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At One With Her Computer

May 12, 1997|PAUL KARON

When Yxta Maya Murray, a novelist and Loyola Law School professor, arrives at a cafe on La Brea Boulevard in Hollywood, she looks like a person who is comfortable being in transit: On her back is slung a small knapsack; cradled in one arm is a flat paper bag containing sundries, directions in ballpoint pen written on it. In the other hand she carries a black vinyl briefcase, the padded kind made for small notebook computers.

The little computer is her entire study, her notebooks and journals, her collected works. With the portable machine balanced on her lap, on tables in restaurants, in hotel rooms, in her kitchen, in bed and elsewhere, Murray has tapped out every word of her first novel, as well as the still-untitled book she's working on. Of all the places in the world, airport waiting areas are her favorite places to pull out the computer and write.

"The computer is really central to my writing, to the way I write," Murray said. "My style of writing is directly shaped by the technology, no question."

Murray can't elaborate much except to say that something goes on between her mind, the keyboard and the computer's screen--something Murray and most writers can only describe as mystical. Though this quality is hard to explain, for Murray it is nevertheless essential to her ability to work.

For some writers, that mystic connection still occurs between writers and the paper page, but for Murray it has to be the little notebook computer. She has never written fiction any other way, not longhand with a pen, not with a typewriter.

As an associate professor at Loyola, Murray teaches courses in criminal law and feminist jurisprudence. In the time left after lecturing, grading papers, giving tests and conferring with students, Murray works two to four hours a day on her fiction, stopping only when she reaches her simple but inviolable goal: a page a day.

Murray's just-published first novel, "Locas," tells the stories of Lucia and Cecilia, two young women of Mexican background who are wrapped up in the outlaw life of Latino gangs in Los Angeles' Echo Park neighborhood. It's a novel of voices, written completely in the Spanish-accented vernacular of the culture, unflinchingly exploring the dangerous and passionate experience of this marginalized part of immigrant life.

For all her dependence on the machine, Murray--decidedly not a computer geek--isn't sure just what kind of computer she has in that vinyl case. As she unzips the case, she tells what she knows about it: "I got it a couple of years ago. It cost me a thousand bucks. It's great."

The computer is a Compaq LTE Elite 4/50E, running the WordPerfect Version 6 word processor under the two-generation-old DOS operating system. It's a setup the computer industry would have us believe is hopelessly obsolete. As it happens, it all works just fine, and has for years.

Murray has no desire to switch her novel-writing habits to a big, bright, whirring desktop PC with 2,000 colors and stereo sound. For one thing, she doesn't fully trust electricity.

"We had a big power outage last summer when I was using one of the machines at work, and I lost a lot," says Murray, grimacing at the memory. "I just can't stand that kind of thing; it gives me hives."

A strong reaction perhaps? Not for fiction writers, generally a superstitious bunch.

"You get really medieval with your computer," jokes Murray. "I practically throw charms and hexes on it."

When it's time for Murray to get back to her day job, it's revealed that the directions scribbled on the back of that paper bag are to her own place of work, Loyola, spelled out so she can easily explain them to cab drivers.

Here is the great quirk of this writer who is always in transit, this lover of airports and sites of debarkation, this native Southern Californian who grew up in Long Beach: She won't drive. She hasn't operated a car for the last eight years or so. Yes, Murray has had a license, and even happily drove cars for a few years, but then she decided her strongest long-term interests lay in hiding the keys.

"I had some difficulty paying attention," says Murray. "But it was the left turns that really caused all the trouble."


Freelance writer Paul Karon can be reached via e-mail at

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