick Murphy Puts You in the Mind of a Serial Killer

Yannick Murphy's new novel, <i>This Is the Water</i>, begins with a <i>True Detective</i>-esque set up, but the power of the book comes less from the murder mystery than from the way she places us in the minds of her characters. I reached out to the...

I first discovered Yannick Murphy through her debut story collection, Stories in Another Language, published in 1987 by Knopf during its Gordon Lish era. While Lish has a reputation for being something of a heavy-handed editor, Murphy stands out from the other writers he worked with in the way that, for her, language is only the lip of the pool. She has a striking ability to provide structure and flow to her narratives through innovative ways, and is able to flesh out emotional weight in characters simply through their speaking styles, regardless of the dialog.

Murphy's new novel, This Is the Water, covers new ground, even for someone with a body of work as extensive as hers. The story follows a small-town mother with teenage daughters on a swim team. When a young woman is murdered, Murphy takes us through the town's reaction by weaving the narrative seamlessly from the mother's perspective—written in second person—through other characters, including the killer himself.

Unlike other True Detective-esque set ups, the power of This Is the Water rides less on the mystery of how things unfold and more in the mesmerizing way Murphy gives voice to the landscape, the people living on in fear. From the first page of the book we are led as if on a tour through psychological territory with the even hand of Hitchcock and the heart of Joy Williams. As with all great works, This Is the Water succeeds less because of what happens and more because of how it is told.

I reached out to Murphy over email to learn a little bit more about her book and writing process.

VICE: There's a very particular tone to this novel. In addition to the second person narration, you make use of listing in your exposition. For example, "This is the water, lapping the edge of the pool, coming up in small waves as children race through it." How did you originally begin this novel and how did you discover its particular voice?
Yannick Murphy: The second person is all for the benefit of Annie, the main character. Annie’s going through a difficult time—a wobbly marriage, grief over her brother’s death, and now a serial killer is in her midst. The only way she can deal with it is by stepping outside of herself.

The distance the second person provides gives Annie the strength to take action. It’s almost as if a director on a set is telling her, “OK, now this is you walking up to the man on the street.” She needs to feel that someone else is in charge, because otherwise she might not accomplish what she has to. The “you” form creates that for her.

I knew when I started this novel that water would be just as important as one of the characters, because the water—and the world of swimmers—is essential to the story. That’s why I started with “This is the water...” first. I wanted to alert the reader to this new way of being introduced to the story. It’s not a character at the forefront—it's an object. 

Since I wanted consistency, I continued with listing other elements in the book. “This is the water,” transferred to “This is you, Annie,” and “This is our serial killer,” in other places throughout the writing. I found that using “This is...” at the beginning of some of the sentences also had an added effect of keeping the reader sharp throughout the novel. It meant the reader was continually having to “see” what was being presented to them, instead of being told.

I agree that the "This is..." usage had a great orienting effect. It is interesting how well the balance between plot and exposition works, sometimes allowing long passages of description to carry the book without obvious action. How much do you think about plot as opposed to language when constructing a novel?
The reason there are long passages of description without action is because I was imagining how Annie would go about solving her dilemma. She’s the type of person who, when faced with problems, doesn’t constantly think about how she’s going to solve them. She might even avoid thinking about the problems by thinking about the trivial and mundane. She may be thinking about swimsuits, wet towels at the bottom of gym bags, and leaves on the roadside, but it’s important for her to think of those things in order to have the energy to deal with bigger problems.

By including those passages where there isn’t obvious action, we’re actually seeing Annie’s mind at work. She is retreating to the safety of her inconsequential thoughts. It’s the not constantly thinking about her problems that eventually gives her the reprieve to solve them. 

When writing, I’m thinking about plot and the language at the same time. Sometimes the language drives the plot, and sometimes it’s vice versa. People don’t realize how rhythmic and acoustical effects of language can give force to the writing. Even perturbations in the writing can create forward momentum. There are times when someone expects a phrase to be uttered in the usual way, but the writer plays with the phrase so it’s a little different, and that catches the reader’s attention.

There are a few lines from one of Amy Hempel’s stories that go, “I have a friend who worked one summer in a mortuary. He used to tell me stories. The one that really got to me was not the grisliest, but it’s the one that did.” The perturbation there, of using the word “did” at the very end of the sentence, made it stand out. At the same time, though, it’s natural-sounding speech, and it doesn’t alienate the reader. It makes the reader feel that the narrator is someone they could shoot the breeze with.

Any time a writer can move the plot forward while also using language to increase engagement with the reader, the writing becomes stronger. I try to juggle all of those things at once while I’m moving the plot forward. If I’m really lucky, then the language itself provides a pathway for the plot that I didn’t even anticipate. When that happens, you just have to sit back and be thankful to the writing gods.

How difficult was it for you, using that exploratory way of developing things, to switch between the mindsets of the different characters? Was writing from the mind of a man compelled to kill young women tough terrain? 
One of the ideas I had for the book was to somehow point to the question of whether or not everything we do is connected to something else. That's why the water is almost a character in the book, because it too has relevance to the final outcome—everyone who swims in it is somehow connected. We even get the sense that the doorknob on the bathroom door at the rest stop where a girl was murdered has a role in observing what took place.

The other characters also have equal relevance, and I hoped that see-sawing back and forth between their mindsets would enable the reader to see how important they were to Annie’s dilemma. It’s not just one thing that can sometimes determine an outcome, but many interconnected things. 

I didn’t like imagining the world from the killer’s POV, but a part of me enjoyed exploring the question of whether or not serial killers always want to be caught. It seems like so many experts believe that they do. I stay away from generalizations, and so having this killer be someone who adamantly had no intention of being caught was an interesting road to go down. It made him more interesting than I had originally thought he would be.

It was actually harder to write from Dinah’s POV—she’s another swim parent and nosey anti-hero who is always trying to get Annie in trouble. I had difficulty writing from her POV because I didn’t want to paint her as totally unlikable; she is as complex as anyone else. At times, she’s generous and supportive, and at other times she wants to tell Annie’s husband that she thinks Annie is having an affair. 

One thing that connects the characters is their reliance on memory, almost in a haunting way. Do you feel connected to your characters and their memories, their feelings and their senses?
I like imagining if I were one of my characters, what would I do? What would I see? How would I handle the situation? Unfortunately—or fortunately—I think all writers are bound by their own experiences and their own memories. Try as I might to completely imagine someone else’s life, whatever has happened in my own life will affect my descriptions of what they’re going through.

My senses are going to be at work when describing how the pool building feels when one of my characters enters it. My senses are going to be at work when I describe what it’s like for Annie to try on a swimsuit that belongs to her daughter. My senses are one of the strongest tools in my writer’s toolbox. I’m always trying to show the reader the world in a way they may never have seen it before.

In the case of This Is the Water, I wanted to give the reader an insider’s view of Annie: a woman connected to a competitive swim team going through emotional upheavals that heighten when a serial killer comes on the scene. I show what it’s like to be Annie, as well as what it’s like to be one of the swimmers. I show what it’s like to be some of the other parents of the team, the people who work at the facility, the serial killer, as well as some inanimate objects such as the water itself. I show what all of these people and objects are like through the use of description, memories, and sensory details.

My hope is that these different perspectives and descriptions all coalesce to form a story that lifts off the page, that has its own life, and that takes on its own kind of meaning and truth, apart from what I originally intended for it.  If it does that, then it is the best kind of novel, and one I myself would want to read.

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Buy This Is the Water from Harper Collins here.