Paul Murray’s first novel, An Evening of Long Goodbyes, was shortlisted for the 2003 Whitbreat Award. His second novel, Skippy Dies, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Murray studied English at Trinity College Dublin and received his Master’s in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. Skippy Dies takes place inside and outside the walls of Seabrook College, an established Catholic boarding school in wealthy South Dublin. Daniel “Skippy” Juster, one of its fourteen-year-old students, does die, on page 5 of the prologue. Murray spends the rest of the 661 pages telling us what led up to and what follows Skippy’s death on the floor of Ed’s Doughnut Shop – revealing much about contemporary Irish society along the way.
SL: How did you come to write Skippy Dies?
Paul Murray: Well, I finished my first book and I had no idea what I was going to do next. I had a two book contract and I remember the publisher saying “have you any idea for your second book?” and I said “no,” which kind of alarmed them. But then it started off. It was initially a short story, actually, about a teacher, Howard, who gets the feeling that something is terribly wrong with this boy in his class, Skippy. But as soon as I started writing it I found that I really enjoyed the environment of the school. Ideas kept coming to me for characters and situations, and the writing kept going. That’s just the way it works sometimes. You never really know which stories you’re going to feel at home in or an affinity with until you actually start writing them. In this case, what started off as a short story then turned into this 1,000 page monster. Then there was a long period of trying to cut it back. It took seven years to finish. It was fun to write, that’s why it got so long.
SL: How did you enter the mental space of your teenage characters?
PM: I just tuned in. My inner fourteen-year-old is still quite vocal and present. I enjoy humor and comic writing and I found that with school-age characters you can almost have them saying anything you like. I found it quite easy – maybe scarily easy – to regress into my fourteen-year-old state. I’m still friends with a lot of the guys I was in school with and when we hang around together I find that that’s what happens: you find yourself slipping back into that way of speaking. It really wasn’t a huge stretch for me, I’m afraid to say.
SL: You mentioned that you enjoyed working with the environment of a school, which is something I found particularly interesting about Skippy Dies: schools are such specific places, with their own strange populations, rules and possibilities. What did setting your book in a school allow you to do?
PM: It allowed me to write about the world that I had come from, which is the world of South Dublin: one of the wealthiest parts of Dublin and Ireland. It is quite a conservative place – quite money oriented and status oriented – not an especially inspiring place to grow up. I thought that a school was a really interesting prism through which to look at that world. In a school you learn your maths and history, but you’re also inculcated with a set of ideas about how the world works and what it is to be a citizen of that world. So what better way to look at a society than to look at a school? In this case, one where you’re told that to be a significant and successful person is to tick various boxes: study hard, go to college, get a job in business, buy an SUV and a big house and have kids. That’s very much what they presented you with in my school, and in the school in the book.
Writing about teenagers was very liberating since, like I’ve said, they can be quite extreme: they can do and say things that adult characters might not. Also, I would argue, teenagers are the ones who experience the changes in a society most directly. What we adults experience as a change, they experience as a reality. In the 90s and 2000s, Ireland changed really drastically. The morality imposed by the church was overturned and was replaced by this new, very materialistic kind of thinking. Many people were at sea in this new kind of world, but for their kids these changes were presented as established, finished facts. It was the Celtic Tiger, and the kids of this generation were known as the “tiger cubs.” They were the first generation, basically, in Irish history that had never known widespread poverty. Obviously there were many parts of the culture that were still completely marginalized and left out of the discourse, but a lot of kids were very indulged and grew up thinking that they would automatically get jobs and that they would never have to emigrate. All those things that had haunted Irish society for the last one hundred years didn’t exist for them. Then the way they thought the world worked turned out to be a total fiction and now they’re the ones who have to bear the brunt of that. I found school to be a really interesting way of looking at all the crazy changes.