Sara Flannery Murphy and the Business of Grief
PHOTO COURTESY OF AVERI BLACKMON.
Many feel the urge to reconnect with a loved one who’s passed away. Whether one craves the comfort of the lost person’s presence, or wants to act as though he or she isn’t gone at all—the desire isn’t a new one. While mediums have purported to offer this opportunity for over a century, serving as a connection to the supernatural, the notion of someone acting as a body, willingly consuming a drug to let themselves fall away and allow a deceased party temporarily occupy their person—all professionally controlled within the confines of a business—feels novel in its supposed normalcy and lack of risks. In the world of Oklahoma-based writer Sara Flannery Murphy’s debut novel The Possessions (Harper Collins), out now, The Elysian Society offers this very service.
The bodies who work at The Elysian Society are primarily female, and wear white, tissue-thin clothing. They sit before clients who have chosen them to swallow a pill known as a lotus, and in doing so summon a person of the customer’s choosing. The society has rules, including no victims of murder being brought forth and no subjects who committed suicide; the threat of a body being taken over completely lurks in whispers. This regulated format seems to offer safety, but as much as bodies shed themselves, they are human and can’t be vacated entirely, no matter the circumstances. Interactions take place outside of the society, too, with workers spending time with clients in their homes, acting as their loved ones, even having sex with them. As Edie, the narrator, learns when Patrick Braddock, whose wife Sylvia Braddock passed away under questionable circumstances, begins visiting her for sessions that move outside of the office, these boundaries are always blurry.
HALEY WEISS: I’d like to talk about what spurred you to write this. Did one element come first, like a character, or was it a broader interest in grief and this idea of possession?
SARA FLANNERY MURPHY: I think it really began more with the idea of The Elysian Society itself. I started with the very broad notion of this organization where people could come and reconnect with their lost loved ones. I was fascinated at first just by the idea of what would this mean? Who are the people who come here? But also, the workers themselves, they definitely interested me a bit more than the clients because there’s that intimacy involved in performing this service for other people, and yet they remain unknown to you—that mix of doing something very, very personal but for people who don’t know you very well, and ideally will never know you that well.
After kind of thinking about that for a while, I was interested in the idea of channeling the story in the direction of one narrator, one perspective of somebody who works there. So the character of Edie, the narrator, followed from the idea of the organization itself.
WEISS: There’s something really interesting about this idea of grief being a business, and people being the bodies through which it can be experienced. Obviously there are a lot of moral questions, one of which is the Elysian Society’s way of controlling the experience—limiting how far it can go—somehow superior, ethically speaking, to those who operate outside of those confines and cross those boundaries, like sleeping with their subjects. To you, is one ultimately better than the other? It seems like a huge grey area to me, that both are very problematic.
MURPHY: I think so too. There is a bit of a conflict between Mrs. Renard, who runs [The Elysian Society], and the workers who are dissatisfied with that and branch out a little bit. But I do think that ultimately, even though going there and talking to them and following all the rules that are set out for you has more legitimacy from the outside, that perhaps if you’re crossing that boundary, you maybe aren’t as different as you think from the people who cross more.
WEISS: That hit home for me especially in the case of the O’Briens. I remember realizing that the willingness of the subject being brought forth, the deceased person, was in question. When Lindsey says, “I wonder if it bothers her, that he’s bringing her back,” about her husband bringing back her friend Margaret, it seems that there’s no way of knowing if the person who’s being brought forth would be willing. It could always be considered a selfish act, even if it’s well intentioned and out of grief.
MURPHY: I’m glad that that part of it resonated with you, because I was really trying to use them [that way]. As the story progressed, at first maybe the reader would think, “This is a slightly odd service,” but ultimately it’s a long-standing desire of ours I think to be able to reconnect with the people we’ve lost, and throughout generations there have just been so many different ways presented for us to contact the dead or to reconnect with the past. And so at first, maybe it seems like, “All right, if this really was a really service, it’s definitely a bit eccentric,” or maybe not something that you would talk about among polite company, but it serves a certain function. I had really hoped to bring forth those questions more and more as the story moved on, about whether or not this was actually something that you should be able to control once somebody is out of your life. As much as you want to recapture everything that you had, maybe it’s better to yourself and to the person you lost to let that ending remain an ending, and not bring it back in a way that can end up being unnatural or forced.
WEISS: When you were writing did you do any research into the services coming up now that try to recreate people who have passed away either through AI or using their social media profiles? Was that something that interested you at all, these new ideas of grief services?
MURPHY: I actually didn’t know about those as a real service provided. I think I had seen an episode of Black Mirror, [“Be Right Back”]—that one was really good, and I can’t remember exactly when I would’ve watched it. I probably was barely far along in the novel writing process, so at first when I started watching it I would’ve had that anxiety of, “Oh no, is this going to be my idea?” But I thought it was handled in a different way because of the use of technology, and the selves we leave behind through being so connected now. I thought that was a really intriguing take, I love that episode, and I’m really curious to know about these services that people might actually be trying to provide. I think it is an interesting idea to take those traces and try to rebuild a person through that, but I think for The Possessions, there probably was something slightly more old-fashioned about my approach to the idea, because it was more rooted in the tradition of the Victorian spiritualists or Gothic literature, where they probably wouldn’t have been thinking about it in quite the same way we were. It’s a little more speculative rather than drawing on what theoretically could’ve actually happened through technology.
WEISS: To talk about Edie, how much did you build out her backstory prior to starting the novel, because it’s revealed in pieces to the reader?
MURPHY: At first, she was kind of an interesting character to write, because she is so withdrawn, and a lot of her identity relies on her keeping herself hidden. Especially for a first-person narrator, that is a weird balance between wanting her to reveal enough of herself to connect with the reader, and yet wanting to respect the fact that she’s somebody very closed off. I think the first few drafts I wrote she probably didn’t have quite as much of a backstory. I feel like I wrote her as a very blank at first, to the point where I almost wasn’t aware of her backstory, and that was something that I really worked on a lot more once I was writing with other people, with more feedback from early readers or from my agent and editor. After that, I was able to draw more of it to the surface. But I think at first she was a bit more oblique than she is in the final product. She really was a person from nowhere.
WEISS: That leads into something I was interested in: how gender plays into this job of being a body. Men are certainly capable of it, but there are far less of them, like Lee, and for them it seems like more a personality trait that allows them to be suited to it whereas for the women, it’s this cultural training, a learned ability to enter a blank state and be a subject. Was that something you were consciously thinking about when you were writing?
MURPHY: I did think about it quite a bit. In addition to basing it somewhat on the Victorian spiritualists, there was also a connection to sex work, which I was probably more shy about approaching in a way because I do think that’s a topic that needs to be handled very sensitively, and I’m not as familiar with it. I didn’t want to come down too heavily on it, but it’s, I suppose, inevitable for it to rise to the surface a little bit, because they’re people providing a very, very intimate, personal service to people who might form attachments to them, but these attachments are always going to have a very strange layer to them.
The Victorian spiritualists, mediums, they tended to be women far more often than they were men. And with sex work as well, it’s a field that’s stereotypically and probably statistically more feminine. I thought that this line of work, to be able to find people who would take on this job that required so much of them as people without fully recognizing or rewarding them as individuals, that it would probably be more dominated by women. But I did want there to be some male workers available, because I also wondered if women would be maybe more likely to come as clients as well, and to have people there who were able to provide stand-ins for male relatives or friends or people they’d lost.
WEISS: How much research did you around Victorian spiritualists?
MURPHY: I was drawn to some of the firsthand accounts that they gave of what it was like to be mediums. They have different approaches to it, some of them might be a little more cynical or not talk about it as much, but the ones who did talk about it seemed extremely sincere about it, and talked about these identity crises they’d experienced and losing touch with who they really were, because they spent so much of their day being other people and feeling all this love and longing from strangers that was directed at their physical selves but not at them. I was mostly interested in the firsthand accounts, so it wasn’t too research intensive, especially since I did deviate very strongly from the actual Victorian spiritualists. It was put more in a futuristic setting and I feel that a lot of the aspects of how it works were very different from what actually would’ve gone on. Mediums might have been working, not really as celebrities, but as figures that people could come to, and they were somewhat well known themselves. This is much, much more anonymous, where it’s very industrialized and people can come, choose a body, and work with that person.
WEISS: The way we learn about Sylvia is through the perspective of others and through this layer of Edie. How did you conceive of Sylvia as a character, because she’s almost only presented to us through intermediaries?
MURPHY: She was a slightly difficult character to write at first. I think similarly to how it worked with Edie, she was even more opaque in the first draft. It was only later on as the story grew and fleshed out in various ways that I brought in her first-person narration so we were at least occasionally able to hear from Sylvia herself. On one hand I understood that as a character she was inevitably going to be interpreted through other people’s gazes. I feel that part of her unhappiness with Patrick when she was still alive was really formed by the fact that he insisted on seeing her in this certain idealized way, and that when he had to stop seeing her in this very idealized way, he withdrew from her. During life she felt as if she was filtered through other people’s gazes and shaped by other people’s ideas of her in a way that restricted her from being honest or from being vulnerable or flawed in any way. So I tried to give her a voice that would allow us to see things more through her eyes, because it felt as if maybe she’d been cheated out that a little bit, and also just that she and Edie might be somewhat similar, even though they weren’t especially similar at first glance, that they might actually end up having some kinship with each other by the end of the story.
WEISS: You’ve mentioned the draft process a few times. Is there someone in particular, other than your agent, whom you want to share first drafts with?
MURPHY: Actually, my husband is a good reader. And I know that it’s a bit risky to share your work with a spouse, because maybe you can’t always trust what they say because at the end of the day, they probably don’t want to be too brutal to you, but my husband—he teaches English—I feel like he’s a huge bookworm, and he spends all day long basically thinking about the structure of stories, so that actually really comes in handy when he reads my drafts. Usually I will talk things over with him a little bit, and then there’s a stage where I need to step away because I can let myself get too easily influenced by feedback, or try to take on too much, or please too many readers or too many ideas.
WEISS: In terms of your writing process, are you someone who writes at a particular time of day? Do you read other things while you’re writing? Do you listen to music?
MURPHY: I don’t feel as if I’ve ever settled into a routine. I’m a little bit scattered as a person, and I tend to be very piecemeal and multitask to varying levels of effectiveness, so usually I just write when I can. There are times when I don’t really feel like running back to the computer all the time, and I will just think things over. There are other times where for whatever reason, a scene has really captured my imagination at that moment, and I’ve done enough work ahead of time that it’s actually a real pleasure to write, which it isn’t always. In those moments I’m doing that wonderful thing of always writing in my head when I’m not actually writing, and the story feels as if it’s writing itself, and I have to be in front of the screen as much as possible in order to capture that.
THE POSSESSIONS (HARPER COLLINS) IS OUT NOW.