Tim Murphy’s new novel “Correspondents” is a sprawlng tale that traverses a century of Merrimack Valley and American history as it explores the lives of two journalists and their families.
Published by Grove Atlantic in late May, the novel brings Murphy, a North Andover native, back to his roots as it follows main character Rita Khoury from precocious youth to ambitious early adulthood.
Murphy covers a lot of ground in “Correspondents,” visiting landmarks that will be familiar to Valley readers and stopping in much less familiar places, including dangerous corridors in Baghdad, Iraq, following the American-led invasion in 2003.
The novel hopscotches through time as well.
It follows a family’s emigration from Syria to Lawton (Lawrence), and chronicles their experiences and those of descendants and extended family.
The story visits pre-World War I Syria; 1912 Lawton; the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s in the Valley; and the early 2000s both here and abroad.
Khoury’s family background is Irish and Lebanese. Her mother, Mary Jo Coughlin, meets Dr. George Khoury while she’s a nursing student at Lawton General Hospital’s School of Nursing.
Both the Coughlin and Khoury families come from the mill city of Lawton.
Mary Jo goes to work for George when he opens his practice in neighboring Mendhem, a desirable suburb that borders West Mendhem.
The couple wed and raise their family, two girls, in Mendhem. They spend summers at New Hampshire’s Rye Beach. There, the Khourys and Coughlins enjoy each other’s company and the seaside.
Recurrent throughout the novel is the role family plays in the lives of characters beset by violence and the fortitude summoned by survivors in the face of betrayal and loss.
Also recurrent is food. No table goes uninspected. Characters find solace and identity in the food they eat and in one humorous passage take umbrage over a character’s food attitude
Much of the drama in “Correspondents” unfolds in Baghdad in the years following the U.S. military-led invasion. There, Harvard-educated Rita Khoury, who speaks Arabic, works for the prestigious American Standard newspaper, following a stint in Beirut. She and fellow journalists and Iraqis face daily peril as Baghdad falls into lawlessness and chaos.
In Baghdad, Rita befriends Nabil al-Jumaili, a young Iraqi man who works as her translator. The novel follows the danger he and his family face from sectarian violence, and the fear and shame Nabil feels as he comes to terms with being gay.
The closing section of “Correspondents” picks up where the novel began, at a mahrajan festival celebrating Lebanese culture in Lawton in 2008, before moving ahead to the story’s end.
A 1987 graduate of North Andover High School, Murphy left the Valley to attend Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. One week after earning his degree in 1991, he moved to New York City to work in book publishing and has lived there ever since, with the exception of some short stints in Paris, Beirut and Los Angeles, among other places. He now calls Brooklyn, New York, home.
He’s spent the last 30 years in the Big Apple writing for The New York Times, New York Magazine and other publications as well as publishing three previous novels, two in the 1990s and a higher-profile novel, “Christodora,” in 2016.
“I still have a strong emotional tie to New England, though, especially in the summer,” he said.
Murphy returned home this week to talk about his novel during a sold-out reading, book signing and dinner at Shadi’s Restaurant in North Andover. He’ll be appearing tonight, July 11, at 7 p.m. at Papercuts J.P. bookstore, 5 Green St., Jamaica Plain, and on Friday, July 12, at 7 p.m. at East End Books Ptown, 389 Commercial St., Provincetown. He’ll return to the area on Sept. 11 for a reading at Porter Square Books in Cambridge at 7 p.m.
A Q&A with Tim Murphy
How much of your setting for “Correspondents” was drawn from memory and how much from research? Did you spend time in Lawrence in preparation for writing the book?
I actually didn’t go to Lawrence for research because Lawrence — as a place both my parents grew up (in) and as a place we lived until I was 8, but that we often went back to (after) for various reasons, including because our family church, St. Anthony’s, is there — is very much imprinted on my brain and my heart.
Even growing up in North Andover not far from the Interstate 495 exit, we could see the Lawrence smokestacks from our house. I did, however, access many oral histories about Lebanese and other immigrant communities in Lawrence in the early to mid-20th century from the Lawrence History Center. Amita Kiley there was very helpful.
The book is also set in three Middle Eastern cities: Beirut, Baghdad and Damascus, and finally, at the end, near San Diego. I’ve spent a lot of time in Beirut and San Diego, so those sections were a mix of memory and research, but because of instability in Baghdad and Damascus, I’ve not yet been able to visit. I did an enormous amount of research to construct those chapters accurately, including working with a wonderful reader friend named Yasir Dhannoon, who grew up in Baghdad and left in 2005 and lives here in NYC now.
What will especially interest readers from the Valley?
The whole first section of the novel is really my love letter to the Merrimack Valley over the course of about 100 years. It starts in (the fictional) Lawton, which is a double for Lawrence, in 1912 during the great strike (I changed the name to give myself a little bit of creative space as a writer). Then it jumps ahead into the 1920s, then the mid-1960s, when a young Lebanese doctor and an Irish nurse meet at a hospital very much like Lawrence General Hospital and then fall in love and navigate their cultural differences and start a family.
That part of the book was very, very fun and nostalgic to research and write, as it is based not just on my family (in an impressionistic, not literal, way), but also on many, many kinds of Irish and Lebanese families I grew up around. There is such a rich and longstanding Lebanese community, including many newcomers, in the Merrimack Valley, and I love this tradition of Irish people like my late father marrying into such families and coming to love Lebanese food — all the way from the late, great Bishop’s restaurant in Lawrence back in the day to Shadi’s and Yalla Grill now, which are my favorite places for Lebanese food when I come home.
I mean, let’s face it, Lebanese food is just more interesting, healthy and delicious than Irish or Yankee food. Also, the Merrimack Valley is the best mix of gritty urban places, bucolic countryside and the coast, and I try to capture all of that in the novel.
But I hope readers will also be excited to go on a journey to another family in another part of the world and be open to how, when it comes to families and a sense of home, cultures echo one another in so many ways. I really wanted the novel’s Merrimack Valley family, the Khourys, and the Baghdad family, the al-Jumailis, to mirror each other in many ways — and in some way to sort of unravel in tandem as the book progresses.
What are your impressions of the book cover featuring the reflections of Lawrence’s Ayer Mill clock and the Baghdad mosque?
As I said about that cover when I saw it for the first time, it was the cover I wanted without even knowing it as, to me, the book is about the intertwining fates of two families from different parts of the world separated by vast bodies of water.
The book designer, Christopher Moisan, vibed all that just by reading the manuscript. And I was surprised and delighted that he paired the iconic Ayer Mill clock tower in a kind of mirror image with the Al-Kadhimiya mosque in Baghdad, which is one of the most sacred sites for Shiite Muslims.
That pairing is so haunting and evocative to me. I actually feel so proud to have the Ayer clock tower on the cover of this novel because it absolutely fascinated and haunted me as a little kid. It was so decrepit and gothic and really rather scary — it looked like it had bats in it — and, of course, now it’s all refurbished. But it still symbolizes the brute power of the mills in Lawrence in the early 20th century, the fact that they absolutely crushed so many people, but also gave a foothold to so many immigrants who prospered and started families like the one I am from.
I really hope that the novel helps readers look at the big arc of immigration in this country and realize that places like Lawrence, Lowell and Haverhill are as vibrant with newcomers now as they were 100 years ago, and that this kind of diversity and richness and this general tradition of welcoming newcomers is what truly makes America great.
I think that’s a really important thing to keep in mind right now. Some poor kid in a refugee camp down by the border may well end up being the parent or grandparent of someone who writes a novel about the experience 100 years from now. I would really love to see that happen!