What Scares You, Sean Murphy?

Sean Murphy is the founder of 1455 Literary Arts, a Washington, D.C.-area literary arts foundation that conducts festivals, workshops, residencies, and is friend to many writers and artists in the area.

Sean and I met very recently, even though we have a million friends in common, and we chatted as part of his 14:55 Interview series (we went slightly over the 14 minutes and 55 seconds). It was a brief meeting, but even so I could tell he was one of those people I’d love to have beers with and chat about everything from books to ….well, terrifying memories. So here we go:

What are your phobias?

Acknowledging this is the epitome of first-world fragility, I have what some might consider an unhealthy fear and loathing of public bathrooms. I, of course, consider it a healthy obsession, or phobia, having borne witness to the ceaseless parade of anti-hygiene everywhere from locker rooms to airports (ugh) to the banal atrocities of the corporate men’s room. There’s a recurring theme in my novel NOT TO MENTION A NICE LIFE where the narrator riffs on the sights, smells, and crimes against humanity he endures on a regular basis.

Do you have a recurring nightmare?

Two in particular, and they are at once absurd and inscrutable. The first always finds me back in high school, and I’m in between classes but have forgotten my locker combination. It’s ridiculous, because obviously some administrator should be able to assist me, but worse (in that weird way dreams work) I’m usually me, now, yet somehow back in high school, still worried that everyone will mock me, or that I’ll be late for class. WHO CARES?!

“I’m in between classes but have forgotten my locker combination.”

The second one is even more surreal. I waited tables for many years before, during, and after college, and fortunately I seldom have the common dream where I have too many customers at one time. Rather, I show up for work but have forgotten my uniform, so hilarity ensues as I search the entire restaurant for an extra shirt or apron. Eventually I realize I haven’t been to work in years (like the dream where you remember you haven’t been to class all semester) and rather than being relieved, I wonder how I’ve not been fired.

What is your greatest fear as a writer?

That Stephen King will keep stealing my shit.

What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read? Is there a particular scene that really haunts you still?

This is probably cheating a bit, because it is not ostensibly a “scary” book (in fact it’s generally considered a comedy, and is probably also the funniest book I’ve ever read). Still, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is the rare book that scares me more, as a middle-aged man, than it did when I first read it, as a teen. This is because I’ve seen all the ways just about everything Heller described has either been proven true ten-fold or else super-sized to be, sadly, uncontainable by satire.

Anyone who understands Heller’s masterpiece as the ultimate insider’s assessment of the insanity/inanity driving so much of our military mores is at once accurate, but also selling it short. Heller is going after America, as a corporation, and his writing, while prescient, is distressingly relevant, well into the 21st century. In many regards, he understood the way middle management and their underlings would be used as proverbial cannon fodder (foxholes becoming stock-boosting rounds of layoffs), while increasingly isolated and aloof higher-ups divide the spoils and conquer their 401Ks. Yossarian is our guide through this surreal hall of one-way mirrors, but it’s the evil star of the supporting cast, Milo Minderbinder, who illustrates what our country has become. It’s not by accident that the average employee wages have stagnated for decades while the riches of the executive officers have multiplied by factors that would be hilarious if they weren’t so horrifying. Making Monopoly money a real thing via shares while seeing profits increase as production craters has long been the American Way. For all the success stories from the dot.com era, we now have systematized a formula where the game is rigged to imperfection: CEOs are brought in like exterminators to kill a company from the inside-out, and then they parachute away with millions of dollars (and shareholder approval) for their efforts.

Here it is, adequately conveyed in under 30 seconds (and shout-out to the great Buck Henry, who wrote the screenplay).

What is your favorite monster or villain?

Can I get some love for Frankenstein’s monster, who serves as the ultimate human and non-human entity in literature? As a symbol for man’s hubris and greed, and the ways we make others suffer for our satisfaction, this creature is an un-improvable case study. But as a being that was once human (or stitched together out of several former humans), brought into unwanted existence by a human, then rejected by that human, and then hunted by fellow humans…the implications of this story satisfy and mortify on so many levels. I also think the monster is the cultural through line connecting Jesus Christ and Blade Runner’s Roy Batty—but that’s fodder for another exercise.

What’s worse: the black abyss of space or the black abyss of the bottom of the ocean?

I think if you go deep or far enough in any direction it all ends up in the same place, and you probably see some pretty scary or beautiful things. Worse, to me, is being stranded in some vast space: a desert, a frozen wasteland, or out at sea with endless waves in every direction. It has to be pretty difficult to slowly die of thirst surrounded by millions of tons of water that humans can’t drink.

What’s worse: being buried alive or bitten by a vampire?

I think being buried alive is sui generis, and arguably the one horror that has required neither embellishment nor improvement over the centuries. Today, it’s all but impossible to imagine this happening to anyone (by accident), but the fact that it was at least conceivable in Poe’s time helps explain why he was so obsessed with it. (The closest I’ve ever come to experiencing this is my adventure in an isolation tank—another topic for a separate conversation.)

Is there any fear you’ve overcome in your life? How has that changed you?

Losing a loved one too soon teaches this important and ineluctable lesson: the only way to live through an unimaginable scenario is living through it.

Sean Murphy has appeared on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and been quoted in USA Today, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and AdAge. A long-time columnist for PopMatters, his work has also appeared in Salon, The Village Voice, Washington City Paper, The Good Men Project, Memoir Magazine, and others. His chapbook, The Blackened Blues, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. He has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and served as writer-in-residence of the Noepe Center at Martha’s Vineyard. He’s Founding Director of 1455. Follow him on Twitter @bullmurph.