An Interview with Jim Murphy about The Journal of Brian Doyle

  • Grades: 6–8

Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D. & Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D.: We talked with one young reader of Brian Doyle's journal who told us the book was about adventures on a whaling ship but, for Brian at least, it was also a story about forgiveness. How would you respond to this young man's comment?

Jim Murphy: I would say, yes, this is a story about a boy who goes on a whaling cruise, but that it's also about his emotional journey — from feeling angry, guilty and scared, to having much more confidence in himself. Enough to go home and face his troubles directly. It's the range of characters he meets during this cruise and the many adventures he has that lead him to this new sense of self-worth and inner peace.

RFA & EST: Did the research you did for your highly praised nonfiction book Gone A-Whaling: The Lure of the Sea and the Hunt for the Great Whale form the basis for The Journal of Brian Doyle?

JM: The research I did for Gone-A-Whaling certainly did help me shape this story, especially the many firsthand accounts left by greenhorns. Two in particular — Enoch Carter Cloud's diary and Hartson Bodfish's memoir — led me to Brian's voice and inner conflicts.

RFA & EST: Scripture-quoting Nathaniel is an interesting character both admired and disliked by Brian. Why is Nathaniel in this story?

JM: Nathaniel is in the story for a number of reasons. He is constantly seeking goodness and is resolutely devout even when surrounded by some very rough, very coarse individuals and I liked that contrast. In addition, he offers Brian an easy route to acceptance among the crew. Brian could reject and ridicule Nathaniel like everyone else and, in effect, become one of them. Brian resists this temptation and peer pressure, though he has moments when he wishes he could be done with Nathaniel. Most important, by understanding that the innocent and helpless Nathaniel needs him, Brian begins to see that he can't abandon his brother to the uncertainties at home.

RFA & EST: Brian's close-up encounter with the harpooned whale had a profound impact on him. Was this inspired by your own contact with a whale off the coast of Provincetown?

JM: Yes, my up-close encounter with a humpback whale and its calf did factor into how I portrayed Brian's reaction to the harpooned whale. When my whale breached the water's surface over and over again, I could see how athletic and powerful she was; being just a few feet from her, looking into her eyes, let me understand how intelligent and powerful a creature she was by nature. Of course, my perceptions were modern ones. Before I let Brian have similar thoughts, I made sure I found actual greenhorns from the 19th century who had expressed similar sympathy.

RFA & EST: Other than Brian, who is your favorite character in this novel? Why?

JM: I really enjoyed Frenchie. He's a very tough individual doing a very tough job with a bunch of very tough and sometimes violent crewmembers. Even so, he is kind to Brian, finds ways to resist York's bullying, and has a code of honor (demonstrated when he returns some money he borrowed from his sister). He's based on several of the men I worked with while doing high-rise construction in New York City.

RFA & EST: All four of your Dear America/My Name Is America books take place in the latter half of the nineteenth century. What is it about that period that is especially fascinating to you?

JM: I'm drawn to this period because America was in transition, entering the modern age while still clinging to time-honored traditions and things. West To A Land Of Plenty shows a family heading west, first on board a train, and then going into areas as yet untamed by rail by way of an ox-drawn wagon. The Civil War Journal Of James Edmond Pease has a character in one of the first modern wars (with long-range artillery and highly accurate rifled muskets) while still wearing cloth hats and taking part in massed charges. When Brian Doyle decides to become a whaler, that industry is in the midst of profound changes. The slow-moving sailing vessels are giving way to faster steam ships, and the hand-thrown harpoon is being replaced by harpoon cannons. Both innovations would open up new whaling grounds and increase the killing to a point that would bring many whale species to near extinction by the beginning of the 20th century.

RFA & EST: Mitch Albom, newspaper reporter and author of the nonfiction bestseller Tuesdays with Morrie and the current fiction bestseller The Five People You Meet in Heaven says now that he has tried writing fiction, he loves it since he doesn't have to wait for someone to return his phone call. He can make up the story. Since you write nonfiction and fiction just as Albom does, do you share his sentiments?

JM: I write narrative nonfiction, creating lively scenes through action and the use of quotes from firsthand accounts, all based on rigorous research. If I say a character leaned against a fence on a windy day, than I have at least two sources to back up these details. I spend a great deal of time hunting through source material to find and verify such information. My fiction is realistic and usually focuses on an historical event or situation, so it involves lots of research also. But it is one step less pressure-packed since I feel free to invent characters, dialogue and scenes (as long as I don't distort the historical facts). All I know is that my wife, Alison, says I'm much less grumpy when I'm working on fiction.

RFA & EST: Although Brian can't wait to get away from home, he then can't wait to return. Do you believe Robert Frost's observation below? "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."

JM: It's not so much that they have to take you in, it's that you can never fully leave behind or forget your home and upbringing. I've heard scores of people say they fled their boring suburban town (or farm or industrial city, etc., etc.) to seek a freer, more interesting life somewhere else, but I don't think they can ever entirely escape the influences of their parents, neighbors, or town. (By the way, when I say this to these people, they are usually horrified at the thought.) Brian runs away to avoid and forget his father's simmering anger, but in the end he realizes it's better to face his problems directly in order to move on with his life.

RFA & EST: If you could ask young readers of The Journal of Brian Doyle one question after they finished reading your book, what would that question be?

JM: I'd ask readers how they would deal with an uncomfortable, unpleasant home situation like Brian's.

RFA & EST: If your readers are interested in helping to protect whales, what would you recommend?

JM: There are a number of things everyone can do to help protect whales. First, learn as much as you can about whales (and dolphins) and how their populations are being threatened. Next, find out about the organizations that focus on whale conservation. Most recent books about whales, including my Gone-A-Whaling, include such lists. In addition, searching the web for whales and whale conservation will provide a good number of names and addresses.

Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Associate Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.

  • Subjects:
    Fish and Marine Life, Courage, Bravery, Heroism, Loyalty, Friends and Friendship, Survival
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