author of The Coffee Story
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, absurdly, in Southampton – I say absurdly because my parents emigrated to Australia when I was four, so I see myself as absolutely Australian. Which is undermined slightly by my moving to England in 2006 – so I’ve racked up thirty-one years in Australia and nine in England. Hope I still get to be called Australian. I was raised in the thriving metropolises of Boronia and Kilsyth in the (then) outer reaches of Melbourne’s suburban sprawl. As for schooling, I went to Boronia Heights Primary School, followed by Yarra Valley in Ringwood, where I made it as far as year 10 before dropping out. Long story. But here I am.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At twelve, bizarrely, I found myself in possession of a ridiculously precocious ability to do maths, which set me on course to become an actuary, a career I would no doubt be enjoying in some corner of Canberra even now if the allure of maths hadn’t been circumvented by the allure of literature.
At eighteen I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to be – I’d dropped out of school, got a job in a store room, and pretty much settled in for the long haul. I did tell people I wanted to be a writer, but that was just because, you know, I liked books and stuff.
At thirty, that was definitely what I wanted to be. But you kind of have to actually sit down and actually write books. I didn’t sully myself with such industry. So the years passed…
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
The age of eighteen is almost defined for me by my lack of strongly held beliefs. I can’t remember any time in my life when I was less certain of anything! I threw myself into politics a few years later, but at eighteen it was a whole lot of staring into the middle distance and bemoaning things. Gosh I did a lot of bemoaning!
In terms of books, The Book of Daniel by E L Doctorow is my Bible. The Coffee Story is basically a rip-off from that. But – aside from its artistic magnificence, it’s also such a lesson for any writer. Doctorow originally wrote the book – which tells the story of the execution of the Rosenbergs in the fifties – in the third person. He finished it, then decided it was rubbish, which made him, understandably, angry. He decided to vent his anger by throwing down a page in the first person, from the petrspective of the Rosenberg’s son. And that became the novel. That’s what being a writer means, I reckon. Get it right! No matter how long it takes, get it right. As for other art, I can only write with obscure contemporary classical music playing, the spikier the better. All good art, I think, swims against the tide, and nothing is more obscure and irritating to the status quo than contemporary classical. When I’m getting a bit full of myself with nicely turned sentences, I like to snap out of it with something odd. Annoying is good.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
Frankly, I can’t shut up. I would love to produce the finely wrought short story, but I’m rubbish at them. (And at music, and painting. And don’t get me started on my tin ear for poetry). So I’m kind of stuck with The Novel.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
The Coffee Story is the story of Teddy Everett, a coffee baron dying in hospital, and telling of his life, his loves, and his desperate attempts to make amends for a childhood act of cowardice. It spans – dear God – continents and generations, but don’t let that put you off! There’s lots of politics, a fair bit of shagging, and in the end a stonking gun fight. Who could ask for more?
(BBGuru: Publisher’s synopsis- A wild, caffeine-fuelled deathbed confession of love and betrayal that spans four continents.
At the end of his sorry life, Teddy Everett, reluctant heir to the Everett fortune realises that he may have been at his best when he was 14, the night Kebreth made him a communist by rubbing coffee bean oil on his face. Then he was with Lucy, who gave him Chinese burns and taught him how to smoke. As he remembers his family, his wives (and their lovers) he tries to understand what happened to that boy. Fuelled by caffeine and full of vituperation, this is a riotously original debut of honour, cowardice and bravery. )
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
That really is a terrifying question! I won’t go into the multitude of things one might take away, but perhaps I could talk a little about what I took away from writing this book. I’m part of a generation for whom Ethiopia was a series of images about the famine in the eighties. But Ethiopia has, in it’s time, been a world power. It has been one of the great kingdoms of the earth. It has a history as rich as any other country’s. And it seems to me that one of the impulses of popular culture is to simplify, and one of the impulses of the novel is to retain complexity. Also, I want people to laugh!
Two answers. First, I’ve had the privilege of working at a creative writing retreat for the last five years. We have 16 people join us for a week, of all abilities, from published writers to absolute beginners, and I admire them all. Because, ultimately, they are putting forward the proposition that the act of creativity is, fundamentally, good. As I said earlier, we live in a time where there is an exhausting drive toward oversimplification. This has to be resisted. And one way of doing that is ‘telling stories’. I admire anyone who does so.
Secondly, in terms of individuals, the writer I admire most is the poet πO. Leaving aside the brilliance of his art, there is a time in every writer’s life where they doubt the very reasons they are writing – the act of writing seems stupid and marginal. πO was the first writer I met for whom writing was, in a sense, a no-brainer. Just fucking do it! It’s him I go to mentally when I’m playing at being a martyr.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To write well. Just that.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Write! Don’t wait for an idea, just write. I had a revelation a few years ago that there is no ‘great idea for a novel’. Look at Anna Karenina – the idea for that novel is ‘a woman has an unhappy affair and throws herself under a train’. No-one would write that novel! I find it very frustrating talking to writers who are waiting for ‘an idea’. Write and write and write, and at thirty thousand words an idea might come to you or it might not. But it’s not going to come sitting around waiting. Novels are wiser than people, so waiting for an idea is nonsense. That’s the main thing. And when you’ve written something SEND IT OFF. I live my life by one Woody Allen line – ‘90% of success is showing up’. Absolutely true. Always and forever.
Peter, thank you for playing.
You can follow Peter on Twitter – here
So, what did you think of those answers? I loved them.
Especially this: … it seems to me that one of the impulses of popular culture is to simplify, and one of the impulses of the novel is to retain complexity.
And this: Novels are wiser than people, so waiting for an idea is nonsense.
What did you like?
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, was published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.