Alumnus Interview – David Murrell ’86
by Paulina Klubok ’19
When given the opportunity to see the “The Lifespan of a Fact,” a brilliant and compelling recent Broadway production co-written by David Murrell ‘86, I was stunned by the play’s tangible relevance to today’s world. “The Lifespan of a Fact” centers around Jim Fingal, a fact-checker, and John D’Agata, a famous writer. When one of D’Agata’s essays is given to Jim to fact-check, the two characters clash and a new story is born. In the midst of their heated debate, a fundamental question arises—where do we draw the line between what is true and what feels true? Murrell has created an extraordinary work that explores the intricacies of the creative process and challenges perceptions of ethical journalism.
How did Stuyvesant shape who you are today?
My Stuyvesant experience has been formative to my entire life. I grew up lower middle class in a very dangerous part of Staten Island in the 70’s and early 80’s. It was clear to my family that there was a way out of that for my sister and me. My older sister took the specialized high school test and got into Stuyvesant, which formed a model for me. Stuyvesant was formative in that it provided a space where other high-achieving, idealistic and ambitious people all got together and felt safe – it was really a haven.
When you were in high school did you know you wanted to be a writer?
No, I never saw myself as a writer. I thought of myself exclusively as a science person. I applied to college interested in neuroscience and biochemistry. I went to the University of Chicago, and they had a very strong theater and comedy scene that I encountered during my time there. It gradually crept into my mind and infected me—I was interested in telling stories and narratives. By the time that I graduated, I was an English major, and in common terms, minored in biochemistry. When I got out of there, I started writing scripts and screenplays.
A few years after that, I went through a Postbaccalaureate Premedical Program at Columbia University because I thought that I should become a doctor. I completed the program but never went to medical school because I had caught the bug of writing creatively.
What draws you to writing?
I think it’s almost like a buzzing—like if you’re trying to get to sleep at night and there’s a buzzing that will not let you alone and you need to turn the light on, grab your tennis racket, and kill the fly. That’s kind of to me what writing is.
How did you get involved with The Lifespan of a Fact?
In 2012, the book called The Lifespan of a Fact was published. One Sunday morning, I read the New York Times review of the book and then read the book itself. For many years, I was already thinking about projects and I was immediately struck that the form of The Lifespan of a Fact was an argument between two people – the fact checker, Jim, and the essayist, John. These are both real people – Jim Fingal and John D’Agata. It just struck me—’wow, this is classic—this is a play right here.’
What did the creative process look like?
It’s hundreds and hundreds of hours of work, but it’s that buzzing of the fly in your room at night. It is an interesting subject that brings you a certain amount of inherent pleasure to explore. We also happen to be very comic-oriented people, so anything that we pay attention to we will turn into something funny.
The play examines what is true versus what feels true. How did you strike that balance in telling the story?
I did not feel bound by real life. When we sold this project to our producer, he immediately told us to do what we want with this. John D’Agata, the essayist, told us explicitly, ‘This is your play. Do not feel bound by anything in the book. Take it as you will.’ We were free to draw inspiration from the book but we were not bound by it. We have no responsibility to the real people involved. Jim and John themselves, the real people, are very much on record as saying that the versions of themselves in the book that the play is based on are creations. It’s a tower of confabulations—embellishment and imagination atop embellishment and imagination. This play is the latest iteration of that.
How do you define a fact?
As I established, I have a science background. For me, facts are just things that can be measured by a measuring instrument.
Does that get in the way of writing?
For me, it does not. I love science; I love the scientific method; I love measuring things. However, I also love horror movies. I love the supernatural; I desperately wish there were werewolves and vampires, and that’s a lot of what I write about. I write about many genres, but I separate my emotional urges and dreams from what my intellect thinks is true.
“The Lifespan of a Fact,” based on the book of the same name, is playing now. It currently stars Daniel Radcliffe, Bobby Carnevale and Cherry Jones, and is slated to run until February 2019. Visit Studio 54 in Manhattan to see the show!