The Best of Three Worlds – An Interview with Tim Murphy
Tim Murphy is a Brooklyn-based novelist and journalist who grew up in North Andover. His new novel, “Correspondents,” (Grove Atlantic) is set among the Irish and Lebanese communities in the Merrimack Valley.
On July 10, in partnership with Andover Bookstore, he will be doing a special event at Shadi’s restaurant, a ticketed event that includes dinner, a signed copy of the novel and a reading and conversation with the author. Tickets are available here: https://www.hugobookstores.com/evening-tim-murphy-author-correspondents
Why did you decide to set a novel partly in the Merrimack Valley?
I grew up in the Merrimack Valley and even though I’ve lived in New York City the past 28 years I am still very attached to the area and go back a lot. My family on both my Irish paternal and Lebanese maternal side is from Lawrence, going back many decades in that area, and we lived in South Lawrence until I was eight. Then we moved to North Andover but Lawrence was still a big part of my upbringing as one of my grandmothers lived there until I was about 14 and we stayed connected to the Lebanese community there through my grandmother’s church, St. Anthony’s, as well as George’s Bakery right over the line in Methuen and of course the late, great Bishop’s restaurant. We had a lot of family events at Bishop’s and I was obsessed with that crazy modernist design. I would come home from school my mom would often have warm, fresh pita bread and zaatar or sesame manouche as well as olives, fresh tomatoes, salty cheese and spinach and meat pies waiting for us from George’s. And now my mother lives in Haverhill and brother in Wakefield so I drive up a lot and we are big fans of both Shadi’s in North Andover and Yalla! Grill in Methuen.
But on a deeper level, I was always fascinated with Lawrence’s history of attracting workers from so many countries around the world and of course the major strike there in 1912 and I knew it was probably a matter of time before I ended up writing a novel that was at least partly set there. The rest of the book is set in Beirut, Baghdad and Damascus, as well as a bit in D.C. and the San Diego area. I was also always fascinated by how the Arabic community there assimilated into the Irish/Yankee culture, grape leaves on the table one night and corned beef the next, so it was fun to write that part of the book where the Irish mother, Mary Jo, and the Lebanese father, George, fall in love and court and finesse their cultural differences. It was very nostalgic for me.
Why does this book hop around the world so much?
It’s for the purposes of the story, I guess, but I also wanted to make a broader point about how these layers and layers of immigrants have made America, and particularly the Merrimack Valley, so culturally rich and interesting, from the Irish to the southern/eastern Europeans and Mediterraneans to the newer waves from places like Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, central America and southeast Asia. It’s a privilege to grow up in a melting pot or a mosaic like that, whatever you want to call it.
Why do you call Lawrence “Lawton” in the book and Andover/North Andover Mendhem and West Mendhem?
That gives me the space to remember that I’m writing fiction and make those places just a bit more unreal or hyperreal than they really are, if that makes sense. It’s like they are parallel universes that look like the real places but where things happen a bit more dramatically or vividly, I guess.
What is it about the Merrimack Valley that still inspires you?
I’ve really become aware of the beauty of the Merrimack River in a way that I wasn’t when we were growing up, when it was seen as polluted and not really something to get close to. I didn’t even know that in North Andover you can actually get right up to the riverbank. I ran along the little river park in Haverhill recently and after just sat by the river and thought about how beautiful it was, probably the way it looked in Thoreau’s day when he sailed it for weeks with his brother. And I love where it spills out in the ocean in Newburyport. I actually love how the whole area is a mix of the coast, farmland and the city. It’s the best of three worlds and a very special part of Massachusetts and of my own past.
Photo at top of page: ©Chris Gabello