Eating Authors: John P. Murphy

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John P. Murphy

A few hours after this posts, I’ll be once again stopping in at the hospital. Not to worry, it’s all part of my new routine of monthly maintenance check-up and blood work. And I suspect these will drop back to every other month or maybe just every quarter, once we establish a clear baseline that shows that my new immune system is doing well and my Kappa light chain levels (which is where the cancer cells hang out) are playing nice.

Meanwhile, I am busily writing all the things. I’m editing the draft of a second novel in a new series co-authored with Brian Thorne, polishing the first book in that series, working toward a completed draft of the first book in the new Gel series, beginning work on a second Amazing Conroy spinoff series with a second co-author, polishing a short fantasy novel about dwarves, and rewriting a novella set in my Barsk universe.

I’m going to use the mention of that last thing, the novella, to segue into this week’s EATING AUTHORS guest because even though he has a shiny new novel coming out tomorrow, when I think of John P. Murphy, I think of novellas, both because the first work of his that I ever read was a novella I purchased for the Alembical novella anthology series, but also because John took over annual the Novella Challenge that I’d started on Codex (a shameless ploy to grow more potential submissions to my small press at the time) and in doing so had a huge impact on dozens of authors producing even more novellas.

John has his doctorate in robotics, which may well be the coolest bona fides for an SF author ever. His novella The Liar (oh, look, there’s that word, novella, again) garnered him a Nebula nomination in 2017. His first novel, Red Noise, comes out tomorrow from the folks at Angry Robot. I’m excited to read it, but I have to wonder if he’ll be able to calm down his publisher (see the aforementioned PhD).

LMS: Welcome, John. Speak to me (in a robotic monotone) of your most memorable meal.

JPM: When I started college, majoring in electrical engineering, I was sat down in a room and told to pick classes. I had no idea I was going to be expected to do this at that particular time, and one of the classes I picked in semi-panic was Japanese I. Totally unpremeditated; I knew almost nothing about Japan. I wasn’t even an anime fan like (it turned out) most of my classmates. And so it was that I lucked into a small but tight-knit community: there was only one professor and a graduate assistant, and Prof. Minami was intent on getting her students to really appreciate Japan. So in addition to classes, she organized the school Japanese club.

Red Noise

The club had a couple fundraisers, but the big one was the origami sale. Well, we had to have origami to sell. Which meant: big origami-folding party at Minami-sensei’s house!

This was in the fall, so it was starting to get cold. I took the PRT out to her neighborhood and walked. After getting a little lost, I finally found the place, and was immediately put to work. Not making origami, but scrubbing vegetables. A bunch of club members and friends were coming that evening and the next day, see? The equation was simple: people were coming, people needed to be fed, here’s some potatoes.

Now, I was new to all this. I wasn’t really sure what to expect. This was West Virginia in the 1990s and I was only 18, so I’d heard of, say, sushi but was dubious, and didn’t really know much else about Japanese cuisine. Teriyaki, I’d had that. But my name is John Patrick Murphy, and if you put a potato in my hand, I can figure things out. In this case, a big pot of boiling water, into which went chunks of beef, carrots, potatoes, and onions – and then out of a cabinet came these little boxes that said “Golden Curry” on them. Curry’s Indian food, isn’t it? Oh no. The boxes had these dense blocks inside, foil-wrapped in plastic trays so that they looked almost like chocolate bars. They were broken up and stirred into the simmering water, and suddenly everything smelled So. Good.

The Liar

Meanwhile, we were put to work on the next items: a giant batch of rice dumped out into a wooden tub with one person stirring, another drizzling in seasoned vinegar, and everyone else fanning. Then slicing pickles and vegetables. All of this commotion spilled out of the kitchen into the living room, and all the while was that amazing aroma from the curry. Anyone not cooking was put to work folding paper, but I’ve always been happiest in the kitchen. Finally, the sushi rice was done and set out on the porch to cool, the vegetables for the next day’s food packaged up in the fridge, and when we were about ready to mutiny, the second giant rice cooker started beeping. Out came bowls, and we each got a scoop of rice and a ladle of that thick bubbling curry over top. I think there was some pickled ginger to mix in, just a few threads of the bright red stuff.

It was divine, and I had never had anything quite like it. I’d later learn that it was imported to Japan from India by way of the British Navy, and that there were all kinds of variations, including noodle soups or with breaded cutlets. At the time I just knew that I was starving, and it was new and delicious, and it was way too hot for any of us, but we soothed our burned mouths with ice cold beer (Did I say I was only 18? I mean 21, officer, honest) and twenty-some years on I still remember it as one of the best meals of my life.

It was some years until I had my own apartment and my own kitchen, then my own house. But in the time since, I don’t know if I’ve ever had a day go by without a box of that curry roux somewhere in my pantry, or else leftovers in my freezer from the last batch. Good stuff, and I remember that first meal with every new one.

Thanks, John. My own introduction to Japanese took a similar path in my Freshman year, but for me it sea bass (specifically, the cheek meat) at a beach in Santa Cruz. Damn, that was a long time (and a dozen languages) ago.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

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