It was 2009 and Paul Murray had just sent his book Skippy Dies off to his publisher. Far from elated, he turned to his girlfriend. “This is commercial suicide,” he said. “I’ve just wasted seven years.”
He was concerned about how the 672-page novel, set in a boys’ boarding school, would be received. But he need not have worried; the book was longlisted for the 2010 Booker prize and put 35-year-old Murray firmly on the literary fiction map.
The Dublin-born author went on to write critically acclaimed novel The Mark and the Void in 2015, and his latest work, The Bee Sting, has been shortlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize.
Murray is a master of tragicomic writing, and The Bee Sting is no exception; its light tone and wry observations are intertwined with serious subject matter and genuine pathos. The novel, which Murray wrote between 2017 and 2022, follows the Barneses, an affluent Irish family who own a car dealership that’s in trouble.
Each member of the family deals with the financial and emotional strain in their own way: mother Imelda begrudgingly sells her designer clothes on eBay and picks fights with her husband; father Dickie retreats into the woods to build a survivalist bunker; 17-year-old Cass discovers drinking and boys; and 12-year-old PJ makes some dubious friends.
It's a 650-page novel, but each character’s story feels so immediate and immersive, and the writing style is so beautiful and accessible, that reading it – as with all of Murray’s work – somehow doesn’t feel like a huge task.
Did Murray know he had created something good? Most authors are self-critical and “you will never, ever, ever know if what you’ve done is any good, until the day you die,” Murray says, paraphrasing the final stanza of Berryman by the American poet W. S. Merwin. But, he admits, he loved writing The Bee Sting, and felt it came together in a “really magical way”. He goes so far as to call it “pretty decent,” which, for a writer talking about his own work, is high praise indeed.
I’m talking to Murray over Zoom and it’s just after 10 a.m. He warns me that he’s only on his first coffee of the day so “hopefully my brain will crank into action in about 15 minutes or so,” but he’s being modest. Over the course of our conversation, he effortlessly quotes poets, author interviews he’s read, and even Chinese schools of philosophy.
I ask Murray what it was like to make the Booker shortlist. “It’s such a huge deal,” he says with refreshing honesty. He admits that waiting for the shortlist to be announced was “all-encompassing,” and he spent a lot of time imagining potential shortlists, trying to figure out if he’d make the cut.
Awards like the Booker Prize are important for bringing new readers to the book, but also for the validation. “You do want this recognition,” he says. “You’re working in the dark all the time for five or six years, on your own, and you don’t ever know whether it’s any good or not.”
But writing has always come naturally to Murray. He saw no difference between reading and writing as a child, and made his first books (out of folded paper) when he was just 4 years old. At the age of 26, he completed a creative writing MA at the University of East Anglia and, shortly after, published his first novel, An Evening of Long Goodbyes.
While writing brings him joy, he says it also allows him to shape or control events that are happening in his life. “I find myself writing about stuff that I find immediately troubling,” he says. In the case of The Bee Sting, that would be the role of denial – which is at the heart of the Barnes family's dysfunction – in perpetuating societal problems.
“Ireland has a long history of denial,” Murray says, citing the history of abuse within the Catholic Church – an open secret that was seldom discussed. The Bee Sting alludes to this with the town’s abandoned Magdalene Laundry that nobody ever speaks about.
“If you’re an Irish person, you’re very aware of people’s capacity to not see what’s right in front of them, to learn not to see,” Murray says. “But I think that’s the same mechanism that’s at work with climate change.”
Murray doesn’t think politics have a place in art – “it’s like the gunshot in the opera,” he says, paraphrasing the 19th-century French writer Stendhal. Climate change looms large in The Bee Sting, purely because it is “integral to the story,” he says.
But at the same time, Murray wanted his writing to reflect the society we live in. “If you’re writing about now, [climate change is] something that’s always in the mix. Any time something good happens, at the back of your mind, it’s like: But we’re all going to die,” he says.
“There’s this terrible sadness to living in the 21st Century that I’m not sure humans have had to deal with before,” he adds. “You feel like you’re strapped to this rollercoaster plunging into the abyss, just as you go about your daily business.”
I tell Murray that many of us deal with climate change by not thinking about it – a sentiment he understands. Sometimes art can function as “a little blanket to curl up in,” he says. But that’s not what he wants for his work. “I don’t want art just to be this escapist thing,” he says. “I don’t want my work to be something that people just entertain themselves with while we’re falling into the abyss."
Murray is not naïve enough to believe his book will inspire readers to become vegan or campaign their MPs about climate change. He does, however, hope it will help keep the issue at the forefront of people’s minds. “You’ll have a sense that it’s not something that we can avoid and walk away from,” he says. This is most clear in the book’s shocking ending – which has, to quote Murray, a “whole Greek tragedy vibe”.
That’s not to say that The Bee Sting is a depressing or arduous read. Murray writes in a rich yet accessible tone, following in the footsteps of Ali Smith, his creative writing tutor at UEA. This style of writing befits his characters’ voices, but Murray also acknowledges: “It’s 2023; it’s hard to get people to read books […] So I want the books to be inviting and to let people in.”
The Bee Sting glows with warmth, charm, and humour. Some of the most amusing moments in the book revolve around the lives and interactions of its teenage characters, like Cass and her fleeting relationship with high school boyfriend Rowan: “One time she asked him, joking but not really, if he cared about her at all, and he shot right back, as if he’d been waiting for the question, I only care about dead rappers.”
These parts of the novel feel true to life, and raise the question: how did Murray, a 48-year-old man, get in the headspace of a 17-year-old girl? “I don’t know that we’re all so different,” he says.
Relating to people who are different to you is part of the magic of reading, he adds. “The point of books is to take you out of your little one-man submarine and invite you to feel empathy and to feel [like] we’re not so different. Everyone is coming from the same point of vulnerability and need and experiences the same sense of loneliness and a desire to be part of something bigger.”
Murray finds there is a distinction between writing (doing the work) and being a writer (being the public face of your work). To be able to do the former, there are “so many things you have to shut out” about the latter.
That’s why he doesn’t read reviews of his books. “I want to be able to keep writing,” he explains. “Everything I do is directed to me being able to keep writing, and if I’ve got voices in my head saying, ‘You’re a lesser writer than X and Y,’ or ‘What we really want is more of this kind of book,’ or ‘You’re forgotten; no one cares about your books, look at the prize list you’re not on,’ none of those things are going to help me – and none of those things matter to the books.”
Instead, he tries to just focus on the page in front of him. “I take the writing very, very seriously,” he says. “And one aspect of that seriousness is I’m not going to let these stupid, shitty, ephemeral feelings of resentment get into the space when I’m sitting at my desk, trying to do something.”
While he might not read the reviews, Murray does seem to have more confidence in his craft now, compared to when Skippy Dies was published. He felt satisfied when he finished writing The Bee Sting. “If everybody had come out and said, ‘This is a terrible book,’ I would have had to think, ‘Well, we have different opinions.’”