Subscriber OnlyBooks

JF Murray: BookToker and author on needing ‘that fun dopamine hit on every page’

‘Michelle Obama fanatic’ discusses writing before sunrise, listening to Taylor Swift and growing up bilingually in Meath

It’s the day after the launch of JF Murray’s second novel, Hitched, and we’re in a city-centre hotel, discussing which of his fictional characters he most resembles. “I hope Siobhan is most like me, because she’s a divil, but I can be a divil as well,” he laughs.

Murray, who plans to release fantasy novels using his first name Joseph, while using his initials as his romance brand name, certainly shares his character’s most captivating traits. Confident, vivacious and quick-witted, he talks at a gallop and seems primed at any moment to deliver the kind of quippy one-liner that’s scattered throughout the novel. (“Trust me, girls, the only weight a woman needs to lose is the weight of other people’s opinions,” the bolshie Siobhan says at one point. “I’d rather die in heels than live in flats,” the bougie Chloe says at another.)

“I wanted it to feel very modern and contemporary,” says Murray. “I think that’s maybe the TikTok influence, where we want that fun dopamine hit on every page.”

The “TikTok influence” is an important one for 30-year-old Murray. Alongside his success as an author, he’s one of Ireland’s most popular BookTokers. His page – @j.f.murray – has 95,000 followers and counting, and his videos often collect millions of views. In many ways, his relationship with the platform goes hand in hand with his writing career. Both started during lockdown, when he was living at home with his parents, desperate to give people a laugh.


“I’d be thinking: I have a joke in my head, sure I’ll just put it on TikTok. It started to grow from there, and that gave me the confidence to say: if people like these jokes on TikTok, they might like them in a novel.”

At the time, Murray was at a relatively low ebb.

He’d studied film and drama in Trinity College Dublin and gone on to spend a year in Los Angeles, where he worked in digital content and soaked up the American “get-up-and-go mentality”.

“I said to myself, you know what, I think I could do with a year with some nice beaches and sunny skies, bit of vitamin D, and I absolutely loved it,” he says. “I just personally love LA. Some of the cliches are true in that people can be a little bit fake, but I kind of love that mentality [of] fake it till you make it.”

After his visa ran out, he came back to Ireland and worked for a travel company.

“I was in my late 20s, and felt like I was getting my life together, you know? Able to say, I’m an adult now.”

Then lockdown hit. The travel company went into liquidation, Murray lost his job, and his landlord wasn’t particularly understanding of his circumstances.

“There was a ban on evictions, but he still made it clear that I wasn’t allowed stay there. It was like a ‘soft eviction’.”

So, Murray ended up back in Gibbstown, the remote Gaeltacht in Co Meath where he had grown up.

It was in this childhood home that he had first honed his storytelling craft – he spent his teenage years writing music and screenplays, and directing short films. It was here, too, that he had developed a faculty for language – he attended a scoil Gaeltachta (slightly different from a Gaelscoil, he explains), and was raised bilingually.

“It’s funny because when you have to do something as a child, you almost don’t want to do it,” he says, when asked about his relationship with Irish. “I’d go to school and we’d be talking Irish, and if you spoke English you would get in trouble. I don’t know if that’s necessarily the right way to teach it. It makes you want to speak English because it’s kind of rebellious. But it’s very nice to see that Irish has come back into vogue. I think people are looking for new ways to learn – ways that are not the typical, Leaving Cert Irish.”

These days, it’s the expressiveness of the Irish language that appeals to him. “Neathair nimhe” is much more expressive than “snake”, he thinks; “go tobann” more sudden than “suddenly”.

He says his best-performing TikTok videos are often Irish-related. Alongside bookish posts, his page is replete with videos like “Peigín Leitir Mór Trap Remix” (funny, but also surprisingly mesmerising).

“It’s so funny because it seems so niche, but there is that element where people are reconnecting with it, which is really nice,” he says.

But back to tí Mamaí agus Dadaí, which wasn’t the worst place Murray could end up, but he nonetheless found himself staring at the four walls, thinking “oh god, what now?”

An idea for a novel had been brewing in his head for years.

“I said to myself: you know what, if I don’t write the book now, I probably never will. I had made enough banana bread. [I thought], let me just try this creative project. And I was very lucky, I have an amazing family and amazing parents and they were so encouraging.”

Fling, a romantic comedy about an unlikely match on a dating app for married people, took nine months and five drafts to write. Murray would work from midnight to about 4am, a practice he keeps up to this day – “I see the sunrise and then go to sleep. That’s just when the creative juices flow. I don’t really know why,” he says. Agent Marianne Gunn O’Connor fell in love with the manuscript and sold it to Pan Macmillan in a six-figure, two-book deal. For Murray this was life-changing – it meant he could turn writing into a full-time career – but Gunn O’Connor had further ambitions.

“She said she could very much see [Fling] on the screen. And that is something that is in the works,” he says, grinning excitedly.

Murray is “sworn to secrecy” on the details, but it was recently reported in the New York Times that Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground, has optioned Fling for the screen. Lupita Nyong’o looks set to produce and star in the Netflix adaptation.

Murray remains tight-lipped but appears to be bursting with excitement. He describes himself as a “Michelle Obama fanatic” and the idea that she might have read Fling is delightfully hard to compute.

“I can’t understand that […] I’m like, no. I think it’s a prank or something, like someone’s winding me up.”

Murray’s second novel, Hitched, feels equally ripe for screen adaptation. Described by the publisher as “Bridesmaids meets The Hangover” it’s audacious and comic, with a constant ping-pong of banter between four young Irish women on a Las Vegas hen-do. “Good friends toast each other but great friends roast each other,” goes their motto. Think: waking up with no eyebrows, an accidental tramp-stamp, and a possible arrest over a misinterpretation of the word “craic”.

Kate, a devoted planner, lives for “to-do lists, timetables, vision boards, calendars, itineraries, goal journals, sticky notes – the works”. She has her life and marriage to dental surgeon Norman all mapped out. That is, until she wakes up in Vegas married to Trevor Rush – the one that got away.

“My books always start with a ‘what if’ and the what if [for Hitched] was: what if you woke up in Vegas married to your ex? It almost sounds like a Taylor Swift song.”

Murray is a devoted Swift fan and even dedicates the book to “the Swifties”. He often listened to her song Wildest Dreams as he was writing. “It’s like: remember me, and I don’t want to be nothing in your life […] There is always the one that got away. And I kind of love that concept, because I think everyone has that person.”

Is the book’s romantic interest, Trevor Rush, based on a real person?

“He was based on someone, yes,” Murray smiles, “who was actually called Trevor Rush. Someone said to me: it sounds like a made-up name, and I’m like no. It’s someone from my J1. And I won’t say too much. I don’t want anyone coming looking for me!”

As research for Hitched, Murray went to Las Vegas and visited the locations where Kate and Trevor have a series of dates.

“For me to really create the atmosphere and capture the essence of Vegas and the vibes, I needed to just go and exist there,” he says. “And the feedback so far has been that people felt they were in Vegas and were really transported there.

“Now, it was an absolute rip-off,” he adds. “At one point, I ordered two vodka Diet Cokes. It was $101. But anyway, it had to be done, you know what I mean?” he says, with a glint of that divilment in his eyes.

Hitched by JF Murray is published by Macmillan