Whenever she can, Los Angeles-based writer Bernadette Murphy mans the intro-to-riding simulation platform at her local Harley Davidson dealership. She encourages everyone—especially women—to jump on a stationary motorcycle and see what it’s like to ride a Fat Boy firsthand, in a controlled environment. Murphy says she’s not advocating motorcycling, per se, as the “monopoly way to a full life.” Rather, she’s proposing risk-taking in general.
Murphy is an Associate Professor in the MFA Nonfiction writing program at Antioch University. Her fourth book, Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life will be released in May, 2016, by Counterpoint Press. Murphy is the author of The Tao Gals’ Guide to Real Estate, The Knitter’s Gift, and Zen and the Art of Knitting. Harley and Me is based in part on her experience as a female motorcyclist, and her cross-country ride from Los Angeles to Milwaukee. I recently spoke with Murphy about her forthcoming book, Literary Darwinism, and how life took a surprising turn in her post-child-rearing years.
The Rumpus: I’m curious about how Harley and Me evolved. Did it begin as a memoir, primarily? Or did you know at the outset that you were interested in bringing in other aspects of nonfiction?
Bernadette Murphy: Yes, absolutely. In fact, I pitched it to my agent as a memoir. My agent also handles another writer who wrote what was called The Throttle Jockey column for the LA Times, back in the day. This writer was a female motorcyclist and had previously tried to get her book about women motorcyclists published as a memoir, but had not succeeded. So my agent was adamant that if I was going to do this book it had to be bigger than me on the motorcycle. I started adding small amounts of science, and found it fun, and she pushed me to keep adding.
Rumpus: How did you approach the science and psychology research included in the book?
Murphy: You know, originally I thought there would be one chapter on science and the rest would be memoir, but she said, ‘No I think you need science everywhere; you need it just woven throughout.’ But it took a long time to figure out how we were going to get the balance of the elements correct. Initially I was thinking 80 percent memoir, 20 percent science, and over the course of writing I think it became more balanced. All the books that I’ve done have involved memoir with research. It’s an area I’m most comfortable with because I don’t like being the center of attention, if you can imagine that! I mean, as readers, as writers, we read to evolve, I believe. There’s a literary theory called Literary Darwinism. The idea is that we read to put ourselves in different situations emotionally and mentally, to figure out how we would handle them ourselves. We hunger for books that have relevance to our actual lives, and help us weigh how we are going to behave as we move forward. Is this something that I want to run away from? Is this something that intrigues me? If I were to do this, how would I do it? We should try to answer those questions for ourselves, so we can evolve as a species.
Rumpus: Was this the most challenging part of the book?
Murphy: No, actually that was really fun. I could get lost in the research and I ended up downloading all these scientific papers. What was challenging for me was, once I’d gathered everything and I knew the basic shape of it, figuring out which science pieces belonged with which memoir or scene-based elements. I put a big board up and I mapped out where the memoir pieces went and then which piece of research fit with each one of those.
Rumpus: How long did the mapping process take?
Murphy: That took a long time. The first incarnation of the book was only going to have to the road trip as a thru line. Then I sold the book, and by then I had basically written a lot of the first part and a lot of the road trip part. I had no idea that the last section was going to even be part of it. So I sold the book while those questions were not answered, and it was due a year later. I spent four months just playing, and then I found the shape and then worked to get it all tidied up. I kind of work in a mosaic fashion. I don’t work at creating a whole story. I work one little piece at a time, and I don’t know where the various mosaics fit until later in the process.
Rumpus: Did you share things about the book writing process with your students?
Murphy: The program where I teach does a thing called Sunday Check-in. Every Sunday we all make a post to each other on what we’re doing. I kept them apprised on everything I was working on. Even when the book wasn’t selling, or when we first got a proposal together, you know, or the process of writing the proposal. I kept them involved in everything because I think it’s important for student to see this is what it looks like in the real world. Because if you don’t see that, you think ‘Oh someone sits down and starts to write a book and Voila! Tomorrow they’re on Oprah.’ You know? The reality is very different. For instance, this is my fourth book. For my three previous books I wrote a proposal of about thirty pages, and we sold them. For this book I wrote a ninety-page proposal which I rewrote six times before my agent was willing to go out with it, because the market has changed so much. At one point I was in tears thinking, ‘This is never going to work; I give up,’ so having the students see that, I felt, was really important. Because I think part of the difference between someone who makes it as a writer and someone who doesn’t is just the tenacity. And in order to recognize that that level of tenacity is what’s needed. I think it’s important to see the struggle.
Rumpus: Was there any material that didn’t make it into the book?
Murphy: No, actually everything ended up in there. I was shocked. Even the ice climbing. I remember writing sections, thinking, ‘I’m out of my mind! What am I doing?’ But I trusted the part of me that said to just keep working on it.
Rumpus: As a fifty-year-old woman, reading Harley and Me felt like a “call to arms” to reinvigorate my life, to take on new challenges. Is this why you wrote the book? For readers like me?
Murphy: Absolutely! Although I have had guys read it and really enjoy it, and younger women have read it and really enjoyed it. But I think mostly I was writing for people my age, especially women, like me, who had kind of bought into the suburban-wife-mother picture, and thought that that was it. And realizing that there’s more I want to do. I don’t begrudge a minute I spent doing that, but I needed something to wake me up. To change, so that I could live the next chapter of my life as fully as I wanted. It makes me excited to see, and I don’t think motorcycling is the monopoly way to find a full life, but if you find out you can handle a motorcycle, then maybe you find you can do things that you wanted to do that you’ve never allowed yourself.
Rumpus: At the end of Harley and Me, you’re ice climbing in Ouray, Colorado. What sorts of new challenges have you taken on lately?
Murphy: I went ice climbing again this year. And it still terrifies me, since I’m really afraid of heights. It’s kind of a stupid hobby to take up if you’re afraid of heights! Part of it, for me, is the facing of my fears. So this time, with the ice climbing, I did something which I hadn’t done before, which was having to lower myself down a big gorge, a 120 feet gorge, straight down. It’s kind of masochistic that I would do that. I still don’t get it. But when I’m done doing it I think ‘Good. I can do anything now!’ And I’ve learned to ski in the last year. I went to Bali in November for a month, where I was hired as a writing coach. I just keep saying yes to whatever comes along. Unless it’s something- like I’m not sure I would sky dive. My daughter went bungee-jumping for her twenty-first birthday and sent me the video, and it just made me sick to watch it, so I’m not sure I would try that!
Rumpus: What are your other current/future writing projects?
Murphy: I have a novel that I’ve been kicking around for a very long time. I’m also toying with the idea of another nonfiction book about women that would look at women as leaders. I’m fascinated by Rwanda and how, after the genocide, more women took over in government. I’m interested in how women lead in ways that are different than men lead.