Open Book with Sabina Murray

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Sabina Murray's "Valiant Gentlemen" probes friendship's limits. Spanning decades and continents, Murray's 2016 historical novel examines the intimate relationships among Irish humanitarian Roger Casement, artist and explorer Herbert Ward and Sarita Sanford, Ward's wife. World War I creates a split long in the making: Casement battles for Irish independence from Britain while Ward fights for England. Murray's portrayals challenge perceptions about these figures.

"As Murray notes in an afterword, the title 'Valiant Gentlemen' is a nod to Sarita Sanford Ward's memoir of her husband, 'A Valiant Gentleman,'" David Leavitt writes in a review for The New York Times. "The pluralization is key, in that it underscores the extent to which the dichotomy of valor and cowardice invests Murray's narrative with shape and momentum."

In addition to longer works, Murray has earned acclaim for her short story collections "The Caprices," a set of World War II narratives that won the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction in 2003, and "Tales of the New World" (2011), which focuses on explorers and exploration.

Murray teaches in the University of Massachusetts, Amherst's MFA program. On Thursday, she will be reading at Bard College at Simon's Rock (7 p.m., Blodgett House). Before the event, Murray answered some questions about her favorite books. The interview has been edited for length.

Q What is your favorite book about war?

A There are so many good books about war. Weirdly, one of my favorite books about war is "The Vietnam War" [by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns]. I really like "Matterhorn" by Karl Marlantes. I think that's really good. "Regeneration" by Pat Barker is another favorite. "The Quiet American" by Graham Greene ... They're [all] very, very different, but I just find that they explore different aspects of war really well.

Q What is your favorite work of historical fiction?

A That's really hard because there [are] so many really, really good works of historical fiction. I did like "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel because it just made everything seem so immediate. There's a book by a former teacher of mine, "The Ghost of the Mary Celeste" by Valerie Martin, which is amazing. Also, I taught her book "Property," which [deals] with slave-owning culture in the 1850s, and it's really interesting. I did like "The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead. I thought it was really well-done. [Murray later added Sebastian Barry's "Days Without End" to her list.]

Q What are some of your favorite short stories?

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A I'm teaching Henry James right now. I actually have to go teach a class later, and I've been looking at his short fiction. I just find it very intriguing, the structure and the pacing of it is just absolutely bizarre. ... Everything is so intentional in his fiction, and sometimes it's easy to write it off saying that people talked in complicated ways then, which just isn't true. If you read his letters, they're actually very clear and simple. It really was this kind of writing that was just trying to address a psychological moment. I've been thinking about gothic fiction lately, so I read a collection of short stories, "Her Body and Other Parties," by Carmen Maria Machado, that I thought was really very interesting, too. [Murray later added Colin Barrett's "Young Skins" and Edie Meidav's "Kingdom of the Young" to her list and noted that Angela Carter's work has been "hugely influential."]

Q Who are some of your favorite contemporary short story writers?

A Short story is such a difficult form, and it's so weird. There are some people who are just really good at the form. Christine Schutt just had a book out, "Pure Hollywood," and it's nothing like the way that I write, but I found what it did with the form just kind of fun. She writes very unbalanced stories. They're heavily weighted in one way or the other.

Q What is your favorite book about exploring, exploration?

A "The North Water" [by Ian McGuire] was pretty good. ... I actually like reading the source material. I wrote a short story about William Dampier, and I really liked reading his books that he wrote from the perspective of an explorer. It was really crazy because you see that when Jonathan Swift wrote "Gulliver's Travels," he was using Dampier's idiom. He just sounds like Dampier. He sounds more like Dampier than he does like himself in other works. It was inspired by Dampier, so that would make sense. We can see classical writers doing this, sort of what seems like a very contemporary thing to do, to parrot somebody else's way of speaking. People were doing it a long time ago. I always find that interesting. When I was researching for "Valiant Gentlemen," I read so many books by Herbert Ward, who's a terrible writer, but he's one of the characters in the book. He was an explorer, and he wrote down his accounts. And it's almost because he's not a very good writer that the accounts became so vivid and just really showed you what he was thinking. So, it's not exactly a great book, but if you really wanted to see what a guy traveling around Africa in 1890 with little regard for the local population thought, that's interesting. ... All the works by Mary Kingsley, who was an explorer. She wrote all of her own accounts, and those are actually well-written and vivid and kind of bizarre, really fun reading.

Q What is your favorite work of literature set in western Massachusetts?

A Susan Stinson is a wonderful local writer, and she has this book, "Spider in a Tree." It's about Northampton in the time of Jonathan Edwards. ... It just captures a fascinating moment in the history, the religious history of the area.

Q What books are currently on your nightstand?

A "Insurrecto," which is coming out in November, but my friend wrote it. It's a novel by Gina Apostol. It's a really interesting take on the Philippines in the time of the Philippine-American War, but it also references the present. That's on my nightstand. I had read an earlier draft, but I wanted to reread it before it came out. I have Sarah Waters' "The Night Watch," which is a book I've been meaning to read for years. ... She's kind of a creepy author. She's just a lot of fun to read through. She also wrote ["The Little Stranger"]. Right now, it's a film in theaters, but I read the book when it first came out. She does this atmospheric gothic thing, but I think it's a lot of fun. ... "A Little History of Philosophy" by Nigel Warburton, which are little essays on philosophy, and it's done in chronological order. You get to a point where you realize there's a lot of stuff you don't know that maybe you should know more about, and probably the big gaping hole in my education — there are many big gaping holes — but one of them is philosophy. My mother was really into philosophy, so I'm trying to catch up a little.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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