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Atlantic Unbound | April 2, 2003
Caught Between Places

A conversation with John Murray, a doctor-turned-writer whose characters are often searching to reconcile their new lives with the ones they've left behind.


A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies

A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies
by John Murray
288 pages, $24.95

ike many of the characters in his debut story collection, A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies, John Murray found that his medical training both taught him a great deal and did not necessarily prepare him for the complexity of the world. Born in Adelaide, Australia in 1963, Murray received his medical degree at the age of twenty-two. His interest, he realized, was in working in developing countries, and he moved to the United States to get a master's of public health from Johns Hopkins University; from there he went on to the Centers for Disease Control's Epidemic Intelligence Service. Throughout most of the nineties, Murray traveled to places like Ethiopia, Gaza, and Tajikistan. His initial focus was on investigating the outbreak of diseases such as cholera and dysentery; ultimately, he returned to Hopkins to focus on longer-term child health programs in Africa. Yet by 1999, Murray says, "I'd reached a point where I'd accumulated so much uncertainty about the purpose of what I was doing that I had to write fiction to figure it out."

That fall, Murray left behind his job as a medical epidemiologist, moved with his wife and infant daughter from Washington, D.C., to Iowa City, Iowa, and entered the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He spent the next two years writing the stories that would become his collection: long, elegant narratives that jump from continent to continent, exploring ideas about family, national identity, memory, loss, love, science, and medicine. Many characters are doctors or scientists, and many are immigrants; some are both. In beautiful language, with both frankness and compassion, Murray depicts their struggles to understand their lives and find meaning in a world that is often brutal and senseless. In one story a doctor treating a teenage boy in an ad hoc refugee camp in central Africa says of his patient,
He had flecks of straw in his hair, fine cuts across the bridge of his nose, and dilated pupils. A wad of green palm leaves was pressed to the front of his body to stanch the blood. He looked up at me with such hope that I found myself smiling unreasonably, but when I pressed around his wound, an enormous blood clot—a baseball-size mass—fell into my hands.
Yet in the midst of suffering and violence, there are always, in Murray's stories, small, redeeming moments of humor and beauty: a cow who has entered an abandoned missionary church to drink from the baptismal font; a dying Indian man who "wore sandals all year, even in winter, and had delicate pink toenails and soft brown toes the color of maple syrup"; a father's unexpected kiss that feels to his adult son "as inexplicable as a moth, a soft winged creature, striking his cheek on a dark night."

Murray often highlights the disparities between developing and developed countries, and the people who live in them. As the refugee camp doctor says after leaving the camp and making his way to Paris, "Real life seemed like a dream. Like something slightly improper." And yet, knowing that real life must somehow be lived, Murray's characters push forward, both burdened and comforted by their memories and obsessions.

Murray still lives in Iowa City, where he is at work on a novel; he continues to take occasional, short-term medical trips, usually to Africa. Murray and I were classmates in the Iowa Writers' Workshop. I spoke to him by phone on March 21.

—Curtis Sittenfeld

John Murray
John Murray   

What was it like to go from being a doctor to being a writer?

I was very conflicted. I didn't dislike what I was doing as a doctor. I liked it. I believed in it. And I'd actually spent some fifteen years of my life training for it and had just gotten to the point where I was a junior faculty member at Hopkins, so I was really at the beginning of what would have been a career. I wasn't leaving that career entirely, as it turned out, but I didn't know then whether I'd be able to continue and do part-time work. Moving was also hard for practical reasons. We'd just had a baby, we had a house which we had to sell, my wife Valerie had to decide to come.

At Hopkins, I was in an academic setting with people who aspired to make what I was doing their career as well. A lot of them thought I was absolutely crazy, because I was giving up things which they valued, including security. The interesting thing was that people who were my contemporaries told me I was crazy, but when I talked to people who were many years my senior, they were usually the ones who said that it was a good idea—that I should pursue my interests and my inclination and not feel like I had to stick at a career for the career's sake.

Given all the potential drawbacks, what made the switch worth it?

I really wanted to write. The bottom line is, I had a drive to do it. It was something in me that I didn't quite understand, and I still don't quite understand it. I think writing is fundamentally irrational. You sit alone in a room with your subconscious, and to some degree your conscious, with no external reinforcement for long periods of time and with absolutely no guarantee that you will ever earn an income from it. I think for a lot of writers it's not a rational decision. What I had to do was give myself over to that feeling that I just had to do it.

Ultimately, the transition was easier than I had imagined, because there are a lot of parallels between doing medicine full-time and writing full-time. The medical work I had been doing was very self-driven. I was going to developing countries where quite often there was nothing going on and I had to set things up from scratch. That might have included setting up the disease surveillance in a refugee setting or starting research projects—coming up with ideas then writing proposals to get funding.

Medicine is a good preparation for writing because both require a lot of discipline—sticking to a task and working every day without question. I was very used to compartmentalizing my life and just working.

Had the impulse to write existed for your whole life or had it been building in recent years?

It had existed all my life—I've written all my life one way or the other, and I've always probably had more of an artistic side than a scientific side. But I couldn't get to the point where I was able to follow my artistic side. I went into medical school really because I was pushed by my family.

All my family were sheep farmers, and my father was the first Murray to go to university. He did agricultural science as a degree because he thought he would get a bit more education than most of his family had but then go back on the land. What he found when he was taking a class in biochemistry was that he just loved it. He had this instinctive feel for biochemistry, of all things, which was completely unexpected and out of the blue. When he told his father that he'd decided he was going to do a Ph.D. in biochemistry and be a biochemist, his father didn't talk to him for a year.

Nevertheless, when it came to what I was going to do, my father wasn't as different from his family as you might have thought. He was a scientist, and he saw no value at all in the arts. He saw no value in writing.

So how had your early interest in writing developed?

I tried to imitate books that I read when I was six or seven. We grew up with all the British books—the Arthur Ransome books, Enid Blyton's "famous five" series, Agatha Christie, Rudyard Kipling. I'd get my father's ribbon typewriter out and write my own thing which bore uncanny resemblance to what I'd just read.

My father was a reader, and my grandfather had a lot of books, too, ironically, because he would never have imagined that writing was something you could do. When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time out on my grandparents' farm, which is this enormous 6,000-acre sheep station in the mid-north of south Australia. They've got a 150-year-old stone house which sits out there in the middle of absolutely nowhere. You can look out through the living-room window and you know there's nothing for 2,000 miles in that direction. We used to go there to help with the shearing, and we'd go up when they were doing the dipping and crutching. When you're a kid, you love doing things you don't normally do. We spent a lot of time driving cars well before we were allowed to drive legally, and rounding up sheep, and being in the middle of nowhere getting really dirty.

At night, we'd come back to this big old stone house, and it was just dead quiet. I remember getting really scared because it was like the evil anti-quiet—it's so quiet it feels as if it's sucking up sound. There was nothing to do at night because back then the television was very limited. We used to sit up in what they called the smoking room, a room with big old leather chairs and leather couches and these bookcases stacked to the ceiling with books. That's when I really started reading. I spent nights poring over these books. They had shelves of Boys' Own Annuals, which are compilations of boys' stories from weekly papers that used to come out in England. They had copies from the early 1900s or even from the end of the last century. They were ridiculous colonial adventure stories about boys with knee socks and lace shoes and school caps who would foil a German spy whom they'd find at their school, or they'd get to go on a trip to Africa with a distant uncle and fight tigers.

I still remember the feeling of those old leather-bound books with the gold fretwork, the very fine crisp pages and tiny print, and the black and white line drawings. I have fond memories of that, and I think it started me on a pathway to writing.

Yet you ended up entering medical school.

In a way, medical school was the only acceptable course for my family, given the grades that I got and the obvious inclination that I had to do something that was a little more academic. Medicine seemed to my family practical and sensible because they knew family doctors. They could see that it was something you could do, and it could have a value and give you a stable income and a status in society.

I started in medical school without really thinking about it. I was sixteen, which was a year or two younger than most students, but it was typical then to start straight out of high school, because it was the British tracked system. I was twenty-two when I graduated and, as you can imagine, I had no idea what I was doing. Certainly when I started I had no idea, and even when I finished I had no idea. When I think back, it's laughable how little I understood about the world. I'd basically been studying all my life and I had no perspective, no real understanding of why I was doing it.

How did you decide you wanted to work in other countries?

I loved the study of medicine, which I hadn't expected. The process of learning I liked, but it was the practice of it I didn't like. The study is fascinating—you learn so much about how things work. The practice is grueling, repetitive, stressful, and highly bureaucratic. Although I really liked people, I didn't enjoy the clinical side. I needed to do something I could believe in and see as useful. I didn't see working in these systems in hospitals, where there was so much paper work and you were rushed all the time and you didn't have time to spend with people properly, as being something that suited me.

In my training, we had worked with Australian Aborigines who were really a developing-country population in the middle of a highly developed country. It was a revelation to me that they were there at all, and I found they had what seemed to be real problems. They get infectious diseases that you don't see anymore in the West and eye problems and so on that really seemed like they were worth working on, and it felt as if these problems weren't being properly addressed. That opened my eyes to more developing-country type work, working with underprivileged populations. It was something I could get my hands on and something that was fascinating to me, partly because of seeing how people very different from me lived, seeing other cultures and other languages.

I had a professor who'd worked in the Ivory Coast. From him, I learned about the sort of work that was underway in developing countries, and I learned that it was a valid and reasonable option. Up to then, I'd not really understood that it was something you could do.

Has your work been consistent from country to country, or has it varied dramatically?

It's varied a lot. When I was with the CDC and there was an outbreak, we were doing outbreak investigations—deciding whether there really was an outbreak, investigating that outbreak to determine the likely source, and taking steps to stop the outbreak spreading and reduce the cases. The CDC is usually called to provide the technical assistance, not long-term on-the-ground assistance where they actually look after people and set up camps. After working for the CDC, I went back to Hopkins because I wanted to work in child health programs more broadly. I didn't want to do the acute short-and-sharp disaster or refugee or outbreak work, whereby you would do specific tasks and then go away and not come back. It was very draining and difficult to do all the time. I wanted to be involved with long-term program work. I began working on child health programs in developing countries, mainly Africa—Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Uganda.

How much advance notice would you have before departing for a particular country?

Certainly for the refugee problems that I was involved with, we had very short notice— we might have three days. We often didn't know much about the place and we'd be handed a sheaf which was a combination of materials from travel books and State Department briefings. We didn't know the culture or the language, and we had to learn it very quickly. The longest we were somewhere would have been three months.

Afterwards, when I looked back, I was grateful I didn't know anything about some of the places I was going. If I'd understood the nature of the civil wars and the security risks in some of the countries I worked in, I probably would have thought twice.

Did you ever feel afraid during the trips?

When you're in the midst of something, you often don't quite appreciate the level of risk, and when you're engaged in doing something actively, you get on with it. I found that appreciating your situation tends to happen later, though I've had a couple of occasions when I really felt scared at the time.

I went to Tajikistan during the civil war there and it was anarchy. Bands of men with Russian guns were running around the countryside stopping cars and stealing. We were working for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and we traveled in a UN car which had several big blue UN flags on it. When you're in a UN car, it's supposed to give you diplomatic immunity, like a little embassy. But we were stopped often by men with guns, and quite often they were completely drunk.

One day, I was coming back to the car after working in a village and I heard a lot of gunshots in the distance. As I got near the car, the guy who was driving me came running at me in a half-crouch, as fast as he could, and he literally tackled me to the ground with his arms around my legs, smack onto my back. We ended up lying flat on the ground, and he said to me, "Don't move." As I lay there, I could see the bullets hitting the ground all around us, pinging into the car, bringing up dirt. There was a sniper somewhere in the houses. Fortunately, he must have been far enough away that he couldn't get a good shot. These bullets were just raining down, and after a while, we inched over to a tree, flat on our faces, then got behind this tree and watched. I felt incredibly exhilarated while it was going on, in the sense that we had faced it and got away behind this tree. Then I felt very nervous—shaky-shaky-shaky nervous. Eventually, the shots stopped and it started to get dark, and we slowly went back to the car. The car had survived the shooting, full of gunshots, and in the end we just drove away.

By the way, it turned out that the cholera outbreak I'd come there to study was small and quickly controlled, and that's an absurdity you have to deal with in these situations. Sometimes the risk of death from being shot at is greater than the risk from the disease you're going to deal with.

What made you keep returning to places where that kind of situation could occur?

You can't control or predict those situations. I'd be more wary about civil-war type situations now than I was before because I've seen what can happen when there's no rule of law. But you don't ever imagine that something terrible is going to happen to you. When you're doing that sort of work, the challenge and excitement of dealing with the problem counts for a lot. But mainly, a big part of it is ignorance. If you don't understand what the risks are, then you don't worry about them.

Are you at all concerned about what your colleagues from the CDC or Hopkins will think of your book, given that much of it relates to their world?

I'm not worried. When I was writing it, one part of my brain was always asking, Is this true? Is this believable? Is it true and believable for someone who has been there or has some technical knowledge?

I don't think my colleagues have read the book yet, but if and when they do I think they're going to be looking for characters they recognize.

Will they find any?

They'll have no success. A lot of people have already asked me, "Who's in the book?" Or they've said, "I know who's going to be in the book." I think that's a natural instinct in all readers. They look for either the author or the author's experience. I don't mind that.

Because the book takes place in so many countries and contains such detailed information about things like the African Goliath beetle, I'm wondering how much research you did versus drawing on firsthand experience.

It was a combination. I was familiar with some of the settings, particularly the Africa ones. Maybe half of the stories came from some sort of experience, and half were from research. The research was either from books or magazine articles, sometimes from the Internet. Occasionally, you can get firsthand accounts on the Internet which are quite interesting—people reporting in a very raw way about where they've been, which is almost like hearing someone talk. That's like gold when you're writing.

As you wrote, were you thinking of the stories as a collection rather than focusing on them one by one?

Fairly early on, I decided I would try to have a medical or scientific theme just because I thought that would be interesting. I also knew I wanted to have an international theme. Otherwise I think everything evolved as I went. What I've discovered about writing is that you can't always control it, and things go in directions that you can't completely understand. Two of the stories are partly set in India, and then there are a couple Indian characters in the other stories. I didn't know that was going to happen.

In light of the high number of Indian characters, you must have some special affinity for India or Indians. Or do you have some secret Indian blood?

Not that I know of. Murray is a Scottish name and, as far as I know, they're all tight-fisted, red-haired, alcoholic Scots. Before my father, I don't think any Murray in history would have eaten anything remotely Indian.

Some of the common threads of these stories are immigrants and people who are professionally trained—doctors or scientists. Indians in a way are the archetypal professional immigrant, particularly in the States. I've met a lot of Indians through my work who fall into that category, particularly in Washington, D.C. And I've met Indians in every country where I've gone. In Africa I've had some of the best Indian food I've ever eaten. I see Indians as people who are caught between where they come from and where they are now, and this was one of the themes for the stories.

Because you're a white man and because of the culture we live in, do you feel any concern about people saying you're not accurately depicting the Indian experience?

I don't worry about it, because I wasn't trying to write about India per se. The stories are about characters who in some cases go to India, but primarily they're about the characters themselves. In terms of Indian characters in the U.S., I felt that I had a handle on some of the issues faced by Indians because I have some good friends who are Indian. A lot of people in the book also are medical characters or scientists, and I felt that I had a reasonable handle on how those people would see the world.

On another level, I felt that anything is possible, and I didn't feel that I had to adhere to some sort of view that would be perceived as politically correct. The Indians I know see the world in many, many different ways and there's no particular way that an Indian character, especially one that has spent a lot of time in the U.S. or grown up in the U.S., would see the world.

Why do you think you're so interested in the immigrant experience?

Partly because I am an immigrant. And I feel as if there are a lot of displaced people in the world—I feel almost as if the century we're living in is the century of displacement. You look at the world now and there's more mobility than ever before, particularly between developing countries and developed countries, including in Europe. A lot of people are immigrating to countries that had been their colonial masters in the past, which is causing all sorts of issues and problems. There are more refugees than ever before in the world. Living in the States, there are more foreign-born nationals than ever before.

A lot of people whom I see and meet are caught between places. They've come from somewhere else, they have a past, and they're trying to make a present. These were the sorts of issues I was trying to explore in these stories—people who have to reconcile their past with their present, who may want to go back to the past but can't. And also people who go to developing countries from developed countries to try and help. They have to reconcile their view of what they thought those places were like with the way they really are.

It seems like your characters are having various debates across stories, one of the debates being about how much of a difference one person can make, especially when working in a country that's not his or her own. What do you think about the individual's ability to make a difference?

When I started working in international health, I thought I understood everything. I thought that the technical knowledge that I had—for example, the ability to understand and control diseases—would make a difference. What I found is that a lot of my work came to nothing, for a variety of reasons—partly because the sort of places where I was working ended up being destroyed by war or political change, and war and political change make changing other aspects of life very difficult. Things fall apart for a lot of reasons that are hard to control—lack of motivation from people locally, cultural reasons, ethnic conflicts, war—and these reasons aren't always rational or logical.

I was writing to try and find what gave my characters a purpose and how they saw the world in the face of quite a lot of uncertainty. I think I was really trying to write to find a purpose for myself. Underneath, I'm an idealist because I'd like to believe that an individual can make a difference, but reality makes it murkier than that. You may make a difference but not be aware of it—you may make tiny incremental changes that ultimately lead to something you will never see or understand.

What is it about fiction, as opposed to essays or articles, that allows you to address these issues?

More fact-based articles don't quite convey the true essence of what's going on. It's a paradox, because we have more information available to us now than perhaps we ever have, but this barrage of information tends to numb you to the reality behind it. The more we see and know, the less we really understand what it means for people. If it's done reasonably well, fiction can convey better than anything else the emotional reality of a situation.

How much is your writing affected by the current conditions of the world—for example, by the fact that we're now at war?

I think it's indirect. Most of the information that most people get is highly processed from big networks, and I don't think it's real. That does motivate me to get to the heart of the matter a bit more. A lot of media uses very particular words to describe the war, clinical language which is removed from reality. "The liberation of Iraq" or "the disarmament," for example, is used to describe what is in fact the killing of people. "Collateral damage" is often used to describe the killing of innocent civilians. We see dramatic images of guns firing and bombs landing, and the more you see that, the more removed it is and the less you appreciate what it actually means when a bomb drops down onto a bunch of houses.

The truth that lies behind these images is the truth for each individual. What does it mean to a person to not be able to go outside if there are bombs dropping, or to have absolutely no certainty, or to be on the run, having left all your possessions and some members of your family, and to have to move into a refugee camp? More than that, what does it mean in the context of your entire life, in terms of your family and the people you've left behind and your past and the places you grew up and all the sounds and sensations you remember? There's a weight to all of this that you don't get from most of the images in the media, from the factoids and the soundbites. Part of the motivation to write fiction, to try and write about characters, is to get to that weight.

This is not to say that you should, but do you ever feel guilty for spending most of your time now writing rather than doing work that helps people in more obvious, practical ways?

I grapple with that issue all the time. All the time, I feel like I should be living in Africa and working on HIV/AIDS, which is possibly Africans' biggest health and social problem ever and will be for the next several years. I feel like I should be using the training I have.

But you can't escape your natural inclination. If you have a chance to do so you should follow the inclination that you feel is right for you and that you can do your best at. Ultimately, I hope if you follow your inclination, then you will contribute in some way. I don't think you should be miserable and feel that you're squandering your life doing something you believe in only intellectually. What I'm trying to find is a balance between sitting in my own room, writing symbols on pieces of paper, and making a difference in a broader sense.

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More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
Curtis Sittenfeld is the writer in residence at St. Albans School in Washington, D.C.

Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.