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?
I was born and raised in Tasmania. With a certificate of graphic design from the Launceston School of Art, I set off to conquer the world. Working as an art director in advertising in England I increasingly wrote copy for the ads, and on my return to Australia became an advertising agency copywriter. Many fellow authors, including Peter Carey and Peter Mayle, come from a similar advertising agency copywriting background. It’s a great training ground for writers, nurturing the creative process, breeding an appreciation for the effectiveness of an economy of words, and inculcating a writing discipline. Before I turned to authoring fulltime, I ran the Australian operations of an American market research company, which appealed to my love of the research process; as a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, the search for the underlying facts can be a veritable treasure hunt. And research for my books has taken me on some great adventures around the world.
At twelve, I wanted to become a published author. At eighteen, a successful published author. At thirty, a very successful published author. It was an obsession. Influenced by the work of Wells and Orwell as a teenager, I pictured myself famous for writing science fiction. Back then, I never imagined that history would provide my road to a life as a fulltime author.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
At eighteen I held the strong belief that I still stood a chance of becoming tall, blond, and irresistible to the opposite sex.
4. What were three big events – in the family circle or on the world stage or in your reading life, for example – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced you in your career path?
(1) Marrying my wife Louise in 1983. Even when my own confidence in my ability to write waned, her confidence in me and my future never faltered. (2) Securing a leading New York literary agent in 1998. He has become a close friend and mentor. Through him, my work has been published around the world, changing my life, dramatically. (3) Being told by a reader at a literary festival a year or so ago that one of my books (on a scientific subject, although I am no scientist), had caused him to choose science as a career. If you can have a positive influence on just a single person, you can consider your life worthwhile. Similar feedback I receive from other readers around the world tells me that what I do often inspires others. That’s motivation enough to sit down at the keyboard and go to work on the next book.
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?
If there were no books, there would be no Booktopia. The delivery technology may change, but while human beings have a thirst for knowledge and imaginations that cry out for stimulation, storytelling via books will never die.
Crack Hardy very nearly wasn’t written. Back in 1991, when a cousin put together the newly discovered World War One letters and diaries of my great-uncles, the Searle brothers, I knew at once that the intimate story they told had the makings of a great book. The brothers were involved in many of the bloodiest battles of the war, from Gallipoli to the Somme, and the lives, loves, and losses recounted on those faded pages made for compelling reading. But this was family, and too close to the bone. I resisted doing anything with that fabulous source material until my publisher at Random House encouraged me to write the Searle brothers’ story. I said that I would pen a hundred pages, and if I wasn’t happy with what I wrote, I would walk away from the project. I was worried that I wouldn’t do ‘the boys’, as I call my great-uncles, and the family, justice. I wrote those hundred pages, and was sufficiently happy with them to keep going. Subsequent reaction to the book from a variety of quarters suggests that I was right to persevere it
7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?
No more wars.
8. Whom do you most admire and why?
My wife Louise. How she puts up with me, I do not know! And the Searle brothers, for their pluck, their fortitude, and their sacrifice.
I have a long list of goals on the back of my study door. It’s fascinating to look back at the goals, large and small, that have been achieved and scored off. Strangely, the list of goals yet to be achieved just continues to grow longer, and more grandiose!
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Write about what you know; and if you don’t know about it, research it, thoroughly. Be original; don’t just copy the latest trend. Wizards, crime forensics, and vampires have been pretty much catered for. Then, write, write, and write some more; just keep at it. It’s said that a good book isn’t written, it’s rewritten. That’s certainly true in my case. And finally, don’t give up; but learn from rejections.
Stephen, thank you for playing.
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.