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P A T   M U R P H Y :
Playing with Reality

(excerpted from Locus Magazine, July 1999)

Pat Murphy
    Photo by Beth Gwinn

Pat[rice Ann] Murphy was born March 9, 1955 in Spokane, Washington. She earned a B.A. in biology and general science from UC Santa Cruz in 1976; while there, she also participated in the Science Writing Program. Her science articles have appeared in magazines and newspapers since 1976. From 1978 to 1982, she was a senior research writer in the educational graphics department at Sea World. Since 1982, she has worked in various writing/editorial capacities at The Exploratorium interactive science museum in San Francisco, though she is currently on a one-year leave of absence so she can complete the three-novel project described below. This year on Valentine's Day, she married Officer Dave Wright, a San Francisco policeman.


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Her first published story was ''Nightbird at the Window'' in Chrysalis 5, 1979, and first novel The Shadow Hunter (1982). Next came fantasy The Falling Woman (1986), which won the Nebula for best novel. It was a big year for Murphy awards, since her novelette ''Rachel in Love'' won the Nebula, Sturgeon Memorial, Locus, and Davis Readers Awards. (It was published as a separate chapbook in 1992.) The City, Not Long After (1989) is SF; Nadya (1996) is dark fantasy. The 1990 collection Points of Departure won a Philip K. Dick Award, and her novelette ''Bones'' won a World Fantasy Award in 1991. She has also produced children's book Pigasus (1994), and various non-fiction works associated with The Exploratorium.

''Over dinner, my editor Beth Meacham asked me what I was working on. This was after I'd finished Nadya, and it had been out for a while. I told her I was working on shorter fiction, which was the truth, and she asked, 'Aren't you working on any novels?' So I told her about Max Merriwell and the three books. This is a project I've been thinking about for a long time, but it's sort of been a joke. Beth liked the idea and bought it! So now it's real.

''Max Merriwell is a pseudonym of mine, and Max is also, in some alternate world, a very prolific science fiction writer. He's been writing since he was 18. He's kind of a hardboiled, egg-shaped man in his 50s. A nerd. Each year he writes three novels: a science fiction novel under his own name, a fantasy novel under the pen name Mary Maxwell, and a mystery novel under the pen name Weldon Merrimax.

''The novel he wanted to write at that point is basically The Hobbit, retold as a space opera called There and Back Again. Bailey, the Bilbo Baggins character, lives in a hollowed-out asteroid, the dwarves are all clones, the Gandalf character is a lady pirate, and the elves are pataphysicians. They're traveling around the galaxy in search of a map of the wormholes. So that's the adventure Bailey goes on with the group of clones.

''The second book is the one another pseudonym, Mary Maxwell, wants to write. Mary Maxwell is a pseudonym I've had for a while, but up until now she's only written pornography, erotica. Now Mary wants to break out of the porn industry and become respectable, writing fantasy. The fantasy novel she's working on, Wild Angels, is the story of Tarzan of the Apes only it's a young girl who's adopted in Gold Rush California. It's your basic girl-of-action adventure novel which has stagecoach robberies, a temperance lecturer who runs away with a traveling circus, and much zany hijinks.

''There's a little bit of a glitch in there, because I've written as Mary Maxwell, and now Mary's a pseudonym of Max's. But one of the things that happens with me and stories of any kind and this is sort of the ultimate shaggy dog story is I will write versions of reality.

''The third novel is the novel I want to write, and it's about Max Merriwell. Each year as he's finishing all three novels he takes a long cruise, and in the novel I want to write, the novels he's working on are, of course, There and Back Again, Wild Angels, and an as yet unnamed mystery. While he's on the cruise ship, the events of the novels he's working on start to bleed through into the reality of the cruise ship.

''The thing that's really odd for Max is when his pseudonyms start showing up. So the third novel will have chunks of the first two in it, and it really deals with the nature of fiction and the nature of identity. What other personalities are part of yours? Frankly, writing that is going to be the hardest of the lot.

''I've finished There and Back Again, which unfortunately is going to be published as by Pat Murphy, on the cover. On the title page, it will be There and Back Again, by Max Merriwell by Pat Murphy. My initial concept was to have the first book show up as by Max Merriwell, the second as by Mary Maxwell, with no mention of me. And then the third would explain the joke of the first two. For marketing reasons, Beth Meacham said, 'You're just going to confuse all the booksellers, Pat, so stop it!' The third book will be Adventures in Time and Space With Max Merriwell, by Pat Murphy. The book jacket photo will have a picture of me sitting on the couch and Max Merriwell sitting on the couch beside me. I can make myself up as Max and then, with a little PhotoShop, put the two together.

''I like the idea of pseudonyms within pseudonyms. Writing the book by Max Merriwell has been a very liberating experience. It's not the book I would have written. I had a sign over my computer while I was working on it: 'This is not a Pat Murphy book. This is a Max Merriwell book.' And what's funny is that it's really true!

''Pat Murphy shows up as a character in all three books. The Pat Murphy in Wild Angels, for example, is a rather loud Irishman who drinks too much, and the Pat Murphy in There and Back Again is a bit of a mysterious figure. The Pat Murphy in all three books is a figure who knows more than the other characters, because that's the role of the author. You do know more, but you don't know everything, because you're still taken by surprise sometimes.

''I've been working at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, a museum of science, art, and human perception founded by Frank Oppenheimer, uncle of the atomic bomb Robert Oppenheimer's brother. It's an interactive museum where all the exhibits are ones you can play with. I started out there 16 years ago as the only writer on staff, taking over from Paul Preuss. Over the years, I've built up a little writing department. For a while, I was head of the editorial department.

''I started working with publishers, writing books for the Exploratorium. With John Cassidy and Paul Doherty, I did a very successful book with Klutz Press, Explorabook, which has sold over a million copies

''For Klutz Press, I did Explorabook and Bat Science. I did the text on two coffee table books of photos for Chronicle Books, By Nature's Design and The Color of Nature, there are two kids' activity books I co-wrote for Holt, The Science Explorer and The Science Explorer, Out and About, and I edited four books on the science of cooking, gardening, weather, and sports.

''Next year I'll have The Brain Explorer, a book of brain-teasers, games, and puzzles, and explanations of what you're doing cognitively while you're working on them, and how to get better at them. That was a collaboration with Ellen Klages, a science fiction writer. Then there will be Traces of Time, a book of photographs in which you can tell a lot about the past by looking at the present

''One of my friends says, 'You've got to watch out what you joke about, because you get yourself in trouble.' This set of three books started out as a joke I was telling to amuse myself. And the Tiptree Award started out as a joke that Karen Joy Fowler and I were telling each other, about 'Wouldn't it be fun to do an award that would upset a lot of people and get people thinking in new directions?' We were joking about what we would give out at the awards, a lucite cube in which there were all these things floating, like ironing boards and sewing machines and baby bottles.

''We founded the Tiptree Award back in 1991. After I made the Guest of Honor speech at Wiscon and announced the award, it sort of took on its own life. People came out of the woodwork to get involved. People talk about 'the Tiptree machine,' and it's like this organic machine. It has gotten me involved with fandom in a really different way. I used to come to conventions as a professional and pretty much hang out with the professionals, and interact with readers and fans mainly when they'd ask me for autographs. The Tiptree Award has brought me into a much deeper contact, and it's really been a wonderful thing.

''Gordon Van Gelder asked me to write an occasional science column for F&SF, and I ended up collaborating with an Exploratorium physicist that I work with a great deal, Paul Doherty. One of the ones I wrote was about memory. You tend to think of memory as being reliable, on the whole, but some of the things you remember you're just fabricating from the whole cloth. What startles me is the memories I have made up completely. Reality is what's in your head. The only way you're interpreting the world is the construct you've made in here. And that's an amazingly malleable, changeable, flexible construct.

''Past is fiction. Future is fiction. All we've got is right now, and we're actually making that up too! You think you're seeing the world out there, but you're seeing the pattern of light on the back of your retinas, and then you're interpreting that. Reality is a human construct, and you can make up your own. What the Tiptree Award, and this third book I'll be doing, are really about is encouraging people to construct a different reality.''

© 1999 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.