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 Wellington, New Zealand and migrated to Melbourne, Australia at the ripe old age of 10 months. I grew up in the inner suburb of North Carlton. In the 1950s and 60s it was rich with street life, immigrants and working class Aussies.
As the child of immigrants I had a lot of freedom – they were so busy making a new life after the traumas of the past. They worked in factories and graduated to running a stall at the Victoria market, selling socks and stockings. I also worked on the market on weekends and Friday evenings, but never for my father, but for Eddie O’Sullivan, who sold nuts. My speciality was the mixed nuts! I took great pride in keeping the mixture well balanced.
I had a great time revisiting those streets and back-lanes years later, when researching my novel set in those times, ‘Scraps of Heaven’. The title comes from the bits of batter that the Greek lady at the local fish and chips shop gave us kids for free. They were terrible for your health, but heavenly to crunch on, so we called them strips of heaven. I went to local schools – Lee Street State School and Princes Hill High. My son now attends the same school.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At twelve I did not have a clear idea of what I wanted to be. I loved sport, especially athletics, as much as I loved books and things of the mind. I loved the sense of freedom I felt on the streets. Perhaps that is why I became a keen traveller in later years. At eighteen, I fluctuated between wanting to do law, political science and psychology. During university vacations I began to travel. At thirty I was lecturing in politics at Melbourne University, after doing a masters at Columbia University, New York. But I was thinking of future travels, and of trying my hand at a very different kind of writing. Travel was my passion, and I spent a fair amount of time in Papua New Guinea, South East Asia, China, Europe, New York and various other places. In more recent years, I have spent time on the Greek island of Ithaca, where my wife’s family comes from. We have spent months on end on the island, with our son, and the stories I collected over a period of twenty years formed the basis for my novel ‘Sea of Many Returns.’
I had an obsession with social justice issue then, and I still have a similar obsession to this day. I don’t think I have changed my views in any fundamental way. Extensive travel has taught me that our similarities as human beings far outweigh our differences. In a way my travels have continued to reinforce long-held views.
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?
My first great influence was my father’s love of Yiddish literature, and my mother’s love of Yiddish song. They had to put aside their vocations and work in factories and on the Victoria Market to make ends meet in a new country. During my undergraduate years at Melbourne University I began to travel, first around Australia, and then to Papua New Guinea and Asia. This opened me up to a big wide world. A highlight of those early travels was going to war-torn Vietnam. Years later this journey features in one of the stories in the new book ‘Violin Lessons’. A third influence was becoming involved in migrant education in the 1980s. People from many lands were coming to post-white Australia by the 1980s, bringing with them stories from all parts of the globe. Listening to their stories I heard variations of tales I had first heard from my parents back in Carlton.
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?
Books will never become obsolete. Their forms may change, but the experience of sitting down with a book, and entering into a private conversation with the author, will not. Or if it does, it will be a great loss to our self-understanding and deeper knowledge of the world. Besides, I don’t think I have much choice in the matter, so why worry about it unduly.
‘Violin Lessons’ is a book of true stories set in various parts of the world. Many are based on travels going back forty years to Vietnam, and ranging through Switzerland, Greece, Poland, Germany, Venice, and the Middle East, among other places, and back to the living rooms of Melbourne, where I hear other people’s tales. The stories are linked by themes of displacement and exile, and by music. One of the stories, ‘The Dust of Life’ is an account of a group of Saigon street kids who I met in 1970. The book culminates in the tale of Iraqi asylum seeker, Amal Basry, an extraordinary survivor of a boat tragedy, on October 19, 2001 en route to Australia. The boat has become known as the SIEVX. Amal survived by clinging to a corpse for over twenty hours. She grew up in Baghdad, and had an abiding memory of her walks by the river as a child, with her father. This story is called ‘The Ancient Mariner’ because of Amal’s obsession with bearing witness and telling the story. This need reinforces a major theme of the book. As Elie Wiesel has said, there are some stories that need to be told, and not to tell them is to betray them.
7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?
Encouraging people to have more empathy for those who struggle in their daily lives, and for those less well off than we are, in particular those who have to make dangerous journeys to escape oppression in search of new lives for themselves and their families. They are doing what we would do in their place.
8. Whom do you most admire and why?
People who work with the less fortunate: I can name many – one name that springs readily to mind is Kon Karapanagiotidis, the founder of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne. The centre has a grand band of volunteers and has helped over 7000 refugees in the past ten years. Not bad. Alan Atwood is another person I admire – he left his job as a senior writer at The Age several years ago to edit the Big Issue. And he is still editing it.
9. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To keep creating, and living life to the full.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Life comes first, writing second. Travel, enter diverse worlds, keep a journal as you go, be attentive to the details of everyday life, be a participant as much as an observer, and listen to the many tales that always come your way. The rest is persistence.
Arnold, 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.