author of The Good Book
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 to a British expatriate family in central Africa where my father was working as a banker, and spent most of my early years there, part of them at boarding schools.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
Before the age of twelve I wanted to be a Spitfire pilot, a cowboy, a rugby international, a spaceman, and various other things. By twelve I wanted to learn, write, and make a contribution; that was still what I wanted at eighteen and thirty, and is still what I want now.
That racism, sexism, ignorance and superstition would soon be vanquished. Now I see that they will take a little longer to overcome.
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?
To nominate just three events in any complex personal story distorts it: it would be great if love, grief, change, strife and circumstance came in a single triplet only.
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 contributions to electronic media were as long gestated and prepared, took as long to write or say, were as subject to revision and editing, and were as self-standing, as all these things are when it comes to books, one might substitute them for authorship. They are good adjuncts, though.
6. Please tell us about The Good Book
The Good Book is a secular humanist bible, made in the same way as the scriptures of the religions – that is, by compilation, modification, arrangement and editing of source texts into an overall text with a definite purpose, which in the case of The Good Book is to present the wisdom, insight, inspiration and consolation of the great traditions of non-religious thought both Western and Eastern. It makes only one request of readers: that they think for themselves. It contains materials for people to reflect on life and values, and urges them to go beyond those materials to construct good and flourishing lives for themselves, informed by what the materials suggest.
The source materials are from Aristotle, Pliny, Confucius, Seneca, Mencius, Cicero… all the way to Spinoza, Hume, Chesterfield, Pater, with many others, woven together. There is not one mention of the words ‘god’, ‘goddess’, ‘soul’, ’afterlife’ – it is a book for humanity in the short 900 months of a human lifespan between cradle and grave, full of rich wisdom.
7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?
To liberate people’s minds from all oppressive ideologies, including religion, into freely chosen and responsible views of the world and human interests.
8. Whom do you most admire and why?
Scientists, philosophers, writers, composers, painters and sculptors, medical practitioners, teachers, gardeners, and anyone who is a good friend to his or her friends: because these are the people who between them (allowing for the inevitable negative exceptions) make the world a better place.
To be a net contributor to the conversation of mankind.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Believe all the clichés about writing that you have ever heard, because they are all deeply true – such as e.g. overnight success takes at least ten years; the wastepaper basket is your best friend; the first twenty years of a writing career are the worst; etc.
To them I add these: if you are serious about writing, persevere; be professional and profit from criticism (but ignore book reviews); learn your craft (only part of writing ability is innate); remember that Parnassus is not a needle-sharp peak but a vast plateau where there is plenty of room for all sorts of talent, all sorts of books, all sorts of achievement. Have courage, believe in yourself, do your utmost, never stop striving, never rest on your laurels if and when they come.
Professor Grayling, 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.