The Booktopia Book Guru asks
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
Born: Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Raised: Pretty well from one side of Canada to the other, as well as two towns in Alsace-Lorraine, France, and Colorado Springs, USA.
Schooled: Between nursery school in France and Yr 12 in Nova Scotia, I went to 11 schools! Plus a year of college in Kingston, Ontario, 3 years in London, UK, and then did a degree through La Trobe University, Melbourne.
Twelve: writer and archaeologist. Eighteen: I had no idea except that it wasn’t the Animal Care Technologist I’d started training to be. Thirty: continuing as an occupational therapist, and writer.
Why? I think I’ve wanted to write ever since I learned to read in English. It was more like a deep belief than a desire (just temporarily lost in the confusion of teenhood and career searching!)
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I think all my beliefs at 18 were more strongly held! I can’t think of anything I believed then that I don’t now; it’s just that I’m more likely to see shades of grey and other people’s points of view.
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?
The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Coleridge’s epic poem: I must have been eight or nine the first time I read this, crouched on the couch with my parents’ huge volume of British poetry propped up on the arm. I read and reread it, and still know much of it by heart. I presume that it influenced my love of rhythm and poetic word use.
The Queen’s Music, a young novel by Margaret Miller, which I got for my ninth or tenth birthday: it drew me in completely, living and dreaming the story so absolutely that I can still hear and feel the aching sweetness of the music. That’s how I love to write too: being completely absorbed in my story’s world.
The Sunflowers painting by van Gogh – the first time I saw the original it produced such a visceral feeling of discomfort, almost disorientation, that I couldn’t stand in front of it for too long. And yet I loved it so much that as a student in London, I often stopped at Piccadilly Circus on the way home from college to pop in to the National Gallery and visit it. I have no idea if or how it’s influenced my writing, but I think anything that has a deep effect must influence one’s own art.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
My talents, such as they are, lie in writing. As for the choice of genre: each story seems to form in such a way that it becomes clear how it wants to be written.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel, Raven’s Mountain…
There’s a very odd state of time between a manuscript leaving my hands for the last time, and actually being out in the stores and other people’s hands. So as long as you understand that I’m in that space right now: a muddle of paralysis, fear, hope, and a bit of nostalgic mourning for the characters who will soon no longer belong to me.
A logline for this story could be: Three people go up a mountain. One comes down.
The genesis for this story was climbing Pike’s Peak in Colorado (14,000 feet/4000 metres) with my dad and younger sister when I was twelve and again when I was thirteen. The sense of achievement was huge; my sister and I both remember this as a key experience in our lives. The mountain is an easy climb as far as technical skill, really just a hike, and you can actually drive to the top (my mother actually picked us up at the top the first time, though the second time, when it was just my dad and me, with a group of his friends, we hiked down as well, which was much more satisfying. However, it’s still a significant hike and very high, so that we went from summer in the foothills to snow at the peak. At around 10,000 feet I started struggling with the oxygen lack and remember my dad, who was a pilot, explaining that at that height pilots used oxygen. He talked me through it and I went on to the top without any trouble. Above the tree line we ran into a hail storm and sheltered under a rock – I presume my story teller’s imagination was already at work with the ‘what ifs’ – what if we had to stay there longer, what if the rock was a cave…
And so the story started taking shape in 2007. It’s set much further north, in the Canadian Rockies, an area I’ve always loved. As the characters grew it became clear that the dad was a stepdad: Scott’s a warm and caring man, but by marrying her mother, he’s dramatically changed Raven’s way of life.
Raven was always the younger sister, but originally I told the story alternately from hers and her sister Lily’s point of view. I think there were only a couple of drafts like that; I realised I needed to be completely in Raven’s skin, and that the tension was much greater that way.
One of the background themes for me, though I wouldn’t imagine anyone else would see it, was the fairy tale of Rose White and Rose Red. But despite the circumstances – the rock fall that pushes Raven far beyond what she believed were her limits – she’s really a very normal kid. She’s struggling with sibling rivalry, a new stepdad, moving to a new school and environment… and being saddled with a most inappropriate name for a redheaded child!
Obviously on an isolated mountain like this Raven would have seen lots of wild life, and have had lots of warnings about bears and cougars in particular. By using the spirit bears, I wanted to balance the reverence and fear we feel when we see dangerous animals in the wild. And I’ve always had a particular affinity with ravens…
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
A sense of having been immersed in another world and lived a bit of another life.
I don’t think I could choose one person – there are so many writers I admire, and so many aspects to the question. The people whose work ethic and management of their writing lives I admire are not always the same people whose writing I most love. However… this morning I finished reading Marion Halligan’s Valley of Grace. She’s always a beautiful writer, sensitive and insightful; this book is completely exquisite, leaving me bereft at having to leave these people when I reached the last page. So for today I’ll choose Marion Halligan.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I prefer to set myself goals that aren’t dependent on other people – so of course it would be lovely to win more awards, the bigger the better… but those are wishes, not goals. What I aim at is knowing that each book I write is the very best that it could possibly be. That mightn’t sound very ambitious, but believe me, when you face that printed book for the first time, it is.
Write, write, write. Just do it. Don’t be afraid to fail, or worry about doing it right: have fun, experiment. There’s time enough for criticism when you’ve finished a few drafts (and yes, there will be lots of drafts if you want to be any good.) When you think it’s good enough to share, listen to criticisms, but always make up your own mind.
Above all, have faith. Have faith in your characters and your story, and some in your own ability to do them justice.
When you’re not writing: read, read, read: lots of different genres, lots of different authors. Find out what you love, and what you don’t – you may not be able to write every genre you love, but you certainly shouldn’t be trying a genre you don’t like to read. Writing is hard work, there’s no need for it to be soul destroying as well.
But don’t forget to live too!
Wendy, thank you for playing.
Did you know you can follow Wendy on twitter: @wendyorr ?
Pre-order your copy of RAVEN’S MOUNTAIN now & SAVE 20% – click 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.