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 was born in Lancashire in the UK, and moved to Norwich when I was seven – a five hour car journey from my old home and a whole new life for me and my Mum, which was daunting for both of us. I lived in the suburbs and was schooled in the local state schools, then went off to Nottingham University. As a child, my mum took me on all sorts of adventures, both local and abroad, which made life really interesting and gave me the travelling bug very early on.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I can remember, but I’ve had lots of other ideas running alongside that ambition. At twelve I also wanted to be a singer, although I think I spent most of my time dreaming about being Jason Donovan’s girlfriend! By eighteen my main goal was to travel, and I was rather overwhelmed by career choices. I did wonder about being a lawyer, as I liked the idea of being part of the justice system, but I always knew I was too idealistic. By thirty I had been working in publishing for seven years, much of that time as a freelance book editor, and I was busy writing Come Back to Me in my spare time. Since I’d always dreamed about writing for a living, I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t go for it.
At eighteen, my ideas about what it meant to successfully journey through life were much more material – get a great job, a big house, make lots of money, etc. While all those things are pretty handy, I don’t believe they are what life is all about any more – not for me anyway. I’m a big Stephanie Dowrick fan!
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
Beloved by Toni Morrison showed me just how much depth of expression, emotion, history and artistry you can get into one book. After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell provided me with a firm goal of the kind of book I wanted to write. And I vividly remember singing Handel’s Messiah with the University of East Anglia choir when I was thirteen years old, after my mum got me an audition so I could go with her. When we sang the Hallelujah Chorus in St Andrew’s Hall, it felt as though heavenly choirs had joined us – it brings me to tears just thinking about it. Being part of that was tremendously inspiring…and to think that sound originated in one man’s mind.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
It may be something of a cliché, but it has felt more like novel-writing chose me. I’ve made up stories and lived in my imagination for as long as I can remember. It’s been more about working hard to find an authentic voice, and plucking up courage to go public!
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
Beneath the Shadows is about a young woman, Grace, who goes to live amid the breathtaking isolation of the North Yorkshire moors, desperate to uncover why her husband vanished there a year earlier. Once she arrives with her baby daughter, she finds that underneath the village’s quiet surface the area is alive with secrets and superstitions – there are suspicious neighbours and ferocious snowfalls, black dogs that foretell of death, and a clock that stops and starts on its own. I wrote the story as a fast-moving suspense, with plenty of nods to the gothic tradition, particularly du Maurier’s Rebecca. But it is also about courage in the face of overwhelming doubt, fear and confusion, as this very modern young woman desperately searches for the answers she needs in order to set herself free.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I would like readers to thoroughly enjoy the stories and be hooked by the suspense, but I hope they also feel drawn to the more complex depths of the characters, their circumstances and their decisions. I would love them to be interested in the grey areas, the murkier questions I’m asking underneath the plotlines.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
I’m a fan of many, many writers, but reserve a special admiration for those who put themselves in a very vulnerable space to speak from their heart, particularly when that place is incredibly painful and raw. Two fairly recent non-fiction books I have come across in that category are William Verity’s Bear is Now Asleep, and The Bitter Shore by Jacquie Everitt. I edited both these books so I spent a lot of time with them, and they touched me very deeply.
My head is full of ideas: definitely more mystery suspense stories, but also children’s books, non-fiction, poems. I just want to write, write, write! I would love each book to be more compelling and creative than the last one. I feel I’ve still got an awful lot to learn and experiment with on that front. Oh, and I’d like to be a fantastic wildlife photographer too!
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Coming from my editing background, I find it really interesting how differently writers respond to criticism – and it often seems that the ones who get published or enjoy success are those who are willing to work really hard in response to constructive criticism, but at the same time remain firmly focused on telling their own story in their own distinctive voice. So I’d say work hard – but not too hard – and be patient. Your writing dreams only stop when you give up on them.
Sara, thank you for playing.
It’s been a pleasure.
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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.