The Big Idea: Mur Lafferty

In today’s Big Idea, Campbell Award nominee Mur Lafferty takes on both the serious (Hurricane Katrina) and the less-than-serious (humor! Which is funny!) while writing about her novel The Shambling Guide to New York City. Hey, did I mention she’s a Campbell Award nominee? I did? Well, it’s true, you know.


I don’t know about you, but when disaster strikes, I often feel lost and impotent. The biggest fear for my area is hurricanes; we don’t get earthquakes or tornadoes and no one really cares enough about us for a terrorist attack. I’m not a trained EMT or part of the Red Cross or particularly good at a lot of manual labor. I’m also the kind of person who would show up, want to help, and completely mess everything up by getting in the way.* So I get the sense of, when shit happens, there is nothing I can do. Or should do.

When hurricane Katrina landed in 2005, I was writing for RPGs at the time. New Orleans went under water and I had my usual stress of unable to do ANYTHING. But a proactive RPG writer, Dave Wendt, came up with the idea of writing a sourcebook based on New Orleans and have the proceeds benefit the Red Cross. I was excited! This was using a skill I had that wouldn’t get in the way of anyone! Long story short, since this isn’t about THAT book, but about the book that birthed it, my mind came up with a little look at New Orleans from a tourist zombie’s eyes, and a visiting zombie is going to need what humans need: a tour guide. So I wrote a 4000 word piece called “The Shambling Guide to New Orleans,” which was just a look around the city from the eyes of a perky undead tour guide who loved her city so much she wanted to keep her job after her death. It told people where they could sleep, what bars and clubs were welcoming to monsters, etc. I had my friend Angi Shearstone do four paintings of the tour guide in her element, and that was our donation.

But the idea of what kind of travel guide monsters would need wouldn’t let me go. I started fiddling with a book about a human woman who discovers that a) monsters are real, b) they like to travel just like humans, and c) they need their own kind of travel guides. And there’s a publishing company forming with eager writers, but they have no editors with experience. She cajoles her way into the job and discovers some pretty weird stuff- even without the “monsters are in the city” truth.

She also learns about the office life of the undead and monster lifestyle, mainly that there are no sexual harassment laws when you work with succubi and incubi, the zombies keep their lunch in the fridge, and locked doors don’t stop nosey water sprites who can just seep under the door. There’s also the etiquette involved- they don’t like being called “monsters” – it’s “coterie.” And the people who build Frankestein’s monsters don’t call themselves Frankensteins, they prefer “zoetists” – those who work with the magic of life.

It shouldn’t surprise you that I was a rabid fan of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when I was in high school.** The very weird thing is that I didn’t realize how much those books influenced me until I had finished Shambling Guide. I suppose that’s a good thing, else I would have been stressed about perceived similarities, but I’ve been very lucky that one review said my book was like, “If Douglas Adams*** had written an episode of Buffy.” When I did my re-read, I kept hearing Peter Jones (“The Book” from the radio play) in my head reading the Shambling Guide excerpts at the end of each chapter, although his voice is wholly inappropriate for my “The Book.”

I’m thinking Vincent Price for “The Book.” Maybe Bea Arthur. Only, they’re dead.

The book (The Shambling Guide to New York City, not “The Book” within the book, also called TSGNYC. I can understand the confusion) is dedicated to my husband. Not only because I love him, but also because he made me submit it to Orbit instead of just podcasting it, as was my plan. So, thanks Jim. But it’s dedicated in part to Douglas Adams, because without his heavy influence and ability to spark a girl’s mind this book wouldn’t exist.

Humor is tough. You can read Adams and Willis and Pratchett and think, well hell, that’s easy. Put funny words together in a sentence! Something hangs in the sky the same way bricks don’t! Instant humor! But it’s not. That’s like saying that all professional baking needs is the ability to mix flour and salt and baking soda together. Yeah, you can throw stuff into a bowl but that doesn’t mean it can rise. I enjoy writing humor but I wish I understood it better. It just sort of happens when I write, I have trouble articulating how or why. I tend to think if I could articulate it, I’d be better at it, but maybe not. Maybe I’d just be able to tell others how to do it.

I got a “how to write humor” lecture off of Audible once, and it was racist/sexist/homobphobic as shit. Dude was very proud of a time he used “fruit” to describe a gay person in a joke. I’m not kidding.

Women! Amirite? </macfarlane>

So my Big Idea- hurricane, zombie tour guide, deep-seated Douglas Adams influence, and wandering into the great vast unknown called “humor.” It’s been a very interesting trek getting here, and a hell of a lot of fun.


* I’m good at this. Seriously. My husband was in an accident just this morning, and after urgent care, I ran ahead of him to prop open the front door so he could get into the house easily, and two birds flew into the house. Two.

** I’m still a fan, but at the time “rabid” meant listening to the bootlegged radio tapes over and over and over again. The stores in the NC mountains didn’t carry a lot of BBC radio back in 1991. I’ve since purchased many versions of Adams’ work, including the radio play, hoping to kill my pirate karma.

*** Being too shy to meet Douglas Adams is my biggest regret, by the way. He was on tour promoting the Starship Titanic video game and we were at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) and we walked by his booth. He was tall. We were too shy to say hello. He went back to England and died three years later. Seize the day, guys. Seriously.


The Shambling Guide to New York City: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Hear an audio version of the first chapter (limited time). Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

13 Comments on “The Big Idea: Mur Lafferty”

  1. I’m thinking Vincent Price for “The Book.” Maybe Bea Arthur. Only, they’re dead.

    Wouldn’t that make them the perfect narrators for this book?

  2. Mur,

    You should be careful about how you use the comparison to Douglas Adams. For one thing, fans of Adams may be disappointed if and when they find out that you have your own voice, that, other than being smart and funny, you don’t really write like him. On the other hand, people who do see the similarities will want you to keep writing like that, which has the potential of stifling your own growth as a writer, particularly as you develop your own unique voice.

    {ASIDE, which is probably self-serving self-promotion, so feel free to avoid the following paragraph if you are allergic to same}I get compared to Douglas Adams, too. A lot. “My very first impression when I began to read [Welcome to the] Multiverse was that this was a book that appeared to be written by Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams’ hyperactive love child,” a reviewer of my first novel recently wrote. When this happens, I always thank the reviewer and admit that I am a Douglas Adams fan and that he was clearly an influence on my writing (although one of many, and not necessarily the most important) Then, I add that I don’t want to be seen as a second rate Douglas Adams; I want to be seen as a first rate Ira Nayman. I think that unique voice is a good thing for anybody writing humourous science fiction to aspire to.{/ASIDE}

    Whatever. Your book does sound awesome, and I look forward to getting a copy. :-)

  3. This sounds like it would make a good SNL skit. Something that could be done over and over with variations.

  4. I thought it was Willow Rosenberg

    Willow is in the front, reading the list. Amy is behind her, chatting with a friend. And Xena is probably on the back cover, looking for her dragon..

  5. Mur, it was a pleasure meeting you at John’s reading Wednesday night (I’m the bike-commuter who used to live in your neighborhood). I’m looking forward to reading your book. I hope your husband recovers quickly and well.


  6. Bought this Tuesday based on this article, finished it yesterday, loved it. Thankyou John for the introduction and Mur for such a fun book.

  7. Thank your for running this Big Idea, John!
    Just finished the book and now I’m desperately craving the follow-up Guide to New Orleans.

%d bloggers like this: