Stock up on great summer reading! Now through 7/31, get 50% off fiction titles. Enter promo code: Fiction50 at checkout.

Welcome, Devin Murphy!

This month we are celebrating the titles that we’ve acquired over the past twelve months. These manuscripts came to us through our open reading periods. Today we bring you Devin Murphy, whose short story collection Unbend the River is due out in early 2024.

Have a manuscript you think we’d like? During our June Open Reading Period we are looking for poetry (chapbooks and full-length collections), short fiction (again, both chapbooks and full-length collections), novels, novellas, nonfiction (CNF, biography, cultural studies), anthology proposals, and translations from German. 

 

 

The Author

Devin Murphy is a national bestselling author of the novels The Boat Runner and Tiny Americans published by Harper Perennial. These books have been selected as Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers, Illinois Reads, and book of the year by the Chicago Writer’s Association, and Society of Midland Authors. His short story collection, Unbend the River, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press. His recent work appears in The Chicago TribuneGlimmer TrainThe Missouri ReviewThe Sun, and Outside Magazine as well as many others. He holds an MFA from Colorado State University, a PHD from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is currently an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Bradley University, and lives in Chicago with his wife and their three kids.

 

 

 

On Writing Unbend the River

 

My imagination keeps tracking a forested stretch of land between Lake Erie and the upper Allegheny River in Western New York. The foothills there have some of the best hardwood in the world, which made it a perfect place for early settlers to set up forges and blacksmiths to ship knives up and down river. Over the last ten years so many of my short stories were about this part of the world that they started linking together around workers at a modern knife manufacturing plant. The workers are cut loose into a landscape of giant dogs, wild coywolves, and dancing horses. Their days are full of odd behavior that bucks against domesticity, and drives a manic search for deeper connections to one another. The place is capable of redeeming and ruining them. That’s why I love writing about it. My favorite story collections are built around one place and make them hum with energy. Tom Franklin’s, Poachers, Rick Bass’s stories set in Montana’s Yaak Valley, or recently, Lauren Groff’s, Florida, are works I aspired to. I wanted to shine a burning light on how beautiful any place can be when looked at from every angle.

As for actually writing these stories, well, these things take me forever. I write and rewrite endlessly. The initial ideas feel like a rush of joy, then comes years of meticulous pounding away. Yet, over that time, I’m always finding new connections between them, new dimensions of myself as a person to pour into them, so it’s worth it. Now these characters feel like old, odd friends, and I’m excited to introduce them to readers.

 

 


Excerpt from “Waiting for the Coywolf”

 

Ralph is the largest golden retriever to ever live, and you can’t tell me any different. His head is enormous, his chest the prow of a rowboat, his heart big enough for me to fit inside it. He’s fierce and protective, and despite his size and my fragility, we’re good company for each other. Right now we’re on a walk around the almost-empty new development beside my home. A couple I’ve never seen before waves to us from their front yard.

“Hi!” the woman says — to Ralph, not to me.

I stop. I do this often to catch my breath now. “Do you know Ralph?” I ask.

“He joins us for our run every morning,” she says.

A trim forty-something man with hair grown out and gelled back over the thin spot pats Ralph’s head. Ralph slobbers and croons.

“He runs with you?” I ask.

“Every morning,” she says.

“How far?

“We average about four miles,” the man says. He stands up and pats his flat stomach proudly.

My dog? My Ralph runs with you?”

“Chases us down and keeps up the whole way,” the woman says, talking slow and being sweet. I can tell she’s not used to being around old people.

I look at Ralph. When I let him out every morning, I thought he was napping in the yard, but clearly he’s been escaping the electric fence and roaming. Ralph pants and smiles, then does a terrific spine bend to chew his own tail.

***

“Seventy-five dollars to come out there, and seventy-five dollars an hour after that,” the electric-dog-fence guy tells me over the phone.

“But you set it up, and it isn’t working.”

“If you do it yourself, you’ll save a lot of money.”

“Do what myself?”

“Test the shock collar.”

“How?”

“Walk over the line with it.”

“What?”

“We do it all the time. It’s not that bad.”

“I’m eighty-six and have a pacemaker. Do you think I should be giving myself a shock?”

“Well . . . it’s seventy-five dollars to come out.”

***

In the morning I step outside with Ralph. He has on the electric collar but runs a big circle around my house to build speed and then barrels over the shock line and takes off — all 120 pounds of him pumping away like a racehorse, rounding the gardenia bush and lilacs before straightening at the chandelier-pear tree and bolting through the neighborhood toward the woods beyond. I’m annoyed with the fence company that installed the underground line but strangely happy at the sight of my dog harrumphing out into the world.

My neighborhood in the Southern Tier of New York is a monstrosity of capitalism gone to rot. I bought some forested land here and built my house in the seventies, when things were good for my Whetstone Knife factory. My house sat like a quiet abbey in the woods beside a small creek, and I lived here in peace until seven years ago, when a developer trying to expand on the nearby Chautauqua tourist resort bought the surrounding land, plowed along the ravine to my driveway, and laid a giant circular road with cul-de-sacs hanging off it like Brussels sprouts from a stalk. Most of the lots sold, the houses were custom designed before being built, and sales went well enough that the developer cut a second circle into the forest for a new set of McMansions. Then the recession hit, and half the houses went unfinished or were sold cheap to people who could never otherwise afford the square footage. Then housing values climbed again, and those people got buried under property taxes and foreclosed. Now every other yard has a wooden realtor sign pounded into the ground. I can see nine houses from my front yard: Four are for sale under dubious circumstances. The hodgepodge of remainders make up my neighbors.

Ilene died the year after the developers showed up. Part of me blames them. I know it’s ridiculous, but it gives me a place to aim my anger and disappointment.

***

Ralph pants back in the late morning. I remove his shock collar, which emits a beeping sound within four feet of the fence line. I’m afraid to go any closer and risk a shock that might monkey with whatever natural current runs through me — though another part of me, in a place too deep to name, is ready to have that inner current shocked flat and be done with it.

I walk around the east side of the house, where, the last unbroken wall of forest is still standing before the drop into the ravine. I stop at the lawn chair and sit. I sometimes sit here at night when I can’t sleep. Last month I saw a giant coyote at the tree line. Big as a black bear. I’ve been waiting to get another look at it ever since. I’ve read about a new creature called a “coywolf” — the offspring of a coyote and a timber wolf. That must have been what I saw. Waiting for it to reappear gives me something to do.

I stand up and trace the route of Ralph’s charge around the house, close to the fence line. I’m just about to cross the line, electric collar in hand — it will look like an accident, an honest mistake — when I hear, “Hi, Bruce.”

I look up. Eddy, the neighbor boy, is in his yard, staring at me through the lilacs I planted to create a buffer between me and the succession of buyers who’ve trounced through next door.

“Hi, Eddy,” I say.

“What are you doing?” he asks, looking at the collar.

“I was going to shock myself.”

“Why?” He’s an acorn-squash-shaped boy with a unibrow. Nine. Ten. Maybe eleven. His T-shirt has some new-age superhero punching some new-age villain. Eddy emerges from the lilacs and gets a tongue bath from Ralph, who must have a hard time living alone with me, as he will give his love to anyone.

“Would you like to give it a try for me?” I say to Eddy.

“Sure.” He comes closer, happy to do whatever I ask.

“No, no. I’m joking.” No way am I going to test the fence with this boy here. I picture myself lighting up and rattling three inches off the ground, then dropping dead in front of Eddy, and I let out a little laugh.

“What’s the joke?” Eddy asks.

“Joke’s on me,” I say, and I hook the collar back on Ralph.