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Naeem Murr
Talking with the author of The Perfect Man.
Tuesday Dec 19, 2006.     By Michael Nagrant
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

Naeem Murr
photo: Alan Cross
Naeem Murr's first novel, The Boy, published in 1998, was a New York Times Notable Book, won a Lambda Literary Award and was translated into six languages.

A recipient of numerous awards and scholarships, Murr published a second novel, The Genius of the Sea, in 2003, has written a number of prize-winning stories, novellas and non-fiction pieces, and has been a writer-in-residence at the University of Missouri, Western Michigan University and Northwestern University. Born and raised in London, he has lived in America since his early twenties, and currently resides in Chicago.

Tell us a little bit about your latest work.
My latest novel, "The Perfect Man, will be out in April. As with all novels, it's difficult to summarize, and this one has a good number of characters. Basically, it's about five friends growing up during the 1950s and '60s in a small Missouri river town called Pisgah—very much an imagined place.

It begins in London with a young boy, Rajiv Travers, [who] is soon abandoned to the care of his uncle's mistress, Ruth Winters, a misanthropic writer of romances living in Pisgah. Told from Ruth's perspective, as well as those of four of the town's children as they grow up, the novel is, among other things, about the creative and destructive power of secrets. Not only are there a number of significant individual secrets among the adults and children of the town, but also a communal secret concerning the death of a child some years before Rajiv's arrival.

Ultimately the truth of what happened to that child will surface during a single, terrifying night. In many ways, though, the novel is less about the impact of this revelation than it is about the power—to shape our characters and lives—of what we are not told.

Tell us about your creative process.
A strong sense of place has always been a very important part of my creative process. In many ways, place is the first character of a book—a silent witness. As a child, what most provoked my imagination was the silence, particularly with respect to their pasts, of adults who were important to me: my mother, who never spoke about her clearly troubled past; and my father who died when I was a baby and existed only as a black and white photograph in my room...The more secretive and mysterious that adult is, the more imaginative the child is forced to be about what once existed and what lies ahead. I can't help but see the writing of fiction, at least in part, as my reaction to this silence.

Place—in this case Missouri—keeps just such a silence, about the generations of people that have lived and died in it. Of the many places in which I've lived, I found Missouri particularly evocative...Experiencing a vivid sense of past in a place that is alien to me is like that first, provocative silence I talked about. It is a silence filled with questions, the answers to which are provided by one's own imagination.

In fiction, these conjectural and intuitive answers are called characters. When these characters become vivid enough, cross a certain threshold, they begin to tell their own stories. In Missouri, the first character that came to me was Ruth, followed by the children—Annie, Rajiv, Nora, Lewis and Alvin.

What do you like to do when you're not writing?
I write in the morning. Often everything after writing feels post-mortem, the rest of the day pointless, loitering lifelessly outside my window. I am an avid squash player, though, and play up at the McGaw YMCA in Evanston. I also like to take long walks through the city.

Got any favorite local hangouts in Chicago?
I live in the Lincoln Square area, so I often go to the Daily Bar & Grill, sometimes the Grafton (fabulous buttery hamburgers), and, of course, The Book Cellar. I also love the pho in Pho 777 on Argyle, particularly in winter. Another great bookstore in the city, and a wonderful place just to browse, is the Powell's on North Lincoln.

Who else should we be reading?
I'm obsessed with beautiful prose styles at the moment. Consequently, I'm reading a lot of Elizabeth Bowen. Her books are really a gallery of gorgeous and devastatingly incisive portraits. You can't read her books as you would read normal novels; they aren't really either character or plot driven. As I say, they are a series of portraits, and are best experienced as such. I would highly recommend The Last September, The Death of the Heart, The House in Paris, and The Heat of the Day.