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 Adelaide, the youngest of four children. My dad was an army doctor and we moved around a lot when I was a toddler. Spent most of my school years in Ingleburn. I went to local primary schools and then to Sydney Grammar School.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
12. I’m not sure I wanted to be anything, other than Marcia Brady’s boyfriend.
30. I wanted to be a good feature writer. A few years earlier I did a spell of work experience at GQ magazine in London. That changed everything for me – from then on I wanted to work in magazines and write features. Long-form journalism was such an exciting, rich and creative field.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That Sting was cool. The initial seed of doubt was sewn around this time with the release of Zenyatta Mondatta.
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?
On the very rare occasion during high school we were given a creative writing exercise. I can only remember there being two, and each left a lasting impression on me. In year 7 we were told to write a play. I wrote a comedy based on classroom antics. I was asked to read it out aloud and everyone, including the teacher, was laughing. I felt good about myself in a way I never had before. Here was an audience being thoroughly absorbed and entertained by something I’d created.
In year 9 we were asked to write a short story. I wrote a reflective piece about my train ride home. (I used to commute for an hour and a half to get to and from school.) I can’t remember exactly what I wrote but it was both introspective and observational. I got full marks and the teacher read it to the class because I was too nervous to do so. The silence during the reading was excruciating. The positive response afterwards was again incredibly self-affirming. I guess I knew then that I could write well. But I was still very young and these experiences were so uncommon, I never saw writing as a career. I went to uni and studied economics but I always had writing in the back of my mind.
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?
The kind of professional writing I was drawn to was feature writing – long-form journalism. It was still called ‘New Journalism’ even though it was 20 years old by the time I was doing it. I never had any interest in newspaper reporting. I wanted to write in-depth stories that were rich, detailed and transforming for the reader.
Writing a book was always the next big step; it was the mountain outside my window. And every book is like that – a phenomenal challenge. Blogs? I don’t feel the need to write one. I don’t feel the urge to share my thoughts every day and if I want to keep a daily record I can write a journal. I do write for TV and I like it. It’s good work, has it’s own challenges and is a nice way to pay the rent.
There is something to learn from every form of writing but for me writing books is the main game. The stakes are the highest, the challenges are immense and there’s a great sense of autonomy. I don’t think they will ever be obsolete. The delivery vehicle is changing – Kindles and self-publishing – but I thing text will always have tremendous appeal because of its unrivalled power of detail.
6. Please tell us about your latest book…
It’s kind of Hurt Locker meets Aquaman but it’s true. Navy Divers follows the evolution of the Australian Navy clearance divers from the Second World War to present day. In that war, a few highly decorated Australians were among the naval volunteers trained to deal with Germany’s super advanced sea mines. During the Blitz these powerful mines were dropped on cities, and it was up to naval personnel to defuse those that hadn’t exploded. These same men then developed diving gear to tackle mines underwater. They were then tasked to clear European ports taken by the advancing Allied forces. After the war Australia formed a clearance diving branch and navy divers served in Vietnam, the Gulf War and Iraq.
Presently, divers are part of Australia’s counterterrorism special forces, they’re on the anti-piracy frontline in the Gulf of Aden and they’re in Afghanistan tackling Taliban IEDs. Navy Divers tells the fascinating story behind one of the most highly regarded units in the military world.
Better education everywhere.
8. Whom do you most admire and why?
Fiction writers, mostly. Anyone who can stop my breath with a phrase, a line, an idea. Raymond Carver, David Foster Wallace, Alice Munro, Nabokov, Michael Herr, Peter Carey’s short stories. What they all can do with words is incredible.
9. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I’d like to write a great book and to be able to play half-decent flamenco on the guitar.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
You’ll be the only person in your corner, mostly. Show some love.
Gregor, 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.