author of Seeking the Sacred, Intimacy and Solitude, Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love and many more…
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I have lived all of my adult life away from New Zealand, where I was born. That’s a long story, but what’s interesting is that it meant I have lived in a number of countries, including Germany and Israel and, for a very long time, Britain, and have been exposed to several different cultures quite intensely. That’s been tremendous for my development as a writer and as a person. It’s also facilitated my fascination with religion and the different cultures of religion. Living as an “outsider” or as a “beginner” is also highly effective in teaching you quite a bit of humility – and demonstrating how much our happiness depends on the quality of our connections with other people.
Education? It’s never stopped for me. All my books are an intensification of my education. So is my teaching and ministry. And, in a formal sense, I did a research doctorate at University of Western Sydney only after my children were grown up. I completed it in 2008 – and enjoyed it hugely. (My work was on the brilliant modernist poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, and particularly on why we would want to read poetry for inspiration and understanding of what life is all about. That study lead to my 2009 book, In the Company of Rilke.) Oh, and I studied for interfaith ministry by distance education and was ordained in a wonderful ceremony on a boiling hot day in New York in June 2005.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
My mother wrote – and also painted well. And my father wrote well too. But at twelve and eighteen I did not imagine and could not have imagined being a professional writer. There were literally no role models in my world of people who were making even a modest living as a writer. I think I initially wanted to study medicine. I went to university when I was sixteen and studied law but was unsuited to it and did quite badly in my law subjects, and not too badly at my arts subjects. I was also living independently and working full-time, so it was more than I could manage.
At twenty-two, I had already been in the workforce for six years and in Europe for two years. It was then that I fell into book publishing (in London) and fell totally in love with it. By my late twenties, I was the Managing Director of the feminist publishing house, The Women’s Press, and thought that was the best possible job that I could have. We were at the cutting edge of the social revolution that was 1980s feminism. However, it was also a very tough job as every feminist in London had a view on what we should be doing and how we should be doing it! Also, we were perennially short of money. Despite that, we published many significant books that made a real difference to thousands of women’s lives. And The Women’s Press quickly became one of the two most influential women’s publishers internationally. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple was one of our big successes.
I was thirty-five before I began, quite reluctantly, to see that the next stage in my life would be writing and probably not publishing. That also coincided for me with becoming a mother. And then leaving my London life and coming to live in Sydney.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
For me, it’s the other way around. I now have a strongly held belief in the value of life – including my own. I now also have a much more clearly articulated and inwardly honoured sense of the spiritual dimension of life. That has been a major inner revolution and essential to my wellbeing, gratitude and happiness.
Feminism had a hugely liberating effect on me, although I already had the advantage that the women in my family were well educated, opinionated and cultured, and had careers.
I would say that living in Germany in the 1970s also had a tremendous effect in that it allowed me to think that I could pursue my intellectual interests and goals without being self-conscious or embarrassed about that. I spent many years studying and practising, writing about and thinking about psychotherapy and social ethics. That certainly stimulated and shaped me. Becoming a mother to my son and daughter changed me for the better in every possible way. It grounded me, taught me so much about love and released my potential to care and to love wholeheartedly.
Over the last twenty-five years or so I have also been profoundly influenced by what in shorthand terms I could call my “search for God” or for life’s most profound meaning – and influenced by the spiritual experiences that have arisen from that persistence of seeking. I reflect on some of that in all my books. Perhaps it is most explicit, though, in my new book, Seeking the Sacred.
5. Considering the innumerable electronic media avenues open to you – blogs, online newspapers, TV, radio, etc – why have you chosen to write a book? aren’t they obsolete?
In fact, in several different kinds of ways I have been writing for our major newspapers since I came to Australia in 1983. I love the immediacy of newspapers – and perhaps blogs also – but the connections that a major daily newspaper allows are still so specific and in some ways unrivalled by blogs. At their best, you can engage in the widest possible public conversation. I also love radio – and would like to do even more of it. I love the intimacy radio allows between speaker and listeners, and, again, the immediacy of those conversations that are both private and public simultaneously.
However, for an in-depth “conversation” between the writer and her readers, surely there is nothing like a book? It is potentially transformative. It takes us into someone else’s world and way of thinking at a depth that no other media can allow. (Well, sometimes music does that, too!) It lets us know what we are thinking ourselves – what we are caring about – and why. It answers our curiosity and delight in living with insight into more lives than our own.
Reading has been my most faithful pleasure throughout my life, from the youngest age possible until now. I love to read and am always reading several books at the same time, both fiction and non-fiction, including poetry and scripture. And it encourages me so much in the writing of my own books to know that others are reading those books not for “information” only but for greater insight about themselves, about the world we share, about how they will get through a dark night of the soul or how they will be best discover and celebrate the meaning of it all. I love writing too, and feel driven to do it. I hope to continue to write until the very end of my life. But writing long books is physically and emotionally so tough, so demanding – beyond description – that my experiences with it are rather more ambiguous. Reading, on the other hand, is an uncomplicated and utterly faithful love!
6. Please tell us about your latest book…
Seeking the Sacred is the book I suspect I have been waiting decades to write! My hope is that it will affirm in the most inclusive way possible that whether or not we are formally religious, many of us have a deep innate sense that life is sacred – and that we want to and must live accordingly. Our individual and collective well-being may even depend upon this! I am talking about an inner “climate change”, a change of perspective and attitude and actions, of the most profound kind. Regarding our own and other people’s lives as sacred, and recognising that we are quite inevitably part of something far greater than our own familiar selves or our own familiar “tribe”, means that we will inevitably treat ourselves and other people better. By that I mean, it will make sense to live in ways that are engaged, thoughtful, appreciative, kind and inclusive. We won’t do this because we should, but because we can. And because we will benefit personally – along with everyone around us. Most of us feel best when we are living exactly like that, but often we don’t know how to do it, especially when things are not going our way or particularly well. We need to bring together the spiritual, social and psychological at this time. That’s the new imperative.
Religion has come to be seen as such a force for conflict as well as for good and with this book I want to disentangle some of what is profoundly sustaining, beautiful and uplifting in all the traditions from what is much less useful or even destructive. This book – like all my books, I believe – is very personal in tone and themes. I want readers to feel I have written it just for them. At the same time, it is highly contemporary in that it takes note of the confusion many people feel about their own intrinsic self-worth as well as about their private and public values. I write strongly against the inevitability of violence and conflict as a way of life. We may not always be capable of “loving one another”, but I make a passionate case for the urgency and benefits of causing “no harm” – to ourselves or to others. And always with the sense and the belief, “Yes, you can do this.”
The impetus for this book partly came from my frustration that the rich arena of religion and spirituality seemed to be somewhat co-opted by the fundamentalists, both believers and those who deride them! My sense was clear that there are countless thoughtful people who are “seeking” without needing to strike a fundamentalist position or claim their way of thinking or believing as the only way. But it needed to be a strong book to make those ideas work and I believe it is that, not least because I did many interviews to find out how people were making sense of these sublime question. I’ve combined my own story with vignettes from many different lives. They are totally fascinating to read and often very moving. They help bring the book’s ideas vividly to life and make it even more intimate and inspirational. These are thoughts and ideas we must take to heart. That’s where transformation occurs. Thinking skilfully is wonderful and quite essential. But on its own it is not enough.
7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?
That people would be kinder to one another and far more appreciative of this miraculous gift of human existence.
8. Whom do you most admire and why?
I admire people who absolutely refuse the excuses of cynicism and violence, whatever their situation. I admire people who hold kindness as a value and who can see that we are not just precious individuals, we are also profoundly and inevitably interdependent. Our safety as well as our happiness and well-being utterly depends on the capacities we have to care for and about one another and to find meaning in life beyond our own garden gate.
I am living my goals: to live appreciatively and positively in my personal life; to make each book count; to treasure the opportunities I have as a teacher and retreat leader; to deepen (and lighten!) my own spiritual seeking.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Look. Listen. Observe. Question. Read widely and deeply. Reflect. Engage. Write.
Stephanie, thank you for playing.
Visit Stephanie Dowrick – here
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.