The Story He Traveled to Find

Photo by Duane Zehr

Additional images

Mary Brolley
December 11, 2017

This story appears in the Fall 2017 Hilltopics issue

In his first novel, “The Boat Runner,” Assistant Professor of English Devin Murphy explores his family’s roots and the human cost of war. Through the eyes of teenager Jacob Koopman, readers experience the hardships and treachery of life in German-occupied Holland and beyond. Called “an impressive debut” by Kirkus Reviews, the book has also been translated into Dutch.

Q: What was your inspiration for the novel?

My mother is from the Netherlands and that side of the family was always a great source of mystery to me. Especially my late grandfather, who as the head electrical engineer for Philips, had to go into hiding when the Germans were conscripting scientists and engineers for weapons-design purposes. No one knew where he was, not even his wife who was left to tend to my mother and her three sisters during the war.

Q: What was your research process like?

From the moment I had the idea, almost everything I found, or story I heard, I held up and asked, “Would this show the impossibly complex and ethically messy reality of what it would be like to be this one Dutch family during the war?” I went to large museums and dozens of small veterans’ collections to feel weaponry and clothing, studied in every library within two days’ drive, and read philosophy, fairy tales, music and mythology. Everything in my life was consumed by wanting to know more.

Q: What was the route to getting it published?

Publishing a novel has been a lifelong goal but for years I kept it secret. Then, when I was about 20, I let it slip to someone that this is what I wanted to do. This guy whose name I’ve forgotten then asked me, “What are you doing to practically achieve your goal?” I started thinking about how I could make this happen. I read differently and looked for models to build a writing life after. This led me to graduate school, where I started writing stories that allowed me to become a proficient writer and begin publishing smaller works. My stories then got into larger and more respected journals, and that landed me a job at Bradley, then a literary agent and the attention of my eventual publisher. So, finding the practical path meant putting my life, time and career into the service of this goal.

Q: The narrator, Jacob, spoke many languages, which allowed him to be almost a chameleon — and aided his escape from the Germans.

English is my mother’s third language, so I always knew the Dutch were masters of language. This also served as a device for my character Uncle Martin to mask his true nature and for my main character, Jacob, to struggle to find the voice and meaning of his own inner purpose.

Remember, at the time nothing was certain. Nothing safe. The wrong choice of word could get you killed. This threat really brought a new energy to the language these characters used.

Q: Jacob is a complicated character. But even at the beginning of the novel, he seems able to realize (and regret) his mistakes and failures of courage.

I didn’t want him to come off as a hero, as any major conflict is too complex to see things as only black or white. As a child, when I heard about my grandfather in hiding, I thought, he was a good guy, a hero, and bad guys wanted him. But when I looked closer, everything was messy, and I wanted to show that. It took a long time to find the right ways to do this, but it was very much a guiding principle in my writing.

Q: There is much loss, grief and violence in the book. The tone is often bleak. What was it like to “live in” this book as you wrote it? What kept you going?

Looking back, I think it did take an emotional toll on me. The whole time I was writing, I was reading other novels that inspired me with their depth and range of craft, uniqueness and humanity. I was deeply touched when I would find one. In a way, I think writing is trying to put a gift like that out into the world for some unknown person. That is really special. That idea kept me going through the darker material.

Q: Water — the ocean, the dikes that hold it in — plays a big part in the book. How did your time working on a boat inform your writing?

I spent years working on ships that traveled around the world. It was, in many ways, a search for story ideas, and it has influenced almost every part of my life since. I love ships, the sea and the potential that boarding a vessel has to change a life. I wanted to explore all aspects of that idea

in this novel. I also believe many of us accept that our shirts are made in China, our cars in Japan, our sneakers in Jakarta, but never really envision the industry and lives that shift those products around the world. This hidden ecosystem of transport made me obsessed with how the shift of people and culture shapes our world.

Q: What effect has writing the novel had on your teaching?

Teaching is perhaps one of the greatest gifts in my life. I get to talk about writing with students who whisper that deep secret, that they too want to be writers. Then, I’m totally honest with them about the entire process.

Young writers are only armed with admiration and idealism and I think it’s my job to knock some of that idealism off, toughen them up to how hard of a task they’ve set themselves up for, and show them models for the work that needs to be done.

I am honest when I tell them to really look for what they love, and then work harder than anyone else once they’ve found it. That seems to be a strong formula for success in writing, or whatever else they light on as their passion and goal.