Donald Murray
Donald Murray

The Good Books, Donald Murray: ‘I always return to Alice Munro, she often shines a light on rural communities’

A son of the Hebrides, Donald’s acclaimed non-fiction books bring to life the culture and nature of the Scottish islands. He talks to us about his love of short stories, reading the classics and growing up on Lewis. 


The first book I remember reading:

A version of Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, illustrated by Dudley D Watkins. The drawings fascinated me, especially one of young David Balfour stranded on a beach that did not look unlike some of those that could be found in my native Ness in the Isle of Lewis. After that I remember reading Oliver Twist and Treasure Island in exactly the same format. These awakened a love of classic literature which persisted within me for many years afterwards. 

A book I recommend to everyone:

Island, a collection of short stories by Cape Breton writer Alistair Macleod. Along with Iain Crichton Smith, George Mackay Brown and a number of others, he taught me that it was possible to write about small and island communities with both power and poetry. It is a lesson on which I keep drawing, reading short story writers like Claire Keegan, William Trevor, Alice Munro and others again and again.

The best three books I have read in the last year:

Much of my time over the last year has centred on research for my novel. My reading for that included The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, which dealt with the migration of Black people from the Southern States in the Twenties. I thought it was an amazing book. As an islander who is also bilingual, I would pay a similar compliment to The Colony by Audrey Magee. Both the Irish language and English are to be found in the pages of this dramatic and poetic work. I have yet to read Prophet Song by Paul Lynch, but his other works including Red Sky in the Morningare fascinating portrayals of rural life. 

A book I didn’t finish:

There are two Russian novels I have never managed to finish reading: Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Together with a number of other Russian and Eastern European writers, their shorter work enriched my life again and again. Someday, however, …

An author who has inspired me:

The writer I return to most often is Alice Munro, a Canadian who had some Scottish forbears. Many of her short stories have a greater depth and complexity than most novels. She shows a great awareness of the peculiarities of human life, especially in how it affects people in rural communities.

My favourite place to read:

By the peat-fire flame. It brings back a thousand memories. Sometimes if it is a calm and chilly night, I even duplicate that experience in Shetland, although nowadays I switch the TV off rather than depending on a loss of electricity to do so, as occurred on countless occasions during my childhood in Lewis. Looking back, the inability to focus on a screen throughout many winter nights was a great incentive to both read and write.

Donald S Murray is a writer and poet whose first novel, As the Women Lay Dreaming, won the Paul Torday Memorial Prize in 2020. His latest book The Salt and the Flame (Saraband) is out now and can be bought here.


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