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An Interview with Sara Flannery Murphy

Q: The premise for The Possessions is fantastic. Can you recall how the idea began?

A: In a way, it’s the end result of my lifelong obsession with spooky things: ghost stories I overheard as a kid when eavesdropping on the adults, for example, or horror movies I watched through my fingers. As an anxious kid, I loved that adrenaline rush of being scared but still having control. I’ve always had a soft spot for the uncanny; it’s really not surprising to anyone who’s ever seen me decorate for Halloween that my debut novel is a ghost story.

More specifically, though, I was inspired by the Victorian Spiritualists. I’m fascinated by the idea of serving as a proxy for people who are trying to achieve something so intimate and powerful, speaking to the loved ones they’ve lost. I remember the afternoon that all this interest just came together and I had a vision of a workplace where people could select anonymous workers and use these hired strangers to speak with their loved ones. It was one of those ideas that immediately sparked a thousand questions for me, a thousand scenarios, so I knew I had to write it.


Q: Is it science and technology or something more spiritual, which led you to write this book?

A: Something more spiritual, definitely. Even though The Possessions is set in the future, the upgrades to the Victorian Era aren’t technological, it’s more a question of structure. The Elysian Society is impersonal and efficient. I was inspired, in a roundabout way, by the gig economy. A lot of my peers have taken on jobs that are short-lived and unusual, and that was a major aspect of the Elysian Society to me: the high turnover, the way most people can’t (or won’t) put up with the work for very long.

Spiritually, I was inspired by one woman in particular, Elizabeth d’Esperance, whose quote appears as an epigraph in my book. She spoke so openly about her identity crisis as a medium. I kept thinking of these people who’d sit there at the centre of all this love and grief and pain and joy without being touched by it. That’s something that really transcends science and technology, I think – whether you’re a medium in Victorian England or a body swallowing a pill in the not-so-distant future, that uneasy sensation of loaning out your body to resurrect lost relationships is a potent one.


Q: The Elysian Society offers an unusual way of dealing with loss and grief. Do you think a real life Elysian Society would flourish?

A: I do think people have a long-standing fascination with reconnecting with our loved ones from beyond the grave. It’s not something we always talk about freely or openly, and it’s often pushed to the fringes, seen as a joke or a taboo. The Elysian Society would probably flourish in much the way it does in the book, as something you don’t discuss at the dinner table but might seek out in the wake of a loss that leaves unanswered questions.


Q: Was it obvious to you from the start that the physical connection between these people was going to be an important part?

A: Yes, the relationship between Patrick and Edie was at the heart of the premise from the beginning. Right after I visualized the Elysian Society itself, I imagined the complications the clients and bodies would run into, and a forbidden romance intrigued me the most. It’s something that would affect both the client – clinging to a lost relationship in an unconventional way – and the body – breaking this boundary and trying to find her own place in this outside relationship.

I’m interested in the inexplicable way desire can work; we can be strongly drawn to certain people without being able to intellectually explain why. So for Edie, who’s disconnected from her own desires and her own body, this level of physical attraction upends her to the point where she’s not able to fully own it.


Q: There are times when your protagonist Edie feels like a non-character of sorts, having to be so many other people at once and barely having room for her own self. Despite this however, she remains an engaging character. How did you face the challenge of writing Edie?

A: Edie took a while to fully appear to me. I went over quite a few drafts, and before that there were many, many abandoned attempts that would only last ten or twenty pages. At first, Edie was actually a new hire. Basically, she held the same position Dora does now – a newcomer learning the ropes. But that never felt exactly right. Deciding to instead make her the longest-standing employee, someone who deviates from the usual pattern, really helped me see her more clearly.

Thankfully, I have a lot of inspiration for Edie: that is, female protagonists who are subdued and blank in some ways, but have compelling inner lives, and can even be dangerous. Henry James and Charlotte Brönte were wonderful at bringing those characters to life, and I hope Edie could be a great-great-granddaughter of some of those ghostly women.


Q: Who are the literary figures you cherish as a writer?

A: Shirley Jackson tops the list. She’s so good at atmospheric horror that gets under your skin. The first lines of The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle are so ridiculously good they almost make me want to give up being a writer – what’s the point if you can never match that?

Right behind Jackson comes Daphne DuMaurier, who was a powerhouse, just as relevant now as she was during her lifetime. I love her ability to expose the dark underbelly of romantic love.

I’m a fan of Katherine Dunn, who wrote Geek Love. The whole premise of that book seems like it shouldn’t work, but it does, and so perfectly and compellingly. It’s stuck with me for years.

And finally, Tana French! I admire the way she blends the suspense of page-turning thrillers with these smart, nuanced explorations of larger social issues. She’s so confident in her writing, just following whatever track works well for each particular book, yet creating a cohesive body of work. I recommend the Dublin Murder Squad series possibly more than any other books.


Q: This book is a bit of a mix in genre. It can sit comfortably within literary fiction, science fiction and sometimes-even horror. What can we expect from you in the future?

A: The project I’m working on at the moment also blends genres, merging speculative elements, some suspense, literary fiction. My imagination seems to work that way, taking inspiration from several different bookshelves. I read constantly, across genres, and there’s just so much out there that speaks to me: the poetic prose of one genre, the unexpected twists of another.

A lot of writers I know seem to have love-hate relationship with genre; it can be both helpful and stifling. Really, I feel so fortunate to be writing and publishing during a time when we’re more open to playing with genre. I’ve had a great response from readers who enjoyed that aspect of The Possessions. It’s wonderful for authors when you can feel the readers’ enthusiasm and openness out there, supporting you in the risks you want to take.

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