Ten Terrifying Questions, again.
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 Dublin, Ireland and have lived there for most of my life. I went to school in Terenure College, on the southside of Dublin, and then attended university at Trinity College Dublin and the University of East Anglia, Norwich.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At twelve, I wanted to be a writer. At eighteen, I already was a writer as I had started to publish some stories and at thirty I had published my début novel The Thief of Time. It was always something instinctive for me, a sense that if I wasn’t telling stories, writing them down, allowing people to read them, then somehow I wasn’t living the life I was supposed to live.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
I don’t think I had any strongly held beliefs at that age to be honest. I floated through my teenage years without giving an awful lot of thought to the world, relying on books, blank manuscript pages and pens to contain everything I needed from life.
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?
Reading David Copperfield by Charles Dickens at age 13 was an eye-opener. I felt a sense of triumph at having finished such a long and complex work of literature but I had hardly been able to put the book down since I started it. It remains my comfort novel, a book I return to every few years to remind me how brilliant novels can be.
Around the age of 18 I read John Irving’s novel The Cider House Rules and this was the first truly contemporary novel that made a deep impression on me.
Musically, my hero has always been Kate Bush and while every album she has recorded is a favourite of mine, the holy trinity of The Dreaming, Hounds of Love and Aerial remain inspirational to me no matter how many times I hear them.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I never feel that I chose to write novels, I feel instead that it was part of my sense of self, that without the forum to tell long and intricate stories I would somehow be lost in the world. I don’t believe that real novelists choose the craft at all; it’s either part of you or it isn’t.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
The Absolutist is a novel that examines the effect of the Great War on three people. Tristan Sadler is escaping his family and his personal problems by signing up to fight. Will Bancroft, his greatest friend at Aldershot Barracks, becomes a conscientious objector when he begins to question the nature of war itself. And Will’s sister, Marian, who Tristan visits in 1919, is suffering from the effects of Will’s actions during that time. It’s a novel of secrets and repressed desires.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I always want people to be moved by what I write, to have a real emotional reaction to my books. I don’t aim to tug at the heartstrings but I’m unashamed in my desire to write something which is deeply felt and affecting to the spirit.
So many people. My favourite contemporary writers include John Irving, Philip Roth, Colm Toibin, Philip Hensher, Jonathan Coe, Christos Tsiolkas, Rose Tremain… the names change every day. There’s always great new books and great new writers and that’s what makes the literary world so interesting for me as a reader.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
My goal has always been to build a body of work over the course of a lifetime, a series of novels which have connections to each other and through which my ideas and beliefs can be recognised. I don’t allow myself to get distracted from the act of writing novels and rarely move into different forms. I still believe that the art of fiction is one which can define and explain the human condition more than any other and I seek to understand my own life through the stories I tell.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Read all the time. Never stop reading. Too many young aspiring writers are completely uninterested in either the history of the novel or those who are practising it today. Write every day, even if it’s just a few paragraphs. You’ll be surprised how quickly the pages form. And join a writing group where others can read your work and discuss it and where you can learn from reading theirs.
John, thank you for playing, again.
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.