Andromeda: 4.9 Questions for Bernadette Murphy, author of Harley and Me: Embracing Risk On the Road to a More Authentic Life

A 48-year-old woman facing
middle-age malaise and the upheaval of divorce becomes a motorcycle enthusiast,
turning her own quest into a larger meditation on why we need risk in order to
live fuller lives.

That’s the premise of Bernadette Murphy’s new memoir, Harley and Me, published in May. Murphy teaches creative nonfiction in the Antioch University Los
Angeles MFA program, where I had the pleasure of studying with her about five
years ago.
But it wasn’t because
I personally knew Murphy that I wanted to interview her for this blog. As soon
as I started reading I felt like Murphy was a candidate for honorary Alaska
status. In L.A., people might have raised eyebrows at this mother’s decision
to learn how to handle a heavy bike and head off on a cross-country journey,
but all the Alaskans I know would understand in a heartbeat.
content aside, Murphy’s memoir touches on two areas that come up in many conversations
I have with fellow AK writers of creative nonfiction: How do you weave personal
narrative with science or reportage? And how do you face criticism from your own family and friends when you decide to write about the
Thanks to Bernadette Murphy
for joining us.

When and how did you realize that your own motorcycling
project could become a gateway for talking about this larger issue of women’s
healthy risk-taking? Do you remember an aha moment when you knew this wasn’t
just something you wanted to experience but also write about, and that it could
mean something timely to a larger audience? 
I approached learning
to ride a motorcycle with the idea of writing about the experience foremost in
mind. I was working on a novel and decided that my main character, a young
graduate student from Ireland living in Los Angeles, would use a motorcycle to
get around the city.  I thought I’d take
a weekend class, have a little fun, and be able to write the character’s
experience.  But once I got in the class,
a dormant little spark in me flared.  Out
of the blue, it seemed, I was hungering for the full motorcycle
experience.  I felt so empowered, just
sitting on the bike – and I wanted more of that feeling. 
So then I thought, OK,
I’ll write a memoir. But as I started exploring my experience in prose, I
realized my biggest question wasn’t “What’s it like to ride a motorcycle and
what is that subculture like?” which would lend itself to a straight-out
memoir, but “How could I possibly have lived 48 years of my life with no
inkling that I needed risk to make me feel happy?”  So I decided to look into the neuroscience,
biology, and psychology of risk taking to help explain to myself what I was
On some level, I was
worried that I was having a midlife crisis and felt horribly clichéd.  On another level, I worried that the mental
illness that had destroyed my mother’s life might be taking root in me – I
wasn’t a motorcycle-riding kind of person. 
What was I doing!  I needed to do
the research to reassure myself that my sudden bent for risk taking was
actually healthy, normal, and good for me. 
And that’s when it clicked: I probably wasn’t the only person going
through something like this.  And maybe
we all need to know that risk is good for us. 
You write with candor about your still recent
divorce as well as your younger years. You also let the reader know that
being candid in earlier published writings did not sit well with your family.
As both a woman writer and teacher of memoir, what can you share with other
writers about authorial decision-making and consequences? (And is this yet
another risk equal to our physical adventures?)
My brother Frank was
the first person to read this book (besides writer friends who looked at it
from a craft standpoint).  His comment
sums it up.  “
What is clear is that the biggest
risk taken in all of your recent exploits is not a physical one, it is the
emotional one of putting out this very personal book.”  I kind of gulped when I got that
feedback.  I had wanted to take risks
emotionally and be as raw and honest as possible, but I was taken aback that my
risk taking was so clearly visible.  I
felt more exposed than I’d meant to be. 
It’s crazy how writers, especially memoirists, want to both tell the
full story in all the gory details and stay hidden somehow at the same
yes, I do think that the risk of
writing this book – of having family and friends read it and allowing them to
have their own responses – was probably the scariest aspect.  As it is, many in my family still disapprove
of my decisions and my writing.  Whether
they read the book or not, at this point, doesn’t matter. I don’t think they’re
ever going to agree with me and I have to make peace with that.  Writing this book taught me that I have spent
far too many years trying to be the “good girl” other people wanted me to be.  I am learning how to not conform to those
desires, but to be fully and completely myself. And that feels really, really
good.  It doesn’t quite erase the pain of
being frowned upon by those I love, but it comes close. 
have to add that I had never, ever wanted to write a divorce book and yet,
given how things unfolded, I had no choice but to include that part of my
life.  When I first started writing the
book, I wasn’t certain divorce was on the horizon, though it soon became
apparent.  I guess it’s just part of the
emotional vulnerability of being a writer who mines from her own life. 
The scenes that made me laugh out loud were
sexually frank. Did you have any doubts about writing about orgasms and
motorcycling, two subjects I didn’t even realize overlapped?
I had tons of
doubt!  I’ve never been one to write
about sexual things and couldn’t believe I found myself in this territory.  But it happened – an accidental orgasm crossing
the Mississippi  — and I had to follow
where that story went.  I think the frank
sexuality speaks to the larger issue the book raises: When am I going to stop
trying to be who other people want me to be and just be fully who I am? I would
have been cheating the reader out of some of that process if I had sanitized
the sex details.  One of my former
editors read the book said that, yes, she’d laughed too, but that the sex
details were portrayed with a wholesome kind of innocence.  I hope that’s how it comes across. I didn’t
write it to be salacious and I don’t think it is. 
I love when books incorporate science and
research with a personal arc. What challenges did you encounter in balancing
and weaving the informational with the personal? Did you use other books as
inspirational models, rely on beta-reader or editorial feedback? Do you have
advice for others writing research-infused personal narratives?
Though I’ve written
two previous books that had some element of research, this weaving of science
and narrative was challenging and I struggled with it.  I interviewed a slew of experts –
neuroscientists, psychologists, biologists, etc.  When I tried to integrate those interviews into
an early version of the book, I quoted the experts verbatim in huge blocks of
text. I was so afraid to use their words in anything but a direct quote.  I didn’t want my misunderstanding of what
they were saying to somehow add an error to the discussion.  I was writing about details like dopaminergic
pathways, androgens, and neurotransmitters – scientific particulars way outside
my area of expertise.  But that
quote-the-expert approach didn’t work. 
The research portions changed the tone of the narrative and were
clunky.  My agent was happy to point that
Ultimately, what I had
to do was get comfortable with what the experts were telling me, and then
retell what I was learning in my own words, trusting that I was getting it
right.  I credited my sources and used
some sparing quotes, but I couldn’t push off the understanding of the subject
onto someone else’s shoulders. I had to own it. 
Once I did that, the narrative began to flow. 
And that’s the advice I’d give others: you have to make the material your own and tell it to the
reader in your own words, otherwise you’ll spend the entire book just typing up
quote after quote and your own voice will disappear amid theirs.
Malcolm Gladwell, Mary
Roach, Winifred Gallagher, Rebecca Skloot, and other writers of research-based
prose inspired me.  They were wonderful
role models for getting the science portions right.  But their books don’t also weave in large
portions of memoir (as I was trying to do), so I remained a little stumped for
a role model of mashing together the memoir and science portions. I guess I
just made up the map I needed to complete this book. 
What’s next in your life of sport, adventure,
and writing?
A novel!  I’ve been messing around with a particular
novel for 15-plus years.  It’s funny, but
I feel more exposed when I write fiction compared to nonfiction.  When I write nonfiction, I believe that I can
control my level of exposure because I can choose how much of me to show you in
any given scene.  But when I write
fiction, I feel as if I’m showing parts of myself that I may not be aware
of.  So that’s the next challenge: taking on the risk of allowing more exposure than I may intend.
That, and making peace
with/challenging my fear of heights via ice and rock climbing.

Bernadette Murphy writes about literature, women, risk taking, and life–from motorcycles to knitting. She is an Association Professor in the Creative Writing Department of Antioch University Los Angeles. A former weekly book critic for the Los Angeles Times, she writes essays on life and literature that have appeared in Ms. magazine, Los Angeles Times Magazine, San Francisco, The Oregonian, San Jose Mercury News, Newsday, BOOKmagazine, and elsewhere.

Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of Behave, a novel about science and motherhood set in the Roaring Twenties, chosen as one of Amazon’s “Best Books of the Year So Far” 2016 list. She is a co-founder of 49 Writers and teaches in the UAA MFA Creative Writing Program. She is also writing a book about midlife adventures, including her current year-long quest to run trails in all 50 states. 

1 thought on “Andromeda: 4.9 Questions for Bernadette Murphy, author of Harley and Me: Embracing Risk On the Road to a More Authentic Life”

  1. Thanks for the great interview–I love reading interviews with writers, especially when they're so substantive! The mix of memoir and brain science is particularly appealing to me.

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