Paul Murray: ‘Terrible things happen in Ireland, and we are so good as a people at masking ourselves’

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Author talks the dark world of his latest novel, spending time in Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse and why he always feels he has to dig himself out of a hole

In the Fitzwilliam hotel in Dublin, over flat whites and glasses of water with lime, the author Paul Murray is telling me a fairy story.

“So, the traveller falls asleep on the hillside,” he begins. “It’s a hillside he’s not supposed to be on, because it’s a fairy mound. And he hears music, and goes into the hill, and everybody’s dancing and having an amazing time. He knows it’s the fairies, and he knows the fairies are these strange, amoral creatures who will destroy you for fun. But they’re like, oh, come on in, we’ve been waiting for you, join your party. And he joins in. And he parties.”

We’ve been talking about Ireland, and its boom-and-bust cycles. We’ve also touched on the Iraq war, the dot-com crash, indie cinema... Like his novels, Murray’s conversations have an expansive tendency. A single thread can lead him outwards in a web of connections, metaphors, jokes, before he lands smoothly back on the point.

He invokes the infamous Brian Lenihan line, “we all partied”, before telling me what happened to the traveller.


“He wakes up and he’s destroyed. And how is he destroyed? He’s still alive and walking around. But it’s 100 years later, and he’s taken out of time. He’s removed from his family. He’s alone. And he’s devastated.”

If you stay in Ireland and you don’t leave, you can be my age [48] and have friends from school and that’s great. But there’s a flipside to that

—  Paul Murray

The idea of being swept up and spat out by falsehoods runs through much of Murray’s work. His Whitbread-shortlisted debut, An Evening of Long Goodbyes, told of a wealthy toff trying to live a gentlemanly life while the bank threatened to repossess his home. The Booker-longlisted Skippy Dies was set in a suburban boarding school and steeped in yearning and disillusion. And his Wodehouse Prize-winning The Mark and The Void satirised post-crash Dublin through the story of a French banker and a writer named Paul.

When it came to writing his latest novel, the fable about the traveller seemed to speak to the idea of community.

“I thought it was really, really, powerful in that in Ireland, what we have, is a really strong sense of community […] If you stay in Ireland and you don’t leave, you can be my age [48] and have friends from school and that’s great. But there’s a flipside to that, which is that if the community doesn’t like what you’re doing, you can be kicked out.”

The Bee Sting is set in an unnamed midlands town during the 2008 recession. The Barnes family, who rode a high during the Celtic Tiger with a thriving car dealership, are now trying to keep up appearances while the business goes under; and looked upon with suspicion by their neighbours. As we delve into the backstory of each character, it becomes clear they’ve staked their identities on fragile myths, and that those myths will have to unravel.

On the one hand, the book is a family saga and state-of-the-nation novel. There is adolescent angst and middle-age disenchantment. There are storylines about doomsday preppers and local GAA teams; themes of class, economic collapse, ecological catastrophe. (Murray’s maximalist style means the book comes in at an impressive 650-pages). But there is also an eerie fairy-tale quality to the novel. Ghosts of the past haunt the town. A clairvoyant older woman predicts what will come to pass. The vocabulary is laced with trolls, monsters, goblins, witches.

“Yeah, it’s a gothic,” agrees Murray. “I mean, terrible things happen in Ireland, and we are so good as a people at masking ourselves and disguising ourselves. […] So, I guess in the book, I wanted to write about people who were trying to be the good people that everyone approved of, while knowing or feeling, sensing, that they weren’t – something about them wasn’t quite right.”

The small-town setting was important, because “I wanted it to be a place where there’s a sense that the townsfolk are one entity. And they’re always watching. They’re always judging you. And if they turn against you, you kind of stop being a person.”

Being alienated from community – and, for that matter, stopping being a person – are ideas Murray describes in a different context in his recent essay Who is Still Inside the Metaverse? Searching for Friends in Mark Zuckerberg’s Deserted Fantasyland. While on a fellowship in Boston College, he was asked to write a fish-out-of-water style piece on the Metaverse (the virtual universe created by Mark Zuckerberg), for New York Magazine. He donned his VR headset and, from his office, visited virtual bars and comedy clubs and socialised with the avatars of people who were also wearing headsets in their own homes, across America. The resulting article is as unsettling as it is hilarious.

I’m really interested in tech. I think it’s mostly awful – apart from Google Maps. […] I’ve never used Facebook or Twitter or any of those things. They just give me the creeps

—  Paul Murray

“I’m really interested in tech. I think it’s mostly awful – apart from Google Maps. […] I’ve never used Facebook or Twitter or any of those things. They just give me the creeps. And from the get-go, this was like: what is this for?”

Murray has numerous funny anecdotes about his experience. “One thing I didn’t put in the piece was that people were drinking a lot, which I didn’t realise [at first],” he says. “Sometimes I’d hear people going: I’m drinkin’, who’s drinkin’? […] When I clocked it, I was like, oh, this is why I feel at such a distance from people.”

But of course, the feeling was more than sobriety. The overriding sense, both from the essay, and Murray’s in-person account, is that the Metaverse is an uncanny, lonely place.

“Technology’s mostly about getting us to be working all the time. And then the social element is mostly a sop you’re given, or a way to sell you stuff,” he says. “The Metaverse was Zuckerburg’s attempt to put the lid on that and just completely close it off. So: I now own friendship. As literal as that.”

But the Metaverse hasn’t caught on, most likely because it hasn’t accounted for the complexity of exchange that occurs when human beings are in close physical proximity. Murray describes the experience of being at a funeral – people standing in a room and being present together. “Being human, there’s all kinds of stuff attached to that, that your phone is not going to give you.”

The son of a drama professor father and stay-at-home mother (who had been a teacher before she got married), Murray grew up in the south Dublin suburb of Killiney. As a child, he read a lot, and saw writing as “a continuation of reading”.

“I used to write adventures of animals in space, that kind of thing. I did that from pretty early on. My son’s the same. Just as soon as he could write, he would start making adventures.”

He went to school in Blackrock College and dreamed of writing screenplays as a profession. This dream was realised when his screenplay was developed into the film Metal Heart (2018), directed by Hugh O’Connor. But novel writing is a more natural mode for Murray. “As soon as I finished, and I started writing a book, I was like oh my God, it’s just so free.”

His undergraduate alma mater, Trinity College Dublin, appears in The Bee Sting, as “this glittering world of difference”, and his own experience was likewise like stepping into another world.

[The agent] wrote this really f***ing tough letter […] Basically, we hate it. And then he closed saying: you’ve got real talent, show us your next book

—  Paul Murray

“It was this wonderful place full of brilliant people, all trying to find out who they were, and making a mess of it,” he says.

He studied English Llterature and philosophy, an endeavour he thinks is being eroded of late.

“The education that I was lucky enough to get, it’s under siege. Like, humanities at the moment – just being able to kind of look at things and go ‘hmmm, this seems like they’re not telling me the truth’ – people are losing the opportunity to get that.”

In his final year, a friend died tragically by suicide. “That was really tough. And so, we got very tight. Very close. And then when we left, I lived out in Killiney, and I just didn’t see anybody. […] I guess that’s the thing. At some point, the magic wings are going to stop working. Or the coach turns into a pumpkin…”

Or you take off your VR headset?

“Yeah, exactly. Because the charge only lasts for two hours. […] It’s goggles off, literally. You’re back with your folks. And I didn’t know what to do. I was really lonely.”

An application for a green card was unsuccessful, so he ticked off a boom-time rite of passage, and worked in a bank. “In Dublin, at that point, it was like, now it’s time to get a job in a bank. And that’s what I did.”

For a time, he taught English in Barcelona, and wrote a novel that an agent vehemently rejected. “He wrote this really f***ing tough letter […] Basically, we hate it. And then he closed saying: you’ve got real talent, show us your next book.”

It was while working in Waterstones in Dublin that his colleague – author John Boyne – suggested he apply to study Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. There, Murray was taught by the author Ali Smith, who would go on to show his work to her publisher. The rest is history.

“I wasn’t back that long, and I got an email from Hamish Hamilton saying: send us your chapters. So, it was serendipitous. It was very, very lucky.”

Do serendipitous moments, such that email, or being longlisted for the Booker Prize with Skippy Dies, for example, ever set him off kilter?

“With Skippy Dies, a lot of great things happened that might have knocked me off kilter if I was younger,” he says. “I found it hard to start a new book after Skippy, but it’s always hard to start a new book. […] If the book does really well, it’s hard because: how do you top that? If the book doesn’t do well, then it’s like oh sh**, I need to f***ing change direction. So, if you’ve got that cast of mind – which I do – of things are basically f***ed, [you think] what am I going to do to dig myself out of this hole? And all you can do is write.”

The Bee Sting is published by Hamish Hamilton on June 8th. Paul Murray will be in conversation with Mark O’Connell at the Festival of Writing & Ideas on June 17th

Niamh Donnelly

Niamh Donnelly, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and critic