Wednesday Writer – John P. Murphy

I’ve known John Murphy through Codex for the past few years. He is engaging and has worked on some interesting projects.

Photo by Parul Dhagat

Photo by Parul Dhagat

    For somebody unfamiliar with the work of John P. Murphy, how would you describe your fiction and which story do you think is the best introduction to your work?

I write short speculative fiction with a strong mystery component and usually some humor.
My science fiction is influenced pretty heavily by my belief that most people today live in an environment that feels like magic to them. We don’t know how things work, we don’t know why they break, but by and large we cobble things together and we get by and even thrive. Science fiction without duct tape is utopian nonsense, no matter how miserable all the people are. I often write about older characters in my SF; one of my favorite characters in my unpublished work is a Miss Marple-like retired doctor.
My fantasy, conversely, tends to be influenced heavily by Hayao Miyazaki. Younger characters, and more of a sense of wonder. I write much less of that, though, than SF.

Drabblecast episode 224 ( featured two of my short humorous pieces. The Body and the Bomb is a good introduction to my mysteries; it’s in Crossed Genres Quarterly 2. My short story Mr. Yuk will appear in On the Premises, Issue 19, around March 10th.

    You work in computer network security, but you have also published scholarly work on robotics, particularly multi-robot coordination. Tell us a little about this work and how it contributes to the field.

My robotics work focused on moving small mobile robot teams at high speed, with no direct external sensing. My group built a set of seven robots, each the size of a small dog, and each of which was capable of speeds between 25 and 30 mph. At these speeds, light robots like this experience significant tire slip and other non-linear dynamics. In other words, there’s significant uncertainty about each robot’s position. Without external sensing, each robot knows only what the others tell it about their position, plus initial position to greater certainty. Under these conditions, I performed tests moving the robots around a parking lot, in loose formation akin to Craig Reynold’s Boids simulations (

The work contributed a few things: a computational model of low-size/high-dynamic mobile robots, an analysis of the role of communications in formation stability, and discussions of changes needed to the formation algorithm. Example applications of the work include rapid-deployment mobile sensing grids on rough or icy terrain, ad-hoc tunable radio telescope arrays, and even very-large-scale communication relay networks, such as might be needed in the asteroid belt.

    You attended the Viable Paradise workshop. What did you learn in this workshop that has been the most valuable to you asa writer?

Oddly, I learned that writing is not as much a solitary activity as I thought. I’ve discovered that I’m very much an external processor: I get more work done when I talk it out with someone than when I work it out on paper. Also, I learned that your ability to recognize bad writing precedes your ability to fix it. As a result, one’s career will frequently be punctuated by frustration: we can see that next level before we reach it. Basically, I learned that I *will* get stuck in my writing, and the answer, for me, is often to talk it out with other writers.

    You recently collected your hundredth short fiction rejection slip. In order to gain perspective on that number, how many stories have you written and circulated, and how many have you sold?

According to the Grinder ( the free site where I track my submissions, I have written and circulated 25 stories, of which I have sold 7. Total submissions: about 120 now, including reprint and podcast.

I figure I’ve got another six or seven stories that I’ve either trunked before submitting or am still polishing (not counting the dozen or so that I wrote many years ago in high school, most of which are lost).

(Rick: Note that Grinder was created as an answer to Duotrope adopting a subscription model.)

    Talk a litte bit about why you decided to withdraw a story from Weird Tales. How difficult was that decision for you to make after all the effort behind trying to find a market for that story?

The new editor at Weird Tales, a gentleman not of my acquaintance, had made known his decision to publish the first chapter of a novel called “Save the Pearls”. I found this decision problematic, having seen some of the marketing for that book (including excerpts) and having already decided that it was ill-considered as fiction. Other writers and fans felt similarly about the novel in question, and said so when the decision was announced. From my perspective, the response from Weird Tales seemed confused, resentful, and ultimately (I felt) mendacious.

Not having a personal relationship with the new editor, and not having had the opportunity to see any issues produced by this editor, I decided that I was not comfortable having my story potentially appear in an unknown context, edited by someone whose judgement I doubted. I withdrew my story from consideration.

It was not a terribly difficult decision: not being under contract, like some people I knew, I was not turning down a guaranteed paycheck. Most of the difficulty I felt, came from feeling a bit like a poseur: “Who am I, a beginning writer, to turn up my nose at any paying market?” It’s tough for any beginner to realize the value of their good name, but it is valuable (or rather, will become so with care and feeding).

    What writers have been the most influential in forming your particular style?

On the speculative side, I’m more influenced by breezy writers who include a lot of humor even when that’s not the focus of the piece: Terry Pratchett, John Scalzi. Some of Charlie Stross’s lighter work. I’m attracted to clean prose with an emphasis on dialogue over description. One of the big epiphanies I’ve had in writing was realizing that Terry Pratchett’s fiction works so well for me because all of his characters get some manner of respect from him: they may be greedy, violent, insane, or prudish, but they always feel like they’re approached on their own terms, for good or for ill, and they always have reasons for what they do.

I also read widely in the mystery genre, including Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Rex Stout, Robert Parker, and others. Much of my sense of plotting comes from these works. Stout and Parker have contributed a great deal to my sense of how 1st person narration ought to go.

In terms of humor, think Douglas Adams, Robert Rankin, and P.G. Wodehouse. I don’t do overtly silly or non-sequitur humor they way those three tend to, but the sensibility behind their work influences me a lot: I find their work not only funny, but kind of cynically good-natured in a way that I try to emulate.

    What projects do you have in the works or in the planning stages that get you excited?

I’ve been dabbling in longer fiction lately. I’m putting the finishing touches on a novella, Claudius Rex, which is my science fiction homage to the Nero Wolfe mysteries. It’s been accepted, but isn’t under contract yet. I did a reading of the first two scenes at Readercon last year, and have been encouraged by the response. Keep an eye on my blog for news on that score.

I also recently finished my first novel, also an SF mystery, but more in the Golden Age vein: Inspector Crandall is sent to the Deep Space Telescopic Array station to investigate the death of a scientist. He’s forced to contend with interference from a starship captain, fallout from a 20-year-old disaster that wiped out a colony, his fear of space travel, and an old flame from his college days.

I’ve got a few other story ideas kicking around, and have been doing a lot of reading lately on the founding of colonies. Also, WWI-era German submarines for a fantasy story.

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