How does a writer come up with the plot for a novel? Gregory Murphy heard about a mother whose son was killed in a drunk driving accident. The day of the burial, the driver, now sober, showed up at the cemetery and was embraced by the dead man’s mother. “I just thought that was such an incredible thing, such forgiveness,” Murphy said. “The novel grew up around that woman.”
In Murphy’s story, Incognito, Sybil Curtis, a beautiful woman with a devastating secret, forgives those who hurt her. “Sybil had that kind of character,” Murphy said. “It was incredible what was done to her, but she saw something in human beings.”
Murphy set his novel in New York City in the early 1900s, a time period that had always fascinated him. “I read a lot of books about Jay Gould and the robber barons and I was amazed at the power these people had to destroy lives, much more than even today,” he said. “They were really kings in their own right. That kind of power and corruption intrigued me.” Also, the Gilded Age was an elegant, extravagant time filled with glamorous people wearing beautiful clothes and partying in mansions that mimicked European palaces.
At its core, however, Incognito is a love story. Sybil meets William Dysart, a married lawyer, when he tries to buy her Long Island cottage for one of his clients. Sybil’s insistence in not selling intrigues William and, determined to uncover her secret, he ends up falling in love with her.
“I’ve always been a romantic,” said Murphy, explaining how he came to write a love story. “I have a great respect for women and I wanted to create this woman that I fell in love with before I got married and fell in love. She was an incredible woman, and I think she was a kind woman. She had a sense of humor. She had everything that I, and I think many men, want in a woman.”
For research, Murphy said he read “everything he could about New York City” during that time period. To describe the clothing worn by women, he dove into the New York Times archives for what women wore to parties in 1911.
Murphy was born and raised in Amityville, Long Island, one of 11 children. With four other writers in the family, he tried other professions—insurance, banking, and advertising—before turning to writing. He met and married Ludovica Villar-Hauser when she directed his play, The Countess, produced Off Broadway in New York during the 1999-2000 season and also in London’s East End.
Murphy said he found writing a novel challenging. “I loved writing a play because it’s just dialogue,” he said. “You have to get everything across in the dialogue. Writing a novel is much more difficult for me, because I can go on for two pages describing a room or the weather.”
The Countess tells the story of a Victorian scandal involving John Ruskin, the art critic and philosopher, his wife, Effie, and the pre-Raphaelite painter, John Everett Millais. Although The Countess is not currently being staged, a drama connected with the play continues. Murphy wrote a screenplay based on the play and wanted the actress Emma Thompson to play Lady Eastlake, Effie’s friend and confidante. Murphy contends that Thompson and her husband, Greg Wise, had been sent a copy of his screenplay before they wrote their own screenplay called Effie. Thompson, for her part, denies that she saw Murphy’s script and has filed suit in New York’s Federal District Court asking to be protected from any copyright claim by Murphy which might interfere with her being able to produce her film.
“It’s been a nightmare going on for three years,” said Murphy, saying it has cost him “tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.” He added: “It just goes on and on and on and, in the end, I think, they will prevail.”
In the meantime, Murphy continues to work on another play, this one about Charles Dickens and the relationship the writer had with his daughter, Kate, following his divorce, and a second novel, a contemporary one about a woman whose brother commits suicide. “When I’m writing a play, I picture it happening on stage, but I’m also in the audience,” he said. “With a novel I’m picturing someone reading in bed as my audience.”
Photo of Gregory Murphy by Rainer Studio.
Purchase on Amazon Gregory Murphy’s Incognito.