Writer Michael Murphy gives you a reliable way to get houseguests out of the house.
Carnival starts the time of year when we have guests we need to get out of our hair at some point. Last fall, I interviewed writer Michael Murphy about his New Orleans guide books—Eat Dat, Fear Dat, Hear Dat, and All Dat—with the idea that I’d run the story now when people could hand it to houseguests as a casual suggestion. Sadly, Murphy passed away late last October, likely shortly after we talked—something I was stunned to learn when I started to write a few weeks ago. That news made the story I planned to write seem beside the point, but my original impulse still makes sense because his books still do their jobs.
Murphy left the publishing industry in part because the publishing industry left him, and he used separation money to move from New York City to New Orleans when Rupert Murdoch bought William Morrow, the publishing house he ran. He loved New Orleans since he visited it for the first time in the '80s while working with Anne Rice, and he spent much of the rest of his life sharing that love. “This is like New York City in the ’60s,” he said. “There’s all this creative energy, and it’s not about being a brand, and it’s not about making money.”
When an editor he once worked with asked Murphy to write a guidebook on New Orleans, he didn’t see the point in a Yelp and Urban Spoon environment. He saw his angle in storytelling—“Every restaurant has a story to tell”—and the success of Eat Dat in 2014 led to the rest of the series.
Murphy chose verbs for his titles because “this is a city about participating,” he said. “You don’t watch the parade; you join the parade.” His paragraphs compress a lot of information and attitude into short spaces—a trait he learned as much from editing as being a tour guide, who has to get the information across before the ambient distractions win. His written voice is that of the guy down the bar who overhears you making dinner plans and joins the consultation. In All Dat, he wrote of Acme Oyster House:
There’s nothing terribly wrong with Acme. It’s simply that their checkered tablecloths, the canned chipperness of the servers, the fact that most everything is fried, fried, and fried, and that they’ll serve you crawfish out of season (shipped in frozen from California), combine to makes the place feel like a New Orleans version of Applebee’s or T.G.I. Friday’s.
It’s more common for him to be positive, though. Of Lola’s, he wrote:
Personally, I think Lola’s serves the best Spanish meals I’ve ever had. If I were a native of New Orleans, that might not be saying so much. But I lived nearly three decades with easy access to a cluster of great Spanish restaurants in Newark, New Jersey. I’ve eaten at Sagres, Casa Vascas, Forno’s, and Coimbra. Lola’s is better.
Murphy found a lot to like in New Orleans, but he wrote from a personal, gregarious place, leaving the faux-authoritative, impersonal, third person perspective to other guidebook writers. “My style is irreverent,” he said, and that affected the books’ content as well as style. He felt the most ambivalent about Hear Dat because he didn’t think the subject suited his style. “Writing about restaurants—you can be playful,” he said. “Ghost stories—you’re supposed to take them down. But you can’t be irreverent about musicians. That seems cruel.”
Like all guidebooks, Murphy’s Dat series have entries that are out of date, and occasionally requirements of the job forced him into areas he didn’t know as authoritatively as he knew others. His writing on hip-hop and bounce is well-meant, but Murphy obviously didn’t have the same kind of first-hand experience with it that he had with many of the restaurants in Eat Dat.
Fortunately, Murphy didn't leave his work unfinished. He loved New Orleans, and he’d written the books to help others experience the things that made him passionate about the city. All Dat seemed like a way to pull all his projects together as well as clean up the loose ends, but he knew the book was the end of the line. “I figure I’ve overmined it,” he said. Murphy joked that he liked the idea of a book on sex in New Orleans titled Fuck Dat, but he understood the challenges in marketing such a project. His editor also pitched him the idea of Drink Dat, which certainly made sense for New Orleans, but he understood his limits and let another writer, Elizabeth Pearce, do the heavy lifting. “I like my alcohol to taste as close to Hawaiian Punch as possible,” Murphy said.