Interview with Michael Murphey
Reviewed by William Phenn for Reader Views (8/13)
Article first published as Interview with Michael Murphey: Author of ‘About Time’ on Blogcritics.
Michael Murphey grew up in Eastern New Mexico, and spent nearly thirty years as a newspaper journalist in the Southwest and Pacific Northwest. Following his retirement from journalism in 1998, Murphey began his second career in baseball, where he is one of three partners in a company called Dave Henderson Baseball Adventures, which produces the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners fantasy camps as well as other adult amateur baseball events throughout the country. His life as an old man baseball player has also afforded him time in recent years to resume writing. He divides his time among Spokane, Washington, Phoenix, Arizona, and Fort Myers, Florida.
Tyler: Welcome, Michael. I’m excited to talk to you today about your new novel because time travel has always interested me, but I never thought about the financial and political implications of how it is possible. To begin, will you just tell us about the basic premise of the book?
Michael: “About Time” is the story of a massive collaborative effort of governments and corporations to make time travel possible. Particularly considering the technological advances wrought by quantum mechanics, physicists are beginning to concede that time travel might be possible. But the technology is far beyond us. So the only way to approach it would be with a commitment on the scale of the Manhattan Project. And of course you need that project to be secret. Governments and international corporations, though, have little interest in conducting pure scientific research. If they are going to put up the money, they want a payoff. And where time travel is concerned, that payoff is the manipulation of the past for either profit or military application. The problem is, as predicted by the principles of quantum mechanics, the first time travelers find themselves not in the past of our world, but the pasts of parallel universes. The implications for ongoing funding of the program are huge because if your time travelers are going to another universe, they can’t manipulate the past of our world at all. So initially, our time travelers and three key scientists in the program decide to keep secret the fact of parallel universes. Then when they must reveal the truth, the task is to convince those putting up the money that they can find a way to change the past of our world. While all of this is going on, some of our time travelers and some of the scientists begin to question the ethics of manipulating the pasts of other universes for corporate profit.
Tyler: What first gave you the idea to write about time travel with this particular slant?
Michael: The fictional allure of time travel, I think, is because everyone loves the idea of a second chance, a chance to change things—whether they are significant historical events or pivotal moments in our own lives. I am by no means any kind of expert on physics or quantum mechanics, but I find the very real implications of what those sciences are revealing to us to be fascinating. Once I learned that quantum mechanics predicts parallel universes in multiple dimensions, and implied that physical laws would require time travelers to go to these other universes rather than their own, I knew there was a story there, the crux of that story being that for all the reasons we are so fascinated, time travel is useless. As I worked on that concept, a conflict between pure scientific interests and corporate and political interests would be inevitable if a program like this were ever undertaken. So that became a key plot element. Finally, with all this corporate and political intrigue going on, you have to factor in the human equation. And that involved a group of young people in their libidinous prime, isolated together in a dangerous undertaking. You have to let human nature take over. Some of them are good. Some of them are bad. All of them are horny. And some of them have a deep sense of right and wrong that forces them to make some very difficult choices.
Tyler: Will you tell us about the three main characters, known as the Travelers in the book, and what their role and purpose is when they set out on their mission?
Michael: Our three main characters are Marshall Grissom, Sheila Wilkerson and Marta Hamilton. As I point out in the book, putting together this vast multi-billion dollar project was so complex and so many agreements had to be worked out among all the parties involved, by the time they got around to choosing who would actually do the time traveling, they were all just too tired to argue about it. So every government, agency and corporation got to choose someone. Nobody expected the task of time travel to be much of an intellectual task, and nobody was sure the time travelers would survive. So the hundred or so Travelers candidates assigned to 5 years of isolation in the program were “not so much the best and the brightest as they were the irritating and the inconvenient.” Marshall, Sheila and Marta were the cream of this otherwise fairly undistinguished crop.
Marshall is a tall rather homely and insecure man with one remarkable—and rather embarrassing—physical attribute. He is at his core, though, a very good man with a deep sense of responsibility and conscience. He worked for an advertising agency and got banished to the time program because he was a little too honest to suit his boss. Sheila is a stunningly beautiful woman, but beyond that, she exudes a sexual confidence and enthusiasm that leaves men, and a lot of women, helpless. She chose broadcast journalism as a career and was determined to be one of those rare television reporters who succeeds on the strength of competence rather than looks. She was sent to the time travel program by a corporate executive with whom she would not go to bed. Marta is a British spy. She is a small woman who grew up on the Caribbean island of Nevis and chose a military career as a means to education. Her aptitude for math and science led her to the field of industrial espionage, and the British government was not at all pleased when they learned their appointment as a Travelers candidate would actually end up traveling back in time.
Marshall and Sheila joined the program because they weren’t sure they had any other career choice. And they were interested in the money. Marta joined because she was assigned to do so. But all three soon come to like and respect each other, and developed a loyalty to the program as well.
Tyler: I understand a major part of the story concerns not just going into the past but the possibility of altering the past. What are the ramifications for the characters and humanity, depending on whether or not the past can be altered?
Michael: Absent quantum mechanics, most of the great scientific thinkers of the past century used paradox as proof that time travel would be impossible. If you could go back in time, and kill your grandfather, the conclusion is inevitable. You would cease to exist. So you would not have been able to come back and kill him in the first place. That’s paradox. Quantum mechanics, though, suggests parallel universes as a destination for time travelers. In a parallel universe, you can kill all the relatives you want and go back to your own world unchanged. You’d do a real number, though, on the future of that other universe. And, led by Sheila, this is the ethical conundrum that everyone has to face. How can one world possibly justify changing the lives of their counterparts who live in that other universe?
Tyler: Michael, at first I was expecting the characters to go back in time and was curious what time periods you would depict, but I understand now that something completely different happens. Can you explain for us what goes wrong or what the characters discover without giving away too much of the storyline?
Michael: I created a whole set of physical laws for my version of time travel. When the Travelers go back to the pasts of other universes, the only place they can “land” is in the bodies of their physical counterparts in that past universe. They bring with them, though, all their thoughts and experiences of a future of which their past counterparts are completely unaware. So this past counterpart has two sets of thoughts and experiences occupying his or her mind—a very unsettling experience. This also means that if you are projected into the past to a point beyond your own birth, you have no past counterpart to occupy and, the consensus is, you would perish.
The physical realities of some of these parallel universes are also very different from our world. This is because the evolution of humans as we know them was dependent upon so many tiny random acts of nature. Change one little thing eons ago and the physical nature of the intelligent beings occupying that world might be very different. Their histories and their events are the same, though, because these are parallel worlds. For instance, in one case, Marshall finds himself occupying the body of a humanoid-like reptile in a world made up of reptiles and amphibians. In an effort to get beyond the inevitable “speciesial” prejudices, they refer to themselves as Reptilian-Americans and Amphibious-Americans. Words like lizard or toad are the equivalent of racial slurs. Marshall, believing very strongly in the right of anyone to define their own dignity, spends the rest of his life cringing when he hears any one refer to anything as a lizard.
Tyler: The corporate greed and other issues in the novel make “About Time” sound very serious, but I understand there’s also some bawdiness, sexual tension, and humor. Why did you feel humor and these other elements were important to the story?
Michael: I admire writers who are genuinely funny more than anyone else. I think funny is the hardest thing of all. I frequently read excerpts from book reviews that use the word “hilarious” over and over. Then I read the book and find a few clever spots and few chuckles. But I find very little that’s hilarious.
If you are going to get someone to wade through 380 pages centered on themes relating to physics and quantum mechanics, you’d damn well better have something to aid the journey. Humor does that. And when you get right down to it, what’s funnier than sex?
The seed of that part of “About Time” came with the opening scene of “The Terminator” all those years ago when you have the nude future governor of California flash into our world from the future. It seems that many writers’ versions of time travelers involve some degree of nudity. So a compelling case needs to be made for why time travelers are naked. In my world, the reason is that you can’t send anything inorganic through time. So we have a self-conscious and insecure man with a very large penis who has to get onto a well-lighted platform between two very attractive and equally naked women.
I just thought there was a lot of potential there for humor.
Tyler: That sounds hilarious to me, Michael. Would you be willing to share a short funny passage from the book with us here—just a paragraph or two maybe?
Michael: Just a couple of paragraphs is difficult because the humor relies on context, but here’s something that’s a little longer. To help with the context, Frank Altman is an inept Traveler who has been sent back in time to try and avert a disaster in which an entire universe is destroyed by a time traveling accident. He is sent because he is having an affair with a receptionist name Betty who is the guardian of the entrance to the time projection laboratory and his job is to charm her into breaking the rules and letting him in. Naomi Hu is one of the three chief scientists on the project. Growing up in China, everyone made fun of her because she had a Western first name. When she moved to England to complete her education, everyone made fun of her because she was Dr. Hu. So when she went to the United States to join the time travel project, she insisted on just being called Naomi.
Frank took one last long drag on his cigarette and marched into the reception area outside the lab. And sitting in the receptionist’s chair was—not Betty. Instead, a thin, blond woman with glasses and a carefully cultivated air of officiousness was in her place.
“Where’s Betty?” Frank asked.
“She had a doctor’s appointment,” the blond said.
“Uh…is she OK?”
“I don’t know. I’m a temp from the administrative secretarial pool. May I help you?”
“Yeah. I’m Frank Altman. I’m one of the Travelers, and I need to get into the lab.”
“Well, if you are one of the Travelers, you know the rules, don’t you?”
“Of course I—”
“And the rules are that once mission checklist has started, no one goes in or out. That’s what they told me.”
“Yes, but this is an emergency.”
“They didn’t say anything about emergencies. They said no one.”
“This is a life-and-death emergency.”
“Nothing in the set of rules I read made any distinction about life and death.”
“Life and death on a scale you can’t even begin to imagine,” Frank growled with bared teeth. “They are on the verge of a disaster in there, and I’ve been sent to warn them!”
She looked at him over her glasses.
“You’re the guy who was outside smoking.”
“Yes, I am.”
“So on your way to rescue us all from imminent disaster, you took the time to stop and befoul the air all the rest of us have to breathe.”
“Listen, I really don’t have time for this. I don’t have time to explain…wait. Wait, just go to the intercom and ask for Naomi. Tell Naomi that Frank Altman is outside and has a vital message from the I Love Lucy universe.”
The blond studied Frank for a couple of moments more.
“Please!” he pleaded.
“I’m to ask for Naomi?” she asked.
“Go get Naomi!”
“Yes. Naomi Hu!”
“That’s what I asked you,” she said. “If I am to find this Naomi person, I must know her last name.”
She looked at him a moment and said, “You’re a nut. Go away or I’ll call security.”
And with that, a whole universe—home to planets and entire civilizations and dolphins and kittens and spiders—melted into oblivion.
Tyler: That is hilarious, Michael. You mentioned earlier that you had to create certain rules for time travel and what would happen. Would you tell us a little bit about your writing process, such as how you created the fictional world or worlds of the novel and what kinds of rules you created or how you kept track of everything in the writing process?
Michael: For many years, I found excuses not to write. One of the big ones was that I didn’t have an outline, or a map, to tell me where a book-length story was going. I had been stewing over the concept of this story for 20 years, probably, but I was stuck on that idea of having to know where I was going. When, a couple of summers ago, I found myself with a few idle hours every day, I decided to try again. And I imposed a simple rule. Every day, I would sit down and not get up until I had written 500 words of this book. Whether the words were good or not didn’t matter. Where they fit in some larger context didn’t matter. I just had to write the words.
At that point, the story began to take its own direction. It would take off down one path or another, and I’d have to come up with reasons why something had to happen, or why another thing couldn’t happen. And gradually, the physics of time travel in this world emerged. And once established, I had to find ways to follow the rules.
The characters were the same way. At first all my characters were vague and indistinct people with a lot of interchangeable parts. But gradually, they emerged as individuals who had their own values and personalities and who had to be true to themselves in whatever predicaments I placed them.
I know it sounds trite, but I came to look forward each day to sitting down at a keyboard and finding out what these people were going to do next.
Keeping track of everything is very difficult, and I had to do a lot of adjustment in the editing process as I discovered people doing things that violated parameters I’d already established.
In that sense, I have found it very interesting that the sequel I am writing now is much more difficult than the first book. I am much more restricted in the way I deal with the rules of time travel and the people, because who and what they are is now pretty much set in stone. So to head off in some new directions, I had to come up with some new and very quirky characters. In this sense, the second book gives me a little more freedom. In “About Time” I had to make everyone pretty believable. Now that I have a believable context established, though, some of the new characters can be a little more (or a lot more) eccentric and fun.
Tyler: Who would you say is your target audience for the book and what kinds of responses have you received from readers so far?
Michael: My target audience, to be very honest, is anyone who will buy the book. And again to be very honest, there haven’t been very many of those. I’m finding that marketing the book is a much greater challenge than writing it. But the people who have read it have enjoyed it. Several independent reviewers have had very kind things to say and been generous in their recommendations to other readers. No one has told me they weren’t able to get through it. Everyone has said they laughed a lot. The reviewers, by the way, quickly rule out “young adults” as a target audience.
Tyler: I noticed in your promotional materials some comparisons to other science fiction writers. What would you say have been the major influences upon your writing?
Michael: My comparisons weren’t to other science fiction writers because I’m not really sure this is science fiction. Without exception, all of the reviews have said “About Time” doesn’t fit the traditional science fiction genre. They classify it as a “mash-up” of science-based adventure, romance, crime and whatever else might cross their minds.
And in good conscience I really can’t compare myself to the novelists I mentioned. They are people whose work I admire and would aspire to produce something similar. At the top of that list, of course, is Mark Twain, the funniest and most deeply philosophical American ever to put pen to paper. The two contemporary authors I listed are Christopher Moore and Carl Hiaasen, upon whom the adjective “hilarious” is not wasted.
Tyler: Michael, do you have plans to write any more novels, and if so, will you tell us about them?
Michael: I am almost 100,000 words into the sequel for “About Time.” I only told half the story, so there’s another one to come. And now over the past couple of years that I’ve finally developed the discipline to sit down and write 1,000 or 2,000 words a day, I’ve got a number of other concepts rattling around. I just have to find a way to give them long enough legs to turn into books.
Tyler: Thank you again for the opportunity to interview you today, Michael. Before we go, will you tell us about your website and what additional information we can find there about “About Time”?
Michael: The website is www.michaelmurpheyabouttime.com. You will find an excerpt, you will find links to buy the book from Amazon or The Kindle Store. And very soon you will find a blog that people tell me is necessary to really promote an independently published book, although I’m not at all sure I have that much to say off the top of my head that people would find interesting on any kind of a regular basis.
Tyler: Well, I think you’ve said plenty that was interesting today, Michael. Thank you again for the interview, and I wish you much success with “About Time” and its upcoming sequel.