Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Eric Murphy

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Eric Murphy

The Phantom's Gold (Dancing Cat Books) by Eric Murphy tells the story of thirteen-year-old William McCoy, whose life changed forever when his father died. When it seems his mother is moving on, William runs away to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia — his father's hometown — to be with his father's relatives. What he didn't foresee was meeting the ghost of his grandfather, a notorious rum-runner. From family secrets to a high-stakes sailing race, William's discoveries and exploits fill this fast-paced adventure story.

Today Eric speaks to Open Book about real-life "Real McCoys", his encounter with an Olympic sailor and what he and William have in common.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, The Phantom's Gold.

Eric Murphy:

The Phantom's Gold started out as a replacement story. I took a script writing course and worked on a feature script called Mrs. Clean, about a hitman whose environmental awakening pits him against his mob family. While the premise was good and I did eventually finish that story, the deadline for my presentation in class loomed and I wasn't ready. I had heard about the history behind the expression "The Real McCoy" and decided to tap into that for my class.


What drew you to imagine William's great-grandfather as a rum runner? Is that a period of Canadian history that already interested you? What sort of research did you do for this aspect of the book?


In fact there were two Real McCoys in Canadian/American history. The first was Elijah McCoy who was born to runaway slaves in Canada and invented and patented the self-oiling boiler in Detroit. The other Real McCoy was William Bill McCoy. When the Great Depression hit, he and his brother Ben sold their Florida boatyard assets. Bill bought a Gloucester, Massachusetts schooner called Arethusa and began his career as a rumrunner. He was known as a straight man in a crooked world. He bought his alcohol from Halifax, St. Pierre and the Bahamas. He was such a fascinating man, I thought he’d be a great character to play William’s great-grandfather — a ghost and a boy each on missions of emotional recovery.


Where did William come from? How would you describe him, and do you feel you have anything in common with him?


I used my son at 13 as a guide for William and my daughter at 17 for the character of Harley. We meet William when his father dies and Will tries in vain to save him. He’s left to juggle his love and anger toward his father for dying. His world is further perturbed by a new man in his mother’s life and her decision to sell the family home. A kid with gumption, Will runs away to what he hopes will be a better situation with his grandparents in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. He doesn’t realize that his grandfather’s devastated by the death of his son, William’s dad.

William’s grandfather is in worse financial shape than even he knows. The bank refuses to renew their mortgage and, too emotionally devastated to work full time in his sail loft, he’s faced with losing the house and the loft. As he works to tidy up his grandfather's property, William finds a secret tunnel leading to a schooner abandoned in the old boathouse. When he falls asleep there, he wakes up sailing with his great-grandfather’s ghost who tells William he has hidden something of value for William’s grandfather. Thus begins the quest for the hidden treasure which means William has to face his fear of water and his cousin's disbelief about the phantom. It’s the fable of the boy who took a chance and succeeded. I identify with William as a fish out of water. As a French speaking kid with an English name and as a French student in an English neighbourhood I never felt I quite fit in.

The original script was optioned by a producer and received development money from Telefilm before the option lapsed. I knew I had a good story and wasn’t prepared to let it go — a bit like William who braved the naysayers. I studied how to write a novel which is quite different from script writing and after knocking on more than a few doors, found a publisher who loved the story. Like William I also have a fear of large bodies of water, which is why I got my scuba diving license. The fear doesn’t go away but it becomes manageable.


William finds himself in a schooner race in the book. As a sailor yourself, what were some of the pleasures and challenges about writing the sport?


I had stopped sailing during the 4 years I studied and worked in Europe. Then I was offered the part of Alfred, Compte de Marigny in an episode of Scales of Justice for the CBC. De Marigny, an avid sailor from the Mauritius Islands, helped the Bahamas win their first and only Olympic gold medal sailing Star class boats. I not only got to meet de Marigny who was in his 80s at the time, I shot our sailing scenes by riding the gunwales like he did when he raced. I asked him why he hadn’t learned to swim and found out he’d watched his cousin be cut in two by a Great White shark while attempting to rescue a drowning boy. He said one could sail intrepidly without knowing how to swim, by simply not falling out of the boat. I can swim but managed not to fall out of the boat while we were filming.

During one of the research trips I made to Lunenburg, I stumbled across a Tancook schooner tucked away in a boathouse, just like in my story - spooky. I was also privileged to be invited to sail on Tom Gallant’s Tancook schooner, The Avenger from Halifax to Lunenburg. The weather turned nasty and 10 to 15 foot waves pounded us most of the way to Lunenburg. I was exhausted from the experience but unafraid because Tom is such an experienced blue water sailor.


What are you reading now, and what was the last book that really floored you?


I just finished reading Tom’s first book and am half way through Salmon Rushdie’s memoir, Joseph Anton that chronicles his survival and literary efforts in the face of betrayal and persecution by so-called spiritual leaders. Two books that have stayed with me are “La Promesse de l’Aube” by Romain Gary, another story of alienation and “Stein on Writing” by Sol Stein.


What are you working on now?


I'm heading back to Lunenburg after the launch of The Phantom’s Gold, to do research on the sequel called The Dead Man’s Boots. I’m also planning to adapt another script I’ve written called Hard Drive about a frustrated travel writer who discovers that the CIA is using the Albanian mob in a terror campaign against Iran — the story of his career if he lives long enough to write it.

Americans have almost always made their history sound interesting. I’m hoping that The Phantom's Gold and further adventures of William and Harley will, as one critic said, hook reluctant readers and get us to understand that Canadian history is riveting if well told.

Eric Murphy spent summers sailing the Ottawa River. After writing his M.A. thesis in Quebec City he worked in New York and Paris. He sails when visiting relatives in Halifax, and in Toronto where he lives with his family and their Jack Russel, Fitzroy. Eric works as an actor and writer.

For more information about The Phantom's Gold please visit the Dancing Cat Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

1 comment

So happy for Eric, patience - SUCCESS ON YOUR NEW LAUNCH . Janice & Ron Hebert

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