Acclaimed author and Warwick academic Will Eaves was recently awarded the Wellcome Book Prize for his novel Murmur. A fictionalised take on the tragic final years of Alan Turing, Eaves’ narrative takes us within the mind of the substitution character for Turing, Alec Pryor. By providing an insight into the thoughts of the protagonist, Murmur explores what would be going through the mind of someone forced into chemical castration in order to continue the work they loved. I spoke to Will on the process of writing the book and the inflection of his personal experiences on this process.
On what inspired him to pick up the pen and start his career in writing, Eaves commented that he didn’t “have a very clear vocational sense of (himself) as a writer” and that writing was just something he had always done. The novels he has written came into being by starting as a “mental image that, over time, clarifies”. Even Murmur was born out of a “combination of accidents and personal interest” – an interest in what technology does to the notion of communication and affects how people relate to each other in society.
Murmur delves into the thoughts of the protagonist, inspired by a hallucination that Turing wrote about in a journal
The specific topic of the latter years of Alan Turing’s life began when Eaves attended a conference based on the life of the scientist, who he had always had a peripheral knowledge of from his time at Kings College. He was struck by the story of a scientist who had given so much, then given a “horrible” choice between losing his academic career and respectability or accepting chemical castration to suppress who he was. Will saw this ultimatum as an “extraordinary position” for Turing to be put in, prompting him to wonder what such a strict material scientist would make of the “personal experience of pain and humiliation”.
Murmur delves into the thoughts of the protagonist, inspired by a hallucination that Turing wrote about in a journal. “You have to find points of entry into a life where you can plausibly imagine things without disturbing the events of history”, Eaves explained. The issue with writing in this narrative of dreams, however, is that generally literature about dreams is “boring” due to the private nature of the experience. To combat this, the author aimed to “make them happen on the page” to provide an immersive experience for the reader, who were able to access and interpret the dreams that the protagonist couldn’t.
As a result, Eaves suggests that the boundaries that are forged between the two are “false” and the two can work harmoniously in coherence with each other
We moved on to the intersection and dialogue between the disciplines of art and science, a topic that interests Eaves and influenced the course of the novel. Despite the distinctions that are forged between the two in the modern age, he pointed out how students in the early modern era would have expected to study both “in the same breath”. Consequently, the two aren’t as different as perhaps portrayed: Eaves highlighted how both writing a novel and conducting a scientific experiment involve “planning and following the rules” but then crucially “seeking release from the rules”. As a result, Eaves suggests that the boundaries that are forged between the two are “false” and the two can work harmoniously in coherence with each other.
On how his personal experience inflected the novel, Eaves reflected on how Turing did the state a lot of service and was effectively given the repayment of torture for being gay and “doing something he felt was entirely natural”. “A lot of the rights we may have taken for granted in the past”, like the movements of LGBTQ+ and feminism, rely on an “economic and social stability”. “As a gay man”, Eaves commented, “you’re quite aware of the fact that if you take away that stability then you risk those rights being taken away”, a concept that worries the author in the current political climate.
He ended on the slightly unconventional note that writing is “not really about self-expression”: instead, it should be a process of aiming to “[create] something on the page that surprises you”
Eaves went on to offer some advice for students aspiring to follow his example and achieve a career in literature: “read more than you write” was his main point. Read extensively and develop a habit, he recommended, in order to cultivate a routine where you write regularly and consistently. He ended on the slightly unconventional note that writing is “not really about self-expression”: instead, it should be a process of aiming to “(create) something on the page that surprises you”.
Murmur thoroughly deserves the recognition it has gained and is a riveting story that tackles a shocking, tragic topic. Gaining an insight into the process of writing the novel reasserts this and I look forward to what Will achieves next.