Fingers Murphy is the pen name of an international criminal defence attorney. He travels about 250,000 miles per year and lives out of a suitcase. He writes to keep his sanity.
Can you sum up Follow The Money in no more than 25 words?
A naïve law student at a powerful firm must win the unwinnable case. He can follow the money, or his heart, but not both.
What was your motivation for writing it?
It was a challenge to myself. For years I’d written terrible, navel-gazing, self-absorbed (and ultimately uninteresting) New Yorker knock-off stuff. Sentence for sentence, I could write just fine, but I didn’t know anything about how to tell a story. Yet, at the same time, I used to badmouth genre fiction, as though it were somehow beneath me. I think that’s probably a typical attitude for a very young and immature writer. I would read Grisham, Elmore Leonard, and others and come up with these elaborate reasons why what they were doing wasn’t worthwhile or wasn’t “Art” with a capital A. I had a bad, arrogant attitude all around.
And then I watched the documentary Hearts of Darkness, about the making of Apocalypse Now. It’s a fantastic film, almost as good as the movie it’s about. And in there, Francis Ford Coppola talks about his goal for Apocalypse Now, which is a movie I revered then and now as the pinnacle of serious cinema. Coppola says something along the lines of his goal being to give the audience a new thrill every minute, in every scene. To create this unprecedented spectacle on the screen so the audience wouldn’t be able to look away. Which is totally different from the kind of pompous “high art” attitude I had about writing at the time. Coppola was stating the obvious, which is that the first order of business for good film, good writing, good theatre, good art of any kind really, is to entertain and engage its audience. If you fail to do that, you’ve lost at the outset. Anything else you might be trying to do is irrelevant.
It sounds silly, but it was like a light went on for me. I had been fundamentally wrong about writing. I had it completely backwards. I had to learn the art of telling an engaging, sustained story. How to make a reader care enough to actually want to come along with me, and how to tell a story without getting in the way and ruining its momentum. That may be basic stuff they teach in any MFA program, but I was in the Marines at the time, and going to school to learn how to write just wasn’t going to happen.
So I went back to first principles and started reading Grisham, Leonard, Stephen King and others with a totally different framework. Now I was asking the right question, which is: How the hell did they do that? I realized that I had no right to say anything even remotely critical about someone like Grisham until I had proven that I could do what he does. Then, when I was in law school, I decided I wanted to write a legal thriller because it would take place in a world I was learning something about. And that’s what I did.
Do you have any other projects on the go?
There’s a second book in the Ollie series that takes place about three years after this book. In it, he has gone into practice with his mentor and they get hired to sue the LAPD over the accidental shooting of an Internet porn king. It’s much grittier than Follow the Money. The working title is The Flaming Motel. It will be released in August.
After that comes a pure crime novel that will be out in October. I wrote it a few years ago while my agent was making the rounds with my legal thrillers. I decided I was going to write something just for me. For my own entertainment. A book that was something I would really get a kick out of reading. My agent did not like the idea. She wanted me to stick with legal thrillers. Build a brand. But since we never landed a major deal, I guess I’m free to write whatever I want now. That one is called $200 and a Cadillac.
If you had to re-read a crime novel right now, what would you choose?
Ross MacDonald’s The Chill. That book absolutely blew me away when I read it. The ending hit me like a slap in the face. My dream in life is to someday write a book that hits people the way that one hit me. I hope everyone has a book like that in their life. The Chill may not even be MacDonald’s best book, but it’s the one that showed me how astounding a detective novel can be when it’s perfectly executed. If I didn’t have a copy on hand, I’d reach for Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers.
From an artistic rather than financial perspective, what book do you wish you had written?
Sophie’s Choice. It’s a work of total goddamned genius. 500 pages. One single event at its core. The novel shouldn’t work, but it does. It just should not be as engaging as it is – even if you already know the key event when you read it – but it still grabs you in your guts and shakes you.
What's the best collection of short stories you've read?
Where I’m Calling From. I don’t care if Raymond Carver has been read and analyzed to death. There’s good reason for it. Stories like “Cathedral” and “View Finder”? They’re both ridiculously absurd and universal at the same time. I’ll never be able to do that.
What are the biggest problems facing writers these days?
Finding an audience. Self-publishing has made it easy to make a book available. But it hasn’t made it any easier to get it read. Traditional publishers aren’t even that good at getting books read. They can get them into stores, but they can’t make people read them. Major authors get their books read. Every year there are a handful of breakout books that do really well. Everyone else just struggles to find an audience whether they’re with a traditional publisher or on their own.
Do you read outside of the crime genre?
At least half of what I read is outside the crime genre. I think that’s important. I read a steady diet of crime and thrillers, but I mix it up.
Follow The Money by Fingers Murphy