Talking with Ti
with Ti Mikkel
Q&A with Kevin Andrew Murphy
TI: Hello Kevin! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions. I like to start with everyone’s WILD CARDS origin story. You wrote the GURPS roleplaying game adaptation of ACES ABROAD for Steve Jackson Games which George read and liked. He then brought you and your characters Cameo, Herne, and Captain Flint into the Wild Cards consortium. What was it like getting that phone call? You were only 23 years old, right?
KEVIN: Only 23, yes. I was in LA, doing my first year of grad school at USC. Getting that phone call was amazing and flattering, but I’ll also admit that it had been something I was aiming for. I knew that as a young writer with my only professional fiction credits being some roleplaying game work, I didn’t have much of a chance of getting invited to anthologies, let alone something as stellar as Wild Cards, without getting George’s attention in a big way. But I was doing work for Steve Jackson Games at the time, so when I heard Steve was looking for someone to write the second Wild Cards game book, I pitched for that gig and got it, hoping my work would catch George’s eye.
George called between the first draft and the second and told me that while he’d planned to just flip through it for approval, he ended up getting engrossed. He invited me into the Wild Cards Consortium. Aside from accepting Cameo and Herne as my official characters (Captain Flint slipped in shortly thereafter), George helped me revise them before publication, tweaking Cameo’s ace name and Herne’s powers.
Since then, Curare, Cocamama, The Messenger in Black, and Primrose have also immigrated to the official Wild Cards canon.
TI: I’d like to get into a few questions about the craft itself. What are your top tips for aspiring writers?
KEVIN: My top tip is to do whatever works for you. You need butt-in-chair time to get the words out, but your process should be what it takes for that particular piece and it may and often will vary from piece to piece. I tend to write fairly close to final draft–or at least sometimes–doing a lot of headwork before having words come out all in a rush. I’ve had stories accepted almost as I set them on the page, or ones that I or my editor (or both) went through multiple drafts to get. But the process doesn’t matter, only the final result (though of course George prefers the stories that require less editing).
The other tip is to read heavily and widely. You have only to look at a particular style or literary device–even one you find strange, odd, antiquated, or plain crazy–to find years later that it’s the perfect tool for the job. I’ve written a novelette in verse, alternating ottava rima (which Chaucer famously called “too much work”) with “Gates of Damascus” style ghazal stanzas, and sold it too. Likewise a sestina in old Norse flowing meter….
TI: How about your writing schedule. Do you write seven days a week?
KEVIN: If I’ve got a heavy deadline or a bout of inspiration, I’ll write seven days a week with barely a pause for meals and showers, but otherwise it will be nothing mixed with mad bursts, fits, and starts. But since I have a sharp memory, I’m never really not writing. I’ve composed crowns of sonnets in my head while skiing or worked out plotting problems on a long drive.
Outside of WILD CARDS, you’ve written a couple of solo novels and loads of short fiction. How does the process writing alone vs. with a group compare? Do you favor one over the other?
KEVIN: I really love both, honestly. The energy of working with others, of creating something like Wild Cards, is addictive and wonderful in the best way. But creating something all on my own and then finally unveiling it is splendid too.
TI: How do you deal with writer’s block?
KEVIN: I don’t think of it as “writer’s block” so much as “writer’s ‘I don’t wanna’” and sometimes just “a case of life.” I deal with grief badly, which is to say, it’s crippling and nerve-wracking and completely shuts me down. When I lost my mother a few years ago, it was probably the worst year of my life. But taking the time I needed to grieve made it easier to write afterward, and I was able to write some other stories in record time.
TI: I’m so sorry for your loss. I can definitely relate to a bad case of ‘I don’t wanna’…I find that exercise is the only thing capable of snapping me out of it. Or walks around the block. You mentioned long drives as sources for inspiration as well. Do you listen to music when you write?
KEVIN: Sometimes. It depends on the story. I tend to like instrumentals, like movie scores, since lyrics can be distracting, but if there’s one track I’ve listened to and know all the words, I can tune them out and focus. I sometimes even have one song on infinite repeat that matches the mood of the story, scene, or character. Allison Moyet’s “Dorothy” for one character, “Der Erlkönig” by Goethe and Schubert for a different story. And I just about wore out Dead Can Dance’s “Into the Labyrinth” for one novel, using it as trance music so I could get into a state where I could touch-type chapters with my eyes closed, then proofread what I’d written in the morning.
TI: In DEUCES DOWN, you got the chance to write for Walton “Bud” Simon’s character Mr. Nobody. In the story, Jeremiah Strauss is hired by Peregrine to guard John Fortune at the Jokertown Boys Halloween concert. To do so he takes form of twelve-year-old Elizabeth Taylor from the movie National Velvet. Do you consider yourself an Elizabeth Taylor fan?
KEVIN: Quite a bit. I’ve watched some of her old films, particularlyCleopatra, which were great, and I got a good bit of inspiration from one of her last ones, Malice in Wonderland, a 1985 made-for-TV movie about the rivalry between Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. Taylor played Parsons and was alternately tragic and hilarious. Though of course it was Jane Alexander’s portrayal of Hedda Hopper that was most useful, since I’ve used Hopper for two Wild Cards stories thus far.
TI: Speaking of Hollywood stars, your Wild Card’s story “Cursum Perficio,” features Marilyn Monroe. You have the chance to either go on a date with Ms. Taylor or Ms. Monroe. Ready, set, pick one.
KEVIN: Taylor hands down. Monroe was talented and beautiful and a lot of fun, but Taylor was the same and was a lot more sane.
TI: Are there any specific challenges in writing another author’s character?
KEVIN: The biggest challenges, as I see them, are twofold: getting it right and picking a facet of the character that engages you and that you can run with. Mr. Nobody is one of my favorites because he’s a fanboy’s fanboy at heart, geeking out over all these old movies and bits of golden age Hollywood which everyone else not only has forgotten but never cared about to begin with. There’s a loneliness and a loveliness to that that I really admire and I’m grateful to Bud for letting me play with.
TI: I love MISSISSIPPI ROLL and your character Ravenstone (who we first meet in DEUCES DOWN). He practices magic, knows a number of conjuring tricks, and has a pet raven. Are you a fan of magic yourself? Do you know any tricks?
KEVIN: I’m a big fan of stage magic, but while I’ve studied it, I’m much more of a scholar of the art than an actual magician. But that said, I’ve helped those who are perfect tricks.
TI:Who inspired him?
KEVIN: My inspiration for Ravenstone came from reading up on Houdini and a number of other famous illusionists and escape artists, and realizing that Wild Cards might have a space for a Mandrake the Magician type character, especially since in a world with so many ace powers and joker deformities, who would know? It makes the perfect place for misdirection.
TI: You received the Darrell Award for your story recently, too, so congrats are in order!
KEVIN: Thank you! It was a big surprise and a great honor. I hadn’t even known about the award until George told me that I’d gotten the nomination but setting the final scene of “Find the Lady” in Memphis qualified me. It was great to visit Memphis too and see where my words had dovetailed with the literature of the region and helped expand it.
TI: Do you have a favorite author? What’s on your nightstand right now?
Patricia McKillip has always been a favorite. I just picked up an ebook of her The Forgotten Beast of Eld, which I mean to reread. I’m also a big fan of Teresa Edgerton, who’s also a friend of mine, and I just got Hobgoblin Night, the second book in her Mask & Dagger series, since I’m finishingGoblin Moon, the first book. I read both of those years ago, but she’s revised them for reissue, and I love the period. I also just got The Secret of the Realms, which is the extended novelization of Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. I expect that when I read it, I’ll find all the bits of the screenplay that were cut for time.
TI: You’re a graduate of University of California at Santa Cruz and have a master’s degree from University of Southern California. Have you always called California home? Tell us a little bit about your childhood.
KEVIN: I grew up in Silicon Valley, which was called the Santa Clara Valley back then—born in Mountain View, raised in Santa Clara till age 6, then moved to Almaden, the south end of San Jose, after that. My mom was from Frankfurt, Germany, and my dad was from Eddyville, Iowa, and I grew up being a dreamy bookish kid who always wanted to be a writer. I read the entire folklore and fairytale collection in my local library. I wasn’t one for team sports, but I did a lot of swimming and skiing, and even picked up windsurfing which I first got to try when my family went on a trip to Europe in 1976.
I continued that when I went to UC Santa Cruz and USC, then I moved back to San Jose where I’ve lived ever since—except the past few years where I’ve alternated my time between San Jose and Lovelock, Nevada, where my dad lives. We own a used book and antique shop there called Treasures.
TI: That’s amazing! Where do you get your antiques? Do you go out hunting, or do people come to you? What’s the coolest antique you’ve come across?
KEVIN: For antiques, I tend to check thrift stores, garage sales, and Ebay listings. Most people don’t have a sense of when things are from or what they’re used for, but I’ve always been a curious kid and if I didn’t know what something was, I made it my business to find out, which turns out to make for a good store of knowledge for antique hunting. For the coolest antique I’ve come across, it’s a toss up—one was this odd brass rod with a ring at one end and a hook at the other that my sister found diving off the coast of Haiti in the late 70s when she was a teen. It was over the mantel for years unidentified until I opened a National Geographic issue with a feature on pirates and I identified it as a cannon-priming wire.
The other is an old sealing wax seal I found on Ebay that came from a church in Bremen, Germany. It has a crowned skull and crossbones over a quartered shield with crossbones through crowns and a couple uncrown skulls, with a pair satyr-legged wildmen with axes wearing Swiss guard helmets, looking a lot like Herne without his antlers. My guess is that it was used for church death certificates and probably dates to the late 18th or early 19th century.
TI: So cool. You mentioned that you knew when you were a kid that writing was the job you wanted. That’s pretty rare. I alternated between wanting to be a paleontologist and Cinderella.
KEVIN: That’s a fun mix. I read a lot of fairytales as a kid, but the heroes and heroines mostly seemed lucky, which is a nice thing to be, but not something to count on, or polite, which I try for, but doesn’t always work. But yeah, I always wanted to be a writer. My mom was a teacher and my dad did real estate and business and I had some pushes towards those, or maybe becoming a lawyer or journalist, but it didn’t really stick. (I’m honestly rather grateful, given the current state of law and journalism….)
TI: What subject(s) did your mom teach?
KEVIN: My mom was a natural linguist and spoke fluent German, French, and Spanish while complaining that her Latin and Russian were rusty. She also spoke English without a trace of an accent, despite it being her second language. So she started as a German and French teacher, then was quickly pushed into Spanish because she could teach it, even though she wasn’t certified in it, and then was moved over to ESL because she understood how to teach non-native speakers how to speak English better than the English teachers. After she retired, she became a ski instructor and taught for over twenty-five years. Boreal Ridge, one of the resorts at Lake Tahoe, named a ski run after her: Murphy’s Way.
KEVIN: My language and skiing skills are nowhere near as good as hers.
TI: Okay so your mom was a superhero. No biggie.
KEVIN: Pretty much. She was also an excellent cook and gardener and all-around great person. I miss her so much. But with the languages, yeah—when I was writing for White Wolf, one of the things I pushed for was what I called the “My mother is not an Elder Vampire” rule, since earlier editions had a game rule that the max ranks in languages was five and to learn more languages than that fluently, you had to have superpowers. Steve Jackson had an amusing cartoon of that in Murphy’s Rules where all the translators at the UN are a bunch of ancient vampires.
TI: Did your parents encourage your writing?
KEVIN: They both helped me a lot with my writing. My mom bought me a typewriter and my dad paid for a crash typing course at the local business college in San Diego (they were divorced at that point) the summer before I started college. They also bought me books on writing as well as fiction books, which are crucial for anyone who wants to write.
TI: Aside from being a writer, you also design fonts. How did that come about?
KEVIN: As I mentioned, I grew up in Silicon Valley, so it was hard to not have some computer skills rub off. My first job was in college working as a computer consultant because I understood how VI and Nroff, the UNIX word processing programs, worked. So once the 90s rolled around, I found a font designing program, then played with my scanner and a couple historic fonts from old manuscripts I wanted for my web page, then figured out how to pull the plain fonts out of Holbein’s Dance of Death ornamented capitals and cleaned them up. A few years later, a Swedish history magazine wanted to license them, but since I’d lost my font program, I decided I should partner with David Nalle at the Scriptorium who does historic fonts to add my fonts to his catalog and sell them that way. They’re still available there as Witch Hunt and Death Dance.
TI: Tell me about your hobbies outside of writing.
KEVIN: Well, snowskiing, waterskiing, windsurfing, and swimming, at least for sports. I also brew mead, and have been doing so for years, and enjoy cooking. Roleplaying games, of course, but since I write those professionally, it’s to be expected. I also collect sealing wax seals and bestiaries.
TI: What would be your go-to meal to impress Elizabeth Taylor?
KEVIN: Hmm, international star, originally from Britain, raised in California? I wouldn’t be able to compete with the fanciest or most exotic fare, so I’d go for my old family and personal specialty of German pork schnitzel served with potatoes, clear gravy, asparagus, and lemon wedges. It’s a classic and I’ve been able to match the best I’ve had in Germany, and I don’t think that’s just my ego because Germans are famously blunt. For dessert I’d do Erdbeertorte, which is a fresh strawberry torte topped with clear jelly. I think Taylor would enjoy that.
TI: And now I’m hungry. Any interesting projects in the pipeline?
KEVIN: I’m writing a novel currently titled The Gilded Leaves. No publisher lined up yet, but I need to finish it before it makes the rounds. I just turned in a short story titled “The Golden Cup” for the Pantheon super hero game universe—an origin story for their hero Helios who’s on the cover—and that was accepted and will be coming out as part of the The Savage Signfor Savage Worlds. Plus I’ve got a couple more short stories in the works, but I don’t want to reveal anything more at this point.
TI: Thank you so much, Kevin! It’s been a pleasure, and we could keep going but I have to see a guy about a schnitzel.
KEVIN: Thanks for the interview! I’ll have to make you schnitzel next time I’m out to Santa Fe!